Friday, March 19, 2010

“Jughead Jones: Superhero” or “Mr. Jones and me look into the future”

I’ve read a lot of articles trying to explain the endless appeal of superhero comics. Hardcore comics fans frequently cite lonely or traumatic childhoods that left them feeling largely powerless. They claim to have been comforted by the idea of super-powered beings who could cast off the bonds of everyday life and fight the forces of evil on their own terms. Every outsider group seemed to have a tailor-made hero: science nerds had Spider-Man, kids who’d lost loved ones had Batman, gay teens had the X-Men, rage-filled youngsters had The Hulk, straight-up sociopaths had The Punisher and so on. In the most overt instance, Captain Marvel’s secret identity was Billy Batson, a scrawny, handicapped child who could transform himself into an all-powerful über-man.

I liked superhero comics quite a lot when I was a lad, but I can’t say they ever connected with me on exactly that level. I dug Spider-Man because he cracked wise, slung webs and had a cool-looking costume. Oh sure, Peter Parker’s geeky background held a certain appeal for a bookworm like me, but I was grounded enough to leave his adventures mostly on the printed page. That isn’t to say that I never had a comic book role model. It’s just that my hero was of the non-super variety.

For me, Jughead Jones occupied the role that Daredevil and The Flash filled for other kids. As I’ve mentioned before, I was and am a huge fan of Archie comics. I found the antics and adventures of the denizens of Riverdale comforting and familiar, though I started reading their stories when I was much younger than the teenage protagonists. Even so, I probably would have quickly outgrown Archie and the gang if it wasn’t for Jughead.

There’s really nothing all that remarkable about the students of Riverdale High. From Archie’s clumsy amorousness to Reggie’s status-seeking misanthropy to Veronica’s mindless opulence to Betty’s apple-pie goodness, the main cast is a pretty bourgeois bunch. The tertiary teens who hang around the core group aren’t much better, as each is mostly defined by a trademark trait or two. Dilton is super smart, Moose is dumb and jealous, Big Ethel is ugly and infatuated, Chuck is a jock (and later an artist, for sensitivity’s sake), etc. None of that detracted from my enjoyment – in fact, the easy characterizations have always been a big part of Archie’s comfort factor – but it was Mr. Jones who really cemented my love of the medium.

Much like my peers and their superheroes, I saw in Jughead a projection of what I might be in an idealized fantasy world. In reality, I was a nerdy little kid growing up in the backwoods of Western Wisconsin. I wasn’t exactly ostracized at my tiny country school – with only five boys in my grade, there wasn’t much room for outcasts – but my bookish ways and vaguely hippie upbringing placed me about as far on the outskirts as possible. I recognized early on that I was doomed to be the “weird kid” in most social settings. That might have been a major downer if I hadn’t had Jughead Jones’ example to follow.

Along with fellow oddballs Gonzo the Great and J. Wellington Wimpy, Jughead (especially as depicted by the amazing writer-artist team of Frank Doyle and Samm Schwartz) taught me that weird could be OK. More than that, weird could be cool. Alone amongst Riverdalians, Jughead ignored the passing trends and teenage silliness that consumed his classmates, opting instead to float around the periphery of the high school experience. To paraphrase Sterling Hayden in Dr. Strangelove, he did not avoid his classmates, but he did deny them his essence. He indulged in bizarre hobbies, ignored the constructs of fashion, refused to be drawn into the quagmire of the dating scene and generally marched to his own beat. Jughead was not without his failings, sloth and gluttony being his deadly sins of choice, but even these became more like charming quirks when paired with his personality.

Despite his contrary nature and odd predilections, Jughead was not the outcast one might suppose. As a matter of fact, he was a fairly popular kid who might even be called a local institution. Sure, Reggie and Veronica needled him from time to time, but only because Jughead was one of the few who was neither impressed with nor intimidated by their wealth and prowess. Ironically, his very refusal to seek the approval of his peer group made him one of the best-liked people in town.

That struck a resonant chord with my adolescent self. As I sprawled on my parents’ bed, paging through my stack of Double Digests for the umpteenth time, I imagined myself growing into that same kind of cool, confident teenager. I dreamed of a day when my artistic nature and offbeat sensibilities would merit more than just a teacher’s scrawled “Very creative!” in the margin of a fourth grade essay. If I just played it cool and embraced my inborn weirdness without flaunting it, I figured I could make it through the minefield of high school relatively unscathed.

And you know something? I think it worked. I know that trying to gauge one’s own high school popularity is a fool’s game, but I believe I emerged from four years at Sparta Senior High with a solid Jugheadian reputation – an odd but entertaining guy who was at least well-liked enough to be voted graduation speaker for the class of ’97. Maybe that doesn’t sound like the most impressive accomplishment, but Jughead also taught me to keep my fantasy within the realm of possibility. My dreams may not have been as lofty as those of my superhero-obsessed brethren, but I guarantee I came a lot closer to living the life of Jughead Jones than they ever did to leaping tall buildings in a single bound.

Note: As evidence of my ongoing obsession, pictured above is the rear wall of my home office, complete with hundreds of Archie comics, 12-inch Archie and Jughead dolls, a portrait of Jughead painted by my sister-in-law Diana, and my new prize possession, Samm Schwartz’s original artwork for my all-time favorite Jughead story, 1983's Crowning Glory (frame pending).

1 comment:

  1. Thankfully, this left off the aforementioned (well, not here I guess) "new" Jughead era.

    I never truly identified with Jughead, but he was always my favorite. If only because he was the only one that had a distinct personality.

    And I think you gave Archie Comics too much credit with Chuck's personality. I'd have probably just named his trademark trait as "black". Although he did come to his senses and eventually side with Archie in the thrilling RC Racers line.