Christian Kitsch #1: Archie’s Sonshine
For the first proper entry in this series on Christian Kitsch, I’m going to take the digital/textual time machine all the way back to 1974. I was remiss as a scholar in that year, since I failed to come into existence until almost two decades later. A quick Wikipedia search, however, should go a long way toward making up this unfortunate miscalculation on my part. I now know that Portugal’s fascist regime collapsed that year, UPC scanners were first used to check out products, Pepsi started selling sugar water to the Soviets, and plenty of great music was released. King Crimson’s Red, Miles Davis’ Dark Magus, and Genesis’ The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway all hit shelves that year. I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention the theatrical release of Phantom of the Paradise, probably the greatest film ever made about rock and roll music.
At the same time, though, it was a sobering time for Archie comics. I have never patronized the Archie publications, mostly because my parents never had any tatty copies of them lying around in dark, child-friendly crawlspaces and I never showed any interest while passing them by in the impulse purchase section of the grocery store. Despite this, I did know to be surprised when I found out that the Archie brand had been coopted for Christian propaganda by a publishing company called Spire Comics. Spire itself was just one arm of the Fleming H. Revell Co., whose founder and namesake had been a friend of famous Chicago evangelist Dwight L. Moody. The comics themselves were written by Al Hartley, whose father was the Hartley of the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, which critically weakened organized labour in the United States. His son was evidently not the rebellious type, at least where political alignment was concerned, and a cursory reading of any of the Christian Archie comics produced by Spire in the 1970s is evidence enough that Al Hartley was just as invested in conservative advocacy as his father.
Archie’s Sonshine, our Spire showcase for the day, is a curious mix of the banal and the batty. It tells a loosely plotted story about Archie going to a beach that has been overrun with sanctimonious white people along with their deluded, freedom-loving counterculture adversaries. While the different parts of the book all appear to take place during the same day and even in chronological order, the only overarching point any of them have is that Jesus is a cosmic panacea for all of your first-world irritations. Shortage of available hetero male flesh for romancing? Jesus can play substitute until you find your soul mate.
On the very next panel, our Very Special Guest for this comic shows up.
Yes, Jesus himself comes down from the Throne of God to deliver his all-important message to the beachgoing youngsters of this bizarro alternate Archie universe. Or, that’s what I believe the comic intends us to believe. If, like me, you find that Jesus’ Second Coming taking place in this manner is a physical and theological impossibility, you have to assume that this is some kind of uncannily savvy and sickly youth-oriented pickup artist in a “Love” van. The feathered hair, the curious lack of a navel, and his all-denim getup strengthen my confidence in that conclusion. Well, this acid-washed facsimile of the Messiah, having shown up at the beach with all the sober dignity of Archer’s Dr. Krieger, proceeds to preach a hip new version of the Sermon on the Mount that’s more suited to the comic-reading youth of 1974. The older version, found in the book of Matthew chapters five through seven in the Bible, certainly has its moments. But surely we can all agree that it lacks a certain something in the leering campiness department.
For instance, while the original referred to the legendary King Solomon, the greatest king and walking marriage-industry subsidy of ancient Israel, is replaced with a more contemporary reference. This gives us the following glorious panel.
That, in turn, is followed by this rather unsettling pair of drawings.
Krieger-Jesus reassures us that human lives are more important than those of plants. I am unsure as to why that required an uncomfortable scraggly-revealing closeup panel, but I appreciate the sentiment. On the other hand, when I look into Betty’s eyes in the second panel I see nothing but a Hall of Psychotic Mirrors, endlessly reflecting maniacal evil through an infinite chasm,. Everyone else in the audience seems to be paying close enough attention to Krieger-Jesus (let’s call him Kriezus from now on), but she is clearly enraptured by a brief glimpse through the very fabric of the Fourth Wall. The material of her being, the ink and paint from which she has been crudely fashioned, yearns for human contact, and yet, lacking all empathy, can only smile outward at us in an attitude of becalmed despair.
After this, Kriezus continues his pitch to the ladies, showing his chest at every turn–and no, his navel never makes an appearance, suggesting that he is a laboratory fabrication and more closely connected to Dr. Krieger than I first imagined–to emphasize just how hot your time in heaven will be. Well, at least he’s better at maintaining this façade than Fritz the Cat, though the latter did actually convince a pair of his listeners to join him in a bathtub escapade. After a few panels, we get another gem.
What’s truly amazing about the panel is that we can see what an Archie character looks like with a tongue. There’s a little splotch of red in their mouths. Reg, on the other hand, has nothing but a black hole, suggesting that Kriezus has indeed absconded with his tongue to bring it back to his mad scientist master. Also, Betty still only has eyes for you, reader. Bleak and black as ever. The next several pages cover short plot points about how Big Ethel is enthusiastically sharing the Good News with sand sculptors and Jughead is appalled by the wasting of food meant for a luau. These are comparatively less interesting parts, so I’ll just skip to the final three panels of this masterpiece.
Thus, in a puff of exhaust and a cloud of dust, the impostor disappears. He will spread his message of unsettling good will from beach to beach for as long as he evades the authorities.
Jokes about the squicky subtext of this comic aside, I find it one of the more redeemable and entertaining pieces of Christian kitsch floating out there in the camp-o-sphere. There’s enough eyebrow-raising weirdness involving the pseudo-Jesus and his groovy van, the alterations to the Sermon on the Mount, and sundry other curiosities to keep me laughing most of the way through. As I wrote in my introduction post, though, this mostly innocuous obscurity is a symptom of deeper and potentially more disturbing cultural forces at work in American Christianity. When evangelism and outreach are the most important work you can do, when the sole purpose of your Christian mission is to get as many people out of hell and into heaven as possible, you can justify this sort of surreal propaganda. Absolutely nothing about this depiction of Jesus makes him look like an actual historical person. If you were a casual Archie reader and came upon this comic not knowing anything about Jesus, I’m not sure what kind of impression you would get from this depiction. Of course, I doubt that many people other than conservative evangelical Christians bought this in the first place. That, in many ways, is the ultimate puzzle of Christian kitsch like this: if only the people who already agree with you are buying it, what’s the point of making it other than to pat yourself on the back for being oh so right?
If you are interested in reading this comic in its entirety, you can find them with some quick searches. I’ll be doing more of these as part of a series, but I’ll try to space them out because I suspect they will always tend to generate long articles. For a history of these comics (the accuracy of which I cannot guarantee), see here.