"I don’t know where you first encountered Dan DeCarlo’s work. Maybe you were in a barbershop, waiting to get your hair cut. Perhaps you took one of the old rolled comics out of the box or rack they always had (next to Men’s Adventures or Stag) and shook the hair out of it, reading about the adventures of the forever-young teenagers of Riverdale High."
— Mike Curtis, The Comics Journal, December 2000.
Tribute to Dan DeCarlo, 1919-2001
This past December 19th, America lost a national treasure when the much-loved Dan DeCarlo passed away. Best known for creating Josie and the Pussy Cats, Sabrina the Teenage Witch (with George Gladir) and decades of Archie tales, Mr. DeCarlo died of a heart attack in Scarsdale NY. He leaves behind his wife, Josie, sisters Kay, Margaret and Millie, and his grandchildren Christie and Jessica.
Like perhaps many others who have been delighted, absorbed and entertained by DeCarlo’s work, it was years before I knew his name or who he was. As Mr. DeCarlo went largely uncredited for his works, most fans of the household names he brought to prominence are not even aware of his existence. I too shared in this ignorance, and it was not until coming across an interview written by Mike Curtis in The Comics Journal last winter that I came to recognize him for who he was. Perhaps it was the crossroads I was at in my life, perhaps it was the timing, but there was something about the interview that struck a chord with me. Today, even as a newcomer to the comics industry, I know his passing is of great import. His legend should be spread. His name should be known. And so, this month’s Market Report is dedicated to him.
Dan DeCarlo was born in New Rochelle, New York in 1919. Influenced in his early years by Percy Crosby’s work on "Skippy," and Billy DeBeck’s on "Snuffy Smith," perhaps his biggest inspiration was Norman Rockwell. So much so, in fact, that upon graduating high school, he phoned Mr. Rockwell to ask what school he had attended. Shortly thereafter, he was enrolled in Rockwell’s alma mater, the Art Student’s League in Manhattan.
After three years at art school, DeCarlo was drafted during the early years of America’s involvement in World War II. He served in the 8th Air Force with the 8th Fighter Command (at the time, a division of the US ARMY). His skills as an artist were quickly noticed and he was placed in the drafting department to design posters and advertisements for his Fighter Command. Many of the cartoons gracing the nosecones of Allied fighter planes were designed by DeCarlo.
It was in Belgium where DeCarlo met Josie Dumont, his muse, future wife and inspiration for Josie and the Pussycats. Married shortly after, Josie soon gave birth to twin sons, Dan and Jim. Soon, the family was in America, and Mr. DeCarlo began his first work in comics after being hired by Stan Lee at Timely to do a comic called "Jeannie." Jeannie was quickly followed by work on "My Friend Irma" and "Millie the Model." DeCarlo’s career soon took flight, drawing art for titles ranging from "My Girl Pearl" to "Sherrie the Showgirl." Other titles he worked on included "The Brain" (his own creation) for Magazine Enterprises, "Jetta" for the Standard and "Yardbirds."
While Mr. DeCarlo continued to work with Stan Lee through the 1950s on comics such as "Barney’s Beat" and "Buzz & Bunny," he also began to develop an idea for a now very famous character based on his wife. As DeCarlo recounted how the idea was first conceived in Mr. Curtis’ Comic Journal interview, "One day Josie came in with that real bouffant hairdo and a little black ribbon in her hair…she was cute as hell. She was beautiful."
It was around that time Mr. DeCarlo began work at Archie Comics — where he would be employed for over 40 years until being dismissed for legal disputes regarding his creations. During his time at the company, he not only launched "Josie," but also "Sabrina the Teenage Witch," and later in 1983, "Cheryl Blossom." Because his work and style was so integral to what "made" Archie and sold the comics, Archie Publications had DeCarlo conduct classes to teach other artists to duplicate his style.
During the 1990’s DeCarlo experienced health problems, including colon cancer in 1995. As of Mr. Curtis’ December 2000 interview, DeCarlo was "in remission but doing well." During the 1990’s, Dan and Josie (a couple now well into their seventies) also raised teenage grand-daughters, Christie and Jessica. After his relationship with Archie was severed, DeCarlo continued drawing until his death, being a much in-demand artist working on projects ranging from "The Simpsons" for Bongo, as well as several personal projects, which sadly may now never be completed.
On a personal note, there was something about this man that made me want to take time to pay my respects. I grew up spending countless hours reading his comics, on sick days home from school with the flu, or waiting to get my hair cut in Louie’s Barbershop. Last year, I quit my job in advertising because I wanted to be involved in comics — somehow, someway. I took the winter off and headed to Key West to write and think. It was there I picked up The Comics Journal and was inspired by Mr. DeCarlo. In many ways, it was like meeting a long-lost friend for the first time…the man responsible for those countless tales of Riverdale that swept me away as a child. Here was a man who got into comics because he (thankfully) couldn’t get into advertising! And just as Dan and Josie in their senior years took in two teenage granddaughters, I was reminded of a very special woman, Mrs. Wallio, who did the same for me.
When all was said and done, despite legal disputes and lack of proper recognition, I believe it was the love Dan DeCarlo had for the medium and us that kept him going. And for that, we owe our eternal gratitude. His was a life well-lived.
Here’s to you Dan DeCarlo. May you forever live on in our hearts and memories.