EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

December 28, 2010

'Archie' comic changes with the times, examines real-life topics

By Paul Tennant
ptennant@eagletribune.com

HAVERHILL — The "Archie" comic strip, created by Haverhill's Bob Montana and based on life at Haverhill High School in the late 1930s, has taken another step toward the 21st century.

A few months ago, an openly gay character by the name of Kevin Keller made his debut in the strip. Veronica had her eye on the new guy but he politely turned her down.

Now, in the episode slated for release tomorrow, Archie and his gang face the death of a popular teacher, Geraldine Grundy, from cancer.

Jane (Donahue) Murphy, who graduated from Haverhill High in the same class as Montana, 1939, said if he were still writing the strip, these recent developments would not have taken place.

"It wouldn't be what he would have written," said Murphy, who knew the late Montana quite well. She lived on 14th Avenue, he on Sheridan Street, and they often walked to and from school together, she said.

Maybe the current creators of "Archie" need to "bring in the new crowd" to keep readers, Murphy said. Officials at Archie Comics Inc. have said the strip needs to reflect today's real-life issues.

Montana focused on the simpler times of yesteryear. Murphy recalled that on one rainy day, Montana "gave me his hat." Years later, that event was depicted in the comic, she said.

Murphy said although she ended up marrying another classmate, William "Buddy" Murphy, she and Montana went to the junior prom together.

The characters in "Archie" are based on real-life characters who attended Haverhill High in the late 1930s. Murphy said Archie was none other than her lively cousin Richard Heffernan.

Montana, who was a polite and quiet young man during his Haverhill High years, really admired the outgoing Heffernan, she said, and would often ask about him.

At one time, "everybody was claiming to be Betty," Murphy said. Actually, the character Betty was a "composite" of several different young women, Murphy said. As for Veronica, that was Agatha Popoff, daughter of Dr. Popoff, the physician for the Hillies football team who forbade any of the players to go anywhere near her, Murphy said.

Jughead was a "mischievous" young man named "Skinny" Linnehan, she said. Jughead and his friends might skip school and "jump on a truck" to go into Boston, but they did not behave the way today's young people do, she said.

"Very few drank," she said of those days that were only a couple of years before World War II, in which so many members of the classes of 1939 through 1945 fought. Both Murphy and Fred Malcolm, another member of the Class of 1939, said the late '30s and early '40s were a nice era in which to grow up.

During his high school years, Montana had already become a talented artist, Murphy said. He also had a habit of taking notes on various events, she said.

Asked to speculate on who Ms. Grundy was, Murphy said she might have been a typing and shorthand teacher named Lundstrom.

It seems Ms. Grundy married Waldo Weatherbee, the principal of Riverdale High. A scene in the soon-to-be-released episode depicts Archie and others walking away from Ms. Grundy's grave after the funeral.

Weatherbee lingers near the casket and says, "Ah, well. We were the past, eh, dear Geraldine? But what a blessing it was that we had this time together, to see the children go off into a bright, beautiful future...!"

If the scene had taken place in 1939, little would the principal have known that the "bright, beautiful future" would include the horrors of World War II. If the scene were set in the present, Archie and some of his peers could be destined for duty in Iraq or Afghanistan.

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