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Saturday, October 08, 2011

Saturday Morning: Sabrina The Teenage Witch

It only recently dawned on me that there happens to be a lot of witches in the world of pop culture.

And that a lot of these witches have characteristics that interchange with each other.

Take the subject of the blog entry we talked about yesterday. On Bewitched, the main character was named Samantha, had blonde hair, and could perform magic tricks with the wiggle of a nose. Sometimes, her magic could get her into trouble, especially with mortals.

As it turns out, another witch has almost the same description. She had a name that began with the letter 'S', she also happened to have blonde hair, and often could conjure up spells without ease. And just like Samantha from Bewitched, this witch could often get into a lot of trouble with her spells...especially around her boyfriend, and her classmates.

So it's interesting to note that today's subject was created two years before the television show Bewitched hit the airwaves.

Meet Sabrina Spellman, otherwise known as Sabrina The Teen-Age Witch. A teen witch that celebrates her fiftieth birthday next year, but a teen witch nonetheless. Originally meant to be a one-note character in a forgotten Archie Comics title, her popularity has spawned at least five different incarnations of her own comic book series, a television cartoon, a live-action television program, and several novelizations of that live-action series.

But, first, let's find out how Sabrina came to be, and what lessons she can teach us along the way.

Sabrina was created by longtime Archie artist Dan DeCarlo, and longtime Archie writer George Gladir. Her first appearance in comic book form was in Archie's Mad House #22, appropriately enough with a cover date of October 1962. You can see the image of the cover above this paragraph.

Archie's Mad House was a rather unique title in the world of Archie Comics. The serial was quite popular throughout the 1960s, and spurned a digest format in the late 1970s. Each story in the title dealt with monsters, magicians, mad scientists, space aliens. Consider it a comic book form of all of those B-movies that were popular at drive-in movie theaters at the time. In issue #22, the kick-off story was Sabrina's first appearance. For those of you who want to read it, the story appears in full in 'The Best Of Archie Comics' anthology, which was released earlier this year.

The story was a simple introductory episode that set the stage for establishing the main character, and her main problem. Sabrina's a teenage witch who lives in a town just outside of Riverdale (as several stories have Sabrina mingling with Archie and the gang). In the first story, she tells us about all the magic powers she has in her possession, and how she tries her best to keep humans from discovering them. We also meet Sabrina's pet cat, Salem (who depending on when the story was made could vary in colour from black to gold), and Della, the head witch, who gets annoyed when Sabrina uses her powers for good instead of evil.

As Sabrina stories continued to be presented, we met more characters. We were introduced to her two aunts. Hilda, the red-haired aunt, who at the age of over three hundred looks every bit of her years on earth. She also tends to be the more selfish and sarcastic of the two, but loves Sabrina with all her heart. There's also Zelda (with hair the colour of seaweed), whose plump physique hides a heart of gold, and is generally more easy-going than Hilda. We're also introduced to Cousin Ambrose, a warlock who isn't as high strung as Sabrina's aunts, but has lots of storylines where he's looking for love, and not being successful. Sabrina has another cousin, Esmeralda, who looks and acts like a twelve year old brat who loves to cause trouble. Finally, we meet Harvey Kinkle, Sabrina's boyfriend, who is completely unaware of Sabrina's magical background, and is often surprised and shocked when he sees Sabrina performing witchcraft around him.

Those are really all the basics that you need to know, at least for now. We'll continue on with the timeline.

After her first appearance in Archie's Mad House, Sabrina made regular appearances in the title Archie's TV Laugh-Out, which ran from 1969-1985, and this decision was a move that co-creator George Gladir seemed surprised at. In an interview from 2007, Gladir said this about the origins of Sabrina, as well as the success that followed.

I think we (DeCarlo and Gladir) envisioned it as a one-shot and were surprised when fans asked for more. We continued to do Sabrina stories on and off in Mad House until 1969 when we were flabbergasted to hear it was to become an animated (television series). When it came to naming Sabrina, I decided to name her after a woman I recalled from my junior high school days who was very active in school affairs, and who assigned a number of us to interview prominent people in the media. In addition, the name had a New England ring to it. Some years later, I recalled the woman's name was not Sabrina, but actually Sabra Holbrook.”

Somehow I think the name Sabrina Spellman had a better ring to it.

As George Gladir stated in his interview, the comic proved successful enough to spawn an animated television series. In 1970, the animation company Filmation developed the cartoon, which showed Sabrina in cartoon shorts along with the Groovie Goolies (which ended up getting their own animated series a year later). It aired on CBS and ran until 1974.

A year after the animated series debuted on television, Sabrina ended up getting her own title that initially lasted for twelve years. In 1983, the title began to be published annually in the Archie Giant Series Magazine for a few years afterwards. By 1987, Sabrina comic books were only put out sporadically. During the early 1990s, Sabrina and her aunts left the Riverdale area to a spooky town known as Gravestone Heights. There, Sabrina ended up making some rather unusual friends, including an invisible girl named Cleara, and a woman named Eyeda, whose entire face was taken over by a gigantic eyeball.

It wasn't until 1996 that Sabrina would get a second wind. That year, a made for television movie debuted on ABC, which had the role of Sabrina being played by former Clarissa Explains It All actress Melissa Joan Hart. The movie was successful enough for a live-action series to be produced. On September 27, 1996, the live-action television series debuted on ABC.

With the live-action series, we ended up learning a lot more about Sabrina. We finally found out that her last name was Spellman (for 34 years, we were not given any sort of surname for Sabrina), and that she was actually only one-half witch (her warlock father had married a mortal mother). She lives with her two aunts, Hilda and Zelda (played by Caroline Rhea and Beth Broderick respectively), dates Harvey Kinkle (Nate Richert), has to deal with her mean girl bully Libby (Jenna Leigh Green), and has to deal with her talking cat, Salem (voiced by Nick Bakay). The early episodes of the television series were almost similar to the plots in the comics. In many cases, Sabrina was shown trying to get used to her powers, and the mishaps that occurred along the way (in the first episode, she turned Libby into a pineapple, for instance).

As the show progressed, the show switched networks (from ABC to the now defunct UPN network) in the fourth season, and despite a complete changeover in cast managed to run until early 2003.

The television show spurned yet another version of the Sabrina comic book, this time featuring Sabrina looking more like the Melissa Joan Hart version than her classic 1960s look. Many of the early comic covers of the Sabrina reboot actually featured Melissa Joan Hart on the cover itself. The television series also spawned dozens of novels, and you can see a picture of one of these novels below.

As a result of this new comic adaptation, the comic made a few appearance changes to some of the characters. Salem changed colour from orange to black, and he actually could talk to Sabrina and the others. Salem's backstory was also fleshed out more, revealing that Salem was actually a human warlock who had a curse put on him, transforming him into a black cat. Hilda and Zelda's frumpy appearances were changed as well, to look more contemporary and modern, to fit with the theme of the television series. Some fans appreciated the changes, while some complained that the comic series was being changed too much.

I'll admit to liking classic Sabrina the best myself, but I did appreciate the company for attempting to bring back Sabrina, because she really was a one-of-a-kind character.

With the success of the live-action series came a second cartoon series, where we could see Sabrina as a thirteen year old girl (who was voiced by the younger sister of Melissa Joan Hart, Emily), and the animated series aired during the early 2000s. The comic book was temporarily switched over to the adventures of the 13-year-old Sabrina during the original airing of the cartoon. In 2004, the Sabrina comic serial was given another revamp, courtesy of artist Tania Del Rio, who gave the comic a manga-style appearance, beginning with Sabrina #58. The change would last until issue #100, when the last original Sabrina comic book was released.

At this point, it's unclear as to whether Sabrina will once again get her own title, but her stories continue to be reprinted in the six current double digest titles that Archie Comics releases.

So, what sorts of things can Sabrina teach us?

Well, for one lesson, we can look at the people who created the character. Both Dan DeCarlo and George Gladir expected Sabrina to be a one-off character, but what neither one of them expected to see was the sheer success that the character had. So, in that sense, I guess one lesson we can learn is not to dismiss an idea so quickly. If both of them had, maybe Sabrina would have fallen through the cracks just as other Mad House characters had.

But, I guess another lesson we can learn is that sometimes if a character is charismatic and well-developed, they can survive almost any change of scenery. I mean, Sabrina is the perfect example. She's been a comic book star, an animated cartoon, a live-action sitcom, and even appeared in anime form, and yet, in all of these adaptations, she's stayed true to who she really is...a teenage witch with good intentions that while they may not work to her advantage, does demonstrate that underneath that witchy exterior lies a heart of gold.


  1. Could you post your sources for the information in this article? I am particularly interested in the Gladir quote about Sabrina being meant to be a one-off character. Great post!

  2. Great piece! I like that you covered all aspects of Sabrina.
    Perhaps add a new section of the latest Sabrina books?
    It's the more mature take: "Chilling Adventures of Sabrina."