Christian Kitsch #11: Archie Gets a Job!

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We’re rejoining Archie live in progress. After reviving the Christian Kitsch series last week, I rediscovered the joy of pure riffing.  Unfortunately, our next specimen, one Archie Gets a Job!, is about half the book I want it to be. The 13 pages of the book are just a summer parade of halfhearted slapstick gags involving the physical––possibly spiritual––destruction of Mr. Weatherbee. A brief montage of screenshots should be enough to give my readership the gist:

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Fig. 1: Archie tries to loaf at Veronica’s, is thwarted by Chinese vampire dad.
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Fig. 2: Archie asks for a job at Mr. Weatherbee’s scenic Christian bookstore, which is built into a lighthouse.
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Fig. 3: His employment uncertain, Archie resorts to drastic, physically implausible measures to get the job by “rescuing” Mr. Weatherbee from the crushing tide.
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Fig. 4: Mr. Weatherbee realizes that, no matter how miserable you are at your job, you can always rely on schadenfreude and violence to lighten your mood.
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Fig. 4.1: If you cannot reason with your opponent, silence him instead.
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Fig. 5: Archie takes obvious pleasure in sucker-punching Mr. Weatherbee with a heavy metal object. Vengeance is mine, sayeth Archie.
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Fig. 6: Even with his eyes snapped shut, Mr. Weatherbee realizes the extent of the horror he has brought on himself by bringing this deviant under his roof.
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Fig. 7: The company parts ways, and Archie and his friend head off to the beach to sell, sell, sell!

At last, on page 13, the propagandizing begins. In their ramshackle phallic jalopy, Archie and Jughead bound across the dunes until they find the author Al Hartley’s prop for preying on young women’s insecurities: Big Ethel.

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Fig. 8: Ethel’s desire to learn springs from the void of despair.

Classic propaganda setup has been established. Now it’s time for the hammer to fall. What kind of easy prescription will Dr. Archie Self-Insert recommend? Apparently the solution for patriarchal body expectations is about 500mg of nepotism.

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Fig. 9: “You can be sure it was written by a well-adjusted male such as ourselves.”
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Fig. 10: Text reads: “Dear Reader: There are hundreds of good Christian books I could have used in this story! So why not choose one my son wrote?–Al Hartley. P.S. Here’s his picture.”

Yes, not only is Al Hartley running commercials in his comics, but he is using his comics to promote books written by his own son, Fred Hartley. Fred is something of a Christian popular literary celebrity, having published books like Dare to be Different, That Morals Thing, and Growing Pains: First Aid for Teenagers. Obviously, the man found his niche writing Christian self-help lit for teenagers, but evidently lacked his father’s cartooning ability. And he also graduated from Wheaton, which suggests that he has some kind of work ethic, if nothing else.

Our redoubtable boys have made a sale––and I’m sure our author’s son made a few as well––though we never see them take anyone’s money so they may just be distributing Mr. Weatherbee’s merchandise without compensation. While Ethel seems satisfied with her purchase, not everyone is so enthusiastic about Archie and Jughead’s mission.

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Fig. 11: And he knows crazy ideas, having perfected the self-Heimlich.

Still, something must be working because Ethel’s dramatic reading of the book is drawing in the masses. Even Veronica feels outdone by Fred’s arresting words.

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Fig. 12: Archie is just as shocked as everyone other named character in the book.

Pause. Let’s remember that the book has so far been completely devoid of (un)helpful advice for children of any age. Hartley’s usually much better at rapidly hitting the bullet points and integrating the pratfalls and absurdities into the propaganda. The only mission he’s given us so far is to buy his son’s book. For which I suppose we’ll all have to get summer jobs. Frustratingly, the book once more turns to comic mischief (as the ESRB would have it) as Archie ties Jughead to a kite sporting a streamer with a truly memorable slogan.

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Fig. 13: Jughead’s monastic vow of silence has a surprisingly slapstick-y origin.
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Fig 14: Let the lighthouse turn me on! Everything about this panel is perfect, especially with the odd colour errors on her face.

Having enlightened the people and left Jughead-shaped gaps in people’s tans, this foolproof advertising scheme comes to a safe and happy end.

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Fig. 15: Mr. Weatherbee won’t be smiling when OSHA comes rapping on his lighthouse door.

This panel and the next are a perfect encapsulation of the bizarre dream logic by which Al Hartley’s Archie operates. In one panel, Jughead is basically Jesus in the Pietàa crumpled shell of a person whose eyes are shut and who is incapable of standing. One could only speculate about the internal and external damage he’s suffering. The very. next. panel. however…

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Fig. 16: They lied to us. Money can cure any ill.

No further acknowledgement of Jughead’s life-threatening injuries is to come. But we finally have some proper preaching to look forward to! Archie decides that he’s going to give ten percent of his paycheque to “the Lord,” by which I’m sure he means his local church.

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Fig. 17. A standard crab trap, beached and unloved.
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Fig 17.1: Enhanced view.

But we all wonder why we should give ten percent of our income to the Lord. Or church, whoever is easier to get to by car. Archie has a rather dramatic illustration of the true commitment that Christians should have for their God. It’s not the one anyone expected, but I’m sure it was persuasive.

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Fig. 18: I’m sure that’s what all our parents said when we were born. “See what did?”
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Fig. 18.1: And he looks ecstatic about it.

I’m fairly sure that Christianity abhors human sacrifice, and we’re meant to take this quite metaphorically, but I think the visual medium works against Hartley’s point here. We can’t help but empathize with the pig’s pitiful situation, stuffed and prepared for consumption. Is it alive or dead? Whichever it is, the moment that Hartley captured with his pen triggers a deep sense of identification with its plight, which our very souls cry out: “I guess that makes sense, but let’s leave the butchers out of this!”

After that, possibly the deepest, darkest panel Hartley ever cartooned, our comic can only manage to sputter to its conclusion. We have another bout of slapstick nonsense that culminates in another grim-seeming injury:

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Fig. 19: Jughead realizes the true extent of his sins, and he watches the heavens, trembling.
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Fig. 20: Archie breaks the fourth wall because he knows his time has come.

But Mr. Weatherbee remembers that his hapless employees have somehow generated a sensational amount of business for him, so all is forgiven.

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Fig. 21: It’s this panel that made me wonder: why did Hartley think “Yes, this has to be a Veronica panel!”

At long last, and after much dithering and padding, Hartley comes around to remembering what the true message of this book is all about: local bookstores are important cornerstones of the community. I’m actually not sure there’s much more to it than that. Observe:

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Fig. 22: I’m not sure why Jughead only has 90% of his paycheque left. Did God spirit away the tithe off-panel? Also, Hartley never figured out how to do a fourth-wall break that elicited anything other than fear and spine-tingling.

In summary, this is one of Hartley’s weakest comics, at least that I’ve reviewed on this site. Nuggets of preaching and ill-considered but hilarious situations are few and far between, separated by dusty canyons of ineffectual slapstick. Nothing comes to a head in the end, either. Despite this being somewhat less episodic than the typical Hartley Archie entry, his writing is flaccid and even distracted. More than any of the other comics, this one tastes distinctly of a rush job he didn’t have any feeling for. I may only be speculating, but I think that Hartley was more the chicken than the pig this time around.


Christian Kitsch #4: God Is…

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At last, we return to the world of Spire Comics, that font of unintentional surrealism masquerading as evangelical propaganda. While the last fruit of their labors we studied, Archie’s Sonshine, has, as you might guess, an explicit connection to an established comic series, Spire also created original work. This work tended to be even more explicitly didactic–i.e. it dispenses with any pretense of having a narrative and just shoves the messaging in your eyes. One such example of this is the child-friendly treatise on the divine known as God Is…

While also being written and drawn by Al Hartley, the son of a union buster who composed Sonshine, it acts as more of a teaching tool implicitly targeted at parents who want to explain to their children who God is. Even though I am a tiger and by virtue of that not religious, I admit that I am somewhat fascinated by the idea of God. And I knew that this comic would butcher any account it tried to give of the divine, so I figured this would be one of the more hilarious entries in the Spire Comics canon. I was exactly right. I know, I’m a prophet, but what can I say? Feline intuition.

The comic is thirty-two pages long, excluding the cover and some back material, and most of the pages take a stab at defining God in some way, starting with the phrase “God is.” Let’s experiment a little bit here. Pretend that we have never heard or read anything about God in our entire lives. Suppose that we are intrigued by this character because he (and for the purposes of this article I will be suspending my usual policy of using non-gendered language for God. The God in this comic is definitely a dude.) has been mentioned around you once or twice. You go up to a friend with a puzzled look on your face and ask, “Who is this God?” And your friend beams at you, pulls this comic out of his or her backpack, and pats your shoulder while saying, “All will be made clear to you. Just read this.” I intend to discover who God is using only this comic, which should end up giving us a fairly, shall we say, distinct view of the divine one.

Are our minds thoroughly cleansed? Have we reset our views of God? OK, now it’s time to learn who God is.

Screen Shot 2013-09-18 at 12.35.26 AMThe best surprise package I ever received was a pig carcass accidentally FedExed  to me from the local slaughterhouse because of a clerical error. I suspect that the comic does not mean this literally, though, since the visuals convey a rather different sense of “surprise package” than the best lunch I ever had.

Note the absence of rainbows.
Note the absence of rainbows.

Well, this is just the first statement. If we don’t take it too literally, we can see that God is something or someone we don’t expect, as well as superlatively good. Apparently, we also “receive” God, so we have some kind of personal relationship with it/him/her. Quite a difference from my relationship with pork chops. I’m sure the comic will clarify in subsequent pages.

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The author contrasts God’s unsurpassable greatness with the flaws that other gifts have. Giant sweaters, exploding tricycles, and purple cows with mind crush powers (Seriously, look at that child. That cow’s iron stare is merciless!) are certainly no match for God. Whatever God is. Well, the comic complicates matters by stating that God is a gift but also something or, probably, someone who gives perfect gifts. God is also love. In these first two pages, God has been described as an object, a person, and an abstract concept which names a whole complex of affectionate, romantic, and innumerable other aspects of relationships between people. This love is also a drinkable substance, especially by children with their own coffee mugs. Unfortunately, this page does little to actually clarify or build on the earlier characterization of God as a surprise package. Really, it’s just muddled the issue, though we do know that God is probably a person, albeit one that is very easy to pack up and ship on a rainbow express.

God's highway?
God’s highway?

At this point, we still don’t know much about God other than that God gives perfect gifts and is also the best gift we’ve ever gotten. That doesn’t amount to much other than “God is good.” A start, I suppose. Let us continue.

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This page is just setup. We know that this God, who is love, a perfect gift-giver, and a great gift, is being contrasted with people who do magic and the racists who come out to watch Arab stereotypes getting summoned from a magic lamp. The next page will solve this riddle.

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God possesses immense magical powers. So not only is God the best package we’ve ever gotten, but he’s got those chintzy stage magicians outclassed by a country mile. His powers are rather vaguely defined on this page, however. We can see plenty of animals, but most of them are just chilling, doing their animal things without much interference. Not only this, but we haven’t actually seen a picture of God yet. We can probably infer from the picture that God can magically grow a baby into a mature human being as well as a seedling into a flower. OK, I’m impressed. Never seen either of those at a school pep rally. And if we’re supposed to believe that the lightning is God’s handiwork as well, I agree that we’re dealing with at least an Order of Merlin second class here.

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Now we get more detail about God’s immense magical power. God is forcing all of these poor oblivious animals to wag their tails, standing in place helplessly while a car careens toward them from the background. Page five also implies that the animals we saw doing their normal business on the previous page might not be immune from the mind control/blood bending prowess of this mighty magician.

“Who is making that goat stand there on that rock? God is!”

“And that fish? God made it leap with so much love!”

God is also still either invisible or just able to use his magic over a long distance. I guess since he’s making the dogs wag their tails “with so much love” we can feel a little less guilty about animal abuse, but I still find this a petty use for such power, not to mention somewhat cruel and pointless. Maybe what we need is a more critical voice in the comic.

Luckily, the next few pages pose some important questions.

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Hold it right there! God has undergone quite the promotion from the first page. At first, God was just the hulking pig corpse lugged onto my front porch. Now he has gone from embodying the concept of love to an animal-controlling, mighty wizard (of love?)  to the ruler of the entire world. If what this kid is saying is correct, that means that our entire world is owned and controlled by a wizard with a fetish for manipulating animals’ minds. I suppose we have to trust the breathless praise for this guy we heard earlier in the comic, but it’s hard to reconcile a lovely surprise with a global ruler who ordained that some animals would get a free ride and others have to haul scarf-wearing Mexican stereotypes on their backs. The goggled one’s questions weren’t really answered. God’s arbitrary decisions about the distribution of animal labor are just inherently trustworthy, I guess.

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So now the comic takes an even darker turn. The maniacal magus, that warlock with the obsession over dog tails, is now the one who made us. Entirely through arbitrary decisions, God has established that some animals get better deals than others. And we are not meant to question this being  or try to understand it in any situation. Got it. Also, I find it curious that all of the people who are driving vehicles are the ones with the questions, while these little kids are the sure and certain ones. People, I think that the children may be delusional. I am starting to suspect we have an unreliable narrative voice here.  The next few pages continue this theme before explaining what our creator has in store for us.

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At least, in this cruel and bizarrely random order that this grand wizard has established, we are the favoured few! This God, who lives in a deeply strange miniature golf course castle (probably a conscious choice given what we know about his somewhat insane aesthetic preferences), has a special plan for us. At this point, I’m sure you’ll forgive me for being less than enthused upon reading this. At least when the slaughterhouse made that clerical error, it was the exception to the rule rather than the norm. Also, we finally see the end result of this God’s inhumane treatment of animals. Disembodied heads, all set up for unknown purposes, intentionally blocking our path because of this magic-wielding sociopath.

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If that was God’s Magic Door, and the wagon is also God’s, would that make the man in the Seussian top hat and epaulets God? The comic strongly suggests that this is the case. We also see that ugly old people are not immune to God’s decapitation habit, nor are hippos. Not only this, but God, if that is God, is sending mere children in a rickety wagon down a treacherous path of certain death. So we can add child endangerment to the rap sheet. I suppose this is done with “so much love” as well?

The next panel shifts the focus back on us, the readers. It reveals another aspect of God’s personality.

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Well, since I’m a tiger, I think I’m fine. Pigs, foxes, bears, dogs, goats, and apes seem to be less fortunate. Since this book is intended for human consumption, though, I have a hunch that the focus of this page is on the negative attributes rather than the specific animals. Since dogs have a hard time reading, this seems like a strong hunch. Also, blonde mustachioed Viking with pigtails and gigantic striped pants. Just saying. I wonder if God is saying that he doesn’t want us to look like him, not the animals. Apparently, God is a stickler for proper hygiene and personal image. I would suggest to him, were I not trembling in fear, that he ditch the epaulets. They’re just gauche.

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Good! More information. So God, our less-than-benevolent-though-still-perfect creator and overlord, doesn’t want us to fight or be sad, mad, afraid, or lonely. No doubt he wants us to be happy with our lot. I mean, it is his work, and as a fellow artist I can understand being peeved when your creations start accusing you of giving them a bad deal. That said, I think expecting little kids to never be afraid is like expecting tigers to never eat little kids. Both depend on one another, you might say.

Two pages later, the plot twists yet again.

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Shellshocked. Not only is God the best package ever, a mighty wizard, love itself, our creator and master, and obsessive over appearances, but also a serial adopter. I guess it’s technically true that if we all got adopted by this madman we would be brothers and sisters. Still, this entire situation is getting more uncomfortable with every turn of the page. I mean, why does the little boy leading a camel around on his own need a minibike? Why not offer the poor white child with the blue helmet a drink of water instead of his livelihood and beast of burden? I guess God would be able to figure this one out. Psycho.

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Screen Shot 2013-09-18 at 1.50.46 AMBecause we’re different on the outside but the same on the inside, God sent his (presumably biological) son Jesus. And this Jesus is supposed to teach us about life. What confuses me is this: who is Jesus in this picture? I presume it’s going to be one of the white people, especially if that guy in the epaulets is God, and the baby seems to be central to the picture, but babies make notoriously poor teachers. Then again, considering God’s track record thus far, I wouldn’t put it past him to put a baby in front of a classroom, shove a piece of chalk in its mouth like a cigar, and tell it to reveal life’s mysteries to us.

I suppose the next pages will clear us of any doubt.

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First, this page offers a definition of Jesus: “God With You”!!! with requisite trio of exclamation points isolated from the quotation marks. We certainly know that Jesus was the white baby on the previous page. Jesus is also “the way to know God,” which, I have to complain, is fairly vague. Does that mean that we can only get to God’s office by first getting the thumbs up from his son, who is also like his press secretary?Does that mean that Jesus is a kind of mediator between us and God? Hard to say, but we know that he was a pretty healthy, well-adjusted youth and, once he grew up, the holder of a fuzzy beard. Not only this, but he hangs out in verdant subtropical climes to arbitrate the disputes between brawling little white boys. And possibly their dogs, though by the picture we can’t tell the canine’s precise relation to the situation at hand.

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Not much to write on this page, other than that it seems Jesus transforms at night into a shapeless beast with a regiment of all-seeing eyes. Or a flashlight, but those two are not mutually exclusive. Jesus can also abstract himself into his own name and bulldoze mountains.

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The dark, violent world of mid-1970s America is here rendered in a stunning and prophetic image. Still, considering the tumultuous events taking place outside, it would probably be safest to stay in the porn theatre, all things considered. Of course, adding the leering, gigantic Jesus to the situation makes everyone straighten up, though it’s hard to say that they’re being freely good if they’re subject to the omniscient judge of good citizenship and proper hygiene.

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After all of that, we are left with that phrase again: “God Is!” Well, shoot. We knew that from the cover. The question is: who is this God? All of this comic tract’s depictions were either deeply ambiguous, plain weird, or self-evident to the point of obsolescence. An arbitrary and omniscient wizard who created us to serve his whims and manipulate us (and our dogs) for his own perverse pleasure, he enforces a The World’s End type utopia under the power of constant observation and the threat of punishment.

At this point, I am going to break character and sum up what we have learned from this. Because, though this seems a rather silly and innocent artifact of a deeply superficial “religious” culture, I would argue that this silliness combined with its banality and its intended purpose as an educational tool for children, means that it probably reflected and might continue to reflect a large percentage of people in their views of God. If such views as this are considered safe for children, we are in a great deal of trouble. The existence of this comic, the fact that those who produced it perceived and thought that they were filling a perceived need–even if it was only their own need to feed their families–means that these kinds of statements, this culture, had and still has a kind of mass credibility within Christian culture. Even Christians I know are likely to laugh at this sort of excessively goofy representation of their faith, and would never use it to teach their children, but in most cases the actual contents of their beliefs bear a disturbing resemblance to God Is…And this is why kitsch is so fascinating.