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Call of the mild: Comic book icon Archie Andrews leaps into the 21st century

Call of the mild: Comic book icon Archie Andrews leaps into the 21st century

For four decades cartoonist Tom Moore, who died last week aged 86, drew a comic book hero whose superpowers proved more resilient than those gifted by Spiderman's radioactive spider bite or Superman’ ability to recharge using solar radiation. For much of the 20th century the blandly average, ginger-haired, freckle-faced perpetual teenager Archie Andrews became a mascot for white, heterosexual males and their uncontested dominance. Until Archie died last year taking a bullet for a gay friend. He was reborn this month looking like a 1D band member surrounded by a diverse new crew. By MARIANNE THAMM.

Most people growing up in the technologically and ideologically backward 1960s and 70s – a “golden age” for American comics – would, at some point in their lives, have encountered an Archie comic (even if only in the dentists or doctors waiting room).

It is here, in this idealised American town with its school, Riverdale High, that the comforting stereotypes of the main characters – the freckle-faced, ginger-haired Archie Andrews, the blonde “temperamental girl next door” Betty Cooper, the quintessential rich material girl Veronica Lodge, the woman-hating moocher Jughead Jones and the vain and boorish Reggie Mantle – survived, blissfully unchanged, World War II, 75 presidential terms, the rise of the Civil Rights Movement, feminism and the collapse of capitalism.

Back then a child who was black, lesbian, gay or gender non-conforming was thoroughly and shamelessly excluded from this heteronormative, racially-exclusive, classist, sexist, consumerist, patriarchal safe little world where Betty and Veronica would bafflingly be in perpetual competition for the attention and affections of Archie who appeared to have little going for him apart from a really old red car he called OlBetsy.

Those of us who existed at the fringes of this mainstream could only fantasise that away from it all Betty and Veronica were secretly and passionately in love. If you were black, there was sadly no imaginative traction at all.

Of course Archies inherent superpower was that he was male – mediocre but male – in a world devoid of diversity and competition and where he and friends were structurally propped up by a mighty patriarchal machine.

And while remnants of the coded sexist cultural, political and social expectations of men and women still endure (“they fuck you up your mum and dad” observed Philip Larkin), Archie has miraculously survived into the 21st century, a changed man.

Cartoonist Tom Moore, who died in Texas aged 86 last week, was one of several artists who brought the original Archibald “Chick” Andrews to life since the characters debut in December 1941. The comic was originally written by John L Goldwater and illustrated by Bob Montana before Moore took over from 1953 until his retirement in the late 1980s.

While Moore, a Korean War veteran, no doubt merely reflected the mores and values of his time, what is remarkable is the enduring nature of the Archie comics. Particularly in an age of television series like Friends and Glee, where intelligent and brilliant graphic novels are a serious genre, where social networks like YouTube and Vine have become portals for juvenalia and where todays pre-teens have access to a dizzying array of tailor-made distractions.

And while Moore and his generations view of the “natural” order of the world – binary and white – might thankfully no longer exist, Archie is alive and well and living in the 21st century.

On Twitter Archie Comics has 17,300 followers while his Facebook page has around 214,000 fans. In April last year the current creators of the Archie franchise announced that the character would be killed off in the July issue titled Real Life With Archie.

In the story, set in the future where Archie, Veronica and Betty are all adults, the character meets a “glorious” end trying to prevent the assassination of the comics first “openly gay character” (admit it, we always suspected Jughead was in the closet), Kevin Keller, introduced in 2010 and who, in this episode, is a US senator fighting for stricter gun control.

Archie Comics CEO Jon Goldwater said the characters death “is everything that you would expect of Archie. He dies heroically. He dies selflessly. He dies in the manner that epitomizes not only the best of Riverdale but the best of all of us. It’s what Archie has come to represent over the past almost 75 years.”

Goldwater rather grandiosely added that the creators had wanted to do something “impactful that would resonate with the world and bring home just how important Archie is to everyone. That’s how we came up with the storyline of saving Kevin. He could have saved Betty. He could have saved Veronica. We get that, but metaphorically, by saving Kevin, a new Riverdale is born.”

(Or how about Veronica or Betty save Kevin? And then Archie gets killed by a stray bullet? A bridge too far?)

The announcement prompted howls of protest on the right-wing where a user calling himself Lord Sum lamented that while Archie was “before my time” he was “dimly aware” that the comic dated back “to a time when this country was still relatively sane and firmly in white control (or at least the Jewish control hadnt had as much time to work its magic yet), its an icon of an earlier time, its an icon of traditional white America The white, cisgender, heterosexual male must step aside, make way, and frankly just politely DIE so that the coalition of the oppressed (gays, minorities, transgenders, whoever …) can take over”.

(Yes, thats about right)

Lord Sums impotent rant is indicative of the deep cultural capital and values of the original Archie brand and why it became “iconic” and embedded in the white American imagination and everyday psyche.

With Betty and Veronica (who apart from their hair were originally indistinctly drawn while the male characters were all rendered unique) mere cyphers and Archie, Reggie, Jughead, Moose et al the repositories of male power reflected back at itself through the women, the world seemed so much simpler, rigid, ordered and safe for its male inhabitants.

That Archie has survived into the 21st century and in fact enjoys popularity today is astounding but it is only thanks to the incremental reflection, over time, of a changing world. Over the years the apparently virginal kids of Riverdale High – they never have sex and are consumed by a constant state of libidinal displacement – (which is why they appeal to pre-teens) have had to contend with diversity, the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the 1980s (although clumsily handled) and various other rapid changes.

Two weeks ago Archie was rebooted and brought back to life in Archie#1 which launched at the annual Comic-Con in San Diego. The new-look Archie has lost the strange and characteristic series of patterned lines on the side of his hair (what was that anyway?) and looks like any number of generic 21st century teen male stereotypes. He could be Justin Bieber or any of the members of the wonder “boy band” 1D. Hes got a smartphone, still plays in a band and wears skinny jeans and takkies.

It was clear to me that Archie was moving down the path of irrelevancy,” Goldwater said in an interview.

Betty, Veronica and Jughead have also undergone comic book plastic surgery and Betty who now “dons ripped jeans” has “a range of facial expressions, unlike her earlier character”. Hopefully the creators have also increased her range of interests beyond Archie and his world.

Goldwater has reported that comic book sales have risen by seven percent in the US last year and that revenue figures for the Archie#1 were the highest in six years.

While comic books once lined the shelves of corner cafes and large bookselling chain stores in SA, today they can be found in a few dedicated speciality stores throughout the country or online. While many of us may have outgrown them (and the times), comics clearly provide eternal charm, even for a generation living in the brave new world, who are spoilt for choice and where there are few taboos left and that are not explored as “entertainment”.

It will be interesting to see how the artists and the story developers in the reconstructed Archie comics deal with a rapidly changing world and whether the narratives will be edgy and transgressive enough to appeal to a new (and hopefully more evolved) generation of tech-savvy young people. Will Archie understand cisgender? Will he speak out against police brutality? Will he ever kiss Jughead? DM

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