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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!