I was trying to figure out when to do this post, and then I realized, based on an Ancestry.com search, that Harry Lucey died in August 1984. I don’t know the exact date (like I said before, there was no obituary), but even though I’ve missed the 25th anniversary of his death, this might be the right time to write a bit about him. The rediscovery of Harry Lucey has been one of the best things to come from the revival of interest in Archie comics in the last few years. I don’t think most people, including me, had any idea who Lucey was until quite recently. He retired before Archie started giving credits, so readers couldn’t see credited stories in the ’80s and use them to identify the earlier work. And he doesn’t really have a clear hook to identify him: Bob Montana created the characters, Dan De Carlo set the new house style in the ’50s, but Lucey was… well, he was a house artist at MLJ who did a lot of fine work on their superhero and adventure titles (including Madam Satan, a character he helped create), proved equally adept at comedy when his company chose to focus mostly on “comical comics.” According to a commonly-told story, his girlfriend’s sister at the time was named “Betty,” which is how the name came about. (The only other stories about him are that he once came into the office to hand in his pages after being hit by a car, and that he used to draw his stories with the girls wearing no clothes on all but the first page.) He was the main artist on the Archie title from the late ’50s through the mid ’70s, applied his skill to everything from regular 6-page farce stories to an issue-length Beverly Hillbillies takeoff where Veronica apparently falls in love with her own cousin and even bringing some decent craftsmanship to that infamous story that was nothing but 12 pages of plugs for Archie merchandise. In 1974 he was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s Disease, and retired.
But now I think that while he’s not precisely a cult figure, he’s better known than he was at any point in his lifetime. He even has some advocates: Jaime Hernandez frequently talks about Lucey as a big influence (along with De Carlo), Kurt Busiek recently cited this Lucey Betty and Veronica cover as his favorite of the series. Dan Nadel wanted to include Lucey in his book “Art Out of Time: Unknown Comics Visionaries 1900-1969”, and reluctantly left him out only because he decided the book should be exclusively focused on non-mainstream comics creators. But that’s how interesting Lucey has become to some collectors, artists and historians: he’s an Archie guy who is discussed in the company of the greats.
This thread provides a good selection of Lucey covers and art, including one of the quintessential Lucey stories, “Two Little Words” (which, miracle of miracles, recently turned up in a digest, and Archie wasn’t even re-drawn to remove his bow tie). And I’m going to borrow this comparison idea from the beginning of that thread: There’s a 1973 issue of Life With Archie that had a cover story drawn by Lucey, but the cover itself was drawn by Stan Goldberg (starting in the late ’60s, almost all covers had to be drawn by De Carlo or people who drew in his style, like Goldberg; Lucey and other artists rarely got to do covers from that point on). This is Goldberg’s cover, based on the splash page of the main story.
Now, that’s a good cover. It shows that Goldberg wasn’t always the guy turning out disfigured tinmen. You can see, with Reggie, how the curved mouth-to-jaw line, which has now gotten out of hand, was effectively and tastefully used. It’s the work of a very good artist. But then we turn the page and see Lucey’s splash page from the story proper. It’s not like this page is Lucey’s best work or anything; his way of drawing faces had become so stylized as to be a little freaky at times. But everything is specific instead of generic, even though it’s a generic scene. The girls aren’t just doing standard girlie-art poses, they’re holding themselves at slightly awkward angles, trying to find things to do with their hands. If there were no dialogue balloons, you’d still get a sense of every character’s role in the panel. (Why Jughead replaced by Reggie on the cover, don’t ask me.)
The thing Lucey was really good at was physical acting: making body language convey emotion, making one drawing convey the feeling of something that led up to it, giving the feeling of physical impact to a drawing. When money-sniffing Cricket O’Dell makes her first appearance by literally running over Archie to get a quarter, you sure feel the impact of him getting knocked over. (Though you may also wonder what happened to his head.) Of course he could always handle a “Archie gets thrown out of Mr. Lodge’s house” splash page, conveying every bit of pain inflicted on Archie but playing it for comedy.
And Lucey’s body-language skills made him especially good at handling those Frank Doyle scripts where it’s almost nothing but the characters talking for six pages; those scripts are great, but they can’t work without an artist who always keeps the characters moving and active and never makes the story seem static.
The other thing that I think makes people value Lucey so much is that he really made Archie into a more endearing, funny, everyman kind of character than anybody else. It’s easy to make Archie a bland, personality-free loser who undeservedly has two sexy girls fighting over him. Lucey always seems to play up the more specific and interesting aspects of his character: his clumsiness, his tendency to get really emotional and demonstrative, his over-reaction to any situation. Lucey’s Archie is always getting really angry or really scared, crying, screaming, waving his hands in the air and railing against fate; when he’s happy, he’s unbelievably happy, and when he sees a hot girl his eyes look like they’re this close to doing a Tex Avery pop-out. Lucey’s Archie is also the most destructive (he always wrecks everything in Mr. Lodge’s house). All the characters benefit from Lucey’s theatrical, broad gestures, the flailing arms, the angular poses (he could rarely bring himself to let characters walk or stand completely straight), because it’s funnier that way. But Archie himself benefits most of all, because by giving him a broader emotional range than any other character, Lucey sort of gives him the right to be the star of the comic.
Other characters Lucey was really good at: his Veronica was probably the only version who could actually make you understand why Archie found her hotter than Betty, despite their identical faces and figures. De Carlo was an undisputed Betty and Veronica king, but he drew them more or less as the same wholesomely sexy type; Lucey usually made Betty a little more wholesome in her body language — and very needy and clingy when Archie was around — while Lucey’s Veronica is very sultry and self-possessed. His version of the Mr. Lodge/Smithers comedy duo was also a highlight; I almost wish they had given him some kind of Lodge family spinoff.
If IDW makes good on its promise to publish best-of collections for the great Archie artists, I’m hoping there will be a Lucey collection in there somewhere; if not, the best way to get your Lucey fix is to pick up some cheap copies of Archie from before 1974. Especially the late ’50s/early ’60s because that’s when the whole company’s output was at its strongest. But even with the coming of new fads, strange story ideas, Saturday morning tie-ins and some inkers of dubious quality, the basic Lucey virtue — strong, emotion-specific poses and staging that sells the jokes — is usually there. Even when he’s asked to turn “Archies” producer Don Kirschner into a comic book character.
Finally, probably the quintessential Lucey story is still “Actions Speak Louder Than Words” from Pep 140. It’s a story that makes good on its title: No dialogue, and there doesn’t need to be because Lucey’s drawings tell you everything you need to know about what the characters think and want.