“I half-wonder that if Beaty’s book had come out a decade ago, would Archie Comics have made the changes they did, or would they have instead just used 12¢ Archie as a company Bible?”
Publisher: Rutgers University Press
Writer: Bart Beaty
Release Date: February 2015
Since Archie Andrews’ debut in 1941, Archie comics have been pretty ubiquitous, especially among those who have an interest in comics. It seems everyone has read some Archie comics in their life and, regardless of which issue(s) they may have read, they’re familiar with the main cast and how they should be characterized. Archie is just part and parcel of Americana, even if people don’t know too many specifics beyond what they might have read in any given issue.
Part of that is because every Archie story is essentially the same. There’s a goofy set-up, the characters react according to their fairly straight-forward character traits, and several gags later, there’s a broad punchline/resolution. The only real differences might be whether the characters were wearing penny loafers or Air Jordans. So, despite some shake-ups from the publisher in recent years, no one has really bothered going back to study Archie comics. If you’ve read one, you’ve read them all, right?
Enter Bart Beaty.
Beaty decided that he was going to do a comprehensive study on Archie. While reading every Archie story ever written is a bit unrealistic, he did go through every issue of all seventeen titles from December 1961 to July 1969 when the books were mostly cover-priced at twelve cents each. His findings are in the new book: Twelve-Cent Archie.
What’s fascinating, to me, about a fairly comprehensive study like this is that Beaty is able to tease out and articulate a great many things by virtue of their exceptions. A more casual reader—that is to say, nearly everyone else—might have a vague intuitive sense of the the rules of the Archie universe, but in highlighting the rare exceptions, Beaty is able to pinpoint precisely how and why the Archie comics worked so well they way they did for so long.
Beaty breaks the book up into one hundred very short chapters, each discussing a very specific aspect of the comics. There are chapters on aspects as seemingly superficial as Archie’s jalopy and the Mayor of Riverdale (who appeared exactly once in these stories) to deeper subjects like the lack of racial diversity and the gender politics promoted in the books. In each case, Beaty shows how each detail adds to the overall Archie tapestry, and then provides examples that either show it working well in action or show it working poorly when it’s changed or ignored. And while some elements seem fairly obvious on even a cursory reading of an Archie story (say, Mr. Weatherbee acting as a father figure towards Archie) others might be consistently misread or misinterpreted for any of a variety of reasons (the exact nature of the relationship between Archie, Veronica and Betty, for example) or overlooked entirely (like, Archie having a romantic interest in Midge).
In light of the recent changes that I alluded to at the outset of this review, Beaty’s findings provide some heavy food for thought. While he focuses on the 1960s-era books, it’s easy to point to the same types of elements in both earlier and later stories. More significantly, it’s easy to see why any other Archie story works or doesn’t.
The best Archive stories do very little. Thirty years before Jerry Seinfeld gained global fame for a television show featuring the nonadventures of a small group of friends, [Frank] Doyle and [Harry] Lucey were crafting finely tuned comics in which nothing significant happened. The Doyle-Lucey team demonstrated that it was the everyday life of Riverdale that housed the soul of Archie’s misadventures and that it was the very slightest prompt that could produce the best stories.
Some of the recent changes at Archie that I alluded to at the start of this review were done, at least in part, to make Archie more relevant in contemporary culture. I half-wonder that if Beaty’s book had come out a decade ago (instead of next month) would the company have made the changes they did, or would they have instead just used 12¢ Archie as a company Bible?