George Herriman’s drawings of Archy and Mehitabel brilliantly capture the spirit of their subjects: the inquisitive cockroach and the sassy, brassy alleycat. To
many most readers, the drawings are as much a part of Archy and Mehitabel’s charm as Don Marquis’s stories about them.
But Herriman was just one of many artists to capture their magic. Edward Gorey drew Archy and Mehitabel, and so did cartoonists at The New Yorker and Collier’s magazines. Animators drew them in a feature film, and artists today continue to draw inspiration from cockroach and cat.
Here is a look at Archy the cockroach through the eyes and pens and pencils of 10 artists, drawn over the course of nine decades. Scroll further down the page for an up-close look at each of the images. And look for drawings of Mehitabel in a future post.
Click on the thumbnail images below for full-size views:
The very first image of Archy appeared in the New York Tribune on September 11, 1922. The was the day Don Marquis joined the Tribune as its star columnist, and the newspaper took out half-page advertisements in rival dailies, including The New York Times, to brag about its new hire. Marquis had created Archy six years earlier at The Evening Sun and would remain at the Tribune until 1925.
This image accompanied a retelling of Don’s classic story “the lesson of the moth” that ran in Collier’s magazine on June 5, 1926. After Don left the Tribune, he had a weekly column in Collier’s titled “If You Know What I Mean” that ran for one year. Archy, of course, made regular appearances in it. His story of the moth willing to fry himself on a lightbulb was a repeat; it had previously appeared in The Sun in 1922.
The book “archly and mehitabel” had been in print for three years when, in 1930, Don’s publisher, Doubleday Doran, asked what he thought about a new edition with illustrations by George Herriman, who was well on his way to achieving cult status with his weirdly brilliant newspaper comic strip Krazy Kat. Don replied that if it would boost sales, he was all for it. It did, and the rest, as they say, is history. (For more on Herriman and the dust jackets he created for Marquis’s books, check out this recent blog post.)
Collier’s magazine published many of Don’s short stories and poems throughout the 1920s and ’30s, and this image of Archy scuttling away from a tin of insect repellant was part of a rhyming alphabet by Don that appeared in the July 22, 1933, issue. The alphabet is tremendously funny, and begins, naturally, with the letter A: “a is for Archy, which becomes / a synonym for roaches / an archy neither stings nor hums / but subtly he encroaches / some persons heed him and cry louder / others reach for the insect powder.” View the complete poem here.
This squib appeared in The New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town” column on January 14, 1950, accompanying a story on the death of The Sun newspaper. The magazine noted bitterly that in all the obituaries published by other newspapers, “there was only one mention of the most distinguished Sun man of them all, Don Marquis. The fact that the Sun office was the place where the lower-case Archy, the bug with the soul of a poet, subsisted on stale paste and apple parings and performed his nightly labors on the typewriter keys proved not worth a passing notice. Ah welladay!”
Archy came back to life, gloriously, in 1970 with the release of “Shinbone Alley,” a feature-length animated movie directed by John D. Wilson. It was based on a 1957 Broadway musical of the same, and it featured the voices of Carol Channing as Mehitabel, Eddie Bracken as Archy, and Alan Reed Sr. (“Fred Flintstone”) as Mehitabel’s tomcat boyfriend, Big Bill. It’s an enjoyable movie, with tuneful music and animation nothing like the standard Disney fare of that time.
Any literary character would be thrilled beyond words to be drawn by a master craftsman such as George Herriman, but Archy has the distinction of being drawn by two of the greatest illustrators of the 20th century. That second honor came with the release of the October 1986 issue of The Atlantic magazine, which featured a four-page spread of “lost” Archy stories illustrated by Edward Gorey.
Those lost stories mentioned above had been found by one Jeff Adams, who purchased the contents of an abandoned trunk of Marquis papers. Ten years after the Atlantic spread, Adams published a more robust collection of Archy stories that had never been included it books before. This new book was “archyology,” and it features a new set of illustrations by illustrator and New Yorker cartoonist Ed Frascino. More stories, and drawings followed in 1998 with “archyology ii.”
Some years back, a fortuitous mix of Google search terms revealed a webpage featuring the art of Paul Hosteler, an illustrator in Charlottesville, Virginia. He had posted several pages of unfinished sketches, including one from 2009 with drawings of Archy as a smart, sophisticated cockroach dude — wise and a bit world-weary. This is one of those sketches. Here is a link to Hostetler’s Facebook page.
Another lucky Google search uncovered the art of Isaac Cates, editor of Cartozia Tales, a clever magazine featuring stories by independent cartoonists. (And, oh yeah, Cates is also a Ph.D. poetry and writing lecturer at the University of Vermont). This image of Archy was part of an alphabet drawn in 2012 for his Satisfactory Comics blog.
If a picture is worth a thousand words, here are 10,000 that say Archy is alive and well as his 100th birthday approaches in March 2016 (see my archyFest! page). In fact, Archy has never looked better!