Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Riverdale Make-Over: The Changing Face of Big Ethel

Recently I found this
'Big Ethel Pin-up' page in an old and well-perused copy of the February, 1967 issue of Archie's Joke Book comics (#109).

I thought about adding it to a previous post I'd done, concerning 1960's fashion trends reflected in Archie comics (I may still), but then I caught wind of what's been happening in recent history with
Big Ethel.

For the uninitiated, in the world of Archie comics,
Big Ethel had traditionally been portrayed as the ugly gal who was always aggressively in pursuit of Jughead.

Sometimes it was taken as a given that they were a couple, though Jughead was generally shown to be disinterested.

For many years, to call Ethel merely 'homely' or 'plain' was unnecessary and missing the point.
All the right visual cues were there - - including the prominent buck teeth - - to tell you that Ethel was meant to be undesirable from a romantic perspective.

Using Ethel's appearance as the fuel for humor is a simplistic device that has not aged particularly well.
But part of what made her a compelling character was that her looks rarely seemed to deter her.
Ethel was not shy, but usually rather bold and confident.

Predictably, over the years many things have changed in the world of Archie comics, including various efforts to make them more politically correct for the kids of today.

That process included Big Ethel, whose looks and style began to soften sometime in the 1980's, though to what end I'm not altogether certain.

Likely there was some thought towards providing a more positive role model for 'plain' girls who read the comics.

Eventually, the 'Big' was divorced from Ethel, and she became known as Ethel Muggs (though she'd previously been Ethel Dinklehof).

Gone too, were the buck teeth. Fair enough.
I hear she even became a cheer leader.

In just the past couple of years, there's been a fair amount of critical attention paid to some revamping that's been done in the Archie Comics line.
More realistic drawing styles, ethnically diverse characters and 'relevant' story lines have supposedly given the books more of an appeal to today's younger readers (perhaps better reflecting their Nickelodeon and Disney Channel-infused upbringing?).

That's all sounds fine, and I suppose it should really be none of my business at this point...

◀ But then I saw this latest incarnation of Ethel.

What th' - - ?!?! Is this meant to be progress?
Generically pleasant-looking, but described as being 'beautiful on the inside' - - ?

So, correct me if I'm wrong, but 'plain' is now a concept, and 'ugly' cannot be portrayed- - ?

Is this what we've come to? Doesn't this send a message that 'ugly' is bad? Didn't we already get past that?

Seems to me that giving Ethel a makeover that makes her unrecognizable sends a far worse message than showing her with a scarecrow body and buck teeth...

This being the internet and all, there are plenty of folks who've blogged on the subject of
Formerly-Big Ethel, and have done so much more eloquently.

Here's a round-up of links worth following...

- 'In Praise Of Ethel Muggs' at Occasional Superheroine

- 'Glimpses of Big Ethel' at Comics Worth Reading

- Stupid Comics gave the lowdown on Spire Christian Comics' 1982 title, 'Archie and Big Ethel'. For more on the Archie / Spire connection, check out 'A History of Christian Archie Comics' at Generation Exploitation.

- 'My Favourite Archie Comic' at Living Between Wednesdays

- Prior to recent revamps, there was 'The Great Archie Comics Experiment of 1989-90', discussed at CBR's Comics Should Be Good!

- An interesting piece of fiction that employs the Riverdale crowd's familiar archetypes: 'From The Diary of Ethel Muggs'
by Susan O'Doherty in Eclectica Magazine

UPDATE, 10.5.08:
A few more classic Ethel appearances found, ranging from 1965 - 1972...

4.26.08: Another cover scan found, ▶
in an interesting article at 'Comics Should Be Good';
"The Many (?!?!?) Loves of Jughead Jones".
(follow link)


Donna Lethal said...

My best pal and I have been following the makeover of the Riverdale gang - esp Betty and Veronica - for awhile now. They even have a blog but I've yet to visit. At least Archie's checkerboard ("pound sign"?) is still there.

Phillyradiogeek said...

Good article as always, TIC.

I strongly recommend you check out the new DC all ages title Billy Batson and the Magic of Shazam by Mike Kunkel. I read the first issue, on sale starting today, and it was awesome! I think you'd really appreciate it.

Canaduck said...

Also, the "new" Ethel is 5'10" and 120 pounds. I went and calculated her BMI and it's 17.2. 18.5 or less is "underweight".

Here's my question--does that mean that she's a gawky scaregrow, like you said, or does it give her the figure of the average model?

Anonymous said...

Back in 1990 there was this liveaction tv movie, Back To Riverdale. In which we find Ethel is now a blonde supermodel and a few joking references were made to her awkward stage.

Bill the Butcher said...

Ethel is my favourite Archive character because she is an approximation of a real human being, unlike Betty (made to be obviously liked), Veronica (made to be obviously the Jealous Rival) or Nancy (the Token). Apart from that, even after the makeover, she still remains the only female in the strip with a face of her own and not a template with different hair and complexion.

Freshly-stirred links