Dan DeCarlo: From Archie to Raunchy

By Jeff Alexander

‘Betty or Veronica?’ has been a timeless question within Americana’s pop culture lexicon. Echoing the classic ‘Ginger or Mary Ann?’ question from eager television viewers, all these female characters shared traits of underlying sexuality packaged in seemingly innocent images. Artist Dan DeCarlo passed away over two decades ago, but his Archie characters have left a lasting impression on youth that came of age during America’s ‘golden age of comics in the 1950s.

Pinup art and imagery boomed during World War II, having earned the ‘cheesecake’ moniker and ultimately becoming a cottage industry for painter Gil Elvgren. DeCarlo embraced the basic, saucy foundation of these trailblazing female models, but captured their essence in comic form within his Archie characters. His Camera Shy Archie scene had Jughead engaging in an impromptu model photoshoot with Betty and Veronica, with both women eager for the spotlight. Veronica always boasted her trademark bangs before pinup/bondage model Bettie Page began sporting what is still called ‘Betty bangs.’ Was DeCarlo onto something? This small style detail he first captured with his character Jeanie (Queen of the Teens) in 1943 is still sported by pinup models today.

DeCarlo was drafted in 1941, and much like his artist peer, Bill Ward, he began honing his skills during his time of service. Painting airplane nose art, which became widely recognized as early World War II pinup art, DeCarlo soon moved on to creating 418th Scandal Sheet. The comic was embraced as his company’s unofficial military comic strip. After the war concluded, DeCarlo broke into the industry in ‘47 with Timely Comics and worked with comic book icon Stan Lee on the Jeanie comic series. Jeanie earned widespread success and ran for a decade! The final issue appeared in 1959, and though DeCarlo was not formally credited, readers already saw shades of ‘Veronica’ within Jeanie.

Just tattoo the word Mink -- He'll get the hint.

DeCarlo’s best-known work, Archie, coincided with America’s comic boom of the 1950s and debuted in late ‘51. Competition was fierce, but he was able to tap into the pinup subculture while embracing post-war modernism. Suburban-planned communities sprawled across America and were complimented by all-American diners replete with shiny chrome and mid-century signs, which have since become icons. Seizing this prosperous time, DeCarlo incorporated Pop’s Chock’lit Shoppe within his storylines because every teen needs a hangout! Decades later, Jughead’s Diner appeared in the revamped series and continued the tradition.

If classic comics were synonymous with superheroes and their villainous foes, where exactly did Archie fit in the crowded world of comic books? Television sitcoms almost had similar character setups, featuring attractive female leads with their often brash sidekicks vying for attention. The relationship between the beloved Archie characters of Betty and Veronica had all the hallmarks of that dynamic; Was their relationship with Archie innocent teenage affection or something more lustful?

These are MY pajamas, don't try and talk me out of them!

Their male counterparts, Jughead and Archie, had banter comparable to Fred and Ricky on I Love Lucy, which also debuted in ‘51. Archie captured small-town suburban teenage life, a storyline we see to this day, but the love triangle of Archie, Betty, and Veronica provided fodder for years.

As DeCarlo earned accolades for Archie, he embraced the burgeoning adult-themed publication market, opting to draw more risque themes for men’s magazines such as Humorama during the mid-1950s and later, Romp. DeCarlo earned a cover feature for Romp in ‘61, with his adult-themed work standing in marked contrast to his Archie characters. Buxom female leads took center stage as DeCarlo abandoned his trademark, playful sensuality found within his Betty and Veronica leads. Lascivious ladies clad in lingerie were readily available to bumbling and bawdy male counterparts. Utilizing Chinese ink wash painting techniques, DeCarlo’s hallmarks included a mix of bold and subtle black ink outlines. The process is similar to watercolor painting. Humorama ceased publication in the mid-’60s, just missing the industry’s boom in the ‘70s, characterized by full nudity and unabashed sexual themes. His adult-themed art has fetched some high prices at recent online auction sites. In 2005, Alex Chan collected DeCarlo’s work and FantaGraphics Books published The Pinup Art of Dan DeCarlo, and it remains the foremost authority on DeCarlo’s adult cartoon work.

I'll marry you on one condition... Don't show up after the ceremony!

DeCarlo’s success continued throughout his work, with Archie and spin-offs Sabrina the Teenage Witch and Josie and The Pussycats. Josie was eventually adapted into a live-action movie in 2001, starring Tara Reid, Rachel Leigh Cook, Rosario Dawson, and indie-film queen Parker Posey. Instead of DeCarlo earning more mainstream accolades for his work, the film’s production was saddled with a lawsuit over the character’s creation. Federal district court ruled Archie Comics held the copyright, and the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately rejected DeCarlo’s appeal. He was listed in the end credits as a creator.

I can't see why he keeps playing with her! She misses every shot!

DeCarlo’s beloved Archie characters earned renewed attention due to the Riverdale CW television series. Featuring a contemporary take on Archie characters, the teen drama found its niche and was renewed in 2021 for its 6th season. Archie has proven to be a timeless entry in Americana’s canon, spanning several decades and launching spin-off comics and movie adaptations. If viewers still ask who they prefer, which would you go with? Betty or Veronica?


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