I never met Josie DeCarlo, who died last month, and that’s probably because I don’t live in Scarsdale and don’t attend many comic book conventions. She’s a legend in the Archie comics world. She was the inspiration for the Josie of She’s Josie, the down-to-earth teen-frolic comic book which morphed into the international action-adventure TV cartoon series. Further televised exploits of the Pussycats took place in outer space. (The comic book got weirder, too—the Pussycats’ nemesis Alexandra Cabot, who wants to take over the group and rename it Alexandra and Her Cool Time Cats, gained Sabrina-esque magical powers.)
The obituaries which have been flitting about the web don’t generally mention (here’s one that does) that it was a dispute over the rights to the Josie character which led to a split between Dan DeCarlo and his longtime employers at Archie comics in 2000. The artist sought a stake in the Josie & the Pussycats movie (directed by Harry Elfont & Deborah Kaplan, and featuring Rachael Leigh Cook as Josie) and took the Archie company to court, where it was ruled that DeCarlo had signed away the rights to Josie under the conditions of his freelance contract.
In an interview conducted by Mike Curtis, published in Comics Journal #229, Dan DeCarlo recounts the origins of Josie the comic character, which he first intended as the star of a newspaper comic strip:
It must have been about ’56. And then one day Josie came in with—you’re probably familiar with this story—with that real bouffant hairdo and a little black ribbon in her hair… She was cute as hell. She was beautiful.
Curtis: She’s beautiful now.
DeCarlo: Yeah. Even now. You can imagine how beautiful she was. She looked terrific. So I drew the hairstyle, exaggerated it a bit to make it more readily identifiable. And I thought since I’m taking it from Josie I’m going to call the strip Josie.
Later in the interview, Dan DeCarlo divulges a detail that expands on an anecdote which is in a lot of the Josie DeCarlo obits.
Curtis: Now you told me before you had a photograph to base [the Pussycats] costume on, one with the real Josie wearing it.
DeCarlo: Yeah. Yeah. I designed that outfit for Josie maybe in 1963, at a house party. We were having a costume party. I designed the outfit, and Josie had a friend who was a great dressmaker and made the costume later used in Jose and the Pussycats. Later on we used it—we have photographs of that. And even later we went on a cruise and she used that as a costume then for a costume party they threw on the cruise. And you’d be surprised all of the girls, all the pretty girls all lined up in bunny costumes with the ears and the fluffy tail in the back and Josie in the middle with the Pussycat costume.
Josie and the Pussycats continue to be active members of the Archie universe. The characters were redone in a manga style a few years ago. They’ve recently shared a few storylines with fellow teen pop stars The Archies, engaging in a good-natured Battle of the Bands and sparking a romance between Archie and Pussycats bassist Valerie. They also cameoed as zombies in this year’s Archie Meets Kiss miniseries. The Archie/Valerie relationship will be further explored in the forthcoming Archie Marries Valerie series, an offshoot of the young-adult Archie Marries… and Life With Archie Magazine continuum.
Dan DeCarlo died in 2001. He’d been ostracized from Archie and had found work at other comics companies, notably Bongo (which publishes the Simpsons titles). During the legal squabbles, the lack of DeCarlo-drawn stories in Archie Digests and other reprint titles was noticeable. Whatever indignation remained in the air seemed to cease ages ago, at least in the public sphere.
In any case, whoever made the most money from the idea of modeling Josie on Josie DeCarlo, she was by all accounts a charming woman, loyal friend and good sport. May she rest in peace, and may the Pussycats continue to prosper in her honor.