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(... we all just live in it, is all)
"Pretty Fly For a White Guy" the ARCHIE Chronicles (Pt.4)
One of the more intriguing aspects of the ARCHIE Comics titles and characters is how they've managed (with maybe a little help from their various writers and/or artists) to remain so timely; vital; and relevant over the intervening decades, betwixt 1941 and today.
Such is, of a certainty, no mean feat; particularly when one goggles at the eleventy-gazillion or so (give or take) changes which have manifested themselves in American society over the years, in general...
... and in teenaged American society, in particular.
One of the key "secrets" to the enduring popularity of these characters, I am convinced, lies in their very inclusiveness; their energetic (and intelligent) embracing of the notion of human diversity, in all its myriad forms.
This wholly admirable approach to juvenile storytelling -- and by "juvenile," of course, I mean "intended audience"; NOT "half-witted" -- has (manifestly) stood the ARCHIE Comics Group is good fiscal stead, in the final analysis; their line of comics remains (even today; even given this industry's present economic anemia) the standard bearer worldwide, sales-wise.
Yoked in storytelling tandem to characters and concerns which (demonstrably) resonate with young readers around the globe, no matter what their respective cultures -- school; dating; friendship; self- awareness; and the other teenage verities eternal -- it has proven (and, doubtless, will continue to so prove) a potent and durable meta-fictive "engine," overall.
(This is all the more astonishing and praiseworthy when one pauses to consider that ARCHIE creator John Goldwater was a profoundly conservative man, both politically and in personal ethos; a man who first conceptualized the ARCHIE characters in response to the [then-]overwhelming newsstand popularity of Superman; The Batman; Wonder Woman; and Captain Marvel -- characters whose undeniable appeal to juveniles he personally found "abnormal" and "aberrant," from a moral standpoint. A man -- in short -- whose leanings ran more closely to Mickey Rooney's relentlessly innocuous ANDY HARDY films of the '40's than they might have to [say] Matt Goerning's calculatedly cynical THE SIMPSONS, today.)
If there is any trace of Mr. Goldwater's personal philosophy in the stamp of these characters, it is in their adherence overall (the occasional "slips" on the parts of Reggie Mantle and Veronica Lodge notwithstanding) to much the same virtues and precepts as have always been part and parcel of the American experience, be it urban or suburban...
... and -- as noted earlier -- the chiefest of these has always been All Men (and Women) Are Our Neighbors.
A classic example of this signature storytelling dynamic -- perhaps the "classic" ARCHIE Comics example, in fact -- is the heartfelt and engaging '70's story "10 Feet Tall."
Regular supporting character Dilton Doiley -- a diminutive, good- hearted intellectual -- is hosting a weekend party, to which he's invited all of his friends in the Riverdale gang... including African/American character Chuck Clayton (son of Riverdale High School assistant varsity instructor "Coach" Clayton).
A morose Chuck leaves the party early, claiming that "I don't feel so hot."
"Sorry to hear that, Chuck," a concerned Dilton replies. "Is there anything I can get you that'll make you feel better?"
"You could..." Chuck counters glumly, on his way out the door; "... if you were a wizard or magician... but you're not!"
Shortly thereafter -- with the last of his guests gone, and the young inventor soldiering his way through the inevitable post-party clean-up duties -- Dilton receives a phone call from a frantic Mrs. Clayton.
Chuck, it seems, never made it home from Dilton's party.
With a mounting sense of dread, Dilton dashes out into the night and initiates a frenzied (yet methodical) solo search for his vanished friend...
... and, eventually, finds him.
At the Riverdale Bus Depot.
"Well," Chuck snarls. 'What do you want? Make it fast... my bus leaves soon!"
"Where are you going?" a stunned and perplexed Dilton asks.
"What difference does it make?" Chuck angrily retorts. "Anywhere! Any place where I'm not a minority!"
(Given that we are -- all of us; each and every one -- a "minority" of one in this life... all I've got to say is gonna be one heck of a bus ride, man. Hope you brought a few good paperbacks along with you.)
What follows is as honest and insightful a dialogue -- betwixt embittered Chuck and entreating Dilton -- re the issue of racial identity as has ever been presented in any mainstream American comic book. Ever.
That said exploration takes place in the pages of one of the much-maligned (by the more relentlessly idiotic fannish contingents) ARCHIE comic book -- in the 1970's, no less -- is as telling (or, perhaps, damning) an example of the sheer, studied comparative irrelevance of the modern-day super-hero storytelling genre as any I can think of, after several hours worth of trying.
(At one point -- in response to Dilton's assertion that "there were plenty of chicks to dance with [at the party]" -- a disbelieving Chuck counters with "Are you for real, man? How could I ask a white girl to dance with me? [...] I'd just make her feel uncomfortable."
(Now go back in your own memories, if you will. Scour them as ruthlessly as you like for any instance -- in any mainstream comic -- in which that same simple, everyday conundrum is addressed as unblinkingly; in language as readily accessible to even the very youngest of readers.
(Oh, yes. Full props, indeed, to ARCHIE Comics in general; and to undervalued writer/artist Sam Schwartz, in particular.
(I'm just sayin', is all.)
There has been; is; and (human foibles being what they are) doubtless will continue to be no little end of dithering and trolling online, amidst comics fans, as to whether this super-hero comic or that comics writer is sufficiently committed to the practices and/or goals of "diversity" or "inclusiveness."
Fanboys and fangirls (from both the "reader" and "professional" sides of the online barricades) lob increasingly mean-spirited and destructive verbal hand grenades at one another over such comparative inanities as [say] "Is Storm [of THE X-MEN] Really 'Black'?' or "[Insert Name of Writer Here] Must Be a Racist, Because He Doesn't Have Enough [Insert Racial Minority Here] Characters In His Book To Suit Me."
... and -- meanwhile; while they're all droning on and endlessly on over whether or not Spawn "counts" as a black man or not -- the line of comics they most roundly disdain as "kiddies fare" has been addressing the issue with forthrightness and intelligence on an ongoing basis FOR OVER TWENTY YEARS, NOW.
... and you all wonder why I've made "Destroy All Fanboys" my solemn online oath.
Earlier, I stated "If there is any trace of Mr. Goldwater's personal philosophy in the stamp of these characters, it is in their adherence overall (the occasional "slips" on the parts of Reggie Mantle and Veronica Lodge notwithstanding) to much the same virtues and precepts as have always been part and parcel of the American experience, be it urban or suburban..."
Looking back on it, however this is not strictly true.
In the mid- to late 1970's, the conservative and religious Goldwater produced a series of "stand-alone" ARCHIE titles -- under the "Archie's Clean Slate" imprint -- which were conceptualized and crafted to serve as evangelical Christian polemic, outright.
Without attempting in any way to "demean" or "belittle" the religious leanings and/or beliefs (or lack of same) of any CHEEKS site readers out there, however -- believe (or disbelieve in anything you wanna; hell, worship Wink Martindale, for all I care. Exalt your favorite toes as multiple messiahs.) -- your tolerant and benevolent Unca Cheeks would be shamelessly derelict in his narrative duties, nonetheless, did he not point out that these were -- one and all; right down the proverbial line -- inordinately heavy-handed and dopey as ecumenical agitprop; and out-and-out lame, as "kiddie comics."
Let's take a quick look-see at a particular f'rinstance, shall we...?
"Final Exam" opens up with a shot of Betty Cooper and Archie Andrews being taunted by two "bad" kids "Debbie" and "Jerry." ("There they go..." Jerry snickers; "Mr. Clean and The Fairy Princess." Zen Master of the snappy put-down, that Jerry, huh...?)
(You can tell that Deb and Jer are more "worldly" and corrupt than the regular ARCHIE characters, incidentally, by dint of the fact that they're both rendered rather more "realistically" than either of the story's more clean-living protagonists. God alone knows what that would make -- say -- any Barry Windsor- Smith-drawn character who happened to amble his or her way through Riverdale in broad daylight. The Anti-Christ, most likely.)
"Come on, Archie," the mocking Jerry continues. "Why don't you try a new life-style... and live a little?"
Archie's response to this generous (if somewhat vague) invitation is -- so help me, Whomever -- one of the following:
1.) "You know how I feel about drugs and liquor, Jerry!"
2.) "Hey! I'm a rebel, darn it! Check it out, dude! [hikes pants legs slightly] No SOCKS this morning! [starts dancing, a la Michael Jackson] I'm bad... uh-huh... uh-huh -- !"
3.) "Jerry I'm nearly sixty years old; still in high school; and still a virgin. That's about as 'different' as a 'lifestyle' can get. Dammit."
4.) [enthused] "Sounds like a plan, by golly! From now on I'll be 'The Fairy Princess!' Woo-woo!"
As fully six or eight of you out of every ten must doubtless have intuited the correct answer is, of course, "1." (Which is really kinda sorta weird, when you stop and think about it, since at no time do either Deb or Jerry ever even so much as hint at "drugs" or "liquor" being the topic under discussion. I mean maybe Jer just meant that ol' Archie should consider... I dunno... get himself tattooed. Hook up with Marilyn Manson as a roadie. Double-park, once in a while, maybe. Who the heck knows, really...?)
"Man," Jerry sniggers, as he and Deb pile into his sporty, low-slung little blue roadster. "You really are OUT of it!" (Yup definitely "Algonquin Round Table" material, Our Jerry. A direct lineal descendent of Dorothy Parker. Or MAD Magazine's Al Jaffe, even.)
A plainly frightened Archie implores Jerry to "... let me take you home... you shouldn't drive now!" (Jerry, you see, now has little red dots and yellow stars circling his head; indicating, one may only presume, some manner or level of Chemically-Enhanced Consciousness. Now, how Archie is able to "see" these, in turn, is anyone's guess, really. Maybe he's loaded.)
But the in-the-world-and-of-the-world duo peel the heck outta there, their derisive laughter floating back towards Betty and Archie over the sound of squealing tires and One Hot Foreign-Built Transmission.
Betty and Archie discuss the encounter as they, too, motor off in the latter's own trademark jalopy. ("Arch, we've got to help them to see that when God fills your life, you don't need anything else!" Betty urges.)
("I've tried to share my faith with Debbie," the indomitable Ms. Cooper begins.) (Why am I suddenly getting this image of a sackcloth- adorned Betty chasing her bleating-and-terrified fellow students down the corridors of Riverdale High, screaming the "juicier" passages from Sinners In the Hands Of an Angry God, here...?)
Their joint dreams of fervant high school evangelism, however, are brought to a rude and abrupt halt scant moments later by the sight of Jerry's accordioned sports car, twisted and a-smoulderin' by the side of the road. (!!)
Jerry's a little banged-up... but Debbie, on the other hand, is clearly a candidate for one of those black-bordered "head shots" in the ol' school yearbook, come next semester. While Archie and Jer share an impassioned hug in the background [seriously], Betty "witnesses" to the none-too-chipper-just-now Debbie. ("... I've done 'my own thing'," the dying doxy manages to husk. "... well, I want to live differently... I want a clean slate!")
The final (ghoulish) sequence shows a now-beatific (and -- in all likelihood -- still internally hemorrhaging, as well) Debbie being stretchered into an awaiting ambulance, whilst a joyous Archie informs the reader:
" [Debbie's] not the same anymore! A new life has begun! And that's exactly the way God promises it!"
(A final caption underneath all of that helpfully provides, in cheery summation "You can read God's exciting promise in II Corinthians 5:17!" Which -- quickly referencing the relevant scripture -- reads "It is easier for an elephant to pass through the eye of a needle/ Than it is for an imaginary character to enter the kingdom of God."
(I think we've all learned something here... don't you?)
The Big Wrap-Up, re Archie and Company, on Page Five, immediately following. That's my promise.
Granted, it ain't exactly The Peace Which Passeth All Understanding...
... but -- on the other hand -- you don't have to do a header at Mach 1 through a car windshield to enjoy it properly, either.
"MORE COMIC BOOKS," YOU SAY...?