A History of Christian Archie Comics
Much like any other child, I was always big into comic books as a kid. My seven year old mentality always leaned away from superhero fodder and more in the direction of, if you will, gay-er items. Comics that featured fuzzy bunnies or talking animals, adaptations of Hanna-Barbera cartoons, and certainly, the neutered teenage exploits of Archie Andrews, Jughead Jones, Veronica Lodge, Betty Cooper, Reggie Mantle et al.
Hence, it was a frantic insanity that took over my little body during the second grade spring break when I discovered an old box of coverless comics in my grandma's basement. Flipping through the stack of old comics, I feigned apathy at things like Captain Marvel, a Dell movie adaptation of LAD: A Dog, and Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen (it was an issue that featured Don Rickles - the bizarre genius of this was something I wouldn't appreciate until I was full grown). What always grabbed my attention at that age were Archie comics. Whether the given title be Pals n' Gals, Pep, or Life with Archie, it did not matter. As long as it featured Jughead's misogyny and a page of Li'l Jinx that I was guaranteed never to laugh at, I was game.
I still distinctly remember the weird and creepy sensation that came over me as I read the coverless Archie comic I found in the box. It featured all the familiar characters, going through their typical trials and tribulations at Riverdale High, and the artwork was the same as usual. Yet, as I read it, I felt as if it had been made in outer space. Something was off. Something seemed completely wrong. After finishing its twenty-eight pages, I had a feeling that I found an artifact from the moon.
Since it had no cover, it would not be until a few years later that I would discover exactly what it was that I had read. It was called Archie's Something Else! written and drawn by an experienced Archie comics staffer named Al Hartley in 1975. It was over the top right wing, pro-Christian propaganda, cleverly disguised as a run-of-the-mill Archie comic. It featured a sequence in which Betty Cooper prays in the cafeteria prior to eating lunch. An exchange between Archie and a reporter visiting the school goes this way:
REPORTER: Archie, that girl over there... she seems to be falling asleep ...
ARCHIE: Oh, that's Betty. She's Praying!!!
REPORTER: Praying??? You mean that sort of thing goes on in this school?
JUGHEAD: Of course!!! A Lot of us thank the Lord for our food!
ARCHIE: We thank him for EVERYTHING!!!
REPORTER: Doesn't it EMBARRASS you to sit in front of your fellow students and say grace???
ARCHIE: We'd be embarrassed to sit in front of GOD and NOT say grace!!!
I remember thinking even as a child that Archie was being totally insincere and deceptive. Having read hundreds of Archie comics I knew full well that ol' Archie Andrews was lying to the media. Even at the age of seven I was perceptive enough to call this creepy version of Archie on its bullshit.
These bizarro Archies were a by-product of a company called Spire Christian Comics. Spire itself was but a mere by-product of the giant Christian literature firm The Fleming H. Revell Co. that had been churning out weirdo Christian pap since the 19th century (like romance novels that showed the consequence of 'sin'). Their comic book line first hit the stands in the early seventies and was the brain child of, already established comic artist, Al Hartley. Hartley was not a full bore Christian from day one, but the reactionary politics that were often prominent in the Spire Comic line were sewed deep within him at an early age.
Al's father was the now legendary right wing congressman from New Jersey, Fred Hartley. Perhaps second only to Joe McCarthy for unsavoury notoriety, the senior Hartley's extreme anti-everything views are remembered and recounted often by political scholars. The ramifications of his outrageous 1947 Taft-Hartley Act are still felt in America today. The law remains on the books and is exercised often. It is credited with ultimately dismantling the American labor movement that had made so many gains during the twenties and thirties. Remarkably, President Truman used his veto power to nix the bill when it was first introduced because it was in his opinion, "a slave-labor bill." However the House and the Senate were able to veto the veto (how this works I do not understand).
The law put extreme restrictions on striking, just short of making it illegal altogether. Picketing would become illegal under the bill, as would solidarity striking, and companies were allowed to set up separate non-union shops, which in turn would make their secondary unionized shop illegal(!). The act also made it illegal for a labor union to donate to a political campaign, but of course not for a business owner or corporation to do the same. It also made strikes illegal that "imperiled the national health or safety," a phrase that has been interpreted broadly by successive governments. National health or safety is, apparently, in jeopardy anytime there is a large strike in America, according to those who wish to crush the protest. The law made it easier for employers to use the police to get rid of 'rogue' workers. Taft-Hartley included provisions for firing any and all employees (i.e. supervisors) who were not sympathetic to the company side, even if the employees in question were not members of the union or partaking in a labor disruption. Another stipulation required union leaders to file affidavits declaring that they were not members of the Communist Party. These are just some of the bill's endless points, all of which were solely in favor of the employer, and today, big corporate business. In short, it was wide sweeping, brutal and devastating.
Discussion of the bill has fallen by the wayside in the United States today (just like union membership itself - currently hovering below ten percent of the country's entire workforce, thanks in no small part to the Taft-Hartley bill) and Ralph Nader remains its only vocal critic.
So, this was the father of the man whose rendering of Archie and the gang filled me with the sense of having been touched. The young Al Hartley was still in his twenties when his father was busy dismantling the labor movement. Al had been freelancing, doing various work with different comic outfits and newspapers. In the early sixties he would find himself working for Marvel comics and hitting his stride illustrating many of the "girl" titles like Patty Powers, Sherry the Showgirl, Linda Carter: Student Nurse and Patsy Walker: The Prettiest Gal in Town!
A few years would pass until Hartley found himself working on the notorious adult-themed comic strip The Adventures of Pussycat, syndicated in various men's magazines. It would eventually be anthologized in a one shot magazine of its own. The influence on the better known Little Annie Fanny which appeared in Playboy for years (courtesy the artistry of former Mad Magazine ground breakers Harvey Kurtzman and Will Elder) is obvious. The Adventures of Pussycat might seem like a very strange project for the man responsible for converting the Archies to Christianity. Well, Hartley thought so too. The year was 1967 when he walked into his publisher's office and said he could no longer work on the project. He mentioned feelings of being "sterile, numb, and filled with fear." Shortly thereafter, Al Hartley and his wife became born-again Christians.
That same year Hartley joined the staff of Archie Comics. There, he was reunited with many comic veterans like Dan DeCarlo, who he had worked with in the past on the increasingly dated "girl" comics. Al believed that God was responsible for his job at the Archie organization. After having quit Pussycat, Hartley was desolate and out of work. Out of the blue he received a phone call from the editor of Archie who offered him a job. Al concluded after the fact that "God had sent him." Hartley worked on stories that were no different than any of the other artists at their New York offices, although at times he tried slipping in religious messages and not-so-subtle Christian themes into the stories.
Hartley put together a story titled Summer Schooling and Some Are Not around 1970 or 1971 (the copy I have is reprinted in Jughead with Archie Digest # 34, September 1979, but I'm unsure when it first appeared). The story revolves around everyone hitting the beach while poor Archie must attend summer school. Mr. Weatherbee is none too keen on spending the summer within the walls of Riverdale High either, so he persuades Archie to go for a drive to Riverdale's ghettos (?!) to load a large group of Black children into his jalopy!!
MR. WEATHERBEE: You're going to learn by doing! That's the best way! You want to help people? Okay, we won't waste time figuring out how to help them - we'll just go ahead and help them! Okay! Let's hit the beaches, Archie!
ARCHIE: I'll bet these [African-American] kids have never seen the ocean!
[Archie and Mr. Weatherbee look on at the children playing on the beach]
MR. WEATHEBEE: They could easily get the feeling that everything's against them, but it doesn't have to be that way!
ARCHIE: [Speaking to Black child] Y'know, pal, Robinson Crusoe walked on a beach like this - he thought he was all alone - the only man on the island - but one day he saw a footprint in the sand - and he knew it wasn't his footprint! And he knew the print hadn't been in the sand for long - or high tide would have washed it away! So because of that one little print, Robinson Crusoe knew he wasn't alone on the island! Y'know, pal, God has put thousands of prints here to show that you're not alone! And we don't have to look far to see God's prints - nature is full of them! But he wants us to play our part too - God made the rivers - we have to build the bridges! He made the mountains - we have to make the trails! There's a lot for us to do here pal and he says the most important thing for us to do is to love each other!
CHILD: I've heard people talk like that before, Archie, but I've never believed them! Y'know why I believe you, Archie?
ARCHIE: No, pal, why?
CHILD: You just didn't say you love me, you put your arm around me! And your arm says it better than your tongue, man!
Of course, Archie never bothered to learn this child's name, but he, Mr. Weatherbee, and the large convoy of Black children pile back into the jalopy and drive off singing He's Got the Whole World in His Hands. A pretty brazen story for a secular publication. Archie Comics, with their countless titles, always in need of pages to fill, published it - but it did bring a rebuke from Hartley's boss. Hartley was told point blank to cut back on the God crap. Hartley said years later, "I knew God was in control, so I respected my publisher's position and naturally complied."
An early version of the story that was my first experience of Christian Riverdale in Archie's Something Else!, was published in the very secular issue of Reggie and Me #55, May 1972, a good three years before the version in Archie's Something Else! The Hartley story was titled The Eye of the Beholder. Both stories revolve around a new student at Riverdale High who is a rebellious hippie. Although the design of the character varies somewhat in each version, both state the character's name as "Legion." Here is an excerpt from the 1972 secular version of the story:
ARCHIE: Hi, Pal! Glad to have you at Riverdale High!
LEGION: What did you mean by that crack?
ARCHIE: We want to be your friends!
LEGION: Humph! Hypocrisy turns me off! Why don't you tell the truth? Your middle class values won't let you relate to me! My life-style irritates you! Come on! Admit it!
REGGIE: Brother! You've got a real chip on your shoulders! We won't knock it off, but we'll help you lift it!
ARCHE: What's your name, pal?
LEGION: Name? My name is Legion, for we are many!
ARCHIE: Are you a poet?
LEGION: I found reality, man! Everybody else is just playing games! Like who needs that [school] bell? Are we a herd of cattle?
REGGIE: But you've got to have some system!
LEGION: System? System's a DRAG! I do my own thing!
REGGIE: You can go that way for a while but tomorrow you'll pay for it!
The story makes no direct reference to God, but in every other way it is the template for Hartley's Christian version. In both, Legion is a troubled hippie who protests against the current order of capitalist America not because he truly despises it, but because of the confusion he feels from a bad childhood. The Archie gang's attitude to the hippie in the secular story contradicts much of what The Archies were doing in the comics just a few years earlier. Stories in the late sixties often featured the gang donning hippie garb and going to love-ins. One late sixties secular story even had Jughead strolling around town barefoot, choosing to drop out of society, while his friends tried to persuade him to take a bath.
Other moments in the Reggie and Me spread were touched on later. In both secular and Christian versions of the story, Legion decides to spend his time in art class, abandoning life drawing in exchange for painting protest signs.
LEGION: How does this grab you? [Legion holds up a sign that says "Society Stinks"] Come on, you lackeys! We need a real demonstration of student power to shake up the system! [Legion is surrounded by signs that read "We Want Shorter School Hours," "Homework Denys My Liberty!" and "Teachers Are Oppressive."]
REGGIE: This guy's a trouble maker!
ARCHIE: If he doesn't cool it, he's going to disrupt the whole school!
MOOSE: Shall I plant my knuckles in his whiskers?
BIG ETHEL: Wait, Moose! That's only a temporary solution! He needs something more powerful than your fist - he needs LOVE!
The Christian version is far more direct and also features Big Ethel as the savior to the hippie. It almost seems like the last panels in the secular version continue on in the Christian take. These panels may even have been in the original before publisher John Goldwater stepped in and told him to take it easy. From Archie's Something Else:
LEGION: Yeah man - well, like I've been talking to Big Ethel in the cafeteria!!! Well, I'm new here at Riverdale High - You wouldn't believe my past - I've been into everything!!! My folks are divorced - and neither of them pays any attention to me! Life seemed like a lousy trip! And then this chick started to rap - I figured she was a real cornball!!! But as Big Ethel talked - I realized she was on the level! She was concerned about me!!! And when she began to share LOVE - and JESUS - it was really something else! And y'know - it wasn't just her talking to me - I felt God talking to me too!
So Al Hartley's interpretation of the Archie gang in both the religious and secular camps portrayed them as straight-shooting, anti-hippie, all-American kids. But every Archie artist, although following the same basic model sheets, displayed their own style that made them identifiable. Beyond mere brush strokes, each artist's interpretation also slightly altered the Riverdale gang's state of mind. In Archie #198 from March 1970, Harry Lucey's story, The Terrible Tube, has Archie trying to convince his father the virtues of the exact thing he and the gang had been denouncing Legion for in the Hartley tale.
ARCHIE'S FATHER: Is there anything on [television] of an educational nature?
ARCHIE: There's a great one on! It's live from Pugnacious University! Now let's all sit back and grab ourselves a little higher education from old P.U!
TELEVISION: Our next program comes to you live from P.U. Campus.
STUDENTS ON TV: Bring up more rocks! Fascist Pig! BURN! BURN! Police brutality! Kill the fuzz! Let's take over the administration building!
ARCHIE: Boy! Demonstrations turn me on! Pop! You turned it off!
ARCHIE'S FATHER: Before it turns my stomach!
ARCHIE: Pop! Protests are in! That's where it's at!
In Lucey's version, Archie Andrews turns out to be even more sympathetic to the protest movement than Legion the Hippie.
After working in the trenches of secular Riverdale for five years, Hartley would receive a phone call from the aforementioned Fleming H. Revell Company. They wanted to know if Hartley, who they already knew to be a devoted born-again, would be interested in a freelance assignment. Could he illustrate, for them, a comic book adaptation of David Wilkerson's "inspirational" book, The Cross and the Switchblade. The book had already been made into a successful Christian exploitation movie the year before, starring the unlikely duo of Pat Boone as preacher David Wilkerson and first time actor Erik Estrada as a hoodlum.
Ironically, the Comics Code Authority, the morality review board founded in the nineteen fifties to monitor comic content in order to determine if a given comic book was beneficial or detrimental to a child, were unable to approve a Christian comic like The Cross and the Switchblade as it violated some of the CCA's rules of acceptability. It wasn't that propagating Christianity was off-limits, but references to characters who were either high or addicted to drugs (prior to being cured by David Wilkinsons' Christian ethos) defied the strict rules against depicting or mentioning drug use. The Comics Code Authority was instated after crack-pot psychologists had been vocal about their "findings." Namely, that horror and crime comics (primarily those published by future Mad Magazine head cheese William M. Gaines and his EC Comics group, were responsible for violent, anti-social behavior in children).
Hartley accepted the project and 1972's The Cross and the Switchblade was the first comic book published by Fleming H. Revell. It was quickly followed up by other adaptations of best selling Christian books that the company retained the rights to.
God's Smuggler was next, a campy tale of a Christian gentleman smuggling bibles into Communist countries. The story has him battling wits against Lenin look-a-likes and sadistic, goateed, book store owners.
The Cross and the Switchblade and God's Smuggler both sold quite well, no doubt helped by Hartley's authentic comic book art style that made them appear strikingly similar to any other comic book on the newsstand. The success of these first two titles gave Hartley an idea that would help more readers receive "the word." At the end of 1972, Hartley approached the Jewish publisher of Archie, John L. Goldwater, with the prospect of using his star characters over at Spire Christian Comics. Goldwater believed it to be a virtuous idea, and allowed Hartley full use of the characters for free. The exact details are hazy, but no licensing fee was charged, however Goldwater would share some of the profits made from the Christian Archie line. It should come as little surprise that Goldwater, despite belonging to a different religion, would give Hartley his blessing for such a venture. Goldwater had been one of the founding fathers of the Comics Code Authority and was a staunch supporter of comic books with a clean and moral center.
Prior to converting the Archies entirely for Spire, Hartley continued with his subtleties in the normal entries. Hartley did all of Life with Archie #129, January 1973. The issue revolved around the Riverdale kids weighing the question of when life was better - in the old fashioned 1890s or the early 1970s. Riverdale's braniac, Dilton Doiley, explained the virtues of the 1890s.
DILTON: [In the 1890s] no one calls a policeman a pig! And women are treated more than equals.
REGGIE: Come off it, Dilton! There are plenty of things wrong in [the 1890s] too!
DILTON: Of course! But have we made things better or worse?
REGGIE: Well, I guess it's true - the air and water [were] purer ...
DILTON: What about the people? [Were] they purer?
ARCHIE: Y'know gang, I think Dilton's got a point... There [was] something different about ... people ... they seem happier ... and families seem a lot closer ... Man! It would be great if our world could find that spirit!
VERONICA: But where do you look for it?
BETTY: That's easy! You look up!
So the concept of Christian Archie comics was born. At the start of 1973, Spire introduced the first Christian Archie comic plus a total of twenty more Christian comic books, all written and illustrated by Hartley.
Archie's One Way was the world's introduction to a truly born-again Riverdale. Archie and Jughead mistakenly wander into a Christian discussion group being held in a coffee house when Jughead follows a sign promising free food. The difference between this comic and all the other Archie comics before it became apparent to any child reading it on its second page.
CHRISTIAN GUY: Looks like we've got a new customer!
ARCHIE: Jughead's always ready to eat!
CHRISTIAN GUY: Sort of makes a spiritual point, doesn't he?
ARCHIE: What do you mean?
CHRISTIAN GUY: Well, Jesus said the food of this world would never really satisfy!
JUGHEAD: Oh, I wouldn't say that!
CHRISTIAN GUY: Yeah, there are a lot of things that seem cool for a while... but sooner or later we can choke on those things.
JUGHEAD: Cough! Cough!
CHRISTIAN GUY: Many of these kids were hung up on all kinds of thing - drugs - sex - you name it - but they've found a better way to fill their lives!
JUGHEAD: This guy's one of those religious nuts - let's split!
[a woman brings in more food]
JUGHEAD: However, we don't have to panic - there's no need to rush!
CHRISTIAN WOMAN: Since you like our free food - you shouldn't miss out on the greatest gift of them all!
ARCHIE: What's that???
JUGHEAD: Careful, Arch - she's one of "them" too!
CHRISTIAN WOMAN: I'm talking about God's love and grace and forgiveness wrapped up in Jesus Christ!
JUGHEAD: I've never been very religious!
CHRISTIAN WOMAN: I'm not talking about a stuffy religion - I'm talking about a living relationship! Jesus can fill your life with a real power and peace that you wouldn't believe!
JUGHEAD: Even MY Life?
CHRISTIAN WOMAN: Christ has become real for all of us! He can do the same for you!
JUGHEAD: Maybe we ought to hang in here a little longer, Arch!
ARCHIE: Don't tell me you want to eat more?
JUGHEAD: No - I want to HEAR MORE!
With that, Archie and his gang were born again, and would remain so, at least in this odd netherworld, for the next eleven years. All six of the Christian Archies released in 1973 are interesting, campy, hilarious and bizarre in their own special ways.
A Spire title called Archie's Parables featured the ever-so-Christian Pals and/or Gals in different settings throughout history. Three separate stories place them in the medieval era, in outer space visiting life on other planets and in World War One with Mr. Weatherbee sporting an Iron Cross helmet and flying in a hot air balloon marked 666! Archie and Jughead play American pilots taking out a raid on the German balloons. As they approach we see that the balloons are marked with phrases like 'The Bible Isn't Relevant' 'TV Beats Church' 'Sermons Turn Me Off' and 'The Music's a Drag!' Arch and Jug penetrate the balloons with bullets, Archie proudly announcing, "We deflated every lie, Jug!!!" Hilariously, the only balloon shown deflating is the one that says the music is a drag. One story takes place in the wild west where Archie is sheriff and Moose his deputy. Jughead comes running after Sheriff Andrews, shirtless and draped in headdress,
ARCHIE: Ah, here comes my faithful Indian companion, Pronto.
JUGHEAD: Sheriff, they got heap big trouble at the school!
[Betty is shouting in front of the school, dressed as the old west school teacher.]
BETTY: When they took the bible out of school - more and more problems came in! Now we have books that say we all came from monkeys and the students are starting to act like it! Our young people deserve better than this.
[Betty then holds up a school book titled Evolution is For the Birds and You] Sheriff Archie approaches the wealthy Mr. Lodge for help, and with his financial support, opens up a Christian bookstore to counter the evolution propaganda! He delivers the books in a stage coach that says Fleming H. Revell Co. on the side.
HOT DOG: It's strange being a human being - after you enjoy all those wild things - then what??? There must be more to life than this!!!
[Hot Dog wanders into a Christian discussion group]
CHRISTIAN MAN: Welcome - there's just one thing that separates man from animal -
HOT DOG: He's speaking to me!
CHRISTIAN MAN: Animals can eat and think and communicate to a degree - just as man does - but they can't worship!
HOT DOG: Worship? What's that?
CHRISTIAN MAN: Animals just aren't capable of faith!
HOT DOG: Faith???
CHRISTIAN MAN: And without faith man becomes an animal!
Archie's World has the kids packing up and taking off to tour the world as missionaries.
STEWARDESS: I heard you're going around the world...
ARCHIE: Right! And our first stop is New York City!!!
STEWARDESS: The big apple??? I thought missionaries went to jungles!!!
ARCHIE: Well, most cities in the world have become jungles!!! There are young missionaries in every city in the world - sharing God's good news!
[The next panel depicts an anonymous character speaking to a hippie, presumably, high on acid]
MISSIONARY: God loves you, pal - he'll bring you off a bad trip - if you'll let him!
Later in the issue Archie and Jughead meet a doctor in an unspecified country, working in a small village.
ARCHIE: Doc, how do these folks pay you?
DOCTOR: They don't - God does!!! God led me here from the United States ... I'm glad I'm a medical missionary!!! I have no worries about malpractice suits!!!
Archie's Clean Slate, another 1973 entry, starts with Archie being terrorized by the devil, dragged by the ankles into a pit of fire. The issue has both Archie and Big Ethel overwhelmed with a desire to be popular. However, Betty Cooper, the blue eyed and blonde haired staple of Archie comics, convinces them that their desires are misguided. For whatever reason, the more aryan looking Betty, time and time again, is shown to be the most Christian of all the characters, usually speaking at the end of each story as the voice of reason, delivering a speech that converts one of the gang or shows them the err of their ways via biblical lessons. In this ish, Betty points out a newspaper article about an actress's suicide stating, "Some girls have found that popularity isn't the answer..." just prior to launching into a spell about desiring God instead. The "clean slate" referred to in the comic's title is explained in the last story titled Final Exam. Two new Archie characters named Jerry and Debbie are introduced as Riverdale High staples despite having never appeared in an Archie comic before (or since).
JERRY: There they go - Mr. Clean and the fairy princess! Tell me [Betty] - does your halo ever give you a headache?
DEBBIE: It must be awful - going to school with us sinners!
JERRY: Come on, Archie - why don't you try a new life style and live a little?
ARCHIE: You know how I feel about drugs and liquor, Jerry!
JERRY: Man! You really are out of it! [Jerry and Debbie climb into a car]
ARCHIE: Jerry! Let me take you home! You shouldn't drive now!
DEBBIE: Let's split, Jerry - before he starts to preach!
Debbie's statement is probably what most kids were thinking once they started reading one of these comics.
ARCHIE: They were great kids - before they got into the drug scene!
BETTY: Arch, we've got to help them to see when God fills our life, you don't need anything else!
Jerry and Debbie speed down the road and get into a horrible car accident. Laying amidst the rubble, Debbie looks up at Betty and says, "Betty - I - I've learned plenty about life - but nothing about death - and I'm scared!!! You tried to tell me there's more to life but I'd never listen! Well, I want to live differently - I want a clean slate!"
In Archie's Sonshine, the gang goes to the beach where a bearded man in a van lectures everyone on the proper way to live. He explains that "Liberace in all his splendor is not as colorful as these flowers!" An odd statement for a Christian on so many levels. The issue is one of the first to convert the usually cynical Reggie Mantle.
ARCHIE: Reg - you seem speechless!!!
BETTY: Cat get your tongue???
REGGIE: No - I - I think GOD did!!!
The last Christian Archie comic of 1973 had a low print run and is today one of the most scarce, titled Christmas with Archie. 1973 was Hartley's most prolific year and there is no doubt he was inspired by the concept of Christian comics. 1973 included several other interesting Christian titles under the Spire banner.
Certainly the most famous of the non-Archie titles released that year is Hansi, The Girl Who Loved the Swastika. Its jarring cover surely has had the effect over the years Hartley intended, one of shock. Contrary to the subconscience wishes of shitty comic readers, it is not a glorification of racist Christianity but, of course, an indictment of Nazi-ism, and, not quite as predictably, Communist Russia.
Tom Landry and The Dallas Cowboys is another collectable published at the same time. It was one of three 1973 Spire comics based on a movie made by Gospel Films Inc. of Muskegon, Michigan. In subsequent years, Gospel Films renamed their outfit Compassionate Capitalism Inc. The company helped finance and create pictures with a Christian bent, and then acted as "Christian film missionaries," flying their film cans around the world for special screenings. Most of their funding came from billionaire Richard DeVos, founder of Amway Corporation, owner of the Orlando Magic, and one of the wealthiest people in America. DeVos has donated several million dollars in recent years to the notorious nut house Focus On the Family. Gospel Films' website offers clips from various oddities like 1967's Gospel Blimp (one of the other film's Hartley adapted that year) and an eighties movie called Super Christian. Gospel Films Inc, registered as a charity, has been able to maintain itself, and create its films tax free since its inception in 1950.
In the Presence of Mine Enemies was another motion picture put out by Gospel Films, adapted by Al Harley for Spire. Both the movie and the comic paint the US government's position on Vietnam in a favorable light and as a Christian war, although this is not the crux of the story. The plot concerns American POW Howard Rutledge who prayed his way out of a Vietnamese prison cell. Rutledge twice unsuccessfully ran for congress on the Republican ticket in the early eighties.
Up From Harlem uses many stereotypical elements found in Blaxploitation pictures of the time period to get the biographical message of pastor Tom Skinner across. The issue is full of what is obviously a white man's interpretation of what 'street language' sounds like. The result is both ridiculous and false. The issue starts with Skinner crossing paths with a prostitute.
PROSTITUTE: You speakin' about love, man???
TOM SKINNER: That's my bag!!!
PROSTITUTE: It's mine too, honey - and I'm ready!!!
TOM SKINNER: Have you ever tried making love to God???
PROSTITUTE: Man, I can't groove off God! I've got to make a living!!!
A few other examples of Hartley's attempt at Harlem vernacular in this comic book include, "If we pull off this rumble tomorrow we'll be number one in Harlem!!!" "Right on!!! The fuzz will freak out!!!" "I'll dig some rock [and roll] while I plan!!!" "Hey, Tom, I wanna rap - last night when you gave us that Jesus jazz - I had my knife ready!!!" Much of the comic is laced with more of the same. Skinner, like Landry, coupled the All-American concept of Jesus with the All-American love affair with football. Throughout the seventies he served as "team chaplain" for the New York Giants, New York Jets and Washington Redskins.
You can download all of Up From Harlem, Gospel Blimp, and Hansi as pdf files here.
There's a New World Coming was based on another Fleming H. Revell Co. book, this one written by Hal Lindsey. Lindsey believes that the bible is literal and a concrete book of prophecy. The comic book promotes some of Lindsey's examples from the Book of Revelations that apparently prove that everything in contemporary times was previously predicted in the bible. Much of the comic is based on the Cold War mentality of the day, and is rather out of date.
One of Lindsey's most famous quotes appeared in a 2004 article he wrote in which he describes the American 'liberal' as an "enemy that hides in the shadows, doesn't play by any of the rules, and is determined to use any means to bring about our literal annihilation." The eighty year old Lindsey, today, serves on the board of TBN, the Christian television and media empire formerly the domain of Jim and Tammy Faye. Lindsey is one of the leading Christian pundits currently trying to debunk scientific concepts on global warming and a strong supporter of the Guantanmo Bay prison.
On the Road with Andrae Crouch profiled the journey of the gospel musician of the same name. It is one of the more apolitical of the comics and one of the more credible. Crouch had his greatest successes in the early eighties, landing guest spots on The Jeffersons, SCTV and Saturday Night Live.
Through the Gates of Splendor was based on a book that profiles Christian missionaries in Ecuador. At one point in the comic, the missionaries are mocked for their decision to go to Latin America by racist naysayers, "Why throw your life away for a bunch of savages??? People here have every opportynity to hear and study God's word - those jungle Indians have none!!!"
Other 1973 titles were My Brothers' Keeper, Live it Up, Crossfire, The Hiding Place (also a film) and In His Steps - camp classics - all. Two more titles were directed at a younger audience with Spire's 'Kiddies Christian Comics' line: God Is... and Noah's Ark. Hartley took a well deserved break in 1974 and started up with the Christian Archies and more film adaptations in 1975.
The aforementioned Archie's Something Else demonstrated that in 1975, the students of Riverdale High had not yet lost their faith. Three additional Spire titles were added to their ballooning catalogue of Christian comics that year. Sales were brisk. The original agreement according to Archie's secular publisher was for the Christian comics to be sold in Christian bookstores exclusively. However, I can say from experience, that I amassed a near complete collection of these comics over the years from the shelves of secular book stores, comic shops and even in the comic section of a large grocery store chain.
Time to Run was a Fleming H. Revell Co. property that had been turned into a 1973 motion picture by a different movie company, this time by Billy Graham's World Wide Pictures of Minneapolis, Minnesota. The picture even had a soundtrack LP released featuring compositions by Tedd Smith and orchestrations by fifties jazznik Lennie Niehaus. The story revolves around a teenager who rejects his father, a CEO of an atomic energy plant, and finds salvation at a Christian rock concert, hanging out with Christian hippies. The other two comics Al Hartley put together for the year were strictly by-the-numbers titles Adam and Eve and another WWII themed piece called Attack!
Other than the comics featuring Archie Andrews and friends, the Spire Christian Comics featuring celebrities on their covers are the most sought after. As far as these items go, none compare to the memorable issue, Hello, I'm Johnny Cash. Available for your reading pleasure online here. It was the only comic the, by now, exhausted Al Hartley released for the outfit in 1976.
Archie Gets a Job hit the stands in 1977 and picked up in the utterly ridiculous world that we last saw Jughead Jones and the rest caught up in two years earlier. Mr. Weatherbee, intent on finding something relaxing to do on his summer vacation, starts up a Christian bookstore adjacent to an old lighthouse by the beach. Archie is looking for something to do during his summer vacation and, much to Weatherbee's chagrin, eyes up the help wanted sign in the bookstore window. As a way to keep Archie as far away from him as possible, the red haired menace's jalopy is refitted as a "bookmobile" and is used to distribute Christian literature up and down the beach.
This issue is the first of many that would cross reference and cross advertise other Spire publications. Archie hands Big Ethel a book he is certain she'll love. The next oversized panel shows a picture of an actual book by Al Hartley's son (named after Al's father) Fred Hartley. It exclaims "At Your Christian Bookstore Now!" The name of the book is Update: A New Approach to Christian Dating. Jughead is drawn below the book saying, "He really knows the score!" A strange endorsement from Riverdale's self-proclaimed woman hater. Dilton Doiley approaches Archie looking for some intellectually gratifying literature as Fred Hartley's book does not interest him.
DILTON: Well, I'm not interested in girls or dates!!! Do you have books on ecology? Or solar energy??? What about sociology???
JUGHEAD: Try the bible!!! Who can tell us more about things than the one who put it all together???
REGGIE: What about sports???
ARCHIE: The bible tells you how to be a winner!
REGGIE: Oh, brother! You guys are turning into a couple of freaks! Selling Christian books on the beach is just too much!
ARCHIE: Well, it sure beats pushing drugs and porno here!
The snide look on Archie's face as he shouts this Reggie's way indicates that Mr. Mantle had been hustling something on the side and that his 1973 conversion in Archie's Sonshine didn't last.
1977 also saw the introduction of a new character that Hartley would star in a total of seven comics. Also a part of the Spire 'Kiddies Christian Comics' line, Barney Bear was an ultra-religious bear cub (contradicting the preacher in Archie's Love Scene who stated matter-of-factly to Jughead's dog that animals are not capable of faith). Barney Bear Wakes Up! and Barney Bear The Swamp Gang! were the first two in the series (Hartley unable to resist even in the comic titles his obsession with peppering everything with exclamation marks). The latter has Barney Bear overcoming gang warfare through prayer. One of the last panels of the issue shows four bears, a hippo, a rhino and a crocodile kneeling in a circle, praying together.
Four new Spire titles appeared in 1978. Archie's Family Album, Alpha and Omega (a religious take on Star Wars), Paul: Close Encounters of a REAL Kind and the most fascinating - Born Again.
Born Again was first a book written by Chuck Colson, then a film starring Dean Jones, and then a comic book by Al Hartley. Colson was chief counsel to Richard Nixon when Watergate went down. The comic book depicts Colson as an unknowing, innocent bystander, with no prior knowledge of the Watergate break-ins, or any dubious acts perpetrated by Nixon, Henry Kissinger, or any other members of his staff. The comic shows Colson going to prison in order to prevent another colleague from taking blame. However, no guilt or remorse is evident, although Colson does emphasize his faith in God.
In real life, Colson was heavily caught up in the Watergate scandal. During the Watergate court sentencing, Colson was given the maximum prison term permitted under federal law for obstruction of justice. According to Wikipedia, some of Colson's duties under Nixon in the late sixties included lobbying efforts for the Antiballistic Missile System and the president's "Vietnamization program." Colson was responsible for compiling Nixon's famous Enemies List and coming up with strategies to discredit or demonize opponents of the Vietnam War. In October 2003, Colson was co-signer with four other leading evangelicals outlining their theological justification and support for the invasion of and war upon Iraq. In subsequent years he became a regular guest of the George W. Bush White House.
Archie's Car was the first of six Spires in 1979. In previous Spire Christian Comics, occasional biblical utterances that escaped a character's mouth were flagged with an asterix. A corresponding comment at the bottom of the page directed the reader to a section of the bible that featured the same theme. However, by 1979, enough of Hartley's religious work was in print that he could do a bit of self-promotion instead. On page 14 of this issue Betty Cooper shouts, "The bible says EVERYBODY is tempted!!!" Rather than direct the reader back to the good book, Hartley says 'See Archie Gets a Job pages 30 & 31.'
Archie's Car was also the first Christian Archie to feature a letters page.
I'm in prison because I got off on the wrong foot and made a mistake! I read a couple of your Spire Comics and had my eyes opened to a lot of things! I'd like to get some Spire comics for my kid brother!
Al Hartey Responds:
Thousands of Christians all across America are distributing Spire Comics FREE in prisons!
One wonders reading Carl's letter if he isn't actually Chuck Colson.
Jughead's Soul Food was the other Archie title that year. Hartley lets up a bit for this ish, not hitting any religious notes until page twenty-one. Jughead and Moose sit together in the cafeteria...
JUGHEAD: Shall we pray???
JUGHEAD: Sure! I like to thank God for my food!
MOOSE: Duh - I never do that!!!
JUGHEAD: My dog doesn't either! He just eats!!! He can't understand the real miracles God puts into our food!
It is rather remarkable that Big Moose didn't clobber Jughead for comparing him to his pooch, but none of the Archie characters ever stayed true to their traditional persona in Christian Archie comics.
The year featured two more lame Barney Bear titles and the introduction of new characters The Brothers, who were actually two blonde white guys. Adventure with The Brothers: Hang in There followed the exploits of two Christian missionaries in a third world country who defeat a revolutionary uprising of peasants who are fighting against a corrupt government and imperial powers. The brothers tell them to put down their arms, pick up their bibles, and live with it. It portrays local revolutionaries as using the villagers for their own gain, rather than having any sincere concern for their well being. The influence of Al Hartley's father is vastly apparent in this one and could easily be a metaphor for Papa Hartley's attitude towards unions. The final title in '79 was Jesus, who I don't know too much about, but I'm pretty sure he was one of the guys also indicted in the Watergate scandal.
Sales must have dropped for Spire come the nineteen eighties because the amount of issues published with each new title became less and less. Many of the Spire comics from the early eighties are considered scarce.
Archie and Mr. Weatherbee continued the new focus on cross promoting other Spire products within the story itself. Everyone is off to summer camp in this edition and camp counselors Jughead and Archie stumble upon a rotating rack of Barney Bear comic books in the middle of the lodge. A crowd of young kids are very excited at the prospect of all these comics and demand Archie read them to them (after hearing the content, I'm sure that they were disapointed). In the middle of the comic there is a order form that encourages schools to order Spire Christian comics in large quantities. A drawing of Miss Hagley has her saying, "Spire Comics are the most popular books in our school library!" Adjacent, Miss Beazley and Svenson the Janitor explain, "They're big in the cafeteria too!" "Und no von trows dem avay!!!" Maybe not - but as soon as I hit the age of fourteen, I traded all of mine in at the local shop in exchange for some Mad Magazines.
Archie's Festival was the next Spire comic to include a letters page. More and more it seemed like the letters were made-up by Hartley.
I ran away from home and joined a carnival! I wanted to be part of something exciting! But I learned that life is no carnival - and a carnival is no life! Then someone gave me a Spire Comic and I learned that Jesus loves me! Jesus has given me a whole new life! And that's really exciting!!!
Salt Lake City, Utah
It's the telltale triple exclamation that gives away Al Hartley as the author of this one. The issue also featured something new. Archie's Prayer Page, very similar to the letters page in tone, it had the added tome of asking readers to pray for the writer of the letter.
My sister is into drugs and my folks don't know about it! Please pray that she'll turn to Jesus and kick the habit before she messes up our whole family!
Hartley's morality continued in Archie's Date Book, the first of two Archies in 1981. It featured a story about Archie's problems in finding the right girl. The center of the comic features a two-page survey about what kind of a person you, the reader, would date, and what kind of a person you think Archie should date. Questions include Could you trust someone if God can't trust them? and Is it important to date someone who trusts God?
One of the final panels in Archie's Date Book shows the gang walking through a sleazy 42nd street style district, past movie theaters with marquees announcing X rated movies with titles like 'Divorce, Any Style,' 'Crime Pays' and my personal favorite, 'Sex Sex.' There is also a marquee for a film called 'Sin City,' making Archie's Date Book more prophetic and accurate than Hal Lindsey. Hartley editorializes with a caption that says, "Movies tell us it's okay to do things that MESS US UP!" The next panel shows the Archie gang with shocked and disgusted looks on their faces as they watch TV. The panel reads, "TV makes vulgar jokes about things that should be PRIVATE and SACRED."
The very last panel is a giant Archie head with small imagery around him bumbling on dates with Betty. Betty says, "That's why I like dating you Arch - it's always exciting - but never X-RATED!"
Archie's Roller Coaster starts with Spire cross promotion right off the bat. Archie and Veronica are wandering around a fair ground. Ronnie demands that Arch win her a stuffed Barney Bear doll (as far as I know, no Spire Christian Comics merchandise was ever peddled beyond the comics themselves, although the turnstile racks with the metal plates at the top advertising "Spire Christian Comics on Sale Here" might score a few dollars - I saw one a couple years ago in a Trotskyist bookstore). A trip passed the funny mirrors gives Betty the opportunity to pontificate to everyone about the bible being God's mirror.
Spire Christian Comics were sparse with only a few titles trickling out in its final couple years, all of which are near impossible to find today. A couple more Barney Bears, a final anti-revolutionary stint with The Brothers, some patriotic pablum about Yankee Doodle and the final three Christian Archies, all obscurities: Archie and Big Ethel (1982), Archie's Sport Scene (1983) and the last ever Spire comic Archie's Circus (1984).
Hartley's always weird and sometimes creepy line of Spire Christian Comics, finished with 49 titles in all. The Archie titles far outsold the rest and remained in print for over ten years after the demise of the concept itself. He did a few more religious comics on his own, outside the realm of Spire or Fleming and continued to occasionally contribute horseshit to the normal world of Archie. Hartley received an award for his over thirty years of (creepy) achievement in the comics field, at the 1980 San Diego Comic Convention. He died at the age of 81 in 2003.
History of nineteen fifties Catholic Church Comic: Treasure Chest of Fun and Fact
The Stupid Comics Website Deconstructs Spire's Archie and Big Ethel
Download Spire Christian Comics as pdf files including:
Archie's Something Else!
Archie's Date Book
The Cross and the Switchblade
The Hiding Place
My Brother's Keeper
There's a New World Coming
Up From Harlem
Hansi The Girl Who Loved the Swastika
Hello, I'm Johnny Cash
In His Steps
Adventures with the Brothers: Cult Escape
Adventures with the Brothers: Hang in There