Friday, May 22, 2009

"Archie, my Archie, why has thou forsaken me?" or "The Last Temptation of Jughead"

The first time I remember feeling betrayed by a force beyond my comprehension was the day Jughead fell in love.

Jughead Jones was my childhood hero, a lazy, gluttonous cynic who cast a welcome shadow on the generally sunny landscape of Archie comics. Aside from his insatiable appetite for hamburgers, his defining personality quirks were a loathing for romance and a general disinclination toward women. I had no particular problem with girls, but I always admired Jughead’s refusal to fit into the typical teenage box occupied by the rest of his lovestruck peers.

Then, some time in the early ‘90s, the Archie staff decided to shake things up by introducing a storyline in which Jughead not only fell in love, but did so with two girls at once. To make matters worse, my sedentary role model – a man with a talent for idleness if ever there was one – took a fast food job to support his newfound woo-pitching habit.

I was crestfallen upon reading this revolting development. The character who had taught me that it was not just okay but downright cool to buck the system and follow one’s own path was suddenly just another everyman, a dark-haired knock-off of his predictable pal Archie. In one fateful issue, the writers had reduced Bob Montana’s greatest creation (OK, so Montana lifted more than a little from E.C. Segar’s Wimpy) to a weak-kneed also-ran no better than old-school Archie knock-offs like Wilbur and That Wilkin Boy. Heck, Jughead even traded in his signature crown for a burger joint ball cap. I wouldn’t have been surprised at treatment like this from a conniver like Reggie, but coming from Jughead it really stung.

Thankfully, the majority of Archie fans shared my sentiments. Reader response was overwhelmingly opposed to the cuddlier, canoodlier Jughead, and his career as a romantic lead was scrapped almost as soon as it began. Me, I was left with a bad taste in my mouth. I realized for the first time that the world of fiction is a malleable thing, and that the people who created the worlds and heroes that I loved might sometimes be misguided, cash-blinded or outright stupid. (All of those ideas were reinforced in spades soon after, when I first watched Superman IV, but that’s another story.)

I bring this up because Archie Comics has recently announced its latest “re-imagining” of its keystone characters. In a forthcoming storyline set in Archie’s post-collegiate future, Mr. Andrews will allegedly resolve his age-old love triangle by proposing to either Betty or Veronica. I’m no Reggie-come-lately to the Archie universe (as evidenced by my Archie-memorabilia-strewn home office), so I fully expect some convoluted scenario that will lead to our hero remaining unhitched and undecided. And that’s good. That’s as it should be.

What bothers me about this whole scheme (besides the fact that they’ve done it before, albeit in a weirder format) is the callous obviousness of the marketing ploy. I’m sure it’s not an easy time for Archie Comics. Their titles were fairly dated and pedestrian back when I started reading them, which was part of their strange appeal. Judging by my recent readings, they don’t hold up too well in the increasingly frenetic world of adolescent entertainment. I can’t really blame them for their frequent reboot attempts, which have included a creepily realistic art makeover, saddling Jughead with a baby sister, and launching yet another in a long series of uninspired animated shows. It’s just that this retooling never ends. When I was a kid, there were flailing efforts to re-cast Archie as a street-smart middle-schooler, a superheroic adventurer and, oddly enough, a remote-control racing enthusiast. Heck, even back in the ‘60s, the comics writers were shameless about trying to capitalize on the surprise chart success of a song from Archie’s Saturday morning cartoon show.

So yeah, I get that this supposed Big Decision is a desperate attempt to score some national press coverage and get losers like me talking about Archie on our barely read blogs. Obviously, it’s working to some extent, so kudos to the marketing department. But you know what else gets people talking? Quality.

I was originally drawn to the comics because of their universality. Some of my earliest memories as a reader are of Archie stories. The appeal was easy: they were peopled with lively, funny characters with whom I loved spending my summer afternoons. As I got a little older, though, I started to see more of the nuances. The crisp, exhilarating artwork of Samm Schwartz, for instance, was often filled out with surrealist background gags worthy of early Mad comics. Sure, a lot of the storylines were predictable, but there were plenty of weird, impeccably written little gems tucked in the pages of my Double Digests: a quirky piece in which Jughead is kidnapped by a crown-coveting religious cult, or a clever bit in which the denizens of Riverdale High can speak only in rhyme, or a fast-paced farce in which Archie throws the school into a panic using only a tackling dummy and a rubber mask.

Archie’s myriad creative teams have never gotten the kudos they deserve. With that in mind, it’s no wonder they now feel driven to chicanery like this marriage malarkey, but I think they’re underestimating the power of the internet. A stunt like this is a quick, cheap way to grab the spotlight. A better long-term solution would be to hire some sharp, new writers who could restore that long-gone sense of creativity and quirkiness while working within the established confines of the Archieverse.

Back when the Archie team was flexing its creative muscles more frequently, there was no real established network where people could spread the news, so those creative efforts went unnoticed. Nowadays, a sudden jump in quality would create a groundswell of buzz on the web, and a continued commitment to quality may very well engender a cult following. Countless cartoons and children’s books have proven that it’s possible to appeal to kids and adults at the same time by maintaining fresh, funny writing that works on multiple levels. Heck, I personally know a number of comics-experienced writers who would undoubtedly be up to the task (and I wouldn’t mind a crack at it myself).

The good folks at Archie Comics have given me a lot over the years, and I’ll be forever in their debt. When I see them resorting to gimmicks like the supposed resolution of Archie’s eternal triangle, however, I get nervous about their viability for the future. Rather than cranking out one-shots that are maybe worth a glance, I sincerely hope they’ll direct more of their future energies toward crafting comic books that are genuinely worth reading. Perpetual adolescence and arrested development needn’t be one and the same.

- Ira Brooker

1 comment:

  1. Found this post (in a circuitous way) via the AV Club posts. I couldn't link to this from the AV Club comments, but I recently posted that Schwartz/Frank Doyle story where Jughead is kidnapped by the cult (that thinks his crown belongs to their leader, the "Biga Sheesh" or "B.S.").

    So here it is.