By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
"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 Lumpkinfor 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 Josieas 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 Josiecomics. 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 Pussycatswas going to debut as an animated Saturday-morning show--as in, thatSaturday 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."