John Goldwater, the Comics Code Authority, and Archie

Ten years ago, when Marvel Comics withdrew from the Comics Magazine Association of America (CMAA), it seemed likely that this oppressive force of cowardly comstockery was, finally, tottering on its last legs. Several publishers remained as dues-paying members of the CMAA—DC Comics stayed on but only with its kids books and a few of the DC Universe titles—but without the funding to which Marvel’s dues doubtless contributed in a substantial manner, the operation and its enforcement arm, the Comics Code Authority, could scarcely be imagined to have the wherewithal to continue its repressive regime much longer. But it staggered on for another nine years. When Bongo left in 2010, the only major publishers left to finance the program were DC Comics and Archie Comics.

Then as 2011 dawned, DC Comics ceased altogether using the Comics Code Seal of Approval, which has identified its comics as appropriate for all ages for over 50 years. Instead, it launched its own rating system for DCU and Johnny DC titles. As soon as the news came out from DC, Archie Comics, the last remaining CMAA subscriber, announced that it, too, was getting out. According to Newsarama, Archie had made the decision some time ago and hadn’t been submitting its books for approval for “a year or more,” but held off announcing the defection until DC took the plunge. With these two desertions, the CMAA and the odious Comics Code Authority were effectively defunct. Without members, the Authority had no funding and therefore couldn’t function.

Since 1964, the CMAA had been administered by the Kellen Company, a management firm that handles the operations of a number of non-profit trade organizations. The Comics Buyer’s Guide (No. 1677, May 2011) reported that “the last Kellen employee involved with the Code administration and oversight was Holly Muenter Koenig, who, on her own time, continued to look at the comics DC submitted throughout 2010.”

A tantalizing byproduct of the demise of the CMAA was the question, raised a few weeks after Archie’s departure, of what became of the Association’s records, brimming, we are assured by Amy Nyberg (who wrote a 1998 history of the Code, Seal of Approval), with acres of documents—minutes of meetings, correspondence and the like—a veritable trove of the history of the comic book industry under the thumb of the Code. Responding to a question at comicsbeat.com (January 27, 2011), Koenig said all the CMAA archives had been forwarded to DC’s legal department. There, presumably, the matter rests—in boxes in a damp basement somewhere in Manhattan. I haven’t been able to find anything more on the issue since late January.

It is serenely fitting that Archie should be the last publisher to leave the dismal Code room, turning on the light as it left. John Goldwater, one of the trio of founders of MLJ Comics out of which Archie emerged, was, as he himself claimed, “the prime founder” of the CMAA, which invented the Code and enforced it with the Comics Code Authority. Hence, this seems an appropriate moment to consider the dubious record of John Goldwater, the man who claimed to have invented Archie Andrews as well as the CMAA. About the latter there is less dispute than about the former. Let’s see whether his claims can withstand close scrutiny and the conflicting testimony of contradictory witnesses.

In the summer of 2001, I wrote a short biography of Goldwater for Oxford University Press’s online American National Biography. What follows is the freshly-polished and energetically embellished first draft of that essay, vastly longer than the necessarily abridged (to fit word-count limitations) version Oxford has—and liberally furnished with my own opinions about Goldwater’s Archie (opinions more-or-less omitted from the more scholarly, more objective, version at ANB online, omitted for want of the sort of definitive, documentary proof that posturing pedagogy demands before bandying opinionated assertions around, however reasonable and informed those assertions may, upon reflection, be; here, I’m including them; Oxford didn’t allow length enough to substantiated the opinions). But before we get to that, an introductory apostrophe:

Since at the time I approached the Oxford assignment, there appeared to be very little written about the late Goldwater’s life, I thought I could find out more by checking with Archie Comics. I assumed they’d have a complete biography which they’d be eager to get into my hands so it could be perpetuated in Oxford University Press’s magnum opus of the lives of American’s rich and famous. Alas, not so.

When I phoned to ask, I was instructed to make my request in writing. I faxed them the request, and shortly thereafter, I received a phone call from a secretarial personage who informed me that they would not be supplying me with any information about Goldwater. Nothing.

That got my wattles in an uproar, of course. But, in retrospect, I should not have been surprised. I had heard that Archie Comics was, at that time—a decade ago— a hotbed of rival claimants to fame. And since the operation appeared back then to be in the hands of the descendants of one of Goldwater’s partners, they probably didn’t want to do anything to foster a Goldwater claim. Moreover, since I had widely broadcast my not-very-supportive view of their 2000 dumping of Dan DeCarlo, they might, even, recognize my name (unlikely though that seems to me) and, thinking me a hostile hack writer, elected not to supply me with any ammunition.

To avoid the inevitable footnote: DeCarlo, whose drawing style defined Archie Comics for half-a-century, had been fired in May 2000 because he’d filed a breach-of-contract lawsuit against Archie. He sought $250,000 damages in connection with a forthcoming film from Universal Pictures, “Josie and the Pussycats” (planned for summer 2001 release), which featured characters he created. DeCarlo concocted Josie (named after his wife) in about 1957 as a newspaper comic strip, Here’s Josie, aiming unsuccessfully at national syndication. Later, DeCarlo showed the strip to Archie’s Richard Goldwater, and the two tried to sell the strip to King Features. Again, unsuccessfully.  Subsequently, Richard and his father, John, decided that Josie would make a good comic book, and they asked DeCarlo to retool the strip for comic book publication. Josie was added to the Archie line-up in 1963. When Josie then formed an all-girl rock band (the Pussycats), the feature quickly spun off an animated tv version from Hanna-Barbera. In a 1988 contractual agreement, DeCarlo had given Archie rights only to comic book and comic strip productions featuring characters he created, not television or motion pictures. DeCarlo was suing for creator credit and 50 percent of the profits on all Josie and the Pussycats merchandise connected to the movie. Archie’s legal position was that DeCarlo had created Josie as “work for hire,” so the rights belonged to the company.

“I think anyone who's worked for this medium can relate to his situation,” animation producer Paul Dini said at the time. “We've seen it with [Superman creators] Siegel and Schuster and we've seen it with [Marvel Comics creator] Jack Kirby. Over the years, it's been ‘shut up and do your work,’ and now it's ‘shut up and get out.’ A man doesn't need to hear that when he's 80 years old and has created two of the franchises that have kept [Archie] alive” (Sabrina the Teenage Witch was the other character; DeCarlo was co-creator).

The next year, 2001, the National Cartoonists Society recognized DeCarlo’s contributions to American culture via comic books when it gave him a Reuben Division Award for comic book cartooning.

In any case, my biographical labors on John Goldwater were performed without any assistance from the official fount of information on Archie Comics. And they were right: I am, as far as their treatment of DeCarlo is concerned, a hostile hack. And after they slammed the door in my face, my nose was grievously out-of-joint, accounting, no doubt, for the snide tone that seeps into some of what follows. Despite this confession, once I began to research Goldwater, I very quickly came to believe that Goldwater himself claimed a little more than he was legitimately entitled to, at least in regard to the creation of Archie. The bald statement “I created Archie” is not quite the full truth of the matter. But he may have had a role in that creation—just as he did in the creation of the CMAA (perhaps, with the latter, even the “prime founder” role he sees for himself).

Like many who have had a role in the early history of comics and who have survived their contemporaries, Goldwater doubtless exaggerated somewhat his claims to fame. In recounting the events of his early life, for instance, Goldwater customarily recollected various of his romantic adventures with the fairer sex that paralleled Archie’s life with Betty Cooper and Veronica Lodge and therefore seemed to support the claim that Goldwater had been Archie’s creator: Archie and his milieu, it seemed, came directly out of Goldwater’s life experiences. By the early 1980s, no one was around anymore who could contradict him. It seemed wonderfully pat. But I contacted cartoonist Bob Montana’s daughter (through their family website), and I was able to incorporate into my version of how Archie was created their version. Here, then, is my unofficial history of John Goldwater, knitting together as many of the known facts and reasonable testimonies as I can—in as charitable and sympathetic a construction as possible with a conspicuous lamination of some likely alternative interpretations.