Comics On TV

Could Riverdale Revisit Archie Comics’ Superhero Past?

From The Black Hood to the Mighty Crusaders — The CW show has a deep well of story lines to choose from.

by | October 25, 2017 | Comments

Riverdale cast (Art Streiber/The CW)

On Riverdale, few things happen without drama or multiple layers of references. Between influences like Peyton Place, Twin Peaks, and Zodiac, there’s always plenty of inspiration from which the show’s creators weave its intriguing take on Archie Andrews and his friends. Of course, as the show is based on the Archie Comics characters, it has a deep well of that company’s characters to work from; even the second season’s serial killer, the Black Hood, is a call back to comic-book history.

The name comes from Archie Comics superhero past, an aspect of the company many do not know about. For most of its existence, the popular teen characters dominated the company’s output. But like most comic book publishers in the 1940s, they tried their hand at knocking off Superman. So let’s go back to a time when DC Comics was known as National Periodicals, Marvel was known as Timely Comics, and Archie Comics was called MLJ Magazines for a look at their nearly forgotten superhero past.

MLJ Magazines

Pep Comics
(Photo by Archie Comics)

Founded in 1939 by Maurice Coyne, Louis Silberkleit, and John L. Goldwater, the company that would become Archie Comics began as another maker of superhero titles like Blue Ribbon Comics and Top Notch Comics. The market was ravenous for new, colorful heroes and there was plenty of money to be made. Coyne and Silberkleit, with backgrounds in publishing pulp magazines, dealt with the business end, while Goldwater handled creative tasks as editor-in-chief.

Goldwater noticed the popularity of the Andy Hardy film series starring Mickey Rooney. To capitalize on its success, he commissioned writer Vic Bloom and artist Bob Montana to create a strip with a similarly idealized American small-town atmosphere. Their creation would be Archie Andrews and his pals. Soon after the debut of Archie, Jughead, and Betty in Pep Comics #22 – Veronica would debut in the next issue – the characters were the company’s star concept, leading to MLJ Magazines becoming Archie Comics Publications in 1946.

Unlike modern comics, titles like Pep were anthologies with multiple strips per issue. Archie strips appeared alongside those of characters like The Wizard — one of the earliest heroes to appear after Superman’s 1938 debut — and The Web. MLJ, and later Archie Comics, would continue to publish these characters until the late 1940s, when superheroes began to fall out of favor. By the 1950s, the wider market had become a home to western, horror, and romance titles. There was also a thriving business in comics based on television shows. The Riverdale gang easily fit into this new paradigm and the company’s superheroes were retired for a time.

Of course, as we’ll see, superheroes never really die and Archie Comics would try to revive these character several times over the following decades.

The Black Hood

Black Hood (Dark Circle Comics)

Debuting a year prior to Archie Andrews, the Black Hood first appeared in Top Notch Comics #9. Created by Harry Shorten, the character was an former police officer Matthew Burland. Framed for a crime he did not commit, the disgraced man sought training from a hermit and re-emerged possessing superior strength, agility and stamina. Adopting a yellow costume and a black hood, he fought crime and his nemesis, The Skull, in the pages of Top Notch and his own self-titled Black Hood series. Though he eventually exonerated himself, Matthew continued to dress up as the Black Hood until he was unmasked in open court, becoming a private detective for a number of stories before Black Hood was canceled in 1946.

The character would return as backup feature or supporting character when Archie tried to rebrand its superheroes as Mighty Comics in the 1960s. The tone of the stories resembled the camp style of the popular Batman television show, but did not perform as well on newsstands as the company hoped; despite the presence of Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel as the principle writer. The line was discontinued after a year.

A second version of the character was introduced in the 1970s, as Archie Comics tried another low-key superhero revival. Introduced as Matthew’s nephew Kip, this second attempt introduced the idea that the Burlands have used a black hood to avenge wrongs for generations. Kip, for his part, was an attempt to give The Black Hood a counter-culture spin, but it again never quite worked out. He would continue to appear in various Archie titles – including a third attempt to revive the superheroes as the “Dark Circle” line of comics – throughout the ’70s and ’80s.

In an odd twist of fate, DC Comics would license the Black Hood on two separate occasions. In the early 1990s, the company intended to make the character a featured player in its newsstand-focused Impact Comics line. Like Mighty Comics and the 1980s’ Dark Circle revivals, the initiative was abandoned after two years. In 2008, DC licensed the Black Hood again, this time bringing him — and several other Dark Circle characters — to the DC Universe. This was also short lived as DC rebooted its superhero line in 2011.

Archie Comics relaunched their Dark Circle line as a digital first platform in 2012, rebooting that attempt two years later. The Black Hood was launched in 2015 and featured a Philadelphia cop named Greg Hettinger who killed Kip Burland and took the identity for himself. For those trying to suss out the identity of Riverdale‘s Black Hood, these names might be important to remember.

The Shield

The Shield’s publication history follows a similar path as The Black Hood. Created by Harry Shorten and Irv Novick in 1940’s Pep Comics #1, the character predates the debut of Captain America by almost a year. But like Hydrox sandwich cookies, being first failed to generate staying power, especially as he was joined on newsstands by two other star-spangled heroes over the course of the year.

The Shield – real name Joe Higgins – is the son of an army chemist. When his father is murdered by German spies, Joe vows to complete his research into chemically augmenting the abilities of US soldiers. The origin has a few eerie echoes to Captain American and his powers bare a striking resemblance to the Superman of 1940: he is invulnerable, super-strong and capable of great leaps. One would be tempted to say he could scale tall buildings in a single bound. To make the comparison even stranger, Joe’s initial alias was S.H.I.E.L.D.

With his real identity known only to FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, Joe continued to support the burgeoning war effort even as Archie Comics accused Timely of copyright infringement. The resemblance between The Shield’s costume and Cap’s shield was striking. As a consequence, Captain America’s shield became the rounded one familiar today.

For a time, The Shield was the company’s most popular character. Well, until Archie Andrews debuted 22 issues into Pep’s run. He re-emerged intermittently, even joining The Black Hood in DC’s short-lived Impact line. But as he disappeared into obscurity while Captain America ascended, it’s tough to see the character as anything but an also-ran. Nevertheless, Riverdale fans might want to keep a ear open for his name as well.

The Comet

Pep Comics

According to some, The Comet may have been the first superhero killed in a comic book — 1941’s Pep Comics #17 — but the sheer volume of obscure Golden Age characters makes that difficult to verify. What is certain is that the character was created by Jack Cole and first appeared in Pep Comics‘ premiere issue alongside The Shield.

Unlike the familiar backgrounds and powersets of The Black Hood and The Shield, The Comet, alias John Dickering, possessed a more unique origin (for the time) and the genuine ability to fly thanks to his discovery of a gas “lighter than hydrogen.” He would inject the unique gas into his bloodstream (which just sounds like a death sentence in and of itself) in order to take flight. After a number of the injections, he discovered a new power: he could disintegrate objects with a mere glance. Although he constructed a special visor to control his new form of vision, The Comet was not shy about disintegrating gangsters. In fact, the local police wanted to deputize him despite his careless disregard for due process.

Clearly, he could not survive long with such methods. But in a cruel twist of fate, his death inspired his brother Bob to become a brutal vigilante known as The Hangman. Illustrating the change in cultural values, both The Comet and The Hangman were not viewed as dangerous anti-heroes like The Punisher, but traditional Golden Age heroes.

As with the other heroes, he would return in the following decades as part of Archie’s shortlived superhero revivals and DC’s Impact Comics line. The latter, created by Mark Waid and Tom Lyle, had a great early 1990s costume and a revamp of his powers. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough to save him as this Comet also died. His killer: The Black Hood! Perhaps a John Dickering will appear on Riverdale only to be slaughtered.

The Mighty Crusaders

And because the comic book industry is rife with companies copying great ideas, Archie Comics tried to adapt the team dynamic in the 1960s with The Mighty Crusaders as part of its Mighty Comics line. Featuring The Shield, The Fly, The Black Hood, and The Comet, the group debuted in the pages of Fly Man, but soon spun off into its own seven issue comic book written by Jerry Siegel. The intention was to mimic the success of Marvel’s Fantastic Four and DC’s Justice League of America, but like the rest of the Mighty Comics line, The Mighty Crusaders was high in camp value and little else. It sputtered out quickly.

The concept would be revived during the Archie’s Red Circle revival in the 1980s and again with DC’s Impact Comics line. The latter company would also integrate the team into the DC Universe in 2009. In a case of history repeating itself, this attempt at The Mighty Crusaders survived seven issues before it was canceled.

But it would be very easy for the creators of Riverdale to integrate that name just about anywhere; a favorite childhood cartoon, for example. In fact, it’s somewhat surprising that Archie (KJ Apa) is a fan of the current Justice League comic book — he has a poster for it on one of his bedroom walls — and not The Mighty Crusaders. Then again, the two companies are so closely intertwined with regards to superheroes that it’s surprising DC never bought them outright.

While it seems that MLJ’s destiny was always to become the publisher of Archie, Jughead, Betty & Veronica and a number of other titles about Riverdale, the company’s nearly forgotten superhero legacy also gives Riverdale’s Black Hood a strange metatextual motive for slaying people connected to Archie: revenge for being pushed aside all those decades ago. The motive might be stronger if the killer is revealed to be Joe Higgins, but such an outcome would be a pretty deep dive for the producers of Riverdale.

But then again, deep dives are part of the fun of TV based on comic books.

Riverdale airs Wednesdays at 8/7C on The CW.

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