John Goldwater, the Comics Code Authority, and Archie

Goldawater was still in charge in December 1961 when Harvey Kurtzman published a satiric attack on the Playboy life style in Help!, the humor magazine he launched in the wake of the failed Trump (which he had left Mad to found in 1956). The story was part of a series in which Kurtzman starred a character named Goodman Beaver who encountered the evils of American society in the manner of Voltaire’s naive innocent, Candide. In order to hone his satire on the Playboy life with ludicrous contrast, Kurtzman (aided and abetted by Willie Elder on the artwork) deployed a supporting cast of characters that looked remarkably like Archie and his Riverdale cohorts but behaved like shameless hedonists, chasing relentlessly after booze, broads, and bon temps galore.

The Goldwater cabal took umbrage at this high-handed appropriation of its flagship characters. On December 6, 1961, James Warren, publisher of Help!, received a letter accusing him of copyright infringement and demanding that all issues of the offending magazine be removed from the nation’s newsstands (an impossibility). The contending parties settled out-of-court: Warren paid Archie Comics $1,000 and agreed to publish an apology in the magazine; and Archie gave up the fight. For the moment.

But not for long. Shortly thereafter, Kurtzman and Elder arranged with MacFadden-Bartell Books to publish a volume reprinting their Goodman Beaver stories. Elder modified the appearance of the Archie-like characters so that, while they still suggested their prototypes, they weren’t identical copies as they had been in their first incarnation in Help! Archie Comics again took to its legal guns, and, again, the dispute was settled out-of-court: this time, Kurtzman and Elder signed over to Archie Comics all rights to their lampoon story, effectively giving up possession of their own creation. And so when Denis Kitchen undertook in 1983 to publish the Goodman Beaver stories again in a definitive edition, he had to ask Archie’s permission to use the Playboy satire. Archie said, “No.”

Oddly, the Goldwater Gang seems to have been so completely humorless as to fail to understand that the object of the satire was Playboy, not Archie Comics. Even odder, when Kurtzman had specifically ridiculed the Archie universe in four-color Mad Comics, Goldwater and his minions did nothing. No objection at all. And that satire has been reprinted in paperback re-issues frequently since it originally appeared in the June 1954 issue of Mad Comics. Had Kurtzman and Warren gone to court over the first objection that Archie Comics made to the parody, they most certainly would have won the case under the usual freedom of speech banner of the First Amendment. But once Kurtzman had given Archie Comics possession of the material, he’d given up his freedom to speak in the form of this parody. The Comics Journal, in its customary display of daring (or foolhardiness), reprinted the verboten story in No. 262.

This episode coupled with what Goldwater says about his role in the formation of the CMAA seems ample evidence of his somewhat stiff-necked self-righteousness. Not the sort of guy, really, who can be imagined as inventing the prank- and pratfall-ridden world of Archie Andrews. Well, not readily imagined in that role. But Goldwater is more likely to be remembered for his pivotal part in the CMAA than for his participation in the life of Archie Andrews. And that ain’t all bad. Although the CMAA was blamed for stifling the growth and development of the comic book as an art form, the creation of the Code may have forestalled the passage of stringent laws regulating the industry. Who can say for sure? And now the entire edifice has crumbled to pieces. And a good thing, too.


Bibliographic Details. Goldwater wrote a history of the CMAA, Americana in Four Colors: A Decade of Self-Regulation by the Comics Magazine Industry (1964) and collaborated on The Best of Archie (1980), chiefly a collection of reprinted comic book stories. The most complete biographical account was obtained by Mary Smith by interviewing Goldwater and is published in Smith’s The Best of Betty and Veronica Summer Fun (1991), a publication of the Archie Fan Magazine. The creation of Archie is recounted in Archie: His First 50 Years by Charles Phillips (1991) and again by Craig Yoe in his Archie: A Celebration of America’s Favorite Teenagers (2011). Yoe also supplies the story of the founding of MLJ, which is also rehearsed in Over 50 Years of American Comic Books by Ron Goulart (1991), and the birth of the Comics Magazine Association of America and the criticism of comic books that prompted its creation are discussed at length in Seal of Approval: The History of the Comics Code by Amy Kiste Nyberg (1998). The first two years of the Archie in the funnies appear in Archie: The Complete Daily Newspaper Comics, 1946-1948 (2010). Montana discusses production of the newspaper incarnation of Archie in Cartoonist PROfiles No. 6 (May 1970). Goldwater’s obituary appeared in The New York Times, March 2, 1999.

Editor's note: For more on the Comics Code, click over to Jeff Trexler's recent series on TCJ.