Archie comics have never been considered high art. They are most commonly found not in galleries, but on the backseats of station wagons, in bathrooms, or where Calgary-based scholar Bart Beaty first encountered them – in a box under the stairs at the family cottage. As Beaty writes: “Archie is like the air – he is everywhere, but he is very little remarked upon.”
Twelve Cent Archie is a detailed study of the period between 1961 and 1969, the commercial peak of the book and its various spinoffs, all of which sold between a quarter- and a half-million copies every month. For Beaty, Archie’s “interrelated short story comics are an alternative to literary graphic novels,” worthy of study not just for what they reveal about their readership, but as cultural products in and of themselves. There might not be more to Riverdale than meets the eye, but what meets the eye does so with such pleasure that we don’t always recognize the magic in the cartooning.
Beaty structures his book as a series of micro-essays: 100 miniature arguments and observations designed for the reader “to dip into in any order,” just as any “Archie story could exist independently of the rest.” Many of the pieces have cleverly provocative titles: “Betty = Veronica,” “How Well Does Archie Speak French,” or simply, “Bowling.” In this last section, Beaty reveals that the writers felt certain story prompts were more likely to yield hijinks, as evidenced by three separate bowling stories in a single year.
We also get a careful refutation of the claim that there was ever a choice for Archie between Betty and Veronica. Beaty shows that it’s definitive: Archie is with Veronica all the way. He also discusses issues such as sexism and race in Riverdale, a town caught in a perpetual time warp. Commenting on the sad fact that the lack of diversity among the cast has been a selling point for readers, Beaty writes that “in a time of tremendous social change, Riverdale represented a nostalgic vision of a preracial America – that was perceived to be in open decline.”
In Beaty’s conception, the Archie books comprise a storytelling machine – a modular kit in which the slightest tweak or shift powers five or six pages of gags, body language and kineticism are more important than character, elastic expressions convey more information than words, and the sight of a beautiful girl is an end in itself. Funny, insightful, and perfectly paced, this is a highly enjoyable volume of criticism, one that would be equally at home in the ivory tower or by the porcelain throne.