Comics

The Summer's for Distant Things: An Open Letter to Archie's Alex Segura

The last time we spoke, Alex Segura and I, we spoke about his having written Archie Meets KISS, already a critical piece of Archie Comics-lore. After yesterday's release of the hardback collected edition, I've had a few thoughts. About the summer, and about ourselves.

Dear Alex,

When last we spoke, we spoke about Archie Meets KISS and I felt like I was being drawn into a higher drama I could barely concede at the time. Just the idea of Archie and the whole Riverdale gang in one kind of "event" story felt like just the right kind of too much. It felt like KISS on the radio, the power of their songs speaking directly to rock music's quest for tilting at a world that is desperately insufficient to the lives we hope to lead. It felt like the last day of school, and that this feeling would linger on forever. It felt like all the best summers by the lake, it felt like hotdogs and fireworks.

But of course it's not just the whole Riverdale Gang on this one. It's the Cousins as well, Josie and the PussyCats, it's Sabrina, the Teenage Witch. And it's KISS themselves. KISS is one of the secret happy places for me, just like Riverdale, one of my own private undisclosed locations. Since we've spoken, I've had a chance to read Bill Gibson's Distrust That Particular Flavor. An anthology that he himself candidly admits being a strange one for him, in that this book collects his nonfiction. In the introduction, "African Thumb Piano", he speaks about a certain awkwardness he feels in writing nonfiction. It's not what he learnt to write, it's not a machine whose moving parts he disassembled and lovingly pieced back together in the way he did fiction. But nonfiction is a kind of a passport for him.

What catches in my imagination, is his description of his first brush with an idea for a short story. Perhaps this was his very first idea for short fiction. In a darkened room a man sits and is engaged by the single source of light in the room -- a clean, well-lighted screen. Is the man simply passively observing images on the screen? Are these images fired off in rapid succession? Or is the man interacting with information on the screen? Is there a keyboard or gesture scanner that allows him some limited range in manipulating what appears on the screen? I can't quite remember the details, but this book really is worth a read, if only for the essay on Japan. What I do remember about this first idea though, is the idea that the man in the room is not locked into the room. The door to the darkened room opens on a courtyard. In this courtyard, as with many courtyards, there's a fountain, filled with wristwatches. This means, Gibson surmises for us, that in this society the human relationship with time has been radically altered.

When last we spoke, I remember you repeating the phrase "all in" on a number of occasions, in a number of different ways. Your using the phrase caught in my mind. "Jon", by which you meant Archie Comics CEO Jon Goldwater, you said to me, "and the whole team went all in on this one." Gene Simmons, KISS frontman, and bandmate Paul Stanley were "all in" on this project as well you tell me. They were easy to get to (a difficult thing I know, with their high-visibility profiles in the media), they were kind with their time and generous, you remind me. The project of Archie Meets KISS was made easy by your supporters both within Archie Comics, and within KISS. And you tell me also, that this was the first story to really pull together the company's three character lines, the teenage kids in Riverdale, the young musicians who are Josie and the PussyCats, and the magic and reality-bending trippiness from the world of Sabrina the Teenage Witch. And when you mention this amazing drawing together, you again use the phrase "all in".

Alex, I'm dizzy from the wonder of this phrase. "All in". Like we're hitting the point of exhaustion. Like there's nothing left to be able to give. Like this is the very last from the reserve tank. In just two words you gesture at a level of artistic commitment we seldom see in commercial world. Time and the world have ground us down, teaching us that we shouldn't expect this caliber of artistic integrity. So when we do see this, from you, from Dan you artist and collaborator, from the entire team at Archie, and from Gene and Paul themselves… when we see this we celebrate. Because this level of commitment is rare. And we treasure it.

And just having said that. I also need to say this level of artistic integrity seems far, far less rare at Archie. I don't doubt the creators for a second, but honestly, Archie, Riverdale, Sabrina, Josie, everyone, just seem like that kind of brand. Just seem like, tomorrow, things will be good again. It strikes me now, that Archie and the whole of the line, are iconic for very different reasons than Superman or Batman or Spidey or Cap are iconic. That Archie, all of Archie, is iconic because its ionic. Because these comics, these profound simple pictures, speak so vividly to those inner bonds, the bonds within ourselves, and between ourselves and better things.

Jon really knew what he was doing when he ushered in this digital revolution. I think about his own story a lot. When Jon and I last spoke, he said to me "I believe that digital distribution will be the rescue of comics in exactly the same way it was the devastation of the music industry". I think about the kind of black hand of fate that would move Jon into a rising career in the music biz, just as the industry began to crumble under file-sharing and P2P exchange. Then I think about now. I think about the resilience and the fortitude Jon needed to show to get here, to Archie Comics, at this point. And then I think about how Jon's built a box around that personal defeat, back then, and how he used it as a gameplan for a revolution.

Just as much as you've made an artistic statement, Jon's made a statement of his own. He's built this moment where comics needn't collapse into the thrall of either/or, a perpetual war of its own making between print and digital distribution. Because of Jon, almost singlehandedly, comics has gone from "either/or" into "more". The work Archie is doing in digital distribution means we can have more. And that's more than what we could have hoped for, just three years back now.

I've got to tell you though, the zombies scared me, and the timing scared me. Not that zombies are scary. But that they seem to have been done to death. That we're living in an age where many staples of horror are now firmly imprinted on a new generation. We've seen vampires and werewolves, we've seen witches and wizards. We've seen zombies. And the more we've seen these, the less we've seen of their originary power that has firmly established these character tropes as genre of distinction.

What of the zombies of Dawn of the Dead? Will we ever see those zombies again? Where their savage attack is not on humans, but on human mentality -- where the appearance of zombies expose the inner self-serving of humanity as it scrambles to survive even by throwing their own under the bus. Where are the vampires that are so alluring you're ready to sacrifice your life just to be as sexy as they are? In multiplying the use of these fine horrors, there's every sense in which we've lost them to a degree.

But you've gotten this popular representation of our classic horrors to turn a corner, Alex. I can say this honestly. There's no going back after how you've conceived of these zombies in Archie Meets KISS. "When they lose their sense of fun, they turn mindless." Zombies are what happens when we lose touch with the popular. Just an amazing framing, Alex.

I was worried about the timing also. And again, my fears were assuaged by the quality of the work I hold in my hands. This release, timed for just before the summer, taps into the psychology of summer. It's a strange and unearthly time, and if we believe Parker & Stone of South Park fame, "Summer Sucks". And they're not really wrong. Because summer's that time we wrestle down and measure the gap between our expectations, and our aspirations. We need material things, and then we want material things. Our pursuit of happiness. But the very fact that we can articulate our pursuit of happiness and that our freedom to pursue happiness is acknowledge and entrenched, comes from the aspirational elements of the American Revolution. It was a revolution in thinking as much as anything. And this revolution enshrined and defended our rights, but didn't give us our rights. Those rights are natural rights, preexistent.

I'm thinking Alex, how very much Archie Meets KISS rearranges things. So that the gap between our material expectations and our idealistic aspirations seems small and easily bridged. There's something profoundly summer about your book. And I like that fact that it's released in hardback first. I like the fact that I can hold it in my hands, that I can pack it in my bag, that it can travel with me where I travel. Archie Meets KISS feels like long days spent at lakes, like the things we promised ourselves we'd want, like there's still, as there's always been, time enough left over for tomorrow. Beyond the festooning and the pantomime of the rest of the year, Archie Meets KISS feels exactly like never needing to come through slaughter again.

Your book is who we were, and never stopped being. And I've got to thank you for that.

Culture

Spawning Ground

David Antrobus

In this ancient place of giant ferns and cedars, it seems the dead outnumber the living; the living fall away too quietly, too easily, taken away by stealth. There is tremendous natural beauty here, but its hold is tenuous, like moss clinging to rotting bark that will ultimately break and sink into the forest floor.

If I were to choose a visual symbol of my adopted home of Mission, an average-size town in the impossibly green western Canadian province of British Columbia, I would probably come up with a rotting carcass in a verdant pasture, a vision of death amid life. If this sounds harsh, hear me out and I'll tell my own truth about this place.

Clinging to the swift-scoured, salmon-haunted northern bank of the mighty Fraser River like an ailing lamprey to the deadly smooth flank of a Great White, this town, situated about 70 kilometers east of Vancouver, owes its entire existence to the water of its rivers and lakes, and to the wood harvested from the dense, surrounding forest. Settled in the mid-19th century, Mission has managed to survive despite two serious floods, a bridge collapse, the ominous early signs of malaise in the natural resource sector (did we really think the salmon and the great conifers were infinitely, magically renewable?), and a general reputation for unfocussed, redneck belligerence.

It all comes down to the Fraser River. The river has brought both food and trade; it provides a thoroughfare upon which the people of Mission (among others) float the great log booms that are the defeated renderings we humans fashion from the vast tracts of coastal rainforest (cedar, spruce, fir, hemlock) in our seemingly inexhaustible compulsion to exploit her resources and bring Mother Nature to her matronly knees — in part because (we believe) we can.

But the details about life in this town — the jeweler murdered in a robbery, the pretty high school graduate killed by a drunk driver, the 14-year-old suicide — in fact, all the jostling narratives crowding like paparazzi, each insisting on exclusive front page drama, bubble and coalesce and ultimately conspire to reveal the hidden Mission. There is a dark vortex lurking beneath the seemingly placid surface; the ominous shadow of something ancient beneath sun-dappled waters. Even the countless apparent banalities playing out on the town's rural borders disguise something deeper, more clandestine: the hobby farmer up in MacConnell Creek bemoaning his exhausted well; the entrepreneur hungry for an investment opportunity, eager to transform the hillsides of quiet, bucolic Silverdale into sudden, lockstep suburbia; the hiker mauled by a black bear in the mountains north of Steelhead. And always, the numerous lives derailed by marijuana grow-op busts. For all the gradual liberalisation of laws at the consumer end of this local economic rival to wood and water, those who supply the celebrated crop usually feel the full force of Canadian justice, anyway. There are times when nothing in Mission seems devoid of some kind of meaning.

A monastery sits above this town, a Benedictine haven of alternating silence and the evocative clatter of Sunday Matins bells. Its tower is phallic and disproportionately defiant, rising above the landscape like a giant darning needle, casting its intrusive shadow over the patchwork quilt of human settlement as if to stitch a final tableaux, symbolically and definitively, of the history of the original inhabitants and their mistreatment at the hands of the white settlers. Said inhabitants were (and are) the Stó:lo people (their language, Halq'eméylem, was an exclusively oral tradition, so the words are spelled phonetically nowadays). Stó:lo territory stretched along the river valley from present-day Vancouver to Yale in the Fraser Canyon, a 170 kilometer swath of virgin, fecund land, teeming with such totemic creatures as salmon, ancient sturgeon, deer, black bear, cougar, coyote, beaver, and wolf.

The Stó:lo, a Native American (or First Nations) people belonging to the larger group of Central Coast Salish, settled this area around 10,000 years ago. Europeans, attracted by rumours of gold, arrived in the 1850s. The resulting clash of cultures did not work out well for the indigenous people, and today they are still recovering from the trickle-down effects of at least one generation having been torn from its extended family. Residential schools, for which the monastery in Mission is a present-day symbol, were sites of a particularly virulent form of cultural genocide. First Nations children across Canada were taken from their homes, often exposed to physical and sexual abuse and occasionally murder, their mouths scoured with soap if they even dared to utter their own languages. St. Mary's in Mission, founded in 1861 and relinquished in 1984, was the last residential school in Canada to close.

There are 82 Indian Reserves in the Fraser Valley. There are eight correctional institutions, two in Mission alone (Aboriginal people represent around four percent of the Canadian population, yet account for 18 percent of the federally incarcerated population). Somebody — something? — really likes to control and segregate people, around here.

This fragmentation is reflected in the odd demographics of the town in general. Leaving their multicultural mark have been, at various times, Italians in Silverdale, Swedes in Silverhill, the French in Durieu, the Japanese in the early years of the fruit industry (as in the US, the Japanese were rewarded for their labours by being sent to internment camps in 1942), and immigrants from India in the early days of the shake and shingle mills. (The Western Red Cedar, with its straight grain, durability, and imperviousness to the incessant rain, while inspiring Native culture with the quixotic grandeur of totem poles, grabbed more prosaic European imaginations in the form of the shake and shingle industry, which provides reliable roofing and siding components for homes.)

In some ways, Mission is a vibrantly conflicted example of Canada's multicultural mosaic. With just over 30,000 residents (of which 3,000 are First Nations) mostly crammed into a relatively small area, bordered by the river to the south and the mountains to the north, mill workers and biker gangs, artists and Mennonites, muscle car boys and summer folkies, soccer moms and Sikh Temple-goers, merchants and pagans, Freemasons and caffeine addicts, street people and Renaissance Faire anachronisms all rub shoulders with varying degrees of friction, occasionally achieving harmony in spite of themselves. Perhaps the relative accord is due to the overall youth of the population (73 percent are under 35-years-old).

Earlier, I mentioned the presence of death. Why? Because it is everywhere here, its proximity eerily palpable. It inhabits the sly rustle of the towering conifers. It taints the air with the swampy pungency of skunk cabbage in springtime. It hums incessantly in the sub-woofer buzz of the hydroelectric dams. It shuffles along in the downcast, scuff-shoed limp of a lone child returning to a chilly home. From a distance, even the monks in their dark cassocks, knit-browed and bound by their vows of silence, seem eerily close to the Reaper caricature. For actual evidence of its pervasiveness, though, one need not go far back in time.

The bodies of three women were dumped between here and neighbouring Agassiz back in '95. Suicides and the furtive aftermath of murder, barely registering in the town at all, have spattered Burma Road, a potholed strip of rocks and dirt skirting the shore of Stave Lake. In 1997, Doug Holtam of Silverdale (a small community west of Mission) bludgeoned his pregnant wife and six-year-old daughter to death with a hammer. Against all odds, his young son Cody survived the attack. In 1995, a drunk driver, leaving in his wake not only the proverbial outpouring of community grief but also a devastated twin sister, killed 18-year-old Cindy Verhulst during the week she and her peers were busy celebrating their high school graduation. There was the little boy who slipped away from his day care centre and drowned in the swollen Fraser River. The 12-year-old boy found hanging from a school washroom towel dispenser. The elderly pilot whose body was discovered in dense forest a full two years after he had gone missing. And there was Dawn-Marie Wesley, a 14-year-old Native girl who took her own life in the basement of her home after enduring relentless bullying at school; barely noticed in life, Oprah material in death.

As disturbing and tragic as these stories are, however, there was little precedent for the breaking news in the summer of 2003. This one will need a little background.

Since the mid-'80s, women have been disappearing from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, Canada's poorest postal code. Partly due to the initial incompetence of the Vancouver Police Department and jurisdictional issues with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), partly due to the amorphous (read: investigative nightmare) nature of the disappearances, and partly because so few people cared about missing hookers and addicts, more and more women went missing, with nary a ripple in the public consciousness (or conscience). In fact, as of this writing, a horrifying total of 65 individuals are currently on the Missing Women list. For years, law enforcement didn't even refer to their disappearance as crimes, and it wasn't until 1998 that an official task force was even assigned to investigate.

Finally, in February 2002, Robert William Pickton, a pig farmer from the Vancouver suburb of Port Coquitlam (approximately half way between Vancouver and Mission), was charged with two counts of first-degree murder of two of the missing women. More charges followed in the months ahead. Pickton currently faces 15 counts of first-degree murder with seven more expected. DNA samples of 31 women have been linked to his 10-acre farm. In short, potentially the largest serial murder case in Canadian history is now underway just 35 kilometers from Mission.

Given the frequent intrusion of death into the area, I suppose it should have surprised no one when, on 20 July 2003, the missing women's joint task force announced they would be searching an area of wetlands near Mission. Just south of Highway 7 (aka the Lougheed Highway) and the man-made body of water known as Silvermere (itself the subject of a delightfully creepy urban legend or two), the area is basically marshland bisected by a meandering slough. Immediately following the announcement of the search, the site was fenced off with temporary chain link, and the highway's wide shoulders — traditionally home to roadside fruit and flower vendors hawking their locally grown products — were suddenly and unequivocally off-limits.

Driving this formerly innocuous stretch of blacktop, especially under the after-dusk arc lights, with their swirling bug armadas and liquid island oases in the dark, now touched off an indescribably eerie feeling. It was a relief when, on 8 August, the entire ensemble of law enforcement personnel (numerous forensic investigators plus 52 anthropologists) took up their tools again and vanished. They gave no word of what they had uncovered or even whether anything had been found at all, leaving our community to its familiar, fitful dreams once more. Mission's part in this unfolding story, as it relates to the wider world, remains amorphous and indistinct, with its usual chilly glints of barely suppressed horror flickering amid the overall grey.

Here, it seems, empirical proof takes a back seat to rumour and anecdote every time.

Sometimes, while hiking alone in the tree-bejeweled mountains west of Steelhead, east of the dams, I have suddenly felt the fetid breath of graves, a harsh raven-shadow lurking behind the abundant emerald and olive greens of this sodden paradise. Inexplicable noises in the deep tangled brush; distant rending, gnashing. Something skulking and hungry. With all the assured rationality of the white male immigrant, I've been known to smirk at the idea of ghosts, and yet stumbling along a jade-tunnel trail bristling with old man's beard and devil's club, I've occasionally recoiled from something, the skin of my arms prickling with gooseflesh. There are spirits here, all right, something not too far removed from the capricious tricksters who inhabit indigenous myth. Spectres of a kind, nursing some nameless, hollow ache of unrequited need rendered manifest, paradoxically, by a landscape dripping with life.

The closest we Europeans get to perceiving this (however inadvertently) can be heard in the low extended rumble of the nighttime freight trains as they call out in the dark, hunching parallel to Railway Avenue long after most residents are asleep, lonely as a buffalo herd that's somehow seen and almost comprehended its own approaching ruin.

Of course, my telling is by no means the complete, illustrated history of Mission, a town that can barely hold onto its own name (since 1884, take your pick: St. Mary's Mission, Mission Junction, Mission City, Village of Mission, Town of Mission, and currently the District of Mission). Not by a long shot; this lurid splash portrays but a small corner of the canvas. How can any one person paint the full picture of a community, after all? No, despite my perverse zeal to stir the viscous mud below the bright surface, great deeds and happy memories adorn the history of this place, too, adding the sparkle and lustre of life above and hopefully beyond the stillness and silence. And yet, no matter how much joie de vivre this community may exhibit on its special days, like a red-carpet celebrity when the cameras start rolling — whether it be the laughing children with their maple leaf flags and pancake stacks celebrating Canada Day up at Heritage Park, or the benevolently stoned crowd at the annual Folk Festival, or even the choked air and sharp adrenaline at the Raceway — surely one thing cannot go unremarked: nearly half of those missing-presumed-dead women were of Aboriginal descent. This adds one more layer of indifference to a jaded populace apparently caught somewhere between the small town rural cruelties of its past and the uneasy suburban shrugs of its gathering future.

I know this. I worked with the street kid population here for years, witnessed their hardscrabble resilience. Few people ever gave a genuine damn about the plight of these children, even though some of the throwaways had not yet reached puberty. Two-thirds of street-involved youth in Mission are Aboriginal. Many are sexually exploited by family members, neighbors, pimps and selected citizens, but few speak of it. Some of these kids head west to Vancouver for a date with misery, stretching already tenuous community ties to the breaking point. My job as a street worker was to speak for these lost children, to ensure some semblance of the child welfare system would kick in through advocacy with social workers or teachers or families or counselors or probation officers. In a world in which the so-called "bottom line" — money and the politics of money — has become drawn too garishly, these already marginalized youth were, and continue to be, largely abandoned by a system designed to protect them. Sometimes I stand beside the town's failing heart, its run down main drag (1st Avenue), taking in the pawnshops and thrift outlets and dollar stores, and I'm convinced I truly hate this place... but only because I've loved it so deeply. In life: death. In death: life. The great inscrutable cycle.

In this way, the perennially troubled summer Pow Wow, always skirting the edge of ruin (corrupt, inept politics and sporadic funding, take a bow), yet often prevailing regardless, seems to me a far more accurate symbol of the clutching, ragged breaths that secretly haunt the sleep of this community. The fleeting vibrant colours of traditional dancers whirling in bright regalia — poignant as the plumage of endangered birds, flying amongst the high wailing melismas of the Northern-style singing and the vital, aorta-punching drums of the circles — somehow speaks more of an unavenged wound in time and place, set amid the cruelty that underlies so much beauty, than anything else this conflicted human settlement seems capable of offering.

An absurd contrast, really — this vibrant gathering and the judgmental silence of all those surrounding stories of the dead — the whole place holding its breath waiting for these mortal sorrows to purge themselves before the pristine lawns and asphalt and vinyl sidings are allowed to spread and eventually suffocate every fucking thing that ever felt like something here.

For here, tenacious as the town itself alongside relentless churning waters, the living will no doubt cling to hope and the perpetual dream of life until the muscled river — unnoticed, stealthy, taken for granted — wrestles away everything (horror, joy, splintered wood and the final word) at long last, sending it all tumbling toward the planet's dark and pitiless seas for good.

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