Tuesday, March 06, 2007

In Praise Of Ethel Muggs

It has occurred to me that my blog has been relatively lacking in good old fashioned comics scholarship. In an effort to rectify this, I turn my intellectual lens to an unsung heroine in the annals of comics history: Ethel "Big Ethel" Muggs.

A regular member of the supporting cast of the "Archie" universe, Ethel's singular raison d'etre has seemed to be an ugly girl to mock. I mean, it doesn't really get much deeper than that.

Tall, skinny, buck-toothed, and looking not a little like Jughead in drag, one could say that her spiritual ancestor might be the immortal "Lena the Hyena" made famous by Basil Wolverton. But whereas Lena, in all her wonderful infernal hideousness, had a mindless quality about her that rendered the character somewhat unsympathetic whilst chasing hapless Eddie Valiant off a roof in the movie "Who Framed Roger Rabbit," Ethel's singular love for Jughead Jones has elevated her, at least in this reader's mind, into the plane of Pathos.

Perhaps if Jughead possessed all the narcissistic zeal of Reggie Mantle he might have fallen for his female doppelganger; but alas, the slap-happy jokester of Riverdale could barely get hot under the collar for anything besides a hot steaming plate of hotdogs -- which is an article for another day. But if Jughead has been known to be notoriously cold when it comes to the opposite sex, he has been especially cruel to poor Ethel. Nary an issue featuring the two goes by where Jughead responds to his would-be girlfriend's advances by saying something to the effect of "I want to vomit." Such protests are considered "punchlines" in the comics.

Whether Ethel's last name is derived from that immortal phrase "hey look at da mug on dat dem ugly dame" or simply refers to J. Fred Muggs, a popular trained chimpanzee of the era, is unclear. But what is known for sure is that the girl's official debut was proceeded by two appearances of similarly-drawn ugly teenage girls that made the lives of the Riverdale boys hell by simply being their outgoing, homely selves.

In Archie Comics #30 (1948), Archie is bedeviled by a buck-toothed figure who at first he thinks is a boy. Dubbed "The Zombie" by Archie, he decides at the issue that the only way to deal with an ugly girl who likes you is to commit suicide. Later, "The Zombie" would receive a name, Ophelia Gleutenschnable, and would shift her focus away from Archie and onto his goofy best friend Jughead. Ophelia and Jughead would actually date for several issues. As Jughead explained, Ophelia's appeal was that she was "different" from the other girls: "She's the only one who will go with me!"

But their storybook romance was not to last. Somewhere through the years Ophelia became Ethel, and Jughead grew distant. Possessing a steely determination and an inability to recognize vital social cues, Ethel turned to bribing Jughead with hotdogs and fried chicken for his affection. While such strategic maneuvers yielded the girl notable short-turn gains, she generally remained the butt of Jughead's (and, in extension, the comic book itself's) cruel mockery.

Though most "Big Ethel" appearances follow the general "let's laugh at the ugly chick format," there has been a few storylines that took the opposite approach. These stories can be grouped under the "Beautiful On The Inside" banner:

1) Archie dates Ethel in "Archie's Riverdale High" #8 and finds out that she is really a beautiful girl "on the inside." Jughead gets jealous. (Note: this story, in terms of continuity impact, is on roughly the same level as the one where Lois Lane takes LSD and thinks she and Superman have a green-skinned mermaid baby with genius IQ who teams up with Bruce Wayne's own infant to helm a series of one-shots drawn by John Byrne)

2) In "Archie and Friends" #12, a handsome dude, "Hank," is Ethel's penpal. Understanding by now the impact of her ungainly appearance, Ethel sends him a picture of Veronica instead of herself. So now Veronica has to go on a date with Hank as to not shatter Ethel's already-fragile self-esteem and drive her to killing half the student body with her telekinetic abilities run amok. BUT HANK REJECTS VERONICA AND LOVES ETHEL BECAUSE ETHEL IS "PRETTY ON THE INSIDE!"

3) In "Jughead" #29, Ethel dates a blind boy, the only particular flavor of boy that could possibly stand to be near her. Which means, in pop-culture terms, that her appearance is roughly on the same plane as The Thing, Frankenstein, and the boy from the movie "Mask." In the same issue, not to be outdone, the now-jealous Jughead finds his own "handi-capable" love interest, a paralyzed African-American girl. Shockingly, by next issue the blind boy and African-American girl were completely and utterly forgotten; it is theorized that they, along with the idea of interracial romance, were casualties of the epic "Crisis on Infinite Archies" maxi-series.

One last interesting storyline development concerning Ethel Muggs is contained in the TV movie "From Riverdale and Back Again," in which Archie and the gang are all grown up. Late-bloomer Ethel, it is revealed, matured into a sexy pinup model. While she could have any man she wants in the whole world, of course she takes Jughead back, her self-esteem being somewhere between similarly masochistic Betty and shoe-heel dirt.

Big Ethel recently received a slight redesign, part of an overall effort by Archie Comics to be more sensitive to "ugly girls." As noted in her online bio, Ethel is "a beautiful person on the inside" (OUCHOUCHOUCH).

In the footsteps of similar online campaigns for characters such as Supergirl and that "Robin" chick, I suggest a "FREE ETHEL MUGGS" crusade to pressure Archie Comics into ceasing to make fun of her. As part of "reparations" for all the abuse the character has received over the years, I humbly suggest that Archie Andrews be forced to date her -- with a SMILE, damnit! -- for at least twenty issues. Then Jughead could get jealous and have a Star Trek "Kirk Vs. Gorn" style gladiatorial match for her affections using big pointy sticks.

Anyone interested in the "FREE ETHEL MUGGS" campaign or has non-pornographic fan art to post on this site can feel free to e-mail me. Together, we can make a difference! First, Ethel -- then the World!


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. Look Val, you have a non-spam comment too!

    My most lasting memory of Ethel Muggs was that a story involving her was the first time I ever read the expression "an accident waiting to happen." I think either Archie or Reggie described her that way. I thought it was a terribly cruel remark and for that reason I always liked Ethel, but I still like the phrase itself.

  3. I vividly remember that live action "Big Chill" version of Archie.

    Lauren Holly was Betty. Weird.

  4. Free Ethel, Jughead, and Moose!

    It's intriguing how Archie comics historically reinforce the very situations of teen angst which we now try to eliminate. (Well, things we as a society claim we want to eliminate.)

    The three above-mentioned characters are all secondary "also-rans" due to their inability (or refusal) to be like Archie. Archie functions as the human archetype - the comic bears his name. It's his universe, he's the King, and the less you resemble the King the less important you are.

    The manner in which Archie comics portray gender stereotypes is well-known. (Not that Archie comics are the only offenders in this regard.) Their problems w/r/t race have been well-documented.

    It's also interesting how these "outsider" characters reinforce certain ideas of class in America. Reggie and Veronica are obnoxious, but that's okay because they're rich. Archie is the good-hearted middle-class guy, enchanted by the wealth of his asshole friends. Betty is the classic American Blonde. They each represent some role to which youth are instructed to aspire.

    But Ethel, Jughead and Moose? All from the wrong side of the tracks, all from (at best) the "lower middle class," all exhibiting behaviors that we are not supposed to emulate. Even Moose: though he possesses some status in the high school world as an athlete, said status is short-lived: in the real world, he'll be a dumb jock whose every success will be said to be the result of favoritism. Jughead and Ethel will never fit in, and any attempt they make to do equates to "brown-nosing" their "betters." Their differences from the mainstream isolate them, make them freaks.

    A few years ago I got an Archie comic on Free Comic Book Day. A friend was surprised to see the series is still published. She was even more surprised to see it had changed very little since her childhood. The same characters playing the same roles. "Is there any high school in America like this?" she wondered. "Was there ever?" I asked. We wondered if Archie comics had ever done a special Columbine issue, where Moose and Jughead, tired of playing court jester to Archie or Reggie, take up arms.

    I also wonder how much to make of it. If total (non-manga) comics readership is on the decline, then how many people still read Archie? How important to kids and teens are Archie comics these days? More important or influential than The O.C. or American Idol? Does the comic even remotely resemble consensus reality? When will "pretty on the inside" Ethel show up wearing a Hole or L7 t-shirt?

  5. Cal,

    I hate to break this to you... but Jughead has NEVER been an "also-ran" in the Archie Comics. In fact, he's pretty much been the main supporting character of the series, as Archie's best friend. I have to disagree with your assement there. It just doesn't fit (in my opinion).

  6. That's funny -- I remember that Archie comic where he and Ethel went out on a date. It's too bad they didn't go anywhere with that, but such is the nature of Archie.

  7. Two things.

    1. Ethel pre-dates Lena the Hyena, having first appeared in Archie Comics #30 in 1948, four years before MAD started. Of course, in her debut appearance, she wasn't referred to by name, but instead by the uncharitable appellation, "That zombie." The story's reprinted in Archie's Best of the 40s, Volume One.

    2. Forsythe Pendleton "Jughead" Jones stars in two ongoing series (Jughead and Jughead and Friends Digest), and doesn't seem to have any trouble fitting in whatsoever, save for his pervasive misogyny. He's been depicted as a top-notch cook, a wonderful dancer, a dynamite competitive eater, and he even has his own nemesis, amateur psychologist Trula Twyst.

    Hardly an "also-ran." If anytyhing, he's way more popular and well-known than Reggie Mantle.

  8. has non-pornographic fan art to post on this site

    Shoot, I'm out...

  9. Actually, it was Kirk and Spock that fought gladiator-style with pointed sticks. When Kirk fought the Gorn he mostly ran away until he was able to build a cannon from stuff he found lying around a desert planet.

  10. hmmm I assume this post was posted tongue in cheek.
    However if not, or even if it was i wonder if ou fell the same about the male character Josh, in BOP?
    Isn't he essentially nothing more than a male version of ethel?
    Like her he was portrayed as ugly, with little to no social skills, and overly outgoing, as well as being unrequitedly enamored of a supporting character.
    So if we need to free ethel, in the interest of being "gender neutral" shouldn't we try to 'free josh"?

  11. I was an Archie Comics freak when I was a kid. Never liked the DC/Marvel universes.

    This is a very fascinating topic. I remember liking Big Ethel, Jughead, (Big) Moose and the other secondary characters alot more than the main characters. I remember feeling jealous of Veronica's wealth (I felt the same about Richie Rich, too) but I found comfort with Betty's down-to-earthness. I remember being pissed off at Ethel that she would constantly run after Jughead like a damn fool! Were they the only kids in the whole town??!

    I agree 100% with rocketeerz. Jughead was far from being an also-ran. I believe Juggie is the only one to have an article of his clothing manufactured for humans. I think they still make Jughead crown hats!

    My biggest beef though, even as a teen, was the lack of African American kids. And I swear, when I see the shows of today, racially speaking they are EXACTLY like Riverdale High!

    I hope that someone who draws the "real life" type comic books, will do an interpretation of Archie, where Ethel and the other neglected characters get real lives and confront their more popular peers. Maybe Gregory Maguire can give it a Wicked-type treatment. Just might wind up with another Broadway smash!

  12. Is there a reason why my comment was removed?

  13. >> Is there a reason why my comment was removed? >>

    It wasn't removed. It was just being held in the moderation queue because of the american holiday weekend.

  14. Sorry, my bad. Thanks.

  15. Anonymous4:16 PM

    Ugly chicks, like fat chicks, do get made fun of in high school. Archie Comics has always blended the realistic and the incredibly unrealistic, but that one they got right. Later in life those kicks would regret being so mean to her - just like in real life (at least for most people).

    The Archie Comics people are these days really bending over backward to make their comics as PC friendly as humanly possible, and it's really ruined them. Ethel's no longer scrawny, buck-toothed, and fugly. Miss Grundy's no longer this old spinster hag with one tooth. Moose is no longer dumb - no, of course not; he's got "learning disabilities" like dyslexia. Sure, okay.

    In reality there are ugly people, and there are dumb people, and they get made fun of. That's a shame, but that's the way it goes.