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Cough It Up

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 Rachel 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.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky

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