I don’t recall what was the first Archie comic that I ever read, but I do know where I read it. When I was seven years old my parents bought a piece of lakeside property about two hours north of Toronto and built a cottage on it. I was fortunate that our neighbours, the McClures, had one son who was six months older than I was, and another eighteen months younger. For two months every summer we spent every day together on that lake. There was a small community of kids our age, and we circulated cottage to cottage like the gang in Riverdale. The McClures had, for reasons that remain unclear to me even to this very day, a fruit box filled with beat-up old comic books under the stairs, and these were pulled out on days when it rained after we had tired of playing cards or whatever other indoor activities were available to us. This was the late 1970s, but all of the comics dated from the mid- to late 1960s.
As I reread these comics, now middle-aged and with all the cares and responsibilities that come with time, I was carried back to a world without consequences. To a world in which even your worst enemy might also be your best friend. To a time when any interest in romance seemed incredibly distant and unreal. To a world very unlike my own, where kids passed through fences with loose boards (always causing them to swing and bash someone in the face), and where an entire town would have lawns guarded by low stone fences upon which the youth eternally rested. I had never seen a low stone fence in my life—yet nothing seemed to define home to me more clearly. Riverdale was Edenic for a white kid growing up in a well-to-do suburb of Toronto in the 1970s. It was my privileged world, only better.
In various ways and in different manners it turns out that I have been thinking about Archie my whole life. As I have been writing my book, my own son has been reading my newly collected Archies. The media world in which we exist has changed completely. We read Archies because our cottages had no televisions. There were no video games for us, no Internet, and we only got one radio station: CHAY-FM, which played nothing but elevator music. My son lives in a media environment of unrestrained plenitude and on-demand access to entertainment. Still, he reads the cover gags and wonders what is inside them. He sorts them by title and by number, and he asks me if he may read them. Then he lies on the couch beside my desk and raptly immerses himself in the world of Riverdale, just as I used to do.
I see Archie entering his consciousness, and I wonder what, if anything, these same Archie stories might mean to him in another thirty years. Perhaps I’ll leave a few for him, tucked away under the stairs in an old fruit box, where they belong.
THE STALKER NEXT DOOR
There are certain facts about Betty Cooper that are seen as indisputable. She is sixteen and a quarter (Betty and Veronica 111). And she is the “nice girl” in the Betty and Veronica pairing. Betty is loyal, honest, and essentially decent, and these qualities account for the fact that she is fundamentally better liked by the readership than is Veronica. She is the ideal girl next door. And Archie’s failure to recognize her many charms is his greatest failing. Right?
Betty Cooper has everyone fooled.
The truth of the matter is that Betty Cooper is one of the most misunderstood characters in the history of the American comic book. While she may not be as snobby and self-involved as her rival, Veronica, Betty is conniving and opportunistic.
Take, for example, “Remember the Daze,” the lead story in Archie 171. The story opens in medias res with Archie, having suffered “a sock in the head at baseball practice” kissing Midge. Suffering from amnesia, he no longer remembers who he is or what the social rules of Riverdale High are—such as don’t kiss Midge when Moose is around. When Mr. Weatherbee, the principal, places Betty in charge of restoring Archie’s memory she has no hesitation in taking advantage of his enfeebled mental state: “I’m Betty! We go steady! You love only me! You’ve loved me for years! There are no other women in your life! Someday we will be married! Just keep remembering how you love me!”
Faced with a helpless Archie, Betty shows no fundamental decency. Instead, she exploits his incapacity. Moreover, the story is not atypical of the portrayal of Betty during the period.
Even within a narrative system whose central organizing principle is the exaggeration of broad comedy, Betty’s behaviours often border on the pathological. Indeed, Archie creators across all titles repeatedly and consistently depict her as a stalker. In Betty and Veronica 88, for instance, it is explained that Betty is always on Archie’s wavelength and that she has the uncanny ability to track his movements. The clearest indications of the unhealthy nature of the obsession can be found in the repeated “Betty’s Diary” segments that are a staple of the Archie canon. Each instalment of “Betty’s Diary” operates in exactly the same manner, with the text, written in the form of Betty’s first-person captions, being contradicted by the images. As Betty narrates her own life to herself, she is inherently delusional, crafting an idealized picture of a relationship with Archie that does not exist.
“The Kisser Strikes,” from Archie 143, is an eleven-page story (in two parts) in which all of the girls of Riverdale High are mysteriously kissed by someone whom they are unable to identify. The boys develop a plan to capture the culprit. When Archie is struck on the head by a low-hanging branch in a darkened park, he himself is kissed by the kisser, leading him to the (correct) conclusion that the kisser must be Betty, who has kissed all of the girls in school only to throw everyone off her trail so that she could kiss him.
While the story is incredibly convoluted, and takes on unusually odd gender dynamics with its homoerotic undertones and disturbing attitude towards sexual assault (some of the female students hope the molester isn’t stopped), it is indicative of the way that the Archie creators read Betty’s obsession with the red-headed hero as borderline psychotic.
A story a year later, in Archie 156, pushes these boundaries even further when Betty, scorned one time too many by Archie for Veronica, attempts to murder him by felling a tree on him, hitting him with a red wagon full of rocks (the same red wagon that he was pulling on the first day that they met?), and dropping a plant on his head. While outrageous slapstick violence was a hallmark of Archie comics, it is the murderous intent that is unusual here. Betty moves from charmingly cute Archie stalker to criminally dangerous Archie obsessive.
RIVERDALE’S RACE PROBLEM
The myth is that Riverdale was a “typical” American community. The fact is that the almost total absence of non-white characters makes Riverdale one of the least typical locales in the United States.
Until the introduction of Chuck Clayton in Pep 251 (September 1971), it is likely that not a single African American appeared in an Archie story set within the Riverdale city limits. Through the height of the civil rights movement, Archie Comics wilfully ignored the social transformation taking place around them, clinging to a vision of a “pre-racial” America where the only reference to people of colour could be found in stories such as “Which is Witch? ” (Archie 137), when Reggie and Archie meet a new (white) boy in town who has just returned to Riverdale from Africa. “He and his father spent eight years among the savages!” Archie explains.
The only black people to appear in any Archie comic during its heyday twelve-cent cover-price period (from December 1961 to July 1969) can be found in a wacky adventure of the Archies (Life with Archie 65), in which the gang takes Mr. Lodge’s airplane to the Caribbean island of St. Thomas, where several black characters are shown in the background. The story depicts one woman carrying a basket on her head (“Ooh, look!” says Betty, “I wish I had my camera!”), and “an old voodoo lady” whose only story function is to set off the following dialogue exchange:
Betty: Ask her!
Veronica: Ask her what?
Betty: Ask her, do you do voodoo?
Archie: Do who do voodoo?
Betty: You do?
Archie: Who do?
If the non-depiction of black people during this time frame is highly problematic, it is nothing compared to the depiction of characters of Asian descent. In Life with Archie 14, a series of related stories explores the possibility of Archie finding a million dollars, and what he would do with the money. Besides buying his father a Rolls Royce and building a swimming pool in their backyard, he hires a Filipino houseboy (Charlie Ying, first-class fine number-one Filipino houseboy), a grotesquely buck-toothed racial caricature who refuses to work in a house “where peoples don’t dress for dinner!! Charlie Ying have speaken!”
In the Archie comics of the 1960s the characters interact with Indigenous peoples and their culture on only three occasions. In the first, “Strike Up the Band” (Archie 143), the Aboriginal character is a simple punchline. The students of Riverdale High go on strike demanding the return of their cancelled dance class, and in the end Mr. Weatherbee accedes to their demand by hiring Mr. Lone Wolf, who, in full headdress, teaches them to rain dance. In the second, “Storm Center” (Pep 184), Archie wears a loincloth, moccasins, and a headdress in order to demonstrate tribal dances, and when he dances while chanting “Uga yom akimbo cuk!” he is able to create isolated thunder storms in the hallways of Riverdale.
The marginalization of racial difference was not incidental to the comics, but speaks directly to a large part of their appeal with certain audiences: in a time of tremendous social change, Riverdale represented a nostalgic vision of a pre-racial America that was perceived to be in open decline.
THE THING ABOUT JUGHEAD
When I talk to adults about Archie comics, the character that they inevitably want to discuss is Jughead Jones. The nose, the hat, the woman-hating attitude, Jughead is the most fully developed, and therefore interesting, character in Riverdale. People seem to be fondly drawn to his laconic attitude and his relaxed Zenlike sense of being.
The key to the characterization of Jughead is the fact that he always walks with his eyes closed. Rarely depicted with open eyes (generally only when he is in shock or terror), Jughead exists in such a state of absolute calm that he is able to stroll the streets of Riverdale without looking. In “Open and Shut Case” (Jughead 100), this quirk drives Reggie to distraction (“Nobody! Nobody can see better with eyes closed than open!” he screams at Jughead), and he tries to force Jughead to see the world with open eyes. The result, of course, is that Jughead crashes into trees and signposts, and trips over the curb. “Leave me alone in my nice, clear darkness!” he tells them.
Jughead is the outsider. His perspectives are atypical of the gang, and as a result he is frequently not integrated into their activities, offering commentary from the outside rather than acting as a forceful presence within the stories. Jughead is a narrative catalyst: he makes things happen to the other characters but is not affected by events himself. In the darkness that is his view of Riverdale, Jughead is the character that finds wisdom.
In the hormonal Archie universe, Jughead is unique for his asexuality. Often his disdain for women is read as a suggestion of queerness, though there is no textual evidence in the corpus of works that comprise the twelve-cent period that would lend much credence to the reading that suggests he is actually in love with Archie. Jughead’s relationship to Archie is one of the strongest presentations of the asexual male pairing in popular culture, rivalling that of Sherlock Holmes and Watson, or Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin in Patrick O’Brian’s novels.
THE TOWN FEMINISM FORGOT
All of the teenage girls in Archie are drawn in an identical fashion, and all—with the notable exception of Big Ethel—share the same precise body type: long legs, thin waist, large breasts. The female body in Archie comics is constantly on display. The visual pleasure is clearly intended for a heterosexual male reader. Indeed, the combination of innocence and eroticism is a large part of the appeal of the Archie comics of this period, and there is a clear connection between the sales success of Archie comics and the degree of sexualization of Betty and Veronica. It is worth noting that some of the most eroticized images of Betty and Veronica appeared regularly on the artwork supplied for the subscription coupons, suggesting that the publisher was well aware of the adage “sex sells.”
The most regular, and depressing, examples of sexism in Archie comics work to combine the sexualized depiction of the female characters within a narrative framework that minimizes their autonomy, independence, and accomplishments. One of the most egregious examples is a two-part story in Life with Archie 45, “Chicken in a Basket,” in which a new gym teacher, Passionata Van Clutch, organizes a girls’ basketball team. When the boys viciously humiliate them (“It’s a man’s world, honey!” says Archie, sneeringly, to Veronica), Coach Van Clutch encourages the girls to defeat the boys not by playing better basketball, but by playing the boys. The resulting match—in which the girls perform while wearing miniskirts and bikini tops—is, as Coach Kleats complains, “grossly unfair!” Unable to score a basket despite a completely distracted boys’ team, Betty charms one player into throwing the ball into his own net on her behalf. The girls dominate when they give the ball to Midge and she insists that Moose keep his teammates away from her. With the boys cowed in the back court (“Would you rather lose the game or your life? ” one asks), the girls cruise to an easy victory, and the reader is treated to five pages of female bodies to ogle, all while emphasizing the natural inferiority of the girls as athletes.
As with Riverdale’s racial problem, it is worth noting that the depiction of gender in Archie comics was hardly out of step with much of popular culture (and the comic book industry) of the ’60s. Yet, unlike race, which was easier to ignore within the suburban cloister of Riverdale, Archie’s metanarrative of teen life and loves—and the centrality of Betty and Veronica to the story lines—offered a rich opportunity for the creators to depict the changing gender and sexual dynamics of ’60s America. Instead, it clung to a nostalgic depiction of women who couldn’t be trusted and who needed to know their place.
ARCHIE WITHOUT A CAUSE
The American comic book industry peaked in sales terms in 1952, after which it was inexorably damaged by the rising prominence of television in the home. At the height of the industry’s sales success, comics attracted a great deal of unwanted attention from civic reformers and cultural critics who decried the influence of the comic book on American youth. One of the most damning criticisms was the suggestion, made by psychiatrist Fredric Wertham in his 1954 book, Seduction of the Innocent, and by others elsewhere, that the influence of comic books was correlated to the rising tide of juvenile delinquency in postwar American culture.
The juvenile delinquent had emerged after the war as an important social concern, with films like Blackboard Jungle and Rebel without a Cause, both from 1955, helping to crystallize the image of the delinquent as a threat to middle-class American normativity. Caught up in the concerns about out-of-control youth, and damaged by some extremely poor publicity following a Senate subcommittee investigation into the influence of comics books on youth, the comic book industry responded by creating a voluntary industry organization (the Comics Magazine Association of America) in 1954 that would guarantee the appropriateness of all comic books for young readers, and attest to their wholesomeness with a Comics Code logo that can be found on every Archie comic book cover produced during this period. In many ways, Archie Comics supported the moral panic over juvenile delinquency rather than working to undermine it.
The most significant story to deal with juvenile delinquency as a concept in Riverdale was “The Reject,” the lead story in Archie 130. When Archie approaches his father with the confession that he believes that he has become a juvenile delinquent, his father erupts in laughter. Archie protests that he had smeared Pop Tate’s plate glass window with a bar of soap, and so his father conducts a quiz to find out whether he is a real delinquent. As Fred Andrews produces scenarios for Archie to role-play, he and his gang are depicted as the black leather jacket–wearing Ravens, and Betty and Veronica are shown wearing tight black pants and heavy eye makeup, a stark contrast to the sweater vest–wearing Archie who was still the norm at this time. Archie loses points for his willingness to allow his gang to call him a chicken, and for thinking that if his girl were seen with a member of a rival gang that he should clobber him. Any true delinquent would round up his gang and wait to make sure the target was alone and outnumbered. In the end, of course, Archie lacks the stuff to make a decent delinquent, as he is missing the core quality: stupidity. Armed with this failure, he skulks off to wash Pop Tate’s window.
When delinquents are taken seriously as a threat to the social order, it is only to reaffirm the Riverdale gang’s internal loyalties. In “Protection” (Archie 151), Moose safeguards Archie from a gang of “toughs,” who are identified as such by their scowls, their stubble, and the fact that one of them smokes a cigarette. (No other character in the decade smokes cigarettes, though Mr. Lodge and Fred Andrews both smoke cigars.)
In an era when youth culture was becoming increasingly synonymous with countercultural rebellion, Archie comics’ resolute stance against disruptions of the bucolic social order of suburbia created a space of pure nostalgia unmoored from both current events and from history. Their success depended upon an industry kept in check by self-interested gatekeepers, and by a captive audience of pre-pubescents who were not yet primed for the vicissitudes of post-Eisenhower America. Once these factors became less dependable, the cultural primacy of Archie comics collapsed.
This appeared in the May 2015 issue.
Bart Beaty teaches comics and graphic novels at the University of Calgary.
Sam Island (samislandart.com) has drawn for the New York Times, Monocle, Corporate Knights, and Time.