Riverdale and Our Discontents: Bart Beaty’s ‘Twelve-Cent Archie’

Those of us who spent a large part of our adolescence in front of the spinning comic-book rack might forget just how undiscerning and democratic we could be. We might’ve already preferred Marvel over DC, but we weren’t above taking home any comic book at all, if nothing we already loved were available. How else to explain the stray copies of Harvey’s Richie Rich or Sad Sack & the Sarge that made it into our collections? Or romance comics? Or how we read and reread those titles until the staples wore out? So entered Archie Comics, whose characters — Archie Andrews, Veronica Lodge, Betty Cooper, Jughead Jones, and Reggie Mantle, among other (supporting) denizens of Riverdale, USA — we knew so intimately at first read, and who became an immediate part of our pop culture landscape (whether we admitted it to our friends or not).

Since first appearing in Pep Comics #22 in December, 1941 and getting his own title in the winter of 1942, Archie has provided a steady backdrop across decades of American culture, and is still published today. Should Archie’s durability as a character, however peripheral and innocuous he and his town of Riverdale might seem, escape our more critical notice? It’s often the most familiar which eludes us — and now Archie gets, at last, academic and theoretical consideration in Bart Beaty’s wildly readable Twelve-Cent Archie.

The task Beaty set before himself was simply this: read every Archie comic published in the twelve-cent era (1961-69), including every title — Archie’s Joke Book, Betty and Veronica, Jughead, Archie and Me, and others — and, well, find something intriguing to say about the otherwise obvious and banal. “[F]or the gatekeepers of legitimate culture,” Beaty writes, “Archie may as well not exist at all. One of the most lowbrow examples of a particularly lowbrow art form, Archie is virtually untouchable.” “Untouchable” in which sense? Beaty tells us that even “scholarly studies of comics… has tended to focus on those comics that best fit the literary scholarly traditions.”

That is, there seems little room for children’s, humor, and other popular comics. Instead, such comics are ignored “in order to make an artificial argument about the cultural importance of superheroes and their centrality to the economics of the industry in a post-Comics Code publishing period.” In fact, scholars have had little to say about Archie, except perhaps to mention the comic’s relative safety from the dreaded Comics Code Authority and in contrast with the dangers of horror comics and other violent or sexually-suggestive content Fredric Wertham warned the nation about during the McCarthy era. So, if analyzing popular culture, as some academics and theorists contend, can show us something about the human condition, why ignore one of the most omnipresent characters in comic-book history?

That Beaty limits his Archie study to the 12-cent period, during the turbulent ’60s, makes for a precarious, and brave, undertaking. If the comics contain little more than silly jokes and pedestrian, slapstick humor, and if Riverdale is nothing but a squeaky, well-cleaned place — harmless and filled with white, middle-class American values — Beaty runs the risk of interpreting Archie as merely a kind of conservatism as counter-comics-culture, a forum for preaching (or at least offering) old-fashioned ideals to young people living in an increasingly dysfunctional and unstable society. And although Beaty does consider such an analysis, it’s only one analysis among many, and Beaty is too fair a critic, too respectful and creative, to avoid the challenge to think more deeply about his subject and — Eep! Omigosh! — invite the reader to do the same.

Beaty arranges his study in 100 discrete chapters (which include such fun headings as “Who Cut Veronica’s Hair?”, “How Well Does Archie Speak French?”, and “Riverdale’s Racial Problem”) with the idea that each should function independently of the others, so that the book can be read in any order without losing either sense or the (possible) thread of the whole, precisely like the Archie comics themselves. Beaty’s overarching (pun intended) thesis centers on Archie comics’ “lack of continuity, their brevity, and their independent functioning within a larger narrative system” and, for Beaty, that ‘s what makes the Archie-verse so fascinating. Having surveyed the nearly 900 comics published during the 12 cent run gives Beaty insight about qualities which pass the casual reader by, but it’s the casual reader Archie is designed to appeal to. As Noah Berlatsky explains in his review of Twelve-Cent Archie in The Atlantic:

…Archie’s non-continuity fit its marketing needs — the comics were aimed at younger readers, who would pick them up casually rather than systematically. The goal was to make sure that every Archie story was complete in itself; you didn’t have to read a ton of backstory to enjoy an Archie comic. The fact that every episode was utterly independent from every other episode also made it easy to repackage and reprint stories. You can see the same logic in other humor series aimed primarily at casual rather than obsessive viewers, like The Big Bang Theory or Phineas and Ferb — though even those shows tend to have some memory from episode to episode.

It’s as though the Archie-verse contains a mysterious “reset” button: depending on the parameters of a given story, Betty might have a talent, say, for cooking or bowling — a talent which would then disappear to serve the premise of different story. Berlatsky, in The Atlantic article, calls this non-continuity a “virtue of forgetfulness”. That is, in opposition to the heavily-serialized nature of TV shows like Breaking Bad or Mad Men, or the ongoing story-lines of most superhero comics, the Archie-verse says something about our lives, too. Much of life is mundane and without consequence, and perhaps Archie reflects that meaninglessness. “When we follow continuity,” he writes, “we like to think we’re going somewhere, perhaps because in part we fear we’re stuck there in Riverdale, bowling without meaning.”

Read enough Archie comics, however, and the effect of non-continuity can be quite unsettling. Housed in perpetuity in a four-color, hyper-present, Archie characters suffer from a selective, and collective, amnesia. Jughead, Veronica, Moose, and the rest of the gang might never age, but they will never discover anything either: at the end of an episode, whatever mistakes they’ve made, or lessons they’ve learned, will be unceremoniously erased. And such disintegration must be anxiety-inducing, at least for the regular reader, however unconsciously.

To consider, and recast, Louis Menand’s reading of Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents, Archie and the gang are characters (patients) who “resist improvement.” The Archie-verse — a kind of Eden replete with pratfalls, comic misunderstandings, and inchoate love triangles — comes at a hefty psychic price for the reader who gazes too long into it. If Freud is right, and we do not want to (or can’t ever) be entirely happy, Archie comics might mirror our own resistance to mental wellness. If Archie characters operate too much on the side of the pleasure principle — and if our taking pleasure in their hi-jinks becomes, like Freud said of intoxicants, a way to keep misery at bay — we too defy, like Archie and the gang, ways to improve. Or Archie comics (as well as much of pop culture itself) might function a lot like religion — a psychosis, Freud told us, that depresses “the value of life and distort[s] the picture of the real world in a delusional manner.” No matter the case, we rarely grow.

This is not to suggest that Beaty tackles the Archie-verse in such profound ways. As Brenna Gray argues in “Of Ponytails and Pop Tate: A Review of Twelve-Cent Archie,” Beaty “makes assertions, raises interest, but ultimately tills the soil for other scholars to farm.” That is, Twelve-Cent Archie seems a jumping-off place. If not only for scholars, then at least for those of us who read both widely and, on occasion, all too nostalgically. “The secret of theory,” Jean Baudrillard wrote, “is that truth does not exist.” The secret of Riverdale, then, could be that neither its characters nor readers desire any kind of truth at all — and when we consider the Archie-verse, that’s as good a place as any to start.

Where does this leave us vis-á-vis comics scholarship? “There is no reason,” Ezra Pound warned in ABC of Reading, “why the same man should like the same books at 18 and at 48.” We can, however, read the same books in quite different ways. “Comics scholarship,” Gray writes, “should be an interdisciplinary space of inclusive discussion about an accessible art form, and if we are to talk about the popular in comics it’s worth including the popular discourse as well.” Let us hope Beaty has presented a discourse scholars find worthy of inclusion.

Where Beaty succeeds most in Twelve-Cent Archie is in his admiration for the writers and artists who toiled away at putting together, month after month, such accessible and popular art. Beaty chose the twelve-cent period in part because Archie’s most talented artists — Bob Bolling, Dan DeCarlo, Harry Lucey, and Samm Schwartz — intersect there. Isn’t the art — and its luscious balance with story — what we love most about comics in the first place? Beaty is also correct to suggest that the best Archie is Archie in its classic formats: single stories, single- or half-page shorts, and full-page gags. Deviation, in Archie’s case, does not necessarily lead to improvement. (And still doesn’t today. Despite the overdue introduction to the Archie-verse minority characters such as African-American Chuck Clayton and, most recently, gay Kevin Keller, witness the really forgettable offerings like Archie Meets Kiss or Zombie Archie.)

Archie thrives most in its sort of commedia dell’arte predictability and the variations and non-continuity which can occur therein. Indeed, the classic formats are just as Beaty describes Riverdale High’s principal Mr. Weatherbee: “One of the most unchanging elements of the Archie universe, Mr. Weatherbee is the rock against which almost any boat can be crashed, setting in motion an endless array of plots, almost all of which are exactly the same.” There’s a delicious joy in repetition, a delight in the inconsequential, which we often forget takes up a significant part of our lives.

“Religion cannot keep its promise,” Freud wrote. Neither does pop culture, except perhaps to bait us into nostalgia. To make us feel less lonely. What returned us as children to the comic-book racks, and to Archie, was our sense of isolation. Coupled with our desire for some larger world, comics functioned primarily as a bulwark against loneliness and a place to set off our imagination. What were Archie Comics for us if not what Federico García Lorca wrote of the duende, that “trembling of the moment and then the long silence”? We read, we imagined, and yet we still found ourselves relatively unchanged, discontented, and overwhelmingly alone.

Kenneth E. Harrison, Jr.’s poems have appeared in Cutbank, Denver Quarterly, Drunken Boat, Pleiades, Sukoon, and other journals. He’s written about Frank Zappa for PopMatters. He teaches writing and Literature courses at Webster University and Florissant Valley Community College in St. Louis, Missouri. He’s always dividing his time.