Artist Dan S. DeCarlo (1919-2001), below, is widely recognized as the creator of both the Sabrina the Teenage Witch and Josie and the Pussycats strips. But he is best known as the illustrator who gave Archie—the comic featuring the eponymous redheaded teenager, plus his friends Betty, Veronica, Jughead, Reggie, and the rest—their definitive form and line, the look by which they’re most known, and that modern artists must emulate when drawing the characters.
That is, I’m not a hardcore Archie fan, by any stretch. I had to look up the names of Archie’s father and mother (Fred and Mary Andrews) and his school principal (Waldo Weatherbee). I didn’t even remember the name of their town, Riverdale. Though I’ve seen and read a few, I can’t say I’ve even ever owned an Archie comic.
But, growing up in their heyday, I knew the main characters, perhaps from watching their animated Archie’s band sing the hit 1969 song, “Sugar, Sugar”. I especially knew what the girls looked like, even though I often mix up their names: Betty is the blonde, Veronica the raven-haired brunette.
I knew what they looked like, though, in short, because Betty & Veronica were hot. If you were a kid, not yet a teenager, reading Archie, watching the stable Betty and tempestuous Veronica fight over Archie, though you certainly didn’t know anything yet about girls, you probably hoped that, at some point in your future, you’d get girls that looked like that: All pouty-lipped, long-lashed, slender-legged, curvaceousness, continuously ready for a good time. And white.
So, for guys whose sexuality was flash-frozen anywhere near that moment—not mine, but, as Chris Rock says, I understand—looking through Dan DeCarlo’s work is kind of like seeing Archie grown-up and va-va-va-voom, except there’s no Archie, Reggie, or Jughead. All that’s left are sexy, single, scantily-clad and available Betty and Veronica look-a-likes, and a bunch of very horny middle-aged men.
The style of the drawings seamlessly reproduces the look for which the Archie comics are known. So, it’s easy to imagine opening Archie to find Hiram Lodge, Veronica’s father and Riverdale’s richest citizen, calling his trusting wife, Hermione, to tell her he’ll be working late. Put down the strip, pick up one of DeCarlo’s Pin-Up Art books, and don’t be surprised to find Lodge, instead, throwing twenties at a stripper as she twirls her tassels.
Indeed, aside from the skill which which DeCarlo draws white women—essentially, with the curvature of Black women—the most remarkable thing about his pieces are the social order that they endlessly reinforce.
Created for men’s humor magazines of the 1950s and ’60s, the typical DeCarlo gag shows a voluptuous woman resisting the advances of an often gray-templed, powerful man. As the female does this, she’s also usually drawn saying something “punny” in response; e.g., the “special handling” jab, above. (This makes the DeCarlo that opens this piece, under the headline, somewhat atypical, as, there, the zaftig woman is the aggressor. [She's a wrestler, after all, as the photo on the lamp table reveals.] However, like most DeCarlos, the feminine verbal statement, or response, is central to the piece’s humor and its dynamics.)
Today, some look back at at DeCarlo’s work as proto-feminist, citing the way that, in it, women assert their power by resisting men’s advances. Perhaps.
To me, however, what DeCarlo documents is the libido of the American male, at a time when it couldn’t be more openly expressed in popular culture. He’s a bridge between the cloistered erotica and sublimated sexual symbolism of early 20th century graphic art, and the beaver shots that Playboy and Penthouse, then Oui, Hustler, and other men’s magazines would make omnipresent, taking the fantasy that was DeCarlo’s trade stock, completely out of sex.