Historian of Horror : Riverdale’s Resident Sorceress

Once upon a time, Maurice Coyne, Louis Silberkleit, and John L. Goldwater decided to get into the nascent comic book publishing business. Using their first initials, they started MLJ Magazines, Inc. Their first title, Blue Ribbon Comics, hit the stands in September 1939. A couple of months later, Pep Comics premiered, featuring the first patriotic American super-hero, the Shield. And so on. 

MLJ put-putted along, never becoming a major player in the growing super-hero market, never challenging any of the Big Three of the time, DC, Fawcett and Quality, for supremacy. Their heroes were all second-banana types, not making much impact outside of their very narrow lane other than a brief, regional radio show based on the Black Hood. Until 1941, that is.

The twenty-second issue of Pep (December 1941) introduced a buck-toothed, red-headed teenager named Archie Andrews, along with his fellow adolescent attendees of Riverdale High School; Betty Cooper and Jughead Jones. Nothing exceptional, on the surface, but for some reason, Archie clicked with a public that had so far not paid much attention to MLJ’s product. By 1946, the company was renamed Archie Comics, and the super-hero line was abandoned in favor of the adventures of Archie, Jughead, Betty, Veronica Lodge, Reggie Mantle, and the rest.

This is not their story, however. Fast forward to those halcyon days of the early 1960s, when the supernatural was infiltrating the culture like never before. We’ve talked about this in past columns. Monsters and ghosts, and witches, were everywhere. Not even the stable, steady, reliable and, to be honest, tediously repetitive world of Archie Andrews was immune. 

Okay, I’ll admit to not being much of a fan of Archie and his world in my early days of reading comic books. The stories seemed to be a lot of variations of the same themes – Betty and Veronica fought over Archie, Reggie tried to sabotage Archie’s efforts to date one or the other of the girls who, inexplicably, adored him, and Jughead avoided girls altogether in favor of hamburgers. I did dip into the publisher’s brief effort to revive their super-heroes from the 1940s under the secondary imprint of Radio Comics, but I had already discovered DC and Marvel by then. Superman and Spider-Man got my twelve cents, not Fly Man or the Shield.

Anyhow, Archie Andrews. Repetitive his adventures might have been, but his world had spawned dozens of titles by 1962. One, Archie’s Madhouse, contained more jokes and games than anything resembling a story. Still, Archie and crew dominated the title for the first dozen issues. Beginning with the thirteenth issue (July 1961), however, monstrous beings slowly edged the Riverdale gang out of the title. Archie and the rest made token appearances on the covers and in the interior features, but the seventeenth issue (February 1962) didn’t even accord them that courtesy. 

And so it went until issue #22, cover-dated October 1962. Instead of the usual Frankenstein, Dracula, and Wolf Man variations, the first story introduced a beautiful blonde teenaged witch named Sabrina, her cat/familiar Salem, and head witch Della. No last names, yet. The story, such as it was, laid down the rules of witchcraft; basically, the inability of witches to sink in water or fall in love. 

Subsequent stories were pretty much about Sabrina’s efforts to get around the not-falling-in-love rule, her habit of misdirecting love potions or being forced by her superior witches to sabotage her high school’s sporting events. Which was not, by the way, Riverdale. She attended Baxter High School in those years. In fact, she had no interactions with Archie and his gang at all until she joined the Saturday morning cartoon show, The Archie Comedy Hour, in 1969. She had acquired a boyfriend, Harvey, by then, and her two supervising witch aunts had been identified as Hilda and Zelda. Still no last name.

Pseudo-band The Archies were the stars of the cartoon show. They had a number one hit in the United States, a Monkees reject called Sugar, Sugar. The band was in reality a group of sessions musicians assembled for the purpose of recording bubblegum songs for the show, some of which were disseminated on the backs of cereal boxes. I had a few of those. Concurrently, Sabrina was finally integrated into the comic book world of Riverdale, starting with an appearance in Archie’s T.V. Laugh-Out #1. She got her own cartoon show in 1970, and a year later her own comic book title which ran for seventy-seven issues, until 1983. An elementary school version of her also ran in Little Archie from issue #59, cover-dated May 1970.

In 1972, Sabina was recruited to be the hostess of a horror anthology titled, Chilling Adventures in Sorcery, as Told by Sabrina. That only lasted two issues, then it carried on without her under a new title, a new imprint, Red Circle Comics Group, and a new artist, Gray Morrow. Red Circle lasted as long as the comic did, nine issues altogether. Everything was Archie after that, as Sabrina popped up in a variety of the company’s titles through the 1980s and into the 1990s, including annual Christmas Magic issues.

Sabrina and her aunts finally got a last name, Spellman, in 1996, in a television movie and subsequent series that ran for four seasons on ABC and an additional three on the WB. Another couple of animated series and a pair of sequels to the movie followed. More comic book titles also came and went over the years, including a manga-inspired series. 

The whole world of Archie was rebooted in 2015 into a more adult version, called New Riverdale in the comics, and two years later on television as simply Riverdale. Sabrina appeared in the comics from the beginning, but only recently dropped in on the television show after three years in her own in the separate series, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.

So, there you have it. Next time, we matriculate to university to take a look at the classic novel of witchcraft on campus, Fritz Leiber’s Conjure Wife, and the three films based on it. Hope you’ll join me in two weeks for that. In the meantime, here’s a little lagniappe – a tasty treat from my favorite early 80s cheesy girl band, Toto Coelo. Enjoy.

Until next time, my loyal pundits of the peculiar…

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

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