Thursday, January 9, 2014

Whatever happened to Josie's friend Pepper?

We've long neglected Archie Comics here and that's a huge mistake on my part.  When I was a kid, an Archie digest was a comic book bargain.  Double Digest, however, was priced out of my range.  Sure, Archies, as we called them, rarely featured superheroics (my friends and I considered cosmic crimefighting more boy-appropriate comic book subject matter than the slapstick romantic shenanigans experienced by the Riverdale bunch), but for comic-loving kids on a budget, the various Archie digests consistently provided a two or three day reading adventure full of fun and humor, and you'd return to them time and again to repeat the experience. 

They were perfect for rainy days during beach trips or keeping my imagination occupied during my oldest brother's weekend baseball tournaments, which meant getting up before sunrise, six-hour car rides, broiling days at ballparks and nights with the entire family crowded into a single motel room.  As the youngest in the family, I had no choice in the matter so I, too, became a baseball migrant.  Archie Andrews and his gang, with an occasional appearance by their friend Sabrina, the Teen-Aged Witch, helped me survive those summers.

Archie was a pal, Sabrina an acquaintance... but Josie and her band were something else entirely.  They were a personal phenomenon.  While I enjoyed the ever-popular boy redhead who provided a name for their publishing company, I was an even bigger Josie and the Pussycats fanatic back then.  I was completely in love with Josie, Melody and Valerie.  There was something more appealing about Josie and her musical adventures, some quality that really captivated me above and beyond either Sabrina's witchcraft or Archie's misadventures.

I'm referring to the TV cartoon here.  Because the tragic thing is, I don't think I ever dared step outside of gender-segregated reading to own a single issue of anything with Josie's name on the cover.  I watched the TV show every Saturday we were home, but I was too insecure about my gender expression as a sports-averse artsy-fartsy kid to dare buying the actual comic.  Therefore, despite how important the television series was to my early childhood and how influential, my present knowledge of Josie's backstory and her cast of characters is sadly lacking. 

I can sing the hell out of the show's theme song, though!

Well, times have changed, and help is here because Archie Comics just released She's Josie, an all-digital 100-page collection of Josie stories before the rock-and-roll storyline made the character a childhood sensation.  At $3.99, just like its supermarket check-out line dwelling ancestors, it also provides some major entertainment bang for buck, especially compared to the similarly-priced new superhero angst that takes about five minutes to read being put out by a couple of larger companies I could name.

And there's no denying the power of that black and white checked minidress and stacked boots outfit Josie's sporting on the cover.  That is some full-blown 1960s fashionista magic.  The outfits inside are all pretty spectacular, too, and they should be since they're largely drawn by the masterful Dan DeCarlo.

She's Josie #1 (February 1963); script: Frank Doyle; art: Dan DeCarlo and Rudy Lapick

While the cover flaunts the psychedelic looks of a few years later, throughout these stories Josie and Melody sport some adorable and hip Kennedy-era girl threads.  You know-- Patty Duke as identical cousins and Mary Tyler Moore on The Dick Van Dyke Show.  Leg hugging capris and white canvas sneakers.  Stuff like that.  And Josie bops around with a bouffant variation on the Jackie Kennedy flip, all Connie Stevens or Sandra Dee with a cute black bow.  But the coolest clothes have to be the ones worn by Josie's friend, Pepper.  She rocks a prep school look with a v-neck sweater and plaid skirt ensemble which she improves by adding cat-frame glasses and knee socks.  Today's so-called hipsters have nothing on her.

The best part about Pepper is she's not just a smart dresser-- she's also a smart-ass who's already fighting the battle of the sexes years before it became the basis for a full-blown political movement.  With Melody all but oblivious to her effect on boys and Josie occupying the middle ground, Pepper demonstrates an awareness and a willingness to comment directly on gender roles and expectations.  You can easily imagine Betty Friedan in her personal library at home and maybe a bootlegged copy of Sylvia Plath novel that wouldn't see publication in the US until 1971.  Or that she even has a personal library (actually, so does Josie, as evidenced by the sequence in her bedroom that leads off this collection).  Armed with this knowledge, Pepper provides wry, knowing commentary throughout, contrasted with Melody who creates chaos wherever she goes but blitheringly chalks it up to the boys being clumsy.  Pepper would certainly experience an expansion of her social and gender consciousness as she travels through the rest of the Sixties.  Pepper would have involved herself.  She would have been the woman asking, "And what did it do for the consciousness of the chick?"

Okay, that's a obviously a flight of fancy.  More than likely, if she'd made the transition to music star with the rest of the cast, Pepper would have continued to provide the same (very) mildly subversive presence she does in these stories, a vehicle for the comic to address changing times in a shallow way, kind of like how Bewitched, The Beverly Hillbillies or even The Brady Bunch would spend an episode clowning around about "women's lib" by having some kind of boys versus girls or women versus men competition where everyone learns a very soft lesson about how we all need to get along and play fair so we can make babies together.  Still,  I can't help but lament the creative team gave Pepper the axe when the book made the transition to hard-rockin' Josie and her music industry/crime-fighting career. 

The least they could have done was spin her off into her own title.  She's Pepper.

NOTE--  Not long after posting this, I actually bothered to do a little research and found a very informative and well-written article about Pepper and how and why Archie dropped her.  It only serves to make me wish we had more stories about Pepper in the 1970s, or Pepper today.

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