- Twelve-Cent Archie by Bart Beaty
Bart Beaty is one of my desert-island comics scholars. If I were stranded on a desert island and could take only a few of my favorite comics scholars, [End Page 417] and if I could not, as my son suggests, take a teleportation machine, I would be delighted to find myself stuck for a very long time on an island with the author and translator of previous crucial works of scholarship on French comics theory, Frederic Wertham, and now Archie.
Beaty’s new book displays a confidence and maturity often lacking in North American comics scholarship. It is not a typical monograph, but a collection of one hundred vignettes dipping into topics that range from the banal (“Betty’s Ponytail”) to the wry (“Notes for the Norton Anthology”) to the informative (analyses of major Archie artists, specifically Samm Schwartz and Dan DeCarlo) to the profound (an unflinching examination of Archie’s role in maintaining adult fears about juvenile delinquency). A book in this structure assumes a certain amount of self-assurance, if only because the author is not following a proven model.
The book’s confidence also manifests itself in its choice of a subject that comics studies has been pointedly ignoring. As Beaty observes, most comics scholarship is written to argue, if only implicitly, against the notion that comics do not deserve study. He correctly points out that “Scholars have focused nearly exclusively on those works that can be most easily reconciled with the traditions of literary greatness (Art Spiegelman, Marjane Satrapi, Alison Bechdel) or those of contemporary cultural politics (studies of Wonder Woman, Batman, and Superman). This cultural cherry-picking has left enormous gaps in both the history and cultural analysis of comics” (5). Beaty argues, and I think that he’s obviously right, that comics studies has avoided topics such as Archie because examinations of other works have helped to shore up the field’s fragile confidence in its subject.
The book wisely isolates for study the period during which the Archie titles bore a cover price of twelve cents. That period runs from the end of 1961 to the middle of 1969 and covers “every single Archie Comics comic published in those ninety months across all seventeen titles” (7). The conclusions that Beaty draws are sometimes in tension with more recent developments in the Archie universe, and they do not always match up with Archie’s beginnings, but considering that the character first appeared in 1941 and is still a mainstay children’s comic, restricting the study to these years is a necessary choice.
Although the book invites readers, as Beaty puts it, to “dip into any of its one hundred chapters in any order,” there are certain major themes that cross from one chapter to another, and two of those themes struck me as especially useful. The first is the repeated analysis of a sort of temporal paralysis and an “ironclad prohibition against memory” in the world of Archie (139). Time, growth, and character development are anathema to the Archie milieu. Beaty points to the similarity between Archie’s situation and what Umberto Eco and Natalie Chilton have called “The Myth of Superman,” in which part of the appeal of the character is his invulnerability to the passage of time (209–10). For Beaty’s subject, the lack of character [End Page 418] development leads to “the emptiness of the Archie characters that allows them to be so easily transplanted” into the different historical periods to which their stories sometimes transport them (88). The permanence of the present in the stories also ensures that both protagonist and antagonist maintained a “natural equivalency” (91). It further required a nearly universal, borderline paranoid avoidance of topicality, “indicating the extent to which cultural specificity is the enemy of timelessness in the Archie universe” (118).
And that lack of topicality is the second important topic that the book tackles. Beaty’s analysis of the aversion to change reveals how Archie comics normalized a particular set of ideologies, especially at the expense of others...