“Archie and the Riverdale gang were a pure and fun-lovin’ bunch. You can’t find dysfunction in those comics, because they were just flat-out wholesome.”
– Banky Edwards, Chasing Amy
I love Archie. Whether I’m writing stories about segregation in America, or comics about the fucked-up psyches of maladjusted teenagers, most everything I write (and read, for that matter) serves as a counterpoint to the unabashedly wholesome world of Archie comics. And that’s why I love them so much. Just as I can find relief in the black-and-white moral universe of Golden-Age superhero or Tintin comics, there’s something appealing about a world where the biggest problem the main character has ever faced is the dual admiration of two unabashedly smitten girls. I can’t identify, but it’s attractive in the same way that any escapist fiction is.
For the most part, however, when I search for Archie books, I search for issues from the 50s-60s. Dan DeCarlo’s pencils and Rudy Lapick’s criminally unsung inks are like a mainline injection of Americana – a medicine I require on a regular basis, especially during baseball offseason. As for what the Riverdale gang was up to in the 80s and 90s, besides solving mysteries on TV and meeting the Punisher, I couldn’t really tell you. There’s 70-odd years of high-school adventures out there to read, which have to get repetitive and can’t be worth comprehensively consuming, so why not just pick the eras with my favorite artwork?
It wasn’t until recently that I noticed the folks over at Archie Comics were up to something, getting mischievous and daring in ways that ol’ Reggie Mantle never dreamed of. Kevin Keller arrived on the Riverdale scene a few years ago, openly gay and proud, and pissing off conservative parents nationwide. A little while later, we got his flash-forward marriage to Clay, an African-American Army Veteran. It’s fucked up and sad that we live in a world where that constitutes provocation, but more power to the not-as-conservative-as-you-think staff of Archie for firing on all cylinders with that character. Then, last month, we got the Occupy Riverdale protests, which gave an explicitly political connotation to the ages-old “Betty or Veronica?” question.
So when I went to the comic book store on Wednesday to pick up the Punisher and Daredevil books I’d fallen behind on, I grabbed the latest Archie as well. They’d been hyping issue 636 since April, and it sounded like another issue with potential for controversy – Archie and the Riverdale gang were swapping genders. What could possibly happen to stir up the rage of the concerned folks across the nation trying to preserve our gender-normative traditions?
As it turns out, very little. Gender-swap stories are nothing new, and Archie #636 does almost nothing new with the idea. Though to be fair, it’d be absurd to expect some sort of 22-page treatise on gender politics in America in an Archie comic. They’d have to make the bigger and bolder step of introducing a transgender character for that conversation to have any real substance. What we get in “The Great Switcheroo” is a universe (brought on by the Sabrina’s cat Salem, himself stuck in the body of the wrong species) in which every character’s gender has been reversed and they don’t realize it. The story sets itself up like many gender-swap story, with characters placing unfair expectations and stereotypes on the other gender, only to be taught a lesson by walking a mile in the other’s shoes. Though the lessons are usually the same and are rather superficial – it’s not any easier being a girl, men can be creeps, it’s so hard to walk in heels – “The Great Switcheroo” gives up on its grass-is-greener setup by not having any character conscious of their switched gender.
There are pros and cons to this. On the negative side, it negates its setup, and the characters don’t learn anything. But positively, and rather unexpectedly for me, not that much is different about the characters fundamentally. Jughead/J.J. is still obsessed with food. Reggie/Regina and Veronica/Ron are still vain, selfish assholes. Betty/Billy is still genuine and well-meaning. Dilton/Dilly is still a nerd. Josie and the Pussycats/Joey and the Junkyard Dogs are still a band. And Archie/Archina is still the most boring protagonist of all time. Too often in the magical gender-swap story there’s the rather unfortunate implication that, at least in regards to male-to-female changes, that common stereotypes are inherent characteristics of the female gender. It’s not worth listing them all here, but if you need some proof, just check out tvtropes and their “laws of gender bending” to see what I’m saying. “The Great Switcheroo” avoids these clichés for the most part, and barring the necessary adjustments in dialogue an character design, the events within the “Reversedale” universe play out almost exactly like they would if the characters were their original gender. So while it (reasonably) ignores the hypothetical questions of how the characters’ personalities would change had they grown up a different gender and experienced different societal pressures, and while the characters don’t learn much about the topic at hand, it at least sends the message to the reader that gender ultimately doesn’t have to mean a thing if we don’t want it to. And while they never telegraph that explicitly, that’s a pretty damn cool claim from people who have spent 70-odd years playing gender straight.
As this post already indicates, I think about gender and sex a lot when it comes to fiction. While it might not be the most visible theme in my comic BFD, it’s certainly one of my biggest concerns as a writer. And, as it happens, Archie is a big influence on BFD for me, as a subject of parody and deconstruction, as well as homage. As a pop culture history snob, it’s a natural habit of mine to view every contemporary work as being written in the tradition of other works, and so for me to write a comic about a group of teenagers growing up in small-town, white-bread America, it’s essential that I have at least a basic understanding of Archie comics. My approach to writing BFD has always been an even mix of tribute and irreverence, and my love/excessive criticism of Archie makes it a perfect source point for a lot of stories. When I’m stuck on a story, Dan DeCarlo-era Archie stories usually bail me out, with my combined reaction of “Damn, that’s clever, let’s try that!” and “Jesus Christ that’s offensive, let’s try subvert that!” Because as much as I love DeCarlo’s Archie work and take it as an influence, my gender-conscious approach to writing BFD runs directly against his career as an artist, especially his pin-up work.
And this points to an ongoing conundrum I have with BFD and my influences. The biggest comics writers that I’m taking cues from in specific regard to BFD are Harvey Pekar, Jaime Henrandez, Alison Bechdel, Frank Doyle, Dan Clowes, and Charles Schulz. You know what all but one of these people have in common? They’re dudes. And while Locas and Ghost World are extremely impressive in terms of female characterization in a world overrun with disproportionate spandex-covered bodies and fridge-stuffing, their work, especially Jaime’s in its earliest stages, is a clear example of male-gazing – the (masterful) work of a young man seemingly obsessed with drawing voluptuous women. Maggie, Hopey, Izzy, and Penny are some of the most well-rounded female characters in the history of comics, yet when it comes right down to it, they are quite evidently a male’s creation. Can I, as someone who identifies as a male, keep my male-ness out of my comic? Can I truly write a gender-neutral comic?
The quick answer is that obviously fucking no one can do that, so I shouldn’t worry about it. But “don’t worry about it” has never kept me from worrying about anything. I know plenty of other male writers who feel the same way (and I at least take that as a better sign than not thinking about it at all). There’s an ongoing stress, especially for those of us who came up through liberal-arts academia, to make something academically bulletproof; a story so ideologically sound that no matter what post-whatever theory class gets their hands on it, it stays untouchable. I know some guys who just flatly refuse to throw their hat in the ring, just bite the traditional male-centric bullet and avoid any unwittingly problematic or flatly false portrayal of a female character. I can empathize. Because with me and with a lot of other male writers, all major characters are Dudes by Default, and it’s usually not until later, either when somebody points out the dearth of women in his work or the fateful day he discovers the Bechdel Test, that women start to enter the picture. And when that happens, it’s a very conscious decision, which means considering all the aforementioned academia-born concerns. And it can feel dumb and clumsy at first. Like most issues, it reminds me of an old Onion headline: “First-Time Novelist Constantly Asking Wife What It’s Like To Be A Woman.” It’s not unlike questions I still get from family and friends about either the girls of BFD or the one story in my book Blackball narrated by a pre-teen girl. “How do you write female characters?” On a bad day, my response is something like this:
“By not asking sexist questions like that!”
But on a better day, it’s a little less aggressive. It’s not about writing women; it’s about writing characters. Kelly, one of the two main protagonists in BFD is a sixteen-going-on-seventeen-year-old girl. When I make decisions regarding what she’ll do or how she’ll react, I do consider her gender and her sex, but only as two aspects of a very multi-faceted person. To be fair, Kelly is my first major female character, and to make things easier, I poured a ton of my own personal and biographical details into her characterization. But as first go, it works. By putting a lot of myself into her character, it forces me to think about my own experiences through a different life, and allows for me to “get into character” a lot more easily. (Yes, I often method act when I write fiction. No, you’re weird.)
So while I will always be a dude and there will always be certain experiences I just can’t ever fully know, I – and other writers like me – can make characters and create universes where gender is almost incidental. For what my opinion is worth on this matter, Incidental Feminism has always struck me as potentially more powerful than the Smart Sexy and Strong Woman. It’s what the Bechdel Test points to – one woman who’s tough and smart and still looks great in a mini doesn’t mean jack shit if all we ever talk about is how she’s a woman and she’s the only woman in sight. When our general cultural output is so male-oriented, a simple story that happens to feature women in roles that traditionally are occupied by Dudes by Default can carry a lot more weight than another story about “kicking ass in a man’s world.”
But of course, no one’s gender or sex is totally incidental. Gender and sex affect all of our lives, every day, in ways explicit and implicit, tangible and intangible. But as writers and creators, we have the opportunity to make universes where things are even just a little bit better. Sure, Archie and Riverdale might seem a little too utopian at times. Maybe the real world wouldn’t accept Kevin Keller and his interracial gay marriage so warmly, but it’s always worth saying that it can.
Oh, and while you patiently for some BFD to surface, check this out: http://www.amazon.com/Parecomic-Michael-Albert-Participatory-Economics/dp/1609804562/ref=tmm_pap_title_0
Carl Thompson takes on Capitalism!