Fifty years ago, when Hitler, Hirohito, and Mussolini threatened to end civilization as we knew it, Americans first discovered a wildly different sort of trio: Archie, Betty, and Veronica, three small-town comic-book teenagers who reassured war-plagued America that its civilization would never change, let alone end. And a durable civilization it did seem. Betty Cooper was the eternal girl next door; Veronica Lodge combined the va-va-voom voluptuousness of Veronica Lake with the luxe allure of Boston's patrician Lodge family; bug-eyed, bumbling but upright Archie was based on his creator, cartoonist Bob Montana, who actually had painted murals in the Lodges' basement as a teenager; and the little town they all lived in stayed comfortingly, and unreally, the same.
Now Archie is turning 50 (or 67, since he was 17 at birth in 1941). And despite the Cold War, space probes, Selma, the sexual revolution, Iran-contra, and the fall of communism, he has remained a steady beacon in a whirling world all that time, a freckled bulwark against global chaos. With annual sales of 15.5 million copies for its 31 different titles, Archie Comic Publications ranks third in the business, after Marvel and DC. Yet Archie's influence on the national imagination is incalculable. ''We all wish we could live in a small town like Riverdale,'' says Ron Dante, the Archie impersonator whose 1969 recording ''Sugar, Sugar'' sold over 3 million copies. ''There was a time when old-fashioned meant something bad, but Archie proves that's not so. I think Archie represents the best of American culture.''
Two new Archie compilations have just been published to celebrate his birthday: the Abbeville Press coffee-table book Archie: His First 50 Years and the softcover Archie Americana Series: Best of the Forties. The two collections make it clear that Archie's appeal lies in his clean-cut resistance to the unraveling of our social fabric. Archie's core audience, 60 percent female and aged 6 to 13, is not into sex and violence; they're riveted by their redheaded hero's romantic indecision and reassured by his unwavering allegiance to the Comics Code, established in 1954 to purge comics of concealed weapons, illicit eroticism, narcotics, and (most insidious of all) ''bad grammar.'' Teetering on the precipice of puberty, Archie's readers have at least one cute guy whose virtue is dependable.
Not that Arch doesn't make an effort to seem up to date. As a larky '90s-style environmentalist, he sometimes leaves his smoky jalopy in the garage and rollerblades around town, and he's the only mass-market comic-book hero printed on recycled paper. In the unenlightened '50s, Moose, the lunkhead athlete, was depicted as a dim bulb; in the more charitable '80s he was finally diagnosed as dyslexic. Minority characters were introduced in the '70s, and Forsythe P. ''Jughead'' Jones, Archie's girl-averse pal with the serrated hat, is scheduled in a forthcoming Jughead comic book to make friends with some kids who happen to be handicapped.
Still, new characters incorporating socially conscious twists on the Archie formula are always relegated to a level of importance lower than Reggie (Archie's rich-kid nemesis), and the main characters try out trends the way they try on modish clothes skeptically. When genuine threats of social change came along beatniks, protest singers, feminists Archie Comics ridiculed them. The Betty and Veronica comic may no longer bear the sexist subtitle ''Archie's Girls,'' but its subject is, as ever, retrograde sexual combat. On a current cover, Betty rails at the boys, ''A fine pair of lifeguards you are! I almost drowned out there, and neither one of you even looked at me!'' To which the ever-bitchy Veronica replies, ''Tee-hee, I always said she couldn't get a man to save her life!'' As Archie Comics vice president of marketing David Silberkleit once succinctly put it, ''The essence of these girls is that they have perfect bodies.''
Archie was originally conceived by copublisher John Goldwater (the father of current company president Richard Goldwater) as a healthy antidote to Superman and Batman, who had appeared on the scene in 1938 and '39. But the real auteur of Archie was Bob Montana, a rootless young cartoonist who invented Riverdale out of a deep need for stability.
''Bob grew up on the vaudeville circuit,'' says his widow, Peg Bertholet. ''His mom had been a Ziegfeld girl when his dad met her and he was a cowboy banjoist. An Indian squaw delivered Bob when they were on the road. What he most enjoyed was standing backstage listening to the gag men George Burns, Jack Benny.''
Montana's father died when he was 15, and soon after his mother and new stepfather took him to live in Haverhill, Mass. There he found the first permanent group of pals he had ever known, and he whiled away countless happy hours sketching classmates on paper napkins at the Chocolate Shop, rechristened the Chok'lit Shop in his comics. According to Bertholet, ''Weatherbee was a version of the high school principal (Mr. McLeod), who told him if he didn't stop drawing he'd never get anywhere in the world. Jughead, I think, came from Skinny Lenahan. Betty was a composite of Lizzy Walker, who really was the girl next door, and a girl Bob dated later, and Reggie was based on a boy who had his own car and quite a bit of money.'' Many of the group have stayed in touch with Haverhill High. ''They had a big reunion a couple years back for that whole class,'' says Bertholet. ''The fella they took Moose from, I spotted him right off the bat.'' The man who memorialized them, alas, did not live to see the reunion: He died of a heart attack while sledding with his kids in 1971.
Montana's widow is working on a book, The Golden Years of Newspaper Comics, that will clear up some mysteries about Riverdale, such as the meaning of the letter S on Jughead's shirt. The people at Archie headquarters in Mamaroneck, N.Y., aren't saying what that S stands for, but Bertholet will. ''Jughead's S refers to a place called Skunk Hill in Haverhill, which Bob turned into Squirrel Hill.'' Bob's elementary school near Haverhill called its athletic teams the Tigers. ''So,'' Bertholet concludes, ''Jughead's S meant 'Squirrel Hill Independent Tigers,' and you couldn't abbreviate it any other way.'' Jughead, the seer who never opens his eyes, voices his indifference to society in the silent, not-quite-scatological cryptogram on his shirt. He's a letterman in the sport of rebellion.
In fact, Jughead's comic book has been rebelling against company tradition lately flirting with bizarre MTV graphics and surrealist story lines. ''There's a lot of internal politics about that,'' says David Silberkleit, the spearhead of the Jughead futurist movement. But when the publishers recently committed the ultimate heresy by having Jughead renounce his misogyny in an episode called ''It's First Love, Jughead Jones,'' the result was instant insurrection.
''The readers went wild!'' says corporate spokeswoman Donna Block. ''They said, no way, keep him out of it, leave our Jughead alone!''
One shudders to think what they would have done if the publishers had messed with the checkered head of Arch himself. In Riverdale, USA, everything's Archie, and by gosh, America intends to keep it that way.
Archie in the Arts
Rock & Roll Hero
The Archies were a rock band consisting of producer and studio musician Ron Dante (who later became publisher of the highbrow Paris Review) and backup singer Toni Wine. Impresario Don Kirshner hired them as the Archie TV cartoon characters' singing voices because he owned a tune, ''Sugar, Sugar,'' that his band the Monkees refused to record. ''They laughed at me, so I wanted to get with a group that wouldn't talk back.'' The Archies' ''Sugar, Sugar'' beat out the Rolling Stones' ''Honky Tonk Women'' and went to No. 1 in 1969. Says Dante, ''It was a tough time. We were kind of fun, not very deep, and a backlash against all that social protest.'' Rhino Records hopes to release an Archies album with all-new personnel sometime next year; a live tour is also possible.
Long before Bart, teen 'toon Archie in 1968-69 grabbed a 75 percent share of the Saturday-morning Nielsen audience on The Archie Show, followed by such animated shows as The U.S. of Archie and The Bang-Shang Lalapalooza Show and the live-action prime-time 1990 TV film To Riverdale and Back Again.
A feature-film script by Nora Ephron (When Harry Met Sally) apparently won't be made. ''But there will be an Archie movie,'' vows comic marketer David Silberkleit, ''it's just a matter of when. It'll be the hippest, coolest summer movie there ever was.'' He says the probable director is Joel Schumacher (Flatliners).
To snare teenage girls who've outgrown comics, Disney Publishing has launched Archie/ Riverdale High, a series of romance novels featuring Arch and his gang. Sample: One Last Date With Archie, in which Betty and Veronica face the horrid fact that old carrot-top is moving to another town.
Target of Tweaks
Archie was honored by a memorable Mad magazine parody called Starchie, in which he appeared as the capo of a high school gang, and in an audio drama titled ''Porgie and Mudhead in High School Madness'' on the 1970 Firesign Theatre comedy album Don't Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers. The TV show The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis (1959-63), now syndicated on Nick at Nite, owes a lot to Riverdale: Dobie (Dwayne Hickman) corresponds to Archie, Maynard G. Krebs (Bob Denver) to Jughead, Thalia Menninger (Tuesday Weld) to Veronica (though she's blond), and Milton Armitage (Warren Beatty) to Reggie. Dobie's statue of The Thinker was probably inspired by the one at Riverdale High, which was inspired by the one that still stands in front of Haverhill High in Massachusetts.