Wednesday, December 09, 2020

The Lost Spire Christian Christmas Comic

One of my favorite aspects of Christmas pop culture is Archie Comics, specifically holiday-themed books of the 1950s, '60s, and '70s (anything past that, not so much). I also have a very different, more ironic affinity for cartoonist Al Hartley's unintentionally wacky Spire Christian Comics of the 1970s, which strangely included a whole stack of books starring Archie and the gang all proselytizing Jesus with huge, googly eyes as seemingly psychedelic starbursts exploded around them. Seriously. Weird shit. 

Hartley (1921-2003) also somehow managed to shoehorn some of his preachy stories into Archie's regular line. You'd be reading an issue of Archie's Pals 'n' Gals, and after a story about Big Ethel desperately trying to get Jughead to make out with her, there'd suddenly be a story about Betty lecturing Dilton that faith is more important than his scientific experiments! I guess that Archie (the company) either didn't care about mixing the secular with the sacred (Archie publisher John Goldwater was a religious man, although not a Christian) or maybe Hartley cut a deal with them to utilize overflow product that didn't make it into Spire's Archie line. 

There is one specific Archie comic from 1972 that really feels like the Spire Christian Comic that wasn't, and it's pretty easy to figure out why Spire took a pass. The anthology comic, Archie Giant Series Magazine #196 spotlights Sabrina's Christmas Magic, with stories and features mostly by Hartley, sledgehammering the Christian "reason for the season." Sabrina helps Santa Claus regain his faith (!!!!), Betty reminds the reader that Christmas is "not just a holiday --- it's a holy day!," Sabrina's aunts learn that God's power is greater than their own mystical abilities, Archie and the gang become animals in a parable about not living "by the spirit of the jungle," and Dilton (of all people!!) scolds humanity for asking too many questions. 

There are a few anomalies: The cover by Sabrina co-creator Dan DeCarlo could be interpreted as having religious meaning or not. In "Hot Dog with Relish" (also by Hartley), Sabrina turns Jughead's pet sheepdog into a long-haired hippie with whom Ethel falls in ill-fated (again!) love. "A Tree Named Obadiah" (by Frank Doyle and Stan Goldberg) is about a warlock-possessed Christmas tree. "The Spell of the Season" (also by Doyle and Goldberg) has Sabrina using her powers to make a group of bank robbers give all their stolen cash to poor people, who dance in the streets at their holiday windfall (hardly the message that Charlie Brown and the Grinch taught us!). And then, most bizarre of all, the whole issue is capped with a pin-up (by Hartley) in which Sabrina's accidentally denuded Mr. Weatherbee!

It's a schizophrenic bag, man, and I can't help but imagine that Hartley had mixed feelings about the end product. But I also have to imagine that the reason his proselytizing tales wound up in this mainstream comic is because of the title character: It's hard to picture Spire publishing a comic book in which the star was an active practitioner of witchcraft! 

AGSM 196 is not a great Archie Christmas comic (nor is the "official" Spire Archie Christmas book, 1973's Christmas with Archie). In my own subjective (and atheistic) opinion, it can't hold a candle to the less preachy stories by Frank Doyle and illustrated by Harry Lucey, Dan DeCarlo, and Bill Vigoda (to name a few) from the decades earlier. But it's one of those comics that I love having in my collection. 

Hartley's comics often had an oddly psychedelic vibe to them. 

Hippie Human Hot Dog. Weird.

Now that's what Christmas is all about, right?

Sabrina spends much of the comic in this sexy Xmas miniskirt

Christmas calisthenics. Or yoga. Whatever. 

Dilton ANGRILY reject the science he's studied all his life!

The weirdest end to a Christmas comic book ever.

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