Jun 19, 2012

Let's talk about Harvey Comics.

It's funny because he's RICH.
Harvey Comics, now that's a blast from the past, right? They did all those characters you know, Casper the Friendly Ghost, Richie Rich, Hot Stuff the Little Devil and... uhhh... others, right? Little Dot?

Yup, that's them. Harvey were a straightforward comics publishing house until they started licensing the characters of Famous Studios, and of course their biggest hit Casper the Friendly Ghost. Harvey Comics really was the house that Casper built. Animators became comic artists, and the publishers developed a huge range of Casper comics -- as well as creating a whole range of comics based on other Famous Studios characters like Little Audrey and Baby Huey.

Then in 1949 came Harvey's in-house creations like Little Dot. Little Dot was a little girl obsessed with dots. She was so successful that she launched a bunch of spin-offs like Richie Rich and Little Lotta. All of these characters were made in the Casper vein; they were family friendly, they were mono-maniacs and they were drawn in Harvey's house style of giant heads and fat legs.

Oh yeah, and they all suck.

Harvey Comics' output was textbook 'kid friendly' material. They were safe stories, safe characters, even the cartooning itself was safe. There was nothing remarkable or challenging at all about any of the characters or comics in the Harvey stable. So of course they were massively successful.

Jeez, Richie Rich doing ads? What a sell-out!

They found the perfect level of mediocrity to make them accessible to a massive audience. Harvey produced comic after comic starring their big characters like Richie Rich and Casper the Friendly Ghost. In fact Richie Rich had over 50 titles to his name -- and I've read (admittedly in the pages of a Richie Rich redux) that this was more than any other comic character!

The only question I have is: "Why?"
Was it just that they were safe? Was it just that parents could feel sure that Harvey comics weren't going to corrupt their children? Maybe we should look a little closer at what Harvey's characters and comics were like...

Even ghosts should have
a part time job!

Mono-mania was the order of the day at Harvey. Characters had a single theme and they rode that theme as far as possible. Usually their name told you everything. Casper the Friendly Ghost was a ghost who just wanted to make friends. Wendy the Good Little Witch was a witch who, unlike her aunts wasn't nasty and naughty. Little Dot was, uh, a girl who liked dots. How they managed to stretch that idea out for several decades is beyond me.

Now mono-mania isn't exactly rare in comics characters. In fact it's the way a great many characters in every imaginable genre were built over the years. Mono-maniacs plague Batman (and he's one himself), mono-maniacs fill out the Beano, the Dandy, and dominate Japanese boys' comics. Shonen characters are almost always mono-maniacs.

She's strong, but she's a girl! That's
hilarious! Isn't it?

But usually there's a little bit more to it than that. Dennis the Menace (the UK one, not the sucky US one) might be obsessed with menacing, but this leads him into all kinds of strange adventures, and can create some hilarious, dark, and even touching comic strips. Batman might be obsessed with justice and preventing crime, but there's much more to his character than that.

Harvey characters really don't seem to cut any deeper than that. Little Dot really is just a girl obsessed with dots, and all her stories are no deeper than that implies. Characters like Richie Rich might have a vast cast of supporting characters but when it boils down to it the theme of his comic strip is; it's funny because he's rich.

Well, that's... wait... what?

Is this lack of depth because Harvey comics are family friendly? I don't think so. Archie comics
are family friendly but they're dripping with deliberate subtext.  That's partly because Archie comics were written by a bunch of dirty old men. It's also partly because Archie comics were populated with teenaged characters, so stories could work on multiple levels. The kind of subtext that was rife in Archie would be a little more difficult with comics like Richie Rich or Casper the Friendly Ghost. (Or even with Little Archie, honestly.)

Honestly, the lack of depth here makes it really hard to read anything into the motives behind the characters. One can read old Archie comics and see an agenda or a lascivious perversion, but there's not even that level of introspection possible with Harvey comics. I can, I guess, look at what the creators themselves have said about their creations -- but even that is usually fairly shallow because they're expecting children to read their words.

So if they're one-note comics that work on only one level why in the world were they so damned popular?

Maybe we'll never know, but dammit I bought some Harvey comics recently so all the 80 Page Giant family is going to have to suffer as I try desperately to work it all out.

I'll leave you with a more obscure Harvey allumni, who might shed a little light on how Harvey managed to spin some of its success. Jackie Jokers was a character who debuted in his own comic series which only lasted a pitiful 4 issues. His mono-mania is that he's a stand-up comedian who can't stop telling really bad jokes.

Jackie, as I said, lasted a grand total of 4 issues on his own. But then he got a new title, Jackie Jokers and Richie Rich. That lasted for 48 issues! That's more issues than Thundercats! This shared book formula (usually shared with Richie Rich and Casper the Friendly Ghost) was a big success for Harvey comics. Couldn't sell a character on his own? What about selling him WITH Richie Rich?

This forumla is also probably one of the reasons Harvey Comics imploded so quickly in the 1980s. If Richie's no longer popular, there go half their comics' range.

--Andrew S.
(So that means, pretty soon we're gunna have a big look at Richie Rich. Hope you guys are looking forwards to it.)


  1. If I stop to think about it, I seem to have vaguely fond memories of the early-80's cartoon show. Professor Keenbeane's gadgets amused me, I think (and yes, I am deeply shamed to know that name without having to look it up. Of course, I'll also admit to liking Scrappy Doo back in the day, so my childhood tastes may be suspect.

    Sad thing is, Richie Rich has been relaunched:

  2. Richie Rich's relaunch is only sad because of the execution. It's so... I dunno... cliched. Let's turn it into an adventure comic! With Richie as a plucky young rescue hero! Yay!

    I dunno, Richie isn't really a strong enough character to be TOO upset about any changes, though.

    Keenbean even got his own comic. Sorta:

    In the grand Harvey tradition it was a title he shared headlining status with Richie Rich. There was also a much longer-lived series called Richie Rich Inventions


    And yeah... fond memories is probably the best way to engage with Harvey comics. Actually READING them is a mistake if you're an adult.

    --Andrew S.
    (I'm so harsh on poor Harvey comics... but I can't help it.)