Mar 8, 2016

The Reinvention of Josie and the Pussycats

I've been thinking a lot lately about Archie Comics. Specifically, the thoughts revolve around the following:

  • I love Mark Waid and think Fiona Staples and Veronica Fish are great artists. I also strongly advocate any efforts to revitalize any brands that companies deem to need it. But this new look Archie isn't working for me. It's weird that of all the things I'd be a grumpy old fan about, it'd be Archie Comics, especially since the bulk of the Archie reading I do is works by Harry Lucey and Dan DeCarlo and Samm Schwartz. All of those guys have long since gone to the great Chok'lit Shoppe in the sky, so really, I shouldn't care. I'm not the target audience. But it doesn't work for me, and somehow, I care that it doesn't work for me. (I feel the same way about the new CW show, Riverdale. I'm glad it's happening. I just can't get excited for it.)
  • Of the three artists I mentioned above, DeCarlo is the best in terms of just drawing crisply and prettily, Lucey is the best at conveying motion and showing slapstick, and Schwartz is the cleverest. All three did their best works with Frank Doyle on script. And I should be doing a Harry Lucey column soon, looking at the stuff he did in and out of Archie. Soon. Hopefully. I'm lazy.
  • Archie pretty much has a monopoly on teen dating humor comics now, but that wasn't always the case. There was a whole load of them back in the old days, including Suzie and Ginger and Patsy Walker and Millie the Model and Wilbur and such. I'm sure Archie has endured the test of time due mainly to three things: to the dynamics of the Betty and Veronica love triangle, Jughead Jones, and easily accessible and affordable digests.
  • Really, the teen humor comic property that can provide Archie Comics with any sort of semblance of competition is itself an Archie property. And I'm talking about these girls:

Josie and the Pussycats, made up of Josie James, Valerie Smith, and Melody Jones, is a pretty well known property inside and outside of comics fandom, and is one of the greatest fictional bands of all time. But that wasn't always the case, nor was it even the original premise of the strip. A redhead had to decide between two love interests, one of whom was nice and simple and the other one rich and spoiled. The redhead had two friends, a sarcastic brunette and a well-meaning, fun-loving friend who lived in a world of their own. And if that sounds like Archie and friends to you, well, really, that's basically the core of what it was.

But Josie, or She's Josie, as the strip was then called, did deviate enough from that template to stand on its own. Josie and Archie were, for sure, both protagonist redheads who were average teenagers, but Archie continually chose rich and spoiled Veronica Lodge over simple and devoted (and kind of psychotic) Betty Cooper, while Josie eschewed rich and spoiled Alex Cabot for her simple and unassuming Albert.

It's a little too nerd-friendly for me to really buy into it — I'm not really a fan of stories where the nerdy guy gets the hot girl with no real believable explanation, since it's a little too much of a wish fulfillment thing for me and actually does hurt my suspension of disbelief more than the premise of a guy getting powers from a radioactive spider — but Albert wouldn't really last long.

The frustrating thing, for me, about Albert is that for all his dorkishness, he not only had Josie after him, but Midvale's answer to Veronica Lodge, Alexandra Cabot (Alexander's sister), as well.
I think it's safe to say I'm not a fan of Albert.

Another difference is that the brunette in the original strip wasn't Valerie, but a white girl with glasses named Pepper, who was sassy and sarcastic and every bit the kind of character that would thrive today.

Pepper was pegged as the brainy one, but aside from having glasses, I didn't really see her as brainier than Josie. She was more clever than booksmart, but I guess they wanted to go for a brains-and-brawn couple when they introduced her boyfriend, a musclebound guy named Sock, short for Socrates.

Rounding out the cast was Melody, the dumb blonde. And when I say the dumb blonde, I mean she's dumb, and she's blonde.

In fact, Melody's the kind of character who either gets crucified now because she was really just an excuse for Dan DeCarlo to draw a sexy woman in revealing clothing, or gets to be a fan favorite among all demographics because they handle it in such a tongue-in-cheek way, and she uses that sex appeal to her advantage. A running gag is Melody just walking around town and men getting into accidents because they're too distracted by her. In other words, she'd either be hated on Facebook/Twitter or loved on Tumblr. My money would be on the latter, kinda like Harley Quinn or Bruce Timm good girl art.  I honestly think Dan DeCarlo would have been the kind of cheesecake artist that everyone loves.

This is what really gets me about Melody, though. The joke is that she's so much sexier than Josie and the rest of the girls, and in-story they would say it was because of her figure. But look. They have, if not the same, at least very similar figures.

Melody's sexiness and Pepper's sass and Josie's confidence all come from different poses and different configurations of body language.  Josie has the same figure as Melody, but she would never be posed like this while walking down the street in a revealing outfit. She'd be shyer and trying to cover herself up.

She's Josie and, later, Josie, was a fun book, but sales must have been unimpressive, because they started resorting to frequent guest appearances and cameos by Archie and the gang. At one point they even brought in the star of Archie's Madhouse, Clyde Didit, and went trippy. (And yes, I know it was the 60s, so this is kinda tame by "trippy" standards.)

As fun as the book was, the thing was that at the end of the day, it didn't differentiate enough from your standard teen fare. Sure, the main characters were girls instead of guys, but Archie even at the time was already putting out Betty and Veronica. What was needed was a reinvention, and it started by giving the girls a gimmick and then introducing new characters as well as repackaging some old ones. The gimmick was simple: make the girls a band called The Pussycats, complete with matching costumes. It's a simple hook, and while the Archies at the time had a real band named after them with a legitimate album out (including the hit single "Sugar Sugar"), an all-girl band with themed (and obviously sexy) costumes was much less heard of. In other words, gender-switching the basic premise of Archie, not enough differentiation. Gender-switching the Archies and then giving them matching outfits, enough differentiation.

Alexandra Cabot also got a different gimmick. To match her new look, with a streak in her hair, she also got magic powers.

And Alexander Cabot III became the band's manager, also complete with a new look: shades and a jacket.

The visual reinvention of the Cabots says a lot to me about the importance of iconography. While they were, for sure, well drawn before the shades and white streaks, they didn't have distinguishing features, even ones as simple as Josie's short hair or Melody's white hair. It's such a simple change, giving them a visual cue, but it's enough. (A good example in superhero comics is Abby Arcane from Swamp Thing. There was really nothing special about Abby Arcane other than the black streak in her white hair, but that's enough to distinguish her and keep her in the book until Alan Moore, Steve Bissette, and John Totleben found stuff for her to do.)

Albert was gone, replaced by Alan M., who made so much more sense for someone like Josie (and Alexandra) to pine over. He's built, he's good-looking, he's talented, and he's a legitimately nice guy who doesn't spend his time creepily stalking Josie. There is a mutual attraction that is believable and feels genuine. And Albert was never seen again, because thank God, he sucked.

Sock vanished as well, maybe because Pepper also disappeared. The brunette in the trio became Valerie, who effectively replaced Pepper. But it's weird for me to say that she did replace Pepper, because aside from having black hair and being the clever one, they weren't replaceable with each other. Their brands of cleverness were different, and if anything, Valerie was a bit more headstrong and tomboyish, a little more like Betty Cooper than Pepper was, when Betty Cooper wasn't busy being a crazy Archie stalker.

Valerie is a genuine groundbreaker, too. GeekGirlCon says she's the first ever black character to ever show up in Archie, predating Chuck Clayton by a couple of years. Decades later, she would have a romance with Archie Andrews himself that is, if not the first, the first high-profile interracial romance in the comic.

And when Josie and the Pussycats got an animated series soon after, after a three-week argument between the network and the producer, Valerie Smith became the first ever regular character in a cartoon.

I think there's a sentiment that thinks Pepper should have been the bassist for the Pussycats, and while I like Pepper as a character a lot, I honestly don't see her being a Pussycat. Like I said, I don't see them as interchangeable, even though they clearly fill the same role in the dynamic. Their personalities are different enough that I do not see Pepper as one of the Pussycats, even in an alternate reality where she stuck around.

Josie and the Pussycats was cancelled in 1982, but the characters stuck around and permeated pop culture consciousness that they could never be kept down for too long. They had a movie in 2001 starring Rachael Leigh Cooke, Rosario Dawson, and Tara Reid, and they continually got new stories in the comics, including, as mentioned, the high-profile Archie/Valerie romance. They broke ground then, as all-girl groups were relatively rare, and if you believe some accounts, they helped inspire and, in a way, pave the road for real all-girl bands (they predated the Runaways, arguably the first truly famous all-girl rock band, by six years). These days, they continue to reflect reality further and break ground further by introducing more diversity. Aside from interracial romances with Archie, Josie has been cast in the new Riverdale TV show as Ashleigh Murray, who is black, and rumors swirl that the Pussycats in that universe will all be women of color, a casting choice that reflects how far we have come, as such a thing would have been unheard of outside of very specific genres of music back when the Pussycats were first created.

Really, there's a lot to be learned from the reinvention of She's Josie into Josie and the Pussycats, including the importance of visual iconography and the power of diversity. But perhaps the most important thing, at least in my eyes, is that taking a premise and then changing it a teeny tiny bit isn't enough. You can start there, but then you need the right gimmick and hook, and then the right dynamics and characters to go with it. Fortunately for the Pussycats, they have three of the legitimately most fun and dynamic characters, especially in humor comics, ever. And all three of them, as well as their complementary pieces, are a perfect fit. It ook them a while to get tot hat perfect fit, but they got there and that's what matters.

That was fun. To close this off, I'm going to give you this awesome Fiona Staples rendition of the Pussycats.

1 comment:

Archiecomicfan said...

Amazing! I love this article because I can see the evolution of Josie and the Pussy Cats and it is truly inspiring.

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