Archie Comics under an academic lens

13/01/2015     Page view:212

CALGARY, ALBERTA--(Marketwired - Jan. 13, 2015) - Archie's sweater vest, Jughead's weird hat, and the eternal tug of war between Betty and Veronica, each vying for the affections of the red-headed star of Archie Comics - these are not your typical topics of scholarship, which tend to focus on works deemed to have greater literary merit than the humorous, disposable adventures of iconic comic book teen Archie Andrews.

And yet, when Rutgers University Press asked English professor Bart Beaty to contribute to a new book series dedicated to select comic titles, the University of Calgary scholar offered the academic publishing house a study of light-hearted Archie Comics.

The book, 12 Cent Archie, which will be released this month, is the first scholarly study of Archie Comics. Although Archie and the gang at Riverdale High were first introduced in 1941, 12 Cent Archie focuses on the Archie Comics of the 1960s. Covering nearly 75 years of Archie history was too unwieldy for a single critical volume but more importantly, the 1960s represents Archie's golden era, in Beaty's estimation. And he would know: his research led him to read nearly 1,000 Archie Comics from that era.

With themes ranging from race and gender politics in Riverdale to the absence of Veronica's mother and the significance of Betty's ponytail, a read of 12 Cent Archie will forever change the way we view this pop culture staple.

So what inspired Beaty to take on Archie, which had been virtually ignored by comic book scholars, as if not worthy of critical evaluation?

"One of the problems with comic book scholarship is that it's too fixated on finding a small number of great comics and promoting them to the status of great literature," explains Beaty. "I don't want to do that. I want to look at comics like Archie, which are popular, but not considered great. It's something that people read at a young age and then forget about."

Despite the frivolous nature of Archie Comics, the characters have become iconic. "It's a very simple concept," explains Beaty. "We have the red-haired all American boy with the distinct checkerboard pattern on the side of his head. He's instantly recognizable, almost like Mickey Mouse. And he's surrounded by these very one-dimensional characters. You've got Veronica, the rich girl with black hair who's kind of mean; Betty, the blond girl with the pony tail who's kind of nice; Reggie, the classic frenemy; and Jughead, who's this unique, oddball sort of character. The stories are uncomplicated and always pretty much the same. It's a very identifiable brand."

It's not only the subject matter that sets 12 Cent Archie apart from other works of comic book scholarship. Another innovation of the book is that it presents short, punchy chapters, 100 in total, which read like insightful, offbeat vignettes, as opposed to the long, wordy tomes one will usually find in works of literary analysis.

"Archie is not Shakespeare, and it doesn't aspire to be," says Beaty. "So I realized I had to write a very unconventional academic book. A long Archie story is about six pages. Some are one page or even half a page long. In keeping with that tradition, I wrote 12 Cent Archie with very short chapters."

One of those chapters features a cameo from University of Calgary economics professor Rob Oxoby, who presents a mathematical formula proving once and for all why Archie should marry Veronica instead of Betty.

But don't let the fun flow of 12 Cent Archie fool you. The book presents an in-depth examination of the comic and its characters, within the context of the larger themes of American culture. In many ways, Beaty argues, Archie Comics helped shape our images of the American teenager.

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