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 #10: Barney Bear Out of the Woods!

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Yes, Spire Comics, we’re back. Back to settle an old score.

For the tenth instalment in our expedition into the mighty Christian kitsch industry, we’re considering a spawn of Spire’s children’s imprint. Kiddie Christian Comics was the company’s imprint for very young children, and also put out God Is…, which we covered in Christian Kitsch #4. We can only hope that this entry will achieve the same slapdash surrealism of that comic, though this time the preaching is grounded in a narrative form.

Because this is a special occasion, and these characters are Spire originals (though, as a friend named Tom informed me, Barney Bear is also an MGM cartoon and comics character), it’s only right to give them the honour of a dramatis personae.

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Barney Bear. Age: young. Religion: take a wild guess.
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Parents. Age: middle. Property owners, concerned citizens.
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The Wild Bunch. Hobbies: delinquency, immiseration, squalor, and noise violations.

And, last but certainly not least, the pillars of the community.

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Left to right: Church mouse, the owl, and the goat judge (Satanic affiliations unproven)

Now that we’re familiar with the many colourful characters of the Barney the Bear Extended Universe, let’s see what kind of adventures they get themselves into when they come OUT OF THE WOODS.

Al Hartley begins his story on a clear night. The parents are sleeping, until all of a sudden:

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Clearly, something is amiss, or else this bear would not be having trouble sleeping in his natural habitat. Though it appears that, in this world, only some of the anthropomorphic animals have assimilated into a domesticated life. I’m also unsure what Mama Bear’s curlers  are supposed to accomplish given how short her hair is. On an artistic level, they serve as gender markers, but other than that they probably just pull her hair and sort of sit there.

The entire comic, being meant for children, is also quite light on panels, often having only two or even one per page and very little dialogue. I’m not opposed to this approach, and we’ll see it actually leads to somewhat creative page layout, but the drawing itself is just as generic and overall lifeless as it always is on these books. Competent, but nothing above mediocre.

After the whole family wakes up and rushes into the parents’ bedroom, the father bear begins the story proper:

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Basic plot outline: white (brown bear) suburban paranoia.

How exactly has the neighbourhood changed? Basically, we’ve gone from cute, domesticated Disney animals, complete with Bambi, Toby the Turtle, and Air Guitar Frog…

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Is “Rabeet” what frogs say, or is it labeling the pink fluffy thing in the bottom corner as a “rabeet?”
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Pictured: Rabeet’s fourth album cover.

To Ralph Bakshi animals:

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The Redwall books had less obvious racial profiling of animals.

Having realized that their tranquil suburban bliss has been upended, the family rushes from their house and heads out to investigate the source of the racket. Perched on an overhanging cliff, they behold a landscape wholly and terribly transformed:

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Though it’s not stated or even implied by the text, I have to assume that the family awoke not from a normal sleep but from an extended hibernation. Otherwise, this level of urbanization would not have escaped their notice. And indeed this city is a swarming hive of misery and sin. People out at “All Night Movies,” being “Adult,” having “Fun,” and even heading to the “Grotto.” Take that inebriated elephant for one. His dome is smoking something fierce, though he doesn’t seem too worried about plunging over the green waterfall. I’m jealous of the bear triplets riding the useless water wheel in antique swimsuits, and much less jealous of the white-suited gentleman taking a swan dive right into the turf. Overall, though, it seems like a good time.

Not if you ask our nuclear family in peril, of course:

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Note the inexplicable day/night change, which suggests the rough part of the woods is in an eternal Gotham-esque night.   

Well well, what kind of bright idea is forming in the effervescent young mind of our young ursine scout? As we learn over the next few tedious pages, he has enlisted the help of the noble bachelor Church Mouse, a meek evangelist who hurries to the woods with his Tent of Miracles.

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My guess is that state repression is not available as an option in this case. I would guess that this bedevilled family would probably put in a call to the SWAT team or the National Guard to break up this tomfoolery, but it seems the Hobbesian state of nature is still strong and unfettered in these woods. And so one Church Mouse is summoned to do the work of a thousand gentrifiers and beat cops: clean up the damn neighbourhood with an old-fashioned revival meeting.

But perhaps our mouse of the cloth is not as unshakeable as he appears.

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On learning that his natural predators are likely to be in attendance––though why the derelict denizens of the wild woods would even want to attend such a meeting is never explained––the mouse hoofs it back to the car and doesn’t even think to bring the tent back. It’s all fight-or-flight in this predator-prey world. But the bears, optimistic and, shall we say, rather presumptive, think that the mouse would make a good vessel for the Word in reforming these critters. He offers to leave them tracts and literature, but they insist that the servants of God have to be a bit more involved than that.

So we have our first bachelor pillar of the community, the beginning of the somewhat incoherent core of our book. In propaganda like this, the point is to instruct first and entertain second. The artwork and the story are important but they are subservient to the political or, in this case, religious, point that the work is trying to make.

The structure varies, but in the general case, the characters in this kind of didactic literature fall into a number of fixed types. We have the wise teachers, the ones who espouse the views that the literature considers correct. In this case, the bear family acts as a unit, and if you’ve been paying attention they often finish each other’s thoughts and basically act as extensions of one another. They’re the embodiment of the conservative fantasy of the family as an organic and undifferentiated unity reproducing itself without conflict, especially between generations. Second, we have the characters who are ignorant, mistaken, or fatally flawed in some other way. In this case, the wild jungle animals. These characters are usually the ones who espouse positions the wise teachers have to criticize and correct. In this book, though, their problem is not so much possessing mistaken ideas but instead having no direction whatsoever. They are carte blanche, the people whom Christian evangelists imagine have somehow lived in the United States but never gotten the basic idea of Christian doctrine before. They will either conform to the words of the wise teachers in the end or are put to some kind of bad end.

But, to work our way back to the mouse and his fellow bachelor pillars of the community, there is also a third type: the well-meaning but mistaken “experts” who exist to exhibit arrogance and to be corrected by the wise teachers.

And look who we have here:

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The owl with the wicked eyelashes.

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Here is our second patsy, the intellectual who will, inexorably, bow before the simple folk knowledge of our put-upon Normal American Family. No matter his schemes for urban renewal or educational initiatives or what have you, Jesus can and will fix every problem. What kind of fiendish puzzle will Barney and co. pose to the posturing owl?

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I know what you’re thinking, but let’s first focus on the tree-house in the background. No doubt Al Hartley woke up that day, pulled on his drawing clothes, and said to himself “I’m going to draw windows wherever I damn well please!” Or, excuse me, “darn well please.” I also think we can definitively say that that owl is just a graduation cosplayer who’s never actually read a single word from that unsheltered outdoor bookshelf he has. J’accuse, charlatan!

Well, the church mouse and Barney know an easy catch when they see one.

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So the owl recognizes it on sight but apparently has never read it.

One more aside: the last panel I screen capped shows off one of Hartley’s strangest stylistic tics: the triple punctuation mark. If you scroll back up through this post you’ll notice that in almost every instance where a question is being asked or someone is particularly excited, Hartley puts another line in the dialogue balloon and fills it with three question marks or exclamation points. Notice what I mean??? It’s weird once you notice!!!

But, in an effort to keep up its nonexistent narrative momentum,the book debuts the third and final bachelor pillar of the community: the goat judge!!!

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“And I say that we should evict the purple gopher hobbits!!!”
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“Honey, get the pruning shears!!! We’re going to teach eminent domain a little lesson!!!”

Of course, we can’t have the state judge usurping the divine right. Again, our sphinx-like protagonists pose an unsolvable quandary before the magistrate.

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Once again, his ignorance is never directly corrected, even with something as simplistic as “read the Bible, it’s the truth!!!” Instead, the book leaves him to drown in his own question marks. Obviously the book has a sharp sense of irony: a judge who can’t judge and a know-nothing intellectual. What’s more, Hartley kicks the climax into gear, showing the dangers of running perilously long extension cords in a flammable environment. Although Hartley didn’t bother drawing the wire in a damaged condition, so it appears as though it spontaneously combusted for no reason at all. Well, I suppose it is just a plot device, so let’s scurry forward.

The next few pages show the fire spreading as the dithering judge and owl are no help whatsoever, culminating in their crowning moment:

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Pay close attention to this. Remember that one thread that’s been running more or less consistently through this comic is that one should take action. The bears admonished Church Mouse for suggesting that he just pray for the cats and leave some tracts, and the goat is shown up as a buffoon for his indecision and ineffectual attitude. Eventually, the goat judge does come to his senses and pronounces his judgment:

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He’s got some gumption taking on the spontaneously combusting extension cord industry, I’ll tell you what.

It gets better, since when you think through this comic’s theology and view of how the natural world functions, you have to conclude that the senseless fire was caused by God sparking up a totally intact electrical wire. I mean, if the plot supplies no answers and the art is shoddy and lazy, I have to assume that the judge needs to go after God Himself here.

Luckily, the book doesn’t contemplate deicide. Barney and the Church Mouse have had enough of the goat’s vindictive attitude and just want to get the fire put out. Behold their solution:

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Let’s think for a moment before I reveal what occurs next. As established, the book has criticized the idea that we can just lean on praying and not actually intervening in bad situations. God might carry the day but we have to be his hands and feet, etc. If the book actually wants to teach children something positive and one of the benefits of prayer, it might show the mouse and Barney taking a moment to compose themselves, gather their courage and, maybe, help out with rescue efforts, get the goat off that precarious log for goodness’ sake, or get professionals to help. They even ask for God to help them stop the fire, suggesting that they will prove Christian integrity by acting selflessly even in the face of danger. A raging fire is their crucible, the trial that proves they can live the faith rather than just preaching it.

Yes, the other shoe is about to drop. Along with buckets of…

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Conveniently, the divine rainstorm both snuffs out the blaze and forces the hapless sinners of the woods underneath the only shelter that apparently survived the fire: the tent.

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Finally, after some prodding and a pep talk, the Church Mouse delivers his beneficent message:

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Our moral has truly pivoted. After dedicating a good chunk of space to criticizing the mouse’s complacency and unwillingness to act, we get a literal deus ex machina solving every problem for everyone. The book has come utterly untethered from recognizable reality, and this is a deep flaw in a book that is marketed and produced to teach practical and religious lessons to children. Out of the Woods is not infuriating because it’s propaganda, but because it mistakes its audience for fools and chumps.  Children are naïve, not incapable of facing hard truths or life’s ambiguities. Even a message as simple as “faith needs action to be real” gets muddied up because the comic presents a world where the benevolent God will, say, send rain to douse your burning home. It’s convenient and shoddy, and children probably won’t buy it for a second. At least, not if they’ve ever had to face actual trials in their lives.

Also, it might just be a jerk move to start haranguing forest fire survivors and giving them the three-point sermon after––we have to presume––many of them have lost their homes due to environmental negligence and a lack of social services. And yes, I’m taking this gravely seriously, far more so than the lackadaisical writer and artist. Partly that’s for comic effect, considering just how fluffy and klutzy Out of the Woods is, but it’s also because  I hate the idea that junk media is acceptable just because it’s for children. If you’re writing propaganda and cushy comfort food for the converted, at least get your messaging straight.

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Christian Kitsch #9: Archie’s World

Tigers keep large territories, but tend to be insular creatures, preferring the superior company of our own thoughts to the intrusions of others. This is why it’s hard for tigers to develop a cosmopolitan streak; why fantasize about pouncing on some poor sap on the Champs d’Elysee if there’s a stagnant pool right around the corner just waiting to be waded in? I, on the other hand, have acquired a taste for the exotic, the kind of wanderlust that pushed Marco Polo down the Silk Road and led to the hoarding fetish that produced the modern British Museum. Luckily, Archie is here to take us on an adventure that’s sure to satisfy that restless streak.

Where are the "We are not a costume" people when you need them?
Where are the “We are not a costume” people when you need them?

Well, this is no an auspicious beginning. Not only has Archie plainly appropriated other cultures’ hatwear, but has also paid the ultimate price––beheading. No sign of anything below the neck on this cover. Maybe that’s a stylistic choice that will carry throughout the entire issue. Possibly indicating something about how your physical form gets “lost” when traveling because of all the newness you have to absorb.

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Well, the first page seems to continue the trend, though luckily we are not going to be subjected with a cavalcade of Archie heads solipsistically chatting to each other about foreign cuisine. A few things stick out to me about this page. 1.) The globe is entirely covered in water, suggesting that Waterworld has become a reality and fish people now rule the universe. Either that, or we’ve been able to terraform Europa and founded submarine lobster-fishing colonies there. 2.) Big Ethel seems to have a startlingly binary view of both geography and morality. Luckily, the world is a sphere and not shaped like a gigantic sheet of notebook paper. I know Marx wrote that history progresses on its bad side, but I don’t think that’s what old Al Hartley, son of a union buster, had in mind when writing that. 3.) The Earth is smoking and has dizzy stars cascading off of it. Apparently, the oceans have become far more geologically volatile in the Archie universe. Enough with the first page! We have yet to scratch the racist surface of this issue.

The next couple of pages explain our plot: Archie and friends are going gallivanting around the world on a quest to visit missionaries and see them propagate the Word of God to the heathens all over the world. What is their first destination? None other than Travis Bickle hometown New York City! Naturally. Hopefully they can get to the poor guy before he, well, spoils the end of Taxi Driver for everyone. One of the flight attendants (?) on the plane hears their destination and gasps:

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Time’s Square had such a distinct flavor before Giuliani, I must admit. I honestly prefer the fedora-sporting thugs to the costumed kitsch merchants.

Apparently the writers of Jungle 2 Jungle actually had something. Not much, but something. After looking at the weird post-deluge globe on the first page, you might assume that Archie is referring to the fact that the world’s cities were mostly reforested in kelp and coral reefs after the Second Flood. But no, he mostly means that cities have become hives for heathens and dens of degeneracy. Archie could make Rorschach and Travis Bickle proud, now that I think about it.

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Archie’s whirlwind tour has already taken him from New York to London and to Paris in a single page. Despite all that jet lag, the jolly crew has managed to accost, encourage, and leer at multiple sinners. Though their sins seem restricted to looking like they take drugs and hanging out in somewhat Bohemian locations. Since we’re given no reason to believe that the orange-haired, black-moustached chap in the second panel has a good reason for speaking to the poor woman there, I have to presume that he’s offering her Jack Chick tracts or something. Those tracts and that hair are probably both grounds to be arrested as a public nuisance. At any rate, we continue with the cavalcade of urban locations before settling into the meat of the issue: short stories about exotic locations.

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I checked, and there are in fact crocodiles in Tanzania. You got me this time, Al Hartley.

Yes, we can expect a bonanza of cultural sensitivity from what follows, I am sure. Of course, this being the 70s, these kids would be familiar with the American-backed plot to overthrow the socialist republic of Zanzibar and forcibly unite it with the friendly regime in mainland Tanganyika to form modern Tanzania. Armed with such information, they just traipse into the rain forest with nary a bit of bug spray. Shame, that.

Naturally, Jughead has difficulty adapting to his new environment, leading him to pine for McDonald’s. The missionary gives the following retort:

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Have to wedge that panel of a toucan and a monkey right in there, don’t you, Hartley?

Of course nothing about American culture seeps through when American missionaries are allowed to proselytize an American religion to complete strangers in Tanzania. I’m against all forms of proselytization in public places, which I’m sure is a minority position in some places, but one has to agree that the naivety here is astonishing. Of course, the role of American missionaries in, say, getting bills that will execute people for being gay in Uganda hadn’t become an issue yet. Plus, this is for children and you need to whitewash the whole enterprise in order to make its subtle colonialism more palatable.

A couple of short stories later, we’re in Kashmir, the disputed territory between India and Pakistan that has remained a semi-active war zone for decades. Suffice to say that they stumble into a nameless city during a “carnival” celebration and immediately set up a rock and roll band in the open. For some reason.

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While I’m not sure you would be able to openly set up a Jesus concert banner in the middle of a non-Christian (they never specify which religion) holiday, nor would I imagine the reception being so immediately warm, I am sure that this idea about people just attempting to buy random women with cow barter is complete hogwash. Cow-wash.

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Of course, the core message of the book isn’t hard to glean at this point. People who embrace Jesus no longer have any serious problems. Or, at the very least, they know that all problems can be solved with Jesus. Human trafficking could never happen in a Christian country, says this idea. Women are going to be enslaved wherever Christ isn’t. Of course, that last panel is meant as a direct jab at feminism, appropriating the concept of a liberated woman and tying it directly to simply converting to Christianity. Lurking in the background here at all times is the notion that the United States is a superior nation because of its Christianity, which is an idea that stretches far back in the colonial period. It directly fed the British idea of the “white man’s burden” and the French “civilizing mission” in Africa and India. Spanish colonization had an especially cozy relationship with conversion, that being one of the major justifications for forcibly interning native people in plantation labor and forcing them to work in the mines. Archie’s World might be a relic of a less judicious time, but that by no means implies that these kinds of attitudes don’t still contaminate all missionary work today. American missionaries work under the protective banner of the world’s most powerful military and a state that might mete out major punishments if these missionaries are forced out or not admitted in the first place. And there would be no point in being a missionary if you didn’t believe that you were somehow superior to the people you were coming to, at the very least by virtue of being Christian while they are not. It’s messianism of the most vulgar sort.

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This very well-educated man––he knows English so he must have had some schooling––has a point. Of course, he is a prop written by a conservative hack who has a blatant streak of paternalistic racism running right through his coronary artery. So I think we can safely put the rest of this issue to bed rather quickly. Oh, but first we have to discredit other religions with a catchy parable.

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Buddha and Confucius are just jerks. That’s what it comes down to. Anyone who knew a thing about Siddhartha Gautama or Confucius would know that they were models of ethical fortitude. If anything, Confucianism has a far more elaborate and sophisticated moral code than Christianity, the latter of which has tended to downplay acts of righteousness in favour of the idea of grace. That is probably the message here. What’s going on is that these people are metonyms for their religions. Christ for Christianity, etc. Confucius is a doddering old moralizer. Buddha just told people to think their way out of their problems––yeah, I’m sure that’s what Buddhism teaches. And Jesus, though divine grace, lifts the human race out of its predicaments. Let’s move on. I’m going to skip the anti-Communist tract about Hong Kong or the patronizing story about Myanmar and close out our discussion.

Screenshot 2014-11-30 13.19.38Luckily, the comic leaves its message crystal clear by the end. Namely this: it reaffirms the traditional Christian commitment to missionary work. The twist is that it argues that introducing Christianity to the world will be some kind of panacea for global problems. Accepting Jesus is the key to “the good life,” in their word, establishing a one-to-one correlation between conversion and life improvement. In many ways, it’s not too distant from the self-help and New Age craze the hippies inaugurated in the 60s. It’s a simple restatement of old Christian/American values with a groovy coat of comic printers’ ink.

Archie’s World is probably the most difficult of the old Spire comics to get through. It’s short on hilarity or absurdity except in short bursts, and its constant stereotyping and patronizing make it a slog to read. Unfortunately, the missionary industry is still thriving today, and you can hardly walk into a church, especially of a more conservative bent, without the requisite bulletin board celebrating junior colonizers’ escapades into the pagan wilderness. OK, I’m done. Time to gnaw on a deer carcass and reflect on the wonderful fact that, no matter how much filth he may have put into the world, at least Al Hartley is in a cold grave.

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.