Teenage Wasteland: The Endurance of Archie Andrews
I’m reading a small, square book on a plane, next to a woman with one roller in her shiny gray hair and an affable man looking through a manual on restoring a Continental Mark II car to 1952 conditions. I watch him page through color blocks of champagne and green iridescent and a chapter on body sheet metal and fasteners. We are all trying to reclaim some past. I have collected my own book from a drawer at my Grandpa’s house in Indiana, and am bringing it back to New Mexico, where I live. I have read it at least tens of times, at night, when everyone has secreted away to their own private universe. It is a Betty and Veronica digest, a title in the Archie comics family, and is as familiar to me as the dense heat of an Indiana summer dusk.
I read a story, a favorite of mine, in which Betty and Veronica slump in Pop Tate’s Soda Shoppe while the boys ignore them to play Pong, the latest craze in video games. All the girls want is a date, a trip to the movies, lunch on the beach. I like this story because it takes part in the 70s, my preferred Archie era, and because it is one of those somewhat rare stories in which the blonde and brunette foils join forces rather than compete for their freckle faced everyboy of choice. The story concludes with the girls seeking the help of resident kid genius Dilton Doiley in mastering the game of Pong themselves. They become savants, beat the boys, and the roles are suddenly reversed: the young men scowl in the same Soda Shoppe, bemoaning the existence of the new diversion as the girls rack up points.
I wouldn’t necessarily call it a feminist story, because there’s Veronica waggling her rounded figure to get male attention, and the young ladies’ complaints about what the distraction-eradicating blinders will do to their hair. But, there is something brave embedded in the colorful, lively pages of “Video Vexation” that runs through all Archie stories; DNA that emerged in 1941 and outlived all of its contemporaries through cunning, chance and bravery.
I showed up gleaming and nervous at the Michigan college four hours away from my home in Wisconsin. I brought all the essentials for college living—the thrift store clothes and microwave, the many glossy photos from my old life. I also carried stacks of Archie Comic digests, titles I placed next to Beloved and an anthology on Asian Diasporas. It was those first days of college, where you don’t know anyone and luckily somehow someone in your suite has cheap beer or liquor and you are drinking because of nerves and boldness at being away. Archie and beer saved me that first night, when I talked about Jughead (my muse), hoping to find someone similarly connected to his half-mast eyes and authenticity. I ended up creating Archie erotica, which earned me some friends and doubtful glances.
When John Goldwater and Bob Montana created Archie Andrews, America’s lovable, inelegant youngster, the red head was a part of establishing the “teenager” (previously known as “youths” or “adolescents”) in the years between the wars. Inspired by the Andy Hardy movies (starring eternally youthful Mickey Rooney) and Goldwater’s own teenage years, Archie was truly goofy in those early days. As drawn by Montana, his freckles looked like dirt smudges and his teeth seemed descendants of lagomorphs. Why the sultry Veronica (modeled after Veronica Lake) or the sugary Betty vied for him is a question that adds to Archie’s enduring mystique.
Archie was one of the first mainstream, serial comics to purposefully tempt an overlooked comic book market: females. Girls have compromised a healthy chunk of Archie’s readership since the redhead’s inception. For a time, other comic book publishers replicated the success of Archie and came up with a number of less successful “girl” titles. But, Betty and Veronica, and Archie and Jughead, survived where Millie, Patsy and Tillie did not.
As the Comics Code Authority began to shut comics down in the 1950s and force all titles, from horror to romance, to gut their books of any sordid temptation, Archie bobbed above the surface. The Comics Code was looking for all things lascivious: a peek of cleavage, carnage, coarseness. A pioneering psychiatrist, Frederic Wertham, wrote an admired book on the effects of these problematic comics on their main audience—the youth. In Seduction of the Innocent, Wertham argued that reading comic books led to delinquency.
In this anxious milieu, the Comics Code Authority was established, and all printed comics by mainstream publishers had to carry a literal stamp of approval on its glossy cover in order to be sold. Luckily for Archie, despite all the winking nods to getting frisky and necking, the writing and art on the whole was pretty darn wholesome. A few floating hearts and flying sweat droplets were often the only clueing in to the teens’ kindling arousal. Another fortuitous stroke for the gang was John Goldwater’s founding role in the Comics Magazine Association of America, the parent organization that housed the Comics Code Authority. This certainly didn’t hurt Archie’s chances of survival.
In a summer that looms colossal in my memory, I worked for a prominent comics publisher in Montreal. I had left my parents to unravel their marriage in my red childhood house with my first cell phone in my hand. The bright blue screen wasn’t an addiction, yet. I would read comics on the bus to work. Some pretty dark comics that made me feel a little woozy while I lurched through streets with French names. I liked these comics, I couldn’t stop reading them, but there was some sorrowful well they unlocked when I came up to real world air. The world was getting realer and meaner all the time, I knew, but the possibilities of cruelty seemed so vast and inevitable in these comics I admired. I wanted the world reflected in Riverdale’s sunny fortifications. Archie made me optimistic that kindness survived.
Archie is an antidote to superheroes, to graphic memoirs that explore (important) facets of darkness in personal and collective histories. The comics have survived through decades of changing tastes and priorities, I think, due to the relief the familiar characters provide from life’s suffocations. Because Jughead has worn his mysterious “S” sweater since the 40s, because Archie will never, truly, make a decision between his wicked and wholesome women, because Pop Tate will flip burgers for the rest of his days, Archie retains his old-fashioned skeleton. But, his body keeps changing, evolving in cockroach-like endurance. Just when you think he’s finished, that iconic red hair shows up in some newsfeed: Lena Dunham to write Archie storyline! Au courant artist Fiona Staples to reinvent the gang!
The very fact that Archie creators and readers have supported so many changes in their unswervingly provincial Riverdale is proof of their boldness. The characters are reliable, consistent in their traits, yet each is put into situations that force them to make dynamic choices. The funny, touching, ridiculous and grand storylines have kept me a reader far past the age I thought I would be flipping through the vibrant pages. But how can I resist an Archie-Punisher crossover? A guy with a machine gun becomes a chaperone for a high school dance—hilarity ensues. How could I turn my back on a company that lets its house artist (Dan Parent) draw a guest issue for a horror/gore comic (Hack/Slash) in which the violence takes stage in a place very much like Riverdale? Remember when Jughead was a skate punk in the 80s?
More recently, since Jon Goldwater, son of originator John, took over the company helm in 2009, the freckle-faced Romeo and his gang have been pushing the progressive envelope even more. In 2012, Riverdale celebrated the wedding of a gay soldier, Kevin Keller, to his partner, Archie (a white man) married Valerie (a black woman and bass player for the Pussycats) and had a baby, a beloved Riverdale High teacher dies, and zombies. And, that embodiment, as presented in Afterlife with Archie, is perhaps the most fitting one—a world in which those dead rise again to stalk our consciousness, the familiar façade transformed.