Obituary: John L. Goldwater

Denis Gifford
Saturday 27 March 1999 00:02 GMT

SAY "ARCHIE Andrews" to any British fan of yesterday's radio and the names of Peter Brough the ventriloquist and his teenage dummy will register on the mind's dial. But say the same name to any American and a very different teenager turns up.

The American version is some 40 or more years older than his English counterpart and, unlike him, still flourishing today, depicted much as he was when he was first drawn in December 1941 - clearly the oldest teenager in the business. And business is surely the key word, for beyond the original comic-book pages Archie has stretched his facial freckles, ginger crew-cut and buck-toothed grin into candy bars, T-shirts, radio shows, television cartoons, hamburger chains and pop music, to name but a few Archie enterprises.

Although comic-book fans of sufficient vintage will recall the name of Bob Montana as the signature penned to most of the early strip cartoons, and will remember his lively but by no means exceptional depiction of the typical teenagers of small-town America, credit for the creation of Archie and his high-school chums of Riverdale belongs to John L. Goldwater, editor and co-publisher of the series and, through them, owner of the third largest comic-book conglomerate in America.

Goldwater was born in East Harlem, New York, in 1916. He was orphaned at a very early age (his mother died giving birth to him, his father of subsequent grief) and after difficult years during the Depression he became a news reporter in Kansas and San Francisco before shipping himself back to New York.

He developed an extraordinary idea for making money. Buying up outdated comic-books and pulp magazines at one cent a copy, he shipped them to England as ballast for merchant ships. They were unloaded and sold through market wholesalers, winding up on Woolworths counters at threepence a copy and on market stalls at tuppence a time. This successful scheme introduced British youngsters to American comic-books and their older brothers to such pulp magazines as Astounding Stories and Weird Tales. One of Goldwater's customers was the Edgware market salesman Gerald G. Swan, who would later become the post-war publisher of the British editions of Archie comics and annuals.

With money made from his successful remaindering, Goldwater joined two other blossoming businessmen, Louis Silberkleit and Maurice Coyne, and using the initials of their Christian names formed M.L.J. Publications. Swiftly latching on to the latest craze of super- heroes launched in 1938 by Superman, Goldwater as editor for the company devised the Shield as star of Pep Comics, the Black Hood for Top Notch Comics, and Steel Sterling in Zip Comics. Interviewed for a celebratory book The Best of Archie (1980), Goldwater recalled: "I admit I went into comics because of Superman, Batman and all the super-heroes. They were catalysts. I thought of Superman as an abnormal individual and concluded that the antithesis, a normal person, could be just as popular. And it was."

This "it" was Archie Andrews, and in no time at all the toothy teenager, based on the character "Andy Hardy" which was then making a major movie star out of the young Mickey Rooney, swiftly rose from his back-up place as a light relief to the M.L.J. supermen to the full-blown title star of his own monthly magazine, Archie Comics. The kids who rejected super- heroics as silly took to this laughable youngster as a fun reflection of their own high-school life as they would liked to have lived it, and joined the Archie Andrews Club by the thousand.

Bob Montana, a former singer in his father's vaudeville act, and a self- taught cartoonist, proved perfect for depicting college capers. "His work had just the sense of humour I was looking for," said Goldwater, and it is Montana's gallery of teenage types that still star in the comics. Archie's best pal was the sleepy-eyed Jughead Jones ("He hates dames, they keep him awake!"), who soon had a comic-book of his own. Archie's heart was torn between blonde Betty Cooper and vivacious Veronica Lodge ("She thinks Archie is a pushover, but hasn't decided which cliff!"). Then there was his rival Reggie Mantle, rich - but money isn't everything to a good American girl. The gang was large but Archie was the star. As Goldwater explained to The New York Times in 1973, "He is basically a square, but squares are the backbone of America."

With more than 50 different comic-book series, Archie made millions for his publishers. Soon the eternal teenager spread through the media. First, in 1943, came radio, the biggest home entertainer in the US during the war years. Jackie Grimes played Archie and Arnold Stang, later a leading comedy player with Henry Morgan, was Jughead. Archie entered the television age in 1968 with his own animated Archie's Show, made by Filmation; the hero's voice was supplied by Dale McKinnon. Later it was replaced by a live action Archie series starring David Caruso. There was a television movie told in flashbacks entitled Return to Riverdale, and a series of pop records starring a group called the Archies (lead singer Ron Dante) who won golden discs with their best-sellers "Sugar Sugar" and "Jingle Jangle".

In a celebratory book, Best of the Forties (1991), the writer Stephen King wrote in the foreword (entitled "The Importance of being Archie"), "Archie's adventures were amusing but they were also unfailingly moral. I still count him one of my good fictional friends."

John Leonard Goldwater, publisher: born New York 14 September 1916; married (two sons); died New York 26 February 1999.

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