A long time ago, in an unfathomable land between the civilizations of Canada and Mexico, a pasty comic book character named Archie became the subject of a whole series of deeply terrible Christian propaganda comics. Entrancing and yet repellant, the source of much derision and laughter, the comics had an aura of silly glory all their own. Though they appeared simple and plain, and truth be told had less intelligence and wit than the barrel of salted peanuts I’m gnawing on right now, they nonetheless brought delight to many. How they did so is a mystery best left to the mists of time. It has been too long since I have set my critical gaze upon the Spire Comics’ run of Archie issues. Today, I will be correcting this with a special Valentine’s Day edition of Christian Kitsch. It is time to enter the surprisingly erotic and fraught adolescent world of Archie yet again with an examination of Archie’s Love Scene.
This comic is a compilation of short segments separated by vague themes and bookended by Bible verses. All of the segments address love as a topic, but in quite different and sometimes contradictory ways. Of course, those who are familiar with these comics and their writer/mastermind Al Hartley will know what to expect from Spire’s attempt to talk about love: upbeat preaching, regressive gender stereotypes, and a worldview so thoroughly whitewashed that Tom Sawyer would be sheepish around it.
Now for the comic itself:
One page in, and we are already in the realm of this grizzled father’s worst nightmare: his daughter Veronica eloping with Archie through a window. His expression is not angry, contorted with so much sheer terror that all the vanilla custard is spraying from inside his head. I’m hoping that my own parents weren’t so nearly terrified by the thought that I might waltz out of the house on a ladder and elope in high school.
Of course, Archie and Veronica are not about to skip out to Vegas to pay Rev. Elvis a visit, right?
The dialogue makes the excuse that Veronica didn’t want to wake anyone up, but, as we see, the ladder clanging on the side of the house was probably much louder than quietly sneaking down the stairs would have been. Enough of the superficial nitpicking, though. What is this comic trying to tell us about love? First of all, Veronica calms down her father’s conniptions (and leave Archie slack-jawed) by asserting that she knows “what the Bible says about real love and marriage.” Well, I know that the Apostle Paul thought that it was better not to marry and that the Old Testament is a veritable minefield of terrible marriage advice and doomed couples. For starters, just ask Leah how she felt being forced to marry a man who didn’t want her and thought she was her own sister. And then have tons of kids with him. Or all the times in the OT where the Bible just skips over the existence of women and talks about fathers just begetting sons, presumably emerging chest-burster style.
First Lesson About Love: God will bring you your soul mate, to the horrified dismay of your aging WASP father.
The second part of the comic is about expert playboy Reggie, who demonstrates the kind of tactical error you don’t want to make while using weaponized Valentine’s cards.
I can only presume that Reggie thought he had better chances with his four-pronged maneuver than focusing on a single woman at a time. It’s hard to tell, but I like to think that he got all four of them together, handed them all a card, and said “OK, now you can kill each other for me.” And instead they go Lord of the Flies on him. This page ends with a verse from the Bible (what, were you expecting the Qur’an?): “Love one another as I have loved you.” That comes from John 15:12. I assume that Jesus did not have a barrage of giant Valentine cards in mind when he said that.
Second Lesson About Love: Love the way that Jesus did–one woman at a time.
Prepare for a massive tone shift as we transition from a playful tale about an eviscerated playboy to a far more macabre yarn. Fearful Archie and hapless Jughead are about to take a ride through what appears to be the Christian version of a horror-themed roller coaster.
“The weather is zilch,” Jughead? I concede that the dense overhanging forest does make it seem like there is no weather. The color of the sky in the top panel is perfectly ambiguous and all of the green fog ribbons appear to be emanating from the forest floor. Of course, we all know who the green-robed figure looming in the distance along a forest road is. Right?
Jughead makes a point to register his astonishment at the cloaked woman’s peculiar fashion sense, but that’s the least of our concerns with this bizarro page. For those of you without an encyclopedic knowledge of Biblical prophecy, the person they have just picked up, named Mystery, is the legendary Whore of Babylon. Archie’s blatantly irresponsible driving and panicked expression are quite understandable in this case, since he just picked up a prostitute. Not only a prostitute, but one who represents all the depravity and worldly delights that send a shiver down the spine of any Revelation-reading, rapture-anticipating fundamentalist. I think it pays to be a bit skeptical of Jughead’s fearful ranting about Mystery, though, because it’s not as though she did anything bad to them. She just invites herself into the car, which apparently doesn’t set off any alarms at first, and sits there before vanishing. Granted, vanishing into thin air fall short of conventional behavior for forest-stalking symbolic ciphers for corruption and evil, but the two strapping straight men in the front of the car appear unscathed.
The next page has the gang running into a whole crew of Scooby-Doo worthy vices, including crime, fear, and hate.
This parade of hitchhiking weirdos still seems far from threatening, with the exception of Crime. He relieves our protagonists of their summer job money and beats it. That makes me suspect that he was just an actual criminal and not a hazy symbol like the rest, since he doesn’t look at all like the other apparitions. Of course, like any morality play, this comic needs to come to a shiny conclusion where the sinners on their wayward road are rescued by the powers of heaven.
What a delightful turn of events! Not only have Archie and Jughead gotten clear of the forest and rid of the vile vagabonds that inhabit it, they now have a triple-double-date lined up. The comic wants us to think that these ivory-skinned beauties are eminent representatives of heaven, but I’m not entirely sure. For one, if the devil actually wanted to to corrupt the character of Hot Blooded All American Boys©, a triad of alluring sirens would seem a craftier plan than throwing random vagrants into the back of their car. Perhaps I’m being too presumptuous. After all, we should see how the comic ends before rendering judgment.
Let’s do some math. Blonde woman=love. Love=God. God=ready to touch your life this minute. I have to say, that’s too close to pagan temple prostitution for my virtuous heart. While Reggie can’t get away with trying to proposition four girls simultaneously, God has seen fit to deliver unto this doofy pair three companions. Clearly, they are the chosen ones, or else the Almighty would not favor them with His “touch.”
I hope we’re all getting a sense of the somewhat split-minded attitude this comic has toward sex and love in relationships. In a more coherent and better-constructed work, I would assume this was evidence of some kind of intelligent ambiguity on the topic. In Archie’s Love Scene, though, I think it’s more symptomatic of sheer incompetence. We’re going to skip ahead through some of the more boring segments, though one about Betty’s diary entry pining for Archie deserves some notice. The comic shows her writing in her journal about her unrequited love for the titular character, before dismissing it as mere selfishness. She has to submit to God’s will for her life, she decides, and eventually the comic concludes this way:
God not only touches people, he fills them up too. I suppose we’re given a disclaimer that God’s love is wholesome and pure. The comic becomes more absurd and far more interestingly queer when you assume that all of the comics are in continuity with one another. Why? So we know that God’s love has previously been equated with a blonde woman with a red rose in her hair. Taking that into account, we could read Betty’s “stepping out of the darkness” and wanting to snuggle up to God’s Love a sign of her realizing she’s more into women after all, though she makes allowances for when she wants to be filled up with God Himself. Not to mention that last panel. Jughead does look slightly catatonic, leaning against Archie’s shoulder that way. But Archie is grabbing him with some vigor, and even though he’s torn himself away from Jughead’s gaze to focus on the newly liberated Betty, there is a tiny bit of homoromantic subtext going on here.
The depressing reality, of course, is that this is all Christian propaganda encouraging women to put up with stupid men because being a good Christian will make you more desirable to the “right” man. Given this bleak reality, you will understand my desire to find a subversive reading or two in there. Especially since, not one segment later, Archie is out on a Smooching Cliff in a car with yet another woman. Veronica said she was a player, but Archie sure seems to get around himself.
One problem with more aggressively propagandistic Christian kitsch is that it often doesn’t understand what it’s trying to fight against, and ends up stomping all over its overall message in exchange for taking potshots at its favorite villains. For instance, Suzy, taken with Archie for some unknown reason, is inordinately passionate about the stars, so much so that she seems completely oblivious to his erotic advances. He, being the sensitive, insecure male that he is, makes creepy claw hands and demands that she let him plant a kiss on her. While he’s clearly turned on by all the talk about Saturn(alia) and Jupiter, he seems to take offense at her astrological interests.
Let’s stop to appreciate the breathtaking grandeur of what the author has done here. Ostensibly, this whole comic book is supposed to be a treatise on various aspects of love. It’s meant to impart virtue, defend against vice, uphold dust-dull bourgeois family values, that whole familiar tune. Up to this point, the comic has at least respected individual agency and condemned just the sort of tryst that Archie appears to be on at the moment. After all, we had paranoid white-haired WASP father panicking just because his daughter was using a ladder to leave the house. At this point, though, we’re being asked to sympathize with Archie–because he doesn’t hold any stock in that astrology nonsense!–at the point where he is not only alone with a woman in a car at night, but attempting to force himself on someone. It’s clear that he only cares about her proclivity toward less-than-rational adherence to horoscopes only after it’s clear he’s not getting any. Ask me why this travesty of a page belongs in a paternalistic comic book teaching children the values of monogamy and letting God into your life. I dare you. Though I suppose this kind of male jerkery being excused is perfectly consistent with the patriarchal, feudalistic claptrap the rest of this comic is selling. Which is more depressing still.
That would be a good place to end, but there is one more segment that tickles my fancy, and I would be remiss, nay, I would make a mockery of my blog without bringing your attention to this gem.
Yes, the dog wants to be a hippy. Throw off your chains, canine! Set that ignoramus in his place. Once you put him in jeans, hip sandals, and a counter-culture headband, he looks almost as human as the crudely drawn hominids around him. Of course, the creators couldn’t resist pairing him up with the “ugly girl,” but otherwise things look up for our social-climbing dog.
What begins as a glorious expropriation of the expropriator and a liberation from the chains of dog-hood ends in decadence and alienation. I love that the story being told here almost exactly parallels the much-ballyhooed fall of the Baby Boomers from the youth in revolt to the kind of people who, well, watch Disney cartoons, waterski, go driving in a convertible, and listen to music on their expensive stereos. It’s weirdly prescient for a comic written in the 70s. Reaganite excess–prophesied in Archie, folks.
Alas, alack, the ruler of the household is not to be downtrodden for long. A skinny, lunkheaded dude with a stripy T-shirt can only live on dog food for so long before he gets furious. With the proper human order reestablished, our yuppy dog ponders all his unanswered questions with a pensive expression. He follows his master, but class consciousness, once won, is difficult to get rid of. Jughead’s appointment of the guillotine has only been postponed, my friends. Faith is the answer, people. A romantic notion if I ever heard one.
There is a small coda about following Jesus, but it’s nothing that hasn’t been covered in previous posts, so I’ll spare you. Suffice to say that it’s been immensely pleasurable taking apart another Spire Comics monstrosity, and hope that by staring into its black and banal abyss we will conduct ourselves better this Valentine’s Day. Whatever your relationship status, take heart! For God will touch you and fill you up if you let Him. Adieu!