As we’ve spoken about a few times in this feature, the early 1960s saw a bit of a renaissance in the fortunes of the costumed super hero in comic books. With the relatively newly-instituted Comics Code Authority putting an end to the crime and horror comics that had flourished in the early half of the 1950s, as well as making forbidden anything that might be of interest in the Romance comics, publishers across the board were looking to find the next hot trend. As DC began to get some traction with both their established super heroes (Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman had remained in continuous publication all through the years) and their new revivals of the Flash and Green Lantern and especially the Justice League of America, other publishers began to position themselves to try to capture a portion of this market. One of those publishers was Archie Comics.
Archie had begun life under the name MLJ and had started out publishing the adventures of a bevy of costumed super heroes during the early 1940s–the Shield, the Black Hood, and others. But when a new teen humor strip, Archie, caught on in a big way, the company pivoted mightily, putting their crimefighters out to pasture and focusing instead on wacky high school hijinks with a bit of romance sprinkled in. It was a winning formula, and one that mostly allowed them to ride out the controversy of the 1950s largely unscathed. But they still had super heroes in their past, and with that genre beginning to show some life, they made a number of halting attempts during the 1960s to stake a claim.
Prior to ADVENTURES OF THE JAGUAR, Archie had brought in Joe Simon to oversee the creation of some super hero titles for them. The result was THE FLY and THE DOUBLE LIFE OF PRIVATE STRONG (which was a modernization of MLJ’s flagship hero, the Shield.) This was only a moderate success: DC complained that PRIVATE STRONG was too close to Superman and threatened legal action, and so the book was discontinued. And the Archie editorial staff didn’t like the work that Simon and his artists (including Jack Kirby) were doing on the Fly. After four issues, Simon was relieved of his duties and the Fly was retooled in house so as to make it more of a kind with the Mort Weisinger-edited Superman books. Clean, open artwork, storybook-style storytelling, nothing too exciting, nothing too scary. This was a bit more in Archie’s comfort zone–they were worried about putting the Archie name onto anything that parents might find offensive in some way.
I assume that THE FLY must have done all right for Archie, because in the summer of 1961 (just before FANTASTIC FOUR #1 came out) they decided to add another super hero character to their line. This hero would get his powers from a mystic belt, which would grant him the abilities of the animal kingdom. He was The Jaguar, and like the Fly before him, his stories were patterned after the sort of fare that Weisinger was overseeing in his Superman titles. The Jaguar was launched in his own title, ADVENTURES OF THE JAGUAR #1, without any particular fanfare.
The Jaguar was the brainchild of Robert Bernstein and John Rosenberger, who worked on this first issue. Bernstein was a regular contributor to the DC line–he worked under Weisinger, so he understood the level that Archie was looking for. He was also a commuter who rode the same rail line as Jack Kirby, with whom he’d chat and gossip as they made their way into and out of the city. Hearsay has it that some of the stories that Bernstein sold were based on ideas that Kirby came up with during their conversations–though it’s just about impossible to corroborate that idea.
ADVENTURES OF THE JAGUAR ran for a respectable 15 issues into 1963. Afterwards, the character would turn up now and then, whenever Archie was making another try at doing super heroes, and occasionally in single-page filler strips. The series was lightweight, and doesn’t seem like it was anybody’s favorite super hero title, but the stories have a certain simplistic charm to them, if you approach them in the right mindset.
Perhaps the most noteworthy thing about the Jaguar was the fact that, when zoologist Ralph Hardy donned the mystic jaguar belt and uttered the transformative words “The Jaguar” (very much in keeping with the Captain Marvel paradigm) not only was he changed into a red-costumed super hero, but his moustache would vanish. This property of his transformations was of endless fascination to those who spoke of the Jaguar’s adventures–it seemed so arbitrary.