Cough It Up

The man who created Josie and the Pussycats can't understand why his girls don't belong to him

Feb 14, 2001 at 4:00 am
Sometimes, usually out on the golf course near his home in upstate New York, Dan DeCarlo feels terrific, far younger than his 81 years. He'll thwack the ball, reflect upon his 55 years of marriage to the same beautiful woman and occasionally contemplate a life spent drawing and creating some of comicdom's most enduring and endearing characters--among them, Archie, Jughead, Betty and Veronica, Josie and the Pussycats, and Sabrina the Teen-Age Witch. But when his mind, still sharp as a knife plunged in one's back, begins mulling over those characters with whom he spent so much time--they were like family--a glorious day can become a wretched one.

"Sometimes I feel like a loser," DeCarlo says, and the way he says it--like a man broken in half--stings. "I really do. I hate to say that." He pauses, then begins again, as though to reassure he is not seeking the listener's pity. "It's just sometimes. Sometimes I feel good--when I'm on the golf course." He chokes out a small chuckle. "But a lot of nice things didn't happen to me."

He is speaking specifically of a battle currently ongoing in New York federal court--one that could decide whether the longtime cartoonist receives credit and cash for his work or winds up having his creations (his children!) forever wrested from his possession. And he is speaking generally of the life of the cartoonist, who plies his trade on the bottom rung of the show-business ladder. No doubt, you've seen his work for years--Bob Montana created Archie and his pals in 1941, but DeCarlo streamlined the characters during his 43 years as the dominant artist at Archie Comics. Likely, you've never heard his name. And now, Archie Comics is pretending he never existed at all.

Last March, DeCarlo filed suit asking to be compensated by Archie for creating Josie and the Pussycats. DeCarlo brought the legal action against his employer after discovering Archie had licensed the rights to his 40-year-old creation to Universal Pictures, which will release Josie and the Pussycats as a $24-million feature film on April 6. For the use and licensing of Josie (played in the film by She's All That star Rachael Leigh Cook) and her pals Melody (American Pie's Tara Reid) and Valerie (Rosario Dawson), DeCarlo is asking the court to award him no less than $250,000 (plus interest) in damages and declare him "sole owner" of his characters. (He also has a second suit pending in federal court, this one over ownership of Sabrina the Teen-Age Witch, which was an animated series in 1971 and a live-action series since 1996.)

If DeCarlo feels like a loser, it's because he's already lost one legal battle: Last month, a federal judge dismissed the first suit, claiming DeCarlo was way too late to the courtroom. The dismissal added injury to injury: A few weeks after he brought suit last spring, Archie fired DeCarlo, forcing him to once more find work on a free-lance basis. He worked for the company since 1957 and rejected numerous offers from larger and more prestigious companies because he loved working at Archie. The characters, he says even now, "just flowed off the pencil." Then, it was over. No thank-yous, only screw-yous. "They just couldn't stand me anymore," DeCarlo says.

Pending an appeal scheduled to go before the 2nd U.S. Court of Appeals on February 27--the cartoonist's attorney, Whitney Seymour Jr., hopes to get the dismissal reversed--DeCarlo will not receive any credit on Universal's film, nor will he receive a single penny when it comes to merchandising.

"They're cheap," DeCarlo says of his former employers. "They just don't want to spread the wealth around. They're making money hand over fist, though now I understand sales are down a bit for them, but they made a lot of money over a long period of time. They're driving five cars each, they have custom-built yachts and sailboats and homes. Christ, you don't get that from being a hand-to-mouth operation. They're afraid to give you any rights, so they can take all that profit away from you. For whoever owns the comic companies, it's like opening a can of worms. If one of us goes around and wins a suit, guys are going to come out of the woodwork claiming they created Spider-Man's left ear."

It's not at all rare for comic-book companies to abandon the creators of their most famous characters; it's an all-too-familiar tale about naive young artists handing over their work, thankful for the opportunity and paycheck, no matter how meager. Superman's fathers, Joe Siegel and Jerry Shuster, were destitute almost until their deaths in the 1990s; Shuster, nearly blind, lived with his brother for years, and Siegel worked for a time as a postman. Time Warner (DC Comics' parent company) had to be sued, and then shamed, into giving the two a pension on the eve of the release of the movie Superman in 1978. And 87-year-old Joe Simon, co-creator of Captain America, is involved in a legal dispute with Marvel over his rights to that character--which, appropriately enough, he created for Timely Comics, where DeCarlo worked in the 1950s.

"More people should be making more noise and standing up for their rights," Simon says, "especially the creators."

"It seems a shame a guy works all his life on a property and makes a fortune for the company, only to get nothing in return," says The Spirit's creator Will Eisner, one of the few writer-artists shrewd enough to retain the rights to his creations. "But the problem is the artist as well as the company. The artists are afraid to demand a deal." Archie Comics Chairman Michael Silberkleit refused to comment for this story, but he did tell Entertainment Weekly, which features the stars of Josie and the Pussycats on its cover this week, that "it's a shame that after 40 years, a guy decides to sue us."

But for DeCarlo, an Army vet who served in Europe for four years during World War II, this battle is also personal: Josie, you see, isn't just some figment of his imagination. She is his wife, and has been since their wedding in Belgium in 1945.

DeCarlo was a free-lancer, working for Timely (which later became Marvel) and other companies, when he began thinking about a new comic strip in 1956. His wife had come home with a brand-new bouffant hairdo, complete with a little black ribbon, and DeCarlo figured he could use his wife as the basis for a daily newspaper comic strip. After all, he was having some success syndicating comics: He and Stan Lee, who would go on to birth such characters as Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four at Marvel, were writing and drawing the family-oriented Willie Lumpkin for the Chicago-based Publishers Syndicate. But the company passed on DeCarlo's new strip, titled Here's Josie. At the time, that was fine with DeCarlo, who had his hands full with another strip he and Lee were trying to sell.

In 1961, after he'd been free-lancing for Archie for a few years, DeCarlo resurrected Josie, took the strip into Archie Comics' president and publisher Richard Goldwater Jr., and asked if he and his father--Richard Sr., editor-in-chief--would be interested in trying to sell Josie as a strip. They said yes, but when they handed DeCarlo back his work, it bore the puzzling credit, "By Dick and Dan," referring to Goldwater Sr. (For years, the comic book also sported the mysterious credit on its cover, which was all the more impossible to decipher since Archie long refused to give its creators and cartoonists a single mention within the comics' pages.) They then took the strip to another syndicate, which also passed, but at that point, it didn't matter: In 1963, Archie decided to feature Josie in her own title--called, for a time, She's Josie--with DeCarlo creating and designing the book's now-familiar characters.

The legal papers in New York claim DeCarlo was paid a flat page rate of $23 for his work on She's Josie, plus 5 percent of all royalties on revenues earned from the sales of Josie comics. But according to court documents, the agreement was oral and lasted but a few years--from June 1966 to October 1969--after which Archie stopped paying DeCarlo a cent in royalties. The suit claims that DeCarlo wouldn't receive another royalty check from Archie until December 11, 1998, in the amount of $1,406.25--"with no explanation for how the amount was calculated," Seymour says.

Which begs the obvious question: When the initial payments stopped coming in, why didn't DeCarlo protest to the higher-ups at Archie?

To hear him tell it, the answer's quite simple. He was afraid of making trouble, afraid of losing his job. He didn't want to go back to the free-lancer's life of begging for work, of hoping he could pay this month's mortgage without letting his family go hungry. Archie was a full-time gig, as close to security as one could find within the world of comics, and one doesn't raise a stink today if he hopes to have a job tomorrow. DeCarlo would find that out later--when the company told him 43 years' worth of servitude wasn't worth a dime.

If only he could go back to 1970 and erase the one mistake that might have cost him his lawsuit.

One Friday afternoon 30 years ago, Richard Goldwater Sr. dropped by DeCarlo's house in nearby Scarsdale to talk about Archie, or so DeCarlo thought. Out of nowhere, DeCarlo recalls, Goldwater "tossed the bombshell" by informing him that Josie and the Pussycats was going to debut as an animated Saturday-morning show--as in, that Saturday morning. As in, tomorrow. On CBS. DeCarlo was furious, to the point he stormed out of his own home. "That was the biggest surprise of my life," DeCarlo says.

Two days later, he went to see an attorney from the Cartoonists Association, who informed DeCarlo that, yeah, he had a legitimate case but that suing Archie Comics might be a horrible idea. Likely, it would get him blackballed by the rest of the industry--and for what? A few thousand bucks? It ain't worth it, the attorney told him. Just keep your mouth shut, and get it in writing next time.

"I followed the wrong advice, and if I hadn't, I probably would have won this time," DeCarlo says. "That's the thing that really killed my case. They say I should have acted earlier and why did I wait so long. What I can't understand is there's no statute of limitations on thievery and ownership, is there? Doesn't seem fair."