Though focusing on Archie comics, which we will get to in a moment, Twelve-Cent Archie (Amazon, iBooks, Powell’s) points to a wider anxiety in comic books. About 30 years ago, superhero comics realized that after decades of what amounted to a narrative free-for-all with multiple creators at the helm for multiple titles (other than the period in Marvel Comics where Stan Lee’s or Jack Kirby’s name was on everything, guaranteeing some attention paid to the big picture). What transpired is an inevitable incoherency in regard to how one story fit in with another, how past narrative events shaped future ones or were reshaped themselves to fit in with newly existing ones, how different titles chronicled parallel adventures, and how time had not addressed aging. Superhero comics were a mess and DC Comics fired the first salvo with Crisis On Infinite Earths, a desperate attempt to have it all make sense.
Since that limited series, every few years some company that has allowed chaos to take control of the wider narrative, often DC in a perpetual cleaning of their narrative desk, will attempt to pull back the excesses and retrofit everything into something purportedly coherent, but usually less exciting than before. And the mass exodus of superheroes into the worlds of film and television makes sense — once comics continue to disappoint as a narratively unwieldy format, film and television, both much tidier, become their natural refuge.
This has happened before with an influential cultural phenomenon called The Bible, which stands as the Crisis on Infinite Judeo-Christian Narratives. What was once a living, vibrant system of creativity, with varying apocrypha and alternate traditions, competing gospels and sects, was officiously streamlined into an accepted narrative, the delightful fan fiction aspect of Christianity disposed of. As we all came to accept the official chronology in the Bible as the only chronology, the story of God, like the adventures of Superman, became a lot less fun.
More than the Bible or the DC Universe, Archie has typically functioned as the most beautiful of narrative free-for-alls, with barely any care toward continuity in one issue let alone across titles and decades. Twelve Cent Archie uses this for a dual purpose — it’s part analysis, part satire. It understands that inconsistency is beauty, and that control is something born of frustration that often causes rigidity and stagnation. Keep this in mind when you look at the new, updated iterations of Archie comics that attempt to perform some kind of cartoon alchemy by making a gag strip into a drama one. The most excruciating experience of my comics-reading life was slogging through Archie: The Married Life — imagine Baby Huey turned into a serious nature narrative. That’s how awful it was.
The conceit is that the analysis is focused on the spread of years when the cover prices was Twelve cents, which seems arbitrary at first glance until you consider the powerhouse of creators involved in that era – among them Harry Lucey and Dan DeCarlo – as well as its placement in popular culture importance. Archie was about to pass from supremely popular comic book to cultural icon with the creation of The Archies and their musical hits, as well as the gang’s popular tenure on Saturday morning television. The comics being focused on by Beaty really do set the tone for the Archie that lives in the popular imagination.
Beaty has crafted his larger critique into bite-sized, self contained mini-essays that help to keep you glued. Any given essay stands on its own and, honestly, you don’t even really have to read them in the order they appear in the book — just like the best Archie comics, really. And Beaty’s attention to the minutiae of Archie comics is beyond astounding.
You will definitely learn a few things that you didn’t know about Archie before – or, more to the point, find that you have accepted the mainstream world’s narrative about Archie rather than the truth as laid out within its pages. For instance, the so-called love triangle of Archie, Betty, and Veronica, which Beaty goes to great pains to dismantle, and the counter assertion that the comics are about Archie and Veronica as a couple and Betty is more of an interloper in the relationship.
Fascinating too is the analysis of Mr. Lodge as the most important secondary character in the series – I would have expected Mr. Weatherby for that honor, but Beaty meticulously documents the incidents of Mr. Lodge as Archie’s most major foil, even more than Reggie. Don’t remember it that way? Beaty will set your mind straight.
Beaty’s not just busting myths, though, spending considerable time analyzing everything from the role of bowling and invisible paint in Archie narratives to the line’s ongoing vendetta against the art world. Beaty gives further focus to varying concerns like Betty’s ponytail, Jughead’s hat, the portrayal of race in Riverdale,and focused pieces on Dilton Doily, Moose, and other secondary characters. Beaty ups the ante by accomplishing all this with a strange mix of informative scholarship and deadpan hilarity. Here’s an example:
“One might further note that virtually every teenage girl in Riverdale (with the notable exception of Big Ethel) is a similar clone of the body type outfitted with a different hairstyle. Given the fact that there is a tremendous range of teen-age boy body types in Riverdale (from Dilton to Jughead to Moose), and give the fact that the ubiquity for the same female body type is rarely the subject of story prompts, the best explanation of this phenomenon undoubtably resides in the appeal that drawing physically idealized nubile young bodies had for certain postwar American comic-book illustrators.”
There are plenty of books out there that claim to analyze comics, but in doing so, often elevate them to something they are not, and that is what is so wonderful about Twelve Cent Archie, which approaches comics on their own level — not level of quality, but level of existence — and discusses them on their own terms, rather than bringing prose or cinema into the discussion. There is no false elevation going on here, just heartfelt appreciation, and even a form of nostalgia that comics fans of a younger age might not even grasp.
By the time you get through Beaty’s astonishing triumph of scholarship, you will wish that all books about comics could be like this. Or that at least Beaty will tackle Sad Sack someday.