Bob Montana drew his first Archie comic book in 1942 in a rented cottage on Lake Waukewan in Meredith, N.H. The character would take off, and for years Bob Montana would insert landmarks and personalities from the Lakes Region town into the comic, as he would with his high school friends and surroundings in Haverhill, Mass.
Montana was born on Oct. 23, 1920 in Stockton, Calif. At seven, he knew he wanted to be a cartoonist. His mother, Roberta, was a former Ziegfield Follies girl, and his father, Ray, was a banjo player. As a boy he traveled with his parents on the Keith vaudeville circuit. Backstage dressing rooms were his schoolhouse; he learned the 3Rs along with the art of gags and jokes. The family spent summers in Meredith, where his father owned a farm and ran a restaurant.
During a life of travel and later fame, Bob Montana would perennially return to the pretty small town of Meredith on the shores of Lake Winnipesaukee. He would settle there permanently and become involved in the life of the community even as Archie continued its long and successful run. Montana’s witty observations about the small New Hampshire town helped make Archie one of the most popular comic characters in America.
Archie would appear in a comic strip carried by 750 newspapers, best-selling comic books, a radio show, an animated television series and a fictional garage band – with a real pop music hit, Sugar, Sugar. Sixty-nine years after he drew that first comic book, a single copy would be sold at auction for $167,300, after Archie had become one of America’s most popular comic characters.
Haverhill High School and Beyond
When Bob Montana was 13, his father died. His mother remarried to a man who owned a theatrical costume shop in Massachusetts. They moved to Haverhill, where Bob attended Haverhill High School from 1936-39. At Haverhill High, Montana kept an illustrated diary that became the foundation for Archie and his world. He moved to Manchester, N.H., in 1939 and graduated from Manchester High School Central.
Upon graduation he moved to New York City, studied at the Art Students League and got a job working for MLJ Magazines. His boss, John Goldwater, was inspired by the successful Andy Hardy movies and asked him to work up a high school comic strip story. Thus was born a good-natured small-town high school student, Archie Andrews.
Drawing on that old diary, Montana created Jughead Jones based on his friend Skinny Linehan. Arnold Daggett became Moose Mason. Montana had worked for the Boston Brahmin Lodge family painting a mural, hence Veronica Lodge. Principal Earl MacLeod inspired Mr. Weatherbee, and the school librarian, Elizabeth Tuck, became Miss Grundy.
That first comic book was a smash hit. On the cover, Montana drew Archie showing off to Betty Cooper, who is just moving into the neighborhood. “Here y’are gang, America’s newest boy friend Archie Andrews, christened Archibald,” reads the cover copy. “He hates Archie, so if you value life and limb call him ‘Chick.’ Right now, he’s risking his life to impress his new neighbor, Betty Cooper…”
‘Chick’ soon fell by the wayside. Montana began drawing the daily and Sunday Archie comic strip while living in a New York City apartment with his mother and his sister.
Apples, Kids and Archie
Bob Montana and Peggy Wherett were married in 1944, and the couple eventually had four children. They returned to Meredith in the summers, and in 1950, he announced they were making Meredith their home. He said he planned to ‘raise apples and kids and to produce Archie. ‘
As Montana immersed himself in the life of the town, Archie comics began to frequently feature New Hampshire Lakes Region landmarks: Lake Winnipesaukee, Hart’s Turkey Farm, the Gunstock ski resort and the railroad station. Dartmouth College became Dartboard College.
His friends and acquaintances, even their pets, appeared in Archie’s adventures. Montana’s dentist Dr. Frederick Deneault, became the mean and slightly crazy Dr. DeMalt. The squirrel Lootsnoot was based on His Nibs, a pet squirrel of Meredith resident Mary Morgan. Meredith’s Dr. Turley appeared in one comic strip when Archie had a bad toothache on fight night. Jughead helped himself to a hypodermic needle filled with novacaine from Dr. Turley’s bag and shot Archie up. Archie won the fight because he couldn’t feel any pain.
When Montana wasn’t hunched over a drawing board, he was designing stage sets and program covers for the school plays, writing and directing amateur theatrical productions, performing in a jug band and raising money for local charities. He’d sail on Lake Winnipesaukee or cross-country ski near his home. Sometimes he and his family would take extended visits to Rome, England and Mexico. But they always returned to Meredith.
He was a local celebrity in Meredith, and the weekly Meredith News covered him as such. The staff kept track of which local resident appeared in the comic strip, usually announcing it on the front page. In 1948, the newspaper started its Archie-only funny page, running six daily strips in each weekly edition. ‘Archie … by Meredith’s Bob Montana,’ ran the byline.
Bob Montana died at the tragically young age of 54 on Jan. 4, 1977, while cross-country skiing in Meredith. He is to this day remembered fondly in the town.
Thanks to The New England Life of Cartoonist Bob Montana: Beyond the Archie Comic Strip by Carol Lee Anderson.