Wednesday, November 7, 2012

When Archie Went MAD

 Archie's Mad House took on satire --and succeeded.

Archie and his friends have been around for over sixty years, making the fickle redheaded teen almost as old as Superman. Part of the secret to the comic book’s longevity may be the publisher’s willingness to diversify. To this day, Archie maintains multiple comics lines, and titles like Betty and Veronica and Jughead’s Double Digest are still going strong after decades.

Archie #1 is now valued at around $200,000. (via

Over the years, the Archie Comics company has experimented with all manner of themes -- with or without the Archie gang -- and dropped them like a hot rock if they didn’t take off. Remember Cosmo the Merry Martian, Reggie’s Revenge or Jughead’s Time Police? That’s because they didn’t last long enough for you to recall. Even Jughead’s pet, Hot Dog, had his own comic for a whopping five issues. The folks at Archie Comics keep what works and ditch the rest. (It sounds like a no-brainer for publishing, but there are plenty of examples of publishers beating a dead horse long after a comic has lost its appeal.)

Jughead's Time Police: Don't feel bad --everybody forgot about it. (This and next images via Cover Browser)

In 1959, Archie Comics tried something new --sort of. The idea was inspired by a competitor, and they didn’t try to hide it. Archie’s Mad House debuted in 1959, when MAD magazine was in its heyday, and everyone wanted a slice of it. The first issues featured the regular Archie gang in stories that were more off the wall than usual, or that intentionally made no sense.

Early issues put the Archie gang into surreal situations.

Archie’s Mad House even had its own answer to Alfred E. Neuman: Clyde Diddit. (You can see the slogan “Clyde Diddit --who he?” on several early covers.) Over time, the title changed, morphing into Madhouse, Madhouse Glads, and several other incarnations, including Madhouse Ma-ad Freakout from 1969-70. After the Archie gang was dropped, the covers became goofier and goofier, depicting monsters, hippies, space aliens, and assorted other weirdos. 

Once the Archie gang was dropped, Mad House got wackier...

...and wackier.

Like MAD, Archie’s Mad House spoofed fads and trends of the day. In the ‘50s and ‘60s, that meant things like drag racing, hippie culture, superheroes, pop art, dance crazes, and beatnik slang. Teen culture was a huge part of the Mad House schtick, and it ultimately led to the creation of one of the most popular characters in the Archie universe: Sabrina, the Teenage Witch. Sabrina was the brainchild of cartoonist Dan De Carlo, who created her for Mad House in 1962.

Archie's Mad House liked to spoof youth culture.

Those who only knew Sabrina after she joined the Archie gang in the ‘70s might be surprised at her earlier incarnation. The Mad House Sabrina is not only a sexpot, but quite the bad girl, using her magic to cause trouble --or ensnare boyfriends. The friendly, helpful Sabrina who would eventually have her own TV series is a far cry from the early teen witch who lounges around in revealing costumes, thinking evil thoughts and plotting revenge against her rivals.

Sabrina was an evil vixen when she debuted in Mad House (via Westfield Comics)

However goofy Archie’s Mad House might sound, it worked, and it kept on working until the ‘80s (ultimately morphing into Madhouse Comics Digest), making it one of Archie Comics’ longer series, and also the second-longest lived MAD magazine competitor in history. Only Cracked lasted longer, though Mad House trounced a pile of flash-in-the-pan imitators, like Nuts!, Get Lost, Whack, Riot, Flip, and Eh!

Brigid Alverson of Graphic Novel Reporter, has a neat take on why Mad House matters:

Because they satirized popular culture, the comics may seem dated to modern readers, but they are sort of a cleaned-up time capsule: Archie explains how to become a rock 'n' roll singer, Frankenstein turns out to be a hippie, and Agent X-48 is more interested in sales and gossip than stopping a supervillain. In one surreal Joe Edwards story, creatures called Blips explain how they morphed from blips on a radar screen to spies who hide out in abstract paintings, paisley patterns, and gag greeting cards to spy on Earthlings. It's as good an explanation as any for mid-1960s design.

What’s perhaps most notable, though, is how well Archie Comics adapted to cultural changes, a publishing choice that kept it successful for decades. When the world got weird, well, they got weird right along with it.

Read more about Archie's Mad House:


  1. When I was a kid, my friend Ginger was crazy about the Archie comics. I don't think I've ever read one (they looked stupid to me; I was reading X-Men) but my brother and I were devoted to the Archie Hour cartoon that came on after school. I swear I never made the connection between the Archie Hour cartoon and the Archie comics. I blame the New Mutants.

  2. I read the Archie comics when I was a kid and really liked them. I didn't know they were still going strong. Like the covers.

  3. Wow. I loved Archie comics, especially the Betty and Veronica stories. Never could understand why Archie didn't see Betty's worth, and just let shallow Veronica and Reggie drive into the sunset together. but then, that's the way love goes, ain't it? She loves him and he loves her and she loves him or is just playin'.

    So cool top read about all the history. I always loved Sabrina, too, but did not know she was such a vamp.