On his old TV show Steve Allen had a great bit, where he would open the daily newspaper and read aloud the Letters to the Editor, sent in by cranky readers. Steverino would declaim in a voice of sputtering indignation, making the complaints seem absurdly overheated. “Dear Editor: Now you’ve gone too far! This is too much! I am truly peeved! Enough is enough! You have lost my business! Signed, Irate!” And we would all laugh at the extravagant, operatic outrage being expended on the pettiest of grievances. The things people get worked up over!
Well, I am truly peeved. Someone has really gotten my goat.
I was on Facebook last week, and in the course of my browsing I glanced over at the Trending side-bar, which is an essential tool for the modern social-media maven (“What’s trending? Who’s trending? Am I trending?”), and there I saw three words that acted like a syringe of ice water to my veins –
“DEATH OF ARCHIE”.
Death of Archie? Archie who? Surely not ----?
Yes, Archie Andrews. Son of Fred and Mary Andrews, perpetual student at Riverdale High School, fickle beau of Betty Cooper and Veronica Lodge, habitué of Pop Tate’s Chocklit Shoppe, lifelong rival of Reggie Mantle, friend of Jughead Jones.
Archie is dead. Or will be, come July.
The bastards are killing him off. In the final issue of the infelicitously-titled “Life with Archie” series, the beloved comic book character will be murdered - knifed or shot, trying to help a friend, thus dying a hero’s death. I don’t know the specifics, but there’s a picture of Archie on the sidewalk, or maybe it’s a subway platform, and there’s blood pouring from his stomach, and Betty and Veronica are by his side while spectators stand by with anguished looks.
This is not the way I wanted Archie to go. I thought he would last well into his golden years, happily married to Betty (we all know that if he’d married Veronica first, the marriage would have foundered swiftly under the weight of economic inequality, and Betty would have snagged him on the rebound, fresh from her own misbegotten marriage to that slick-haired heel Reggie). They would have had a brood of little Archies, male and female, who would have followed in Dad’s madcap footsteps, and then there would be grandchildren and a whole spin-off industry. Archie would join the country club and drive a Prius, and finally succumb from old age, surrounded at his bedside by family and remaining friends. Jughead would be there, gray-haired and feeble but still wearing that inane pointy hat.
But no. Instead, he’ll be cut down in his prime, barely out of college, his whole fictional life ahead of him, leaving the rest of us with nothing but questions. No more Archie - how can this be? Why can this be? What backroom genius hatched this benighted idea, and who approved it? I can imagine the creative honchos gathered around a table, trying to cobble together a neat gimmick to revive their tired franchise. Up pops a bright young man with an outside-the-box vision: “How about this? Archie dies!” A bewildered pall sits over the gaggle, as the enormity of this suggestion seeps into their collective brainpans like oil from a leaky filter. “Archie dies? But Archie is our raison d’etre. Archie is our tentpole character!” “Tents are for wimps!” the young man replies, and with such savvy conviction that it almost appears he has said something meaningful. “This will be a game-changer! It’ll be hailed as a bold narrative leap, and a searing social statement! And it will make us a bucket of cash!” Now the idea passes around the room from one bean-counting head to the next, and a consensus forms. Somebody starts to do the Slow Clap, and the Young Man beams, besotted with himself and his transformative mind.
All well and good for the suits. For the rest of us, this is confounding. It violates everything we’ve learned about the comic universe. Nobody dies in the comics, especially not in Riverdale. Crusty money-grubbing Mr. Lodge didn’t die. Nor did the morbidly obese Mr. Weatherbee, or the dessicated Miss Grundy. So why Archie – Archie, the very spirit of youth and promise, the can-do kid, the guy you wanted to be best friends with, because he was popular but not stuck-up, he drove a cool jalopy and he had plenty of girls around him, including his foxy cousin Josie, who was a band chick and you know what that meant – a ringside seat at the submarine races!...Why does Archie have to go? What’s the point? Is the comic-book world really better off without him?
Not to worry, the publishers say. Archie’s not really gone. His earlier adventures will continue, in the regular Archie series, where he’ll still eat pizza and ogle bikinis. There will always be an Archie!
But it’s no fun now. How can I take pleasure in 17-year-old Archie’s juvenile escapades when I know that five scant years hence he’ll be clutching his punctured gut and gurgling a death rattle as he drifts up towards the light? His teenage life was ordinary enough; now it will retroactively become trivial and clueless.
And given this new somber direction, what’s going to happen at the funeral? Will Moose break down at the casket and declare his forbidden love for Archie? Will Big Ethel hook up with Dilton Doiley and repair to some motel off the interstate in a sad and desperate attempt to rewrite the past? Afterwards, will Veronica forsake her wealth and join one of Bono’s African crusades, will Betty start hitting the bottle and become a bloated mess haunting the aisles of WalMart?
Where, in other words, did all this gassy pretentious solemnity come from, and where is it going?
It all started, I suppose, with Marvel, and their embrace of the neurotic superhero. Prior to that we had the mighty DC crew: Superman, Batman, the Flash, Wonder Woman; simple, straightforward characters with no dark brooding inner torments. All they cared about was Truth, Justice and the American Way. They saved the world, and then went back to whatever they were doing. Then along came Spiderman and the Hulk and all those other conflicted Mutants with Issues. And people – that is to say, the more evolved nerds - lauded the introduction of mature themes and adult conflicts. Finally, comic books were growing up.
But why should they grow up? They’re comics, for christ’s sake. Books, with pictures, for kids.
Every Sunday after church, we would go to the stationery next to my grandparent’s house, and buy a handful of comic books. My grandfather would give us a dollar and say “Here, get some for everybody”, and my brother and I would pick out our favorites – Jack loved Superman and Action Comics, I preferred Batman and Flash, but in lieu of that we would grab Justice League of America, Green Lantern, Richie Rich, Beetle Bailey, Casper the Friendly Ghost – we’d get my cousin Gail a copy of either Wonder Woman or Wendy the Good Little Witch, but we would read them first – and we’d also grab an issue or Archie, or Betty and Veronica, or any of the various Riverdale collections.
And after breakfast we would sit on the overstuffed chairs in the living room and read them. We, the kids. Nobody else. Grandpa paid for them, but he didn’t read them. He read The Journal-American, and The Sporting News, and Grit and Steel, the official magazine of competitive cockfighting. He apparently read Playboy, which we occasionally found stashed in the back of the magazine rack, and I’m sure he enjoyed the sophisticated cartoons scattered therein. But he didn’t read comic books. Because they were for kids.
I have no problem with Marvel raising the stakes and making their superheroes complex and “interesting” (although I can live without the ponderous noisy semi-Wagnerian movie versions of same), but you can easily ride that gravitas train into a cul-de-sac of pomposity, where dramatic license checkmates common sense and the narratives become as weighty and overstuffed as my grandparent’s chairs. And killing off Archie Andrews is, I submit, the tipping point.
Archie simply doesn’t lend himself to serious consideration. He’s got freckles, and he wears varsity sweaters and sneakers, and he drinks milkshakes. That’s as deep as he gets. He also has some kind of hashtag on the side of his head, which denotes something inscrutable about his hair. The only major discussion his comic-book world has ever generated is the parlor game of personal taste that supposedly illuminates the landscape of the individual male psyche: Betty or Veronica?
The correct answer, of course, is “Betty” (just as the correct answer in the corresponding “Gilligan’s Island” is “Mary Anne”), and all guys know this. They know that no girl outwardly identifies with Veronica, the spoiled entitled rich Wasp, so to select her would ipso facto demonstrate a total lack of appreciation for a real woman.
In his secret heart of hearts, however, the true answer for any adolescent boy would be, I’ll take anyone: Veronica, Betty, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, whoever makes herself available. Like I’m in a position to choose?
An even more measured response would be, none of them. I would choose none of them because, hello, they’re not real.
Some would chide me here for being too literal and unimaginative. Don’t be so pedantic! It’s just a game! We know they’re not real!
Do we? Do we know that Tony Soprano is not real? Do we know that Hans Solo and Yoda are not real? Do we know that Bill O’Reilly is not real? (see, now it gets tricky)
The Betty/Veronica litmus test is harmless enough as a sociological experiment. It’s when the borders between reality and fantasy get redrawn more often than a Congressional district that we have to wonder, how much undeserved weight can we keep giving to these childish otherworlds before our ability to distinguish true value, and the value of truth, completely collapses?
Identifying with fictional characters or famous personages from the past is nothing new. There have always been people who thought they were Napoleon or Julius Caesar. But unless they had a great deal of money at their disposal, they were considered nuts. Nowadays, we’re not so judgmental. Maybe they’re channeling. Maybe they’re performance artists. Maybe they’ve stepped through a wrinkle in time.
This tradition of delusional identification is given a populist twist on Facebook, with the ubiquitous “What character from Harry Potter/Downton Abbey/Mad Men/Game of Thrones/ The New Testament/50 Shades of Grey are you?”
You answer a few flattering personality questions, and then you get to declare, “I’m Lord Grantham!” “I’m Hermione!” “I’m Gollum!” “I’m the Second Thief on the Cross, the one who befriended Jesus and told the other thief to shut up and die already!” (full disclosure: I’m Bates)
Now theoretically we all realize that we’re not these fabricated characters and they are not us, and we’re just engaging in a lighthearted lark. Right?
I'm not sure. When seemingly sensible people spend hours upon hours fighting XBox zombies and surfing cat videos and gorging on “reality” shows which are about as real as unicorns – watching semi-actors wrestle catfish and build duck decoys and buy houses in Costa Rica and raise octuplets – when our friends and neighbors spend half the waking day living other people’s lives - I have to wonder.
But as you see, I’ve fallen into the trap myself. I’ve started taking reality personalities and video avatars and comic book characters seriously.
When I was a kid, my favorite magazine of all time (before I lost my innocence and became addicted to “Mad”), was “Famous Monsters of Filmland.” It came out once a month, and featured articles on all the great monsters – Frankenstein, Dracula, etc. – both in their original Universal incarnations and their full-color Hammer revivals. Other monster movies were spotlighted too: The Creature from the Black Lagoon, the Incredible Shrinking Man, the Amazing Colossal Man, the Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, the Monster from Piedras Blancas, The Thing from Outer Space…All manner of beasts were represented.
I loved monsters as a boy, and that magazine spoke to me like no other. It was edited by Forrest J. Ackerman, as heroic a figure to me as JFK. He treated monsters seriously, as I did. The worst monster films ever made were accorded respect in his pages.
In the back of this seminal magazine, as in all comics, there were ads and offers for all kinds of interesting novelties. You know, joy buzzers and sea monkeys, and the famous X-ray glasses which could see right through a woman’s clothes – yowza!
And one time, a set of Monster Decals. Frankenstein, the Wolf Man, the Mummy… Six in all. Stick them on your wall, on your car window. Scare the bejeezus out of your friends! For a mere 3.99, these fearsome, frightening creatures can be yours!
I had to have them. I talked my mother into sending a check, and I paid her back with my communion money. My mind raced with the possibilities. I would put a Frankenstein decal on my bedroom door, and a Wolfman decal on my bookbag, and a Dracula on the refrigerator…!
I waited months. The ad said, “allow 6 to 8 weeks for delivery.” It took longer than that. Every day I checked the milk box where the postman left our mail. Every day, nothing.
Finally, a small envelope arrived, and I recognized the return address. Puzzled but excited, I opened the envelope, and pulled out a small single sheet. The decals were attached. There they were, Frankenstein, Dracula, the whole crew. Frightening and fearsome, and no more than two inches tall.
I was devastated. They were barely bigger than the ad. And their heads were comically oversized, so that they looked less like monsters than munchkins. It was reminiscent of that scene in “This is Spinal Tap”, when the miniature Stonehenge is revealed. This is it? I waited three months for this cheap crap?
Even though I knew they weren’t directly responsible and had merely sold the ad space to some third-party shyster, my faith in Famous Monsters and Forrest J. Ackerman was forever tainted. How could they allow their devoted readers to be rooked like this? How could they impugn the integrity of their own monsters?
That’s when I knew the game was rigged. Buy into our fantasy, swallow our belief system, and we’ll dash your dreams on the way to the bank.
It’s no different now. The Archie-killers can make all the grandiose claims they want about taking bold narrative risks and injecting gravitas and delivering a moral statement for our times, but we all know the real goal is to gin up sales before they close the books on an ill-advised business venture. They don’t have any real understanding of the Archie ethos, and they don’t care.
And if Archie were alive today, you know how he’d feel about this transparently craven assault on his legacy? Well, he’s too wholesome and all-American to say it, but I will:
And I think Pop Tate and Miss Grundy, and even Reggie, would agree.