I became a comics fan at six years old. Something about the medium exhilarated me–something I still have trouble articulating. Something that made me leaf reverently through my father’s old Marvel back issues, the characters frozen in stories I knew only a slice of. Something that compelled me to get my dad to drive me to the bookstore one day in 1996 so I could visit the comics spinner. I was determined to become a Wonder Woman fan. I already owned a journal with her on it.
But Wonder Woman was clearly not for me–none of the comics in the spinner were, in fact. The stories I encountered were, like the ones I read today, enmeshed in a byzantine world of lingo, backstory and World Shaking Events. The men were steroidal golems and the women blew right past Barbie-esque into blow-up-dolldom. I remember feeling tremendously abandoned by this. I was a kid, damn it! I was entitled to comics and superheroines and grand universe-spanning adventure! I was ready to slink over to the American Girl section in defeat when my eyes fell upon a Betty and Veronica Double Digest.
Archie Comics occupy a strange, often maligned place in the modern world of comics. They’re conformist, they’re whitebread, they’re pabulum. They’re sexist and frozen in a bygone time–one best left behind. They’re corny, antiquated crap, relevant only for the occasional tie-in cash grab they snag. These observations are not without basis: Riverdale is a world largely untouched by social unrest or inequality or really, angst of any sort. Kids go to prom and argue over football games and get strawberry malts from The Chok’lit Shop. The Dark Age of comics left the Archie gang untouched and their books remain the sunny, silly chronicles of teenagers from Anytown, USA.
But the thing is? They fill a niche no one else does, for a population everyone else ignores. Manga galloped into town a few years later, stealing away the hearts of America’s knee-high nerd population–but in 1996, where else could a little comics-reading girl go but Riverdale? The stories (to me, anyway) were really about Betty and Veronica, with occasional visits from Cheryl Blossom and Sabrina. Betty was my favorite, and I used her to carve out my nascent personality–she was smart and sweet and hardworking. She liked to fix cars and came to school in practical ponytails. The characters felt warm and real and they were the only comics I could still find in drugstores and supermarkets. I brought along stacks of digests and single issues on every road trip and reread them at random until I fell asleep. I wanted so desperately to be a comics fan, to love and follow the art faithfully. I wanted to wrap myself up in that world, to identify myself with it and be like my dad with a box of four-color wonder in my closet. And I would become that person someday, with the help of the DC Animated Universe—but in the beginning? Only Archie Comics allowed me to be that person. Only Archie Comics believed I could.
Disdaining Riverdale for being lighthearted exposes a juvenile correlation between darkness and maturity of storytelling–one well known to comic fans at this point who are often weary of it, but a particularly hardy line of thinking nonetheless. Disdaining it for being simple and easy to follow exposes a ridiculous ignorance of audience, as I could not have been the only child seeking solace in sequential art in the late 1990s and children should have a seat at the table of comics. And while we can, and should discuss Archie Comics in terms of changing gender roles and social mores and diversity, today, I seek to celebrate it. Before Sailor Moon and Paradise Kiss and Dragon Ball, I had Betty and Veronica. I read comics about them fighting over boys and I read comics about them deciding to go see a movie together because who needed that dumb redhead anyway. I read comics about them earning money as dogwalkers and going to Paris and writing for the school paper. They embraced Women’s Lib in the pages of my aunt’s hand-me-down issues and in the fullness of time, welcomed a (now bestselling and much lauded) gay character in Kevin Keller. They’re not perfect. But I believe they deserve recognition for being there for little kids–particularly little girls–when, and where, no one else is.
(Editor’s Note: Due to a scheduling error, Juliet’s post is appearing today, rather than on Thursday. Look for Juliet’s posts on every week on Thursdays.)