Bart Beaty. Twelve-Cent Archie.
The question that begins this book, "What is the value of Archie comics?" (3), has a clear answer in the title: not very much. This is probably the answer that most scholars and cultural commentators would have given until very recently. From the viewpoint of 2015, the company, Archie Comics, has surprisingly become "one of the biggest risk-takers in mainstream comics, pushing character diversity in its main titles and shifting away from its all-ages roots" (Sava). Bart Beaty's new volume in Rutgers up's Comics Culture series, however, focuses not on recent developments in the Archie line of comics but, rather, on the "ordinary" all-ages roots of Archie that makes their risk-taking in the twenty-first century surprising. Beaty's project was to read every issue of Archie from the period when most Archie Comics publications cost $.12 an issue--late 1961 until the middle of 1969. As Beaty points out, this period coincides with several notable Archie artists, represents a time when Archie consistently outsold more classically notable comic books (such as Jack Kirby and Stan Lee's Fantastic Four), and was also a period of volatile change in American culture that passed distinctly unseen in Archie's fictional hometown of Riverdale. The resulting analysis has surprising implications far beyond the realm of cheap old Archie comics.
Bart Beaty, a comics scholar in the Department of English at the University of Calgary who is also possessed of a curiously Archie-esque name, is well aware that comic book analysis, much like literary criticism as a whole, has "focused nearly exclusively on those works that can be most easily reconciled within the traditions of literary greatness ... or those of contemporary cultural politics" (5). Twelve-Cent Archie, by contrast, is extremely repetitive, barely innovative, singularly unambitious, and deliberately, painfully uninterested in representing or engaging with the times in which it was produced. Noting the passion of Archie comics for the banjo, an instrument whose heyday had passed long before the 1960s, Beaty sums up the corpus of Twelve-Cent Archie with one word: unhip (197).
Beaty's book is patterned after an Archie comics digest: a long sequence of texts arranged in no particular order, concerning different subjects, and of varying length and structure. The methodology deployed varies as well, from a close reading of a particular page to a history of The Archies, the bubblegum pop band with the Archie brand licence at the end of the 1960s, and from an economic analysis of the Archie-Betty-Veronica love triangle to a Norton Anthology-style gloss on cryptic cultural references. Running throughout this variety of Beaty's looks at Twelve-Cent Archie is the constant tension between understanding Archie in terms of classical literary value and grappling with Archie on its own terms.
When Beaty looks at Archie as a text in the same way that one might look at, say, Renaissance drama, the results are disheartening but predictable. Archie comics literally never portrayed African-Americans, which is perhaps a blessing given their portrayal of Asians and Asian-Americans. Archie Comics promoted a reactionary view of youth culture in the 1960s, disdainful even of the Beatles brand of innovation, and was positively engaged with current events only in the realm of fashion. Relatedly and most of all, Archie comics promote a rigid view of gender roles, prescribing, at times directly, what female readers should do with their lives and their bodies. These critiques are worth making, but all of these points are also fairly evident to anyone with a vague sense of Archie comics. At least one of them, the revealing detail that Betty and Veronica have identical faces and are arguably interchangeable, was made as early as 1954, in the classic mad magazine parody "Starchie."
Beaty finds instead that the quality and innovation of the comics in this period lies in the visual art of Archie comics. As he skilfully explains with a close reading, stories like 1961's "The Joke" (discussed on pages 192-95) and 1969's "A Tough Question" (pages 160-63, three pages longer than the story itself) are made into "something valuable" (160) through the prowess and artistic ability of artists such as Samm Schwartz and artist-writer teams like that of Frank Doyle and Harry Lucey. The influence and importance of this dimension of 1960s Archie is still apparent: Archie and Jughead Comics Double Digest #16, published in December 2015, is actually made up predominantly of stories illustrated by Schwartz in the 1960s, most of which were written by Doyle. Beaty makes the compelling case that the circulation of these stories is actually because of their artistic value and quality. Based in his impressive ability to closely read comics, Beaty's analysis makes it difficult to argue that Schwartz's work does not meet some standard of literary greatness, even if it is the kind with funny drawings.
In the riskier parts of the book, Beaty looks at Archie on its own terms, uncovering many points of interest. If we grant that Archie comics in the 1960s are valuable and interesting simply because they exist, there is quite a bit to see in them. For example, Beaty persuasively argues that the widespread cultural idea of a "love triangle" between Archie, Veronica, and Betty is a highly inaccurate description of the situation in the 1960s, when Archie and Veronica are in a committed relationship that Betty is obsessed with destroying. Elsewhere, he points out that the text supports a reading in which Archie would rather be with Midge. This suggests that one of the basic cultural referents for the idea of a heterosexual love triangle, North American shorthand for a man trying to decide between relationships with two women of different economic classes, is a reference to something that never really existed. This intriguing idea--one of the few times that Archie has been the subject of hyperreality instead of an example of it--does not receive much further development but suggests any number of further possibilities.
More typically, the tension between Archie-as-actually-valuable and Archie-as-worth-slightly-more-than-a-dime is highly intertwined. Beaty characterizes the comics' portrayal of Riverdale as a fantasyland of middle-class white Americans in the 1960s, a subject of not a little interest to anyone invested in contemporary American culture and politics. In Beaty's evocative phrase, "for people of a certain generation, Archie is like the air--he is everywhere, but he is very little remarked upon" (3). While Beaty's book flirts at different times with being both a business history of Archie Comics and a book history of how readers actually read Archie, he is less concerned with why Archie reads this way and more with how it reads. The qualities of 1960s Archie comics--white, invisible, pervading--are exactly what makes them suggestive of further study when they are not "great" at all.
At its most interesting, Beaty's book is looking at the ways that art works when embedded in an extraordinarily conservative milieu, as part of a business so focused on exploitation that innovation has fled to obscure retreats. Beaty's mission is to look at what has been overlooked by scholars--incredibly, there is only one previous published work of scholarship concerning Archie in this period--and therefore one would assume that he is not particularly interested in recuperating Twelve-Cent Archie as a secret mine of quality. Despite his ambition to write a history of the boring, safe old Archie, he found that unexpected quality anyway, and, despite his interest in new kinds of criticism, he still focuses mostly on scholarly reading and on the auteurs of Archie Comics like Schwartz, Dan DeCarlo, or Doyle/Lucey. Doyle and Lucey are hardly the kinds of names that get hardcover collections of their work--as close as comics get to the canon--but they are still just individual artists who are interesting when and because they diverge from the background noise of ordinary culture. Even though I had never heard of them, it does feel that Beaty is often simply making claims that these two possess that fabled literary greatness. I wouldn't say that I found this disappointing, since after all these Archie comics have never been subjected to straightforward literary analysis the first time; but to me the more interesting parts of Beaty's book are when Archie comics refuse to be read in terms of mastery and auteurism at all.
Beaty's book is engaging and highly readable, which seems fitting given his subject. Alongside his recuperation of Archie as being in some sense great literature, he explores the fascinating things that texts that aren't great literature can say. I think this book is more interesting not when discussing the stand-out, idiosyncratic, or obviously meaningful moments in Twelve-Cent Archie but when discussing the background noise. Beaty's remarks upon the air itself are more provocative and interesting and difficult: Jughead's hat (which receives an entry of its own, pages 79-82) turns out to be unusually rich in meaning, a survival of World War Two-era working-class labour that became drained of meaning and thus stands for "the Archie worldview generally" (82).
It is difficult for me to criticize Beaty's treatment of the subject, because performing scholarly criticism on something that is incredibly resistant to scholarly criticism is roughly as difficult as it sounds. While reading this book I often thought about Archie and me, as Beaty considers at one point his own history with the Archies of his childhood. What might a project like this look like if it tackled "my" era of Archie comics: the late 1980s when the publisher created a wide variety of genre-based spinoffs, creating space for a series where, for example, Jughead secretly saw a girlfriend who was a female version of Archie, with whom he traveled in time and did battle with Morgan Le Fay, of Arthurian myth, in a series drawn, no less, by notable comics artist Gene Colan?
But that would be missing the most compelling point of Beaty's book. Beaty's call to look at the overlooked suggests new ways of looking at commercial art, the mass culture that does not obviously have literary or artistic value. His book is an exciting and often deeply funny example of what might come out of this approach. It feels like a call to go out and look at pop culture like Archie for how it works on its own terms. This call is even more compelling because, of course, Archie comics can still be acquired at more or less any North American supermarket or corner store and, what is more, they're still pretty cheap.
University of Alberta
Kurtzman, Harvey (w), and Bill Elder (a). "Starchie." MAD #12 (June 1954), EC Comics.
Sava, Oliver. "After several decades, Archie gets a stunning modern makeover." The A.V. Club. 10 July 2015. Web. 31 January 2016.
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|Publication:||English Studies in Canada|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 1, 2016|
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