Archie, Betty and Veronica may be considered to have iconic status, but Sabrina the Teenage Witch is no C-lister. Or at least not anymore. She started small and her path to instant recognizability took a lot longer, but today there are few people who aren't familiar with some form of this character -- and there are many forms.
Sabrina was created by one of Archie's most prolific writers, George Gladir, for Archie's Mad House #22 released in October 1962. Mad House was unique among Archie comics in that it had more of an anything-goes variety style, though there was an attempt to give it a center by introducing a teenage band called the Mad House Glads. But the most successful idea to come out of the venture was Sabrina by far.
Gladir plucked the name for his new character from a classmate named Sabrina Holbrook he knew in junior high. He actually got the name wrong and found out later she was "Sabra." Sabra the Teenage Witch doesn't quite sound the same.
While Archie's look and personality have been set in stone since the 1950's, Sabrina is a much more fluid character. I have a theory that she's the only other living survivor of the planet Galifrey, because every time Sabrina is killed off, she mutates into another Sabrina and keeps going in a different manner. There have been eleven Sabrinas by now, sometimes with different companions, but always with the same mysterious charm that's kept her alive for five decades.
THE FIRST SABRINA
|The first incarnation of
Sabrina was very different from what she ended up as. In
the very first five-pager, written by Gladir and drawn by
Dan DeCarlo, she seems more evil than good.
As this opening page suggests, it was very unusual at the time to depict a witch as anything but the classic green warty crone stirring a cauldron. Sabrina may have been the first popular witch character to break that mold (though I guess Glinda came before her...) It's interesting how the myth has evolved since then, to the point that you almost never see the old-hag type of witch anymore -- they are usually depicted as beautiful girls now, and not always evil. The same kind of cultural transformation seems to be happening to vampires now, but I'm less enthused about that.
What's interesting is that, while at the same time forecasting literary trends by several decades, the original Sabrina exhibits some traits that have been long forgotten in witch lore today and weren't used that often back in the 60's, such as the notion that they can't cry and that they float in water like soap. (One of the methods the Puritans had to judge a witch was to drown the accused; if she floated she was a witch; if she didn't, oops, their bad.)
One other trait of the first Sabrina was that she commonly used her powers to mess with love. Popular culture has REALLY backpedaled on this one, not just for witches but for magic in general. Dumbledore told Harry Potter that no wizard was powerful enough to control true love. The Genie in Aladdin listed three things that were impossible for him and creating love via magic was right up there. I can really see why it's gone in this direction. If you spend an entire story uniting two people in natural love, and then you establish that some sorcerer could easily make them break up, that doesn't feel right at all. It violates the sense of justice and fairness that a satisfying story needs. In addition, the implication of forcing someone to love you feels squirmy and more than a little like rape. I'm not sure why they didn't have a problem with it fifty years ago.
The first Sabrina comic also introduces her cat Salem and Head Witch Della, and at the end reveals that if Sabrina ever fell in love with another human she would lose her powers forever. Now forget all that because nothing following this comic ever stuck to the rules laid down here.
THE SECOND SABRINA
|Other artists like Al
Hartley and Harry Lucey would take a stab at the Teenage
Witch (Lucey's were rare, and he would draw her with
cat's eyes), but Gladir and DeCarlo would remain the main
writer and artist behind Sabrina for over 20 years.
Eventually they settled into a predictable formula:
Sabrina generally wants to do good things with her magic,
to the disapproval of her more traditional Aunts Hilda
and Zelda, and especially to her Head Witch Della.
Unfortunately, her attempts at good spells often backfire
and create bad results. Most Sabrina storylines in the
60's and 70's were either this kind of story, or a Bewitched-type
situation involving Sabrina's new boyfriend, Harvey.
Harvey was clueless to the mystical mayhem around him,
and somehow remained so even as Della and Sabrina's
aunties constantly used him as target practice. He was
basically Darrin only stupider, and had even less of a
Speaking of Bewitched, the influence at this point was so great that Sabrina had to wiggle a body part to do magic. It wasn't her nose this time, but a tug at her ear. (Weirdly, this was exactly how Nicole Kidman cast spells in the reviled Bewitched movie.)
Also, Salem was inexplicably changed into an orange cat, despite the fact that a black cat made more sense.
THE THIRD SABRINA
Here's something most people don't know: Sabrina didn't make her TV debut in 1996. Her first show was all the way back in 1969, at the same time and network as Scooby-Doo's first appearance. Not only that, Sabrina's cartoon lasted four seasons and stayed on the air years longer, ultimately getting kicked off in 1978 following a last-ditch attempt by CBS to rebrand her as "Super Witch."
THE FOURTH SABRINA
|In the 1980's, Bob
Bolling handled Sabrina for a while, and became the first
person to veer her off in a different direction.
Most people can't stop laughing when I show them this cover. You know what they say about judging books. Folks, Bob Bolling Sabrinas ARE BADASS. Really!
Bolling used a lot of shading, shadows, and odd camera angles in his work. His material usually had a dark and moody twinge to it, and though that didn't always fit with Archie, he used it well for Sabrina to create high fantasy adventure stories. Instead of simply poofing into the room, Della would ride in on a thundercloud astride a gigantic horse to inform Sabrina that a supervillain (usually Bolling's own Professor Pither or Mad Doctor Doom) was inches away from world domination and only a witch like Sabrina could thwart his scheme. In addition to some pretty amazing adventures, there was a surprising amount of deep emotion in these stories (though not surprising if you knew anything about Bolling).
Plenty of people had written Sabrina before, but Bolling was the first to tap into the potential that such a premise had, and his exotic storylines foreshadowed the spaced-out adventure comics like "Explorers of the Unknown" and "Jughead's Time Police" that I enjoyed in the early 90's.
|THE FIFTH SABRINA
What's strange is that Bolling never drew Sabrina in the series he created and defined, "Little Archie." It was Dexter Taylor, the other artist of the title, that used a small version of her.
Stranger still, in that pointy hat she isn't even trying to be conspicuous anymore. Not that it matters, since until the sitcom years, her aunts walked around in stereotypical witch garb all over Riverdale and nobody ever noticed.
The revamped New Little Archie series would later reintroduce the child Sabrina as "Teeny Sabriney."
THE SIXTH SABRINA
|It's now 1992. Sabrina
hadn't been used in a few years when Dan Parent dug her
out of mothballs and introduced his own take on the
character, "Sabrina in Gravestone Heights
91313." This new series ran in the back of the early
issues of "Archie and Friends" and relocated
Sabrina and her aunties to a neighborhood full of
monsters and supernatural weirdos.
Parent was the first artist to depart from the traditional bob haircut DeCarlo had given Sabrina, choosing long-flowing white hair instead. She had a multitude of new friends including a vampire, a werewolf, a mummy, a cyclops, a male African-American Medusa, and an invisible girl named "Cleara." When Cleara first appeared you couldn't see her at all; later she would be identified by a T-shirt and accessories floating in midair. If she was wearing eyeshadow and lipstick, you could see her face. What this means is when Cleara wasn't running around nude, she was bottomless.
And what was traditionally "scary" about Cleara anyway? Stories about invisible people are only scary when they kill people; Cleara was rather benign.
Parent's Sabrina would also star in her own 48-page special, "Sabrina's Halloween Spooktacular." This comic introduced even more Parent originals: a family of circus sideshow freaks called "The Carneys." Parent clearly had high hopes for them, as he gave them their own special six months later, but The Carneys never took off.
THE SEVENTH SABRINA
|In the spring of 1996, Melissa Joan
Hart starred in a TV-movie based on the Sabrina comics.
That fall, a follow-up Sabrina-centered sitcom started
running on TGIF. I was skeptical it could succeed since
shows that use Archie characters....generally don't break
into the mainstream. This time, however, the charm was
with her. The show not only became a massive hit but
permanently rewrote some of the rules that hadn't changed
since Gladir and DeCarlo: Sabrina now had a last name
(Spellman), her aunts were depicted as somewhat
normal-looking, and Salem was changed back into a black
cat -- that could talk! These changes carried over into
the Sabrina comic that had now been relaunched, as well
as every incarnation afterward.
The Sabrina show also answered one question the comics never went into: the location of Sabrina's parents. It turned out Sabrina was living with her aunts because her mom was a mere mortal and once Sabrina turned 16, her mom could never visit her again or she would turn into a ball of wax. They stayed apart for a while, but eventually dared to meet each other. Sure enough, her mom became a ball of wax (with a face) and Sabrina had to appeal to the Witches' Council to have the curse reversed. The whole thing was played awfully light for such a dire, disturbing situation.
The Sabrina sitcom stayed on so long that she eventually graduated high school, went to college, and was no longer a teenager, forcing a change in the title to just "Sabrina."
THE EIGHTH SABRINA
|While the live-action
Sabrina show was hot and cooking, a new DEEK cartoon went
on the air depicting the adventures of a younger Sabrina
(voiced by Hart's sister). The cartoon stuck to the new
rules laid out by its prime-time cousin (normal aunts,
talking cat)...except for reasons unknown, her sitcom
nemesis Libby was swapped out for a similar character
named "Gem Stone." There was also a much larger
emphasis on learning life lessons and having them beaten
over your head. Education!
The cartoon was un-cancelled a few years after it ended, with more episodes produced under a new title, "Sabrina's Secret Life." The new Sabrina comic eventually switched to adapting the cartoon instead, with no explanation for the style change other than "magic."
THE NINTH SABRINA
|Then it switched back -- again, with "magic" as the explanation (it wouldn't be the last time either). This was a strange time for Sabrina because this particular comic gathered elements from all the previous Sabrina versions and tried to blend them together into a lukewarm soup. She sort of looks like the MJH Sabrina, but she has white hair like the original. Oh, and she meets Sonic the Hedgehog at one point.|
THE TENTH SABRINA
happened! Archie Inc. took note of the manga boom in the
US and observed that most shojo tales revolved around a
teenage girl with magical powers. Well, they already had
one of those! They decided to make a faux-manga version
of Sabrina, which lasted longer than I figured it would.
People who bought this version say it was the best Sabrina story told to date. I haven't read it, so I can't tell you if it's true, but from the description it sounds like it took an even more epic tone than Bolling's comics did. Manga Sabrina wrapped its serialized storyline in its 100th issue, but Archie kept it going for a few more issues (with a separate Salem adventure) just to see if it had any legs. At that point "Sabrina" was Archie's lowest-selling title and the hundredth issue bumped the numbers up a tad. But it wasn't to last and the long, complicated revival of Sabrina's comic was finally over.
THE ELEVENTH SABRINA
Until recently. Sabrina doesn't have her own book these days, but she does make appearances every now and then in regular Archie comics, and her original bob hairdo has returned. In 2010 Jughead became the first mortal Riverdale-ian to find out her secret, and it's through this connection that she occasionally appears to magically mess with Archie and friends.
Most recently she was used to make KISS appear and make Archie, Betty and Veronica swap genders. No comment here.
SABRINAS OF THE FUTURE
Both a new TV series and a Sabrina feature film have been announced, but the movie is currently in development purgatory. I can tell you that the proposed Sabrina TV show features what may be the strangest-looking mutation yet:
Yup....that's her! It's supposed to appear on The Hub, so....look for that when you're tuning in for your pony fix.
BONUS TRIVIA: Sabrina killed a guy once.
Uh, how do you just "forget".....never mind.
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