Christian Kitsch #13: Riverdale Edition: Archie’s Parables

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In honour of the ongoing CW/Netflix series Riverdale, the seedy soap opera adaptation of the Archie universe, we will return to Spire Comics’ 1970s Christian propaganda comics featuring the Riverdale gang. There are two reasons for this, the yuks being one and the other is the fact that I think these old comics might provide fodder for another twisted Archie adaptation. These crinkly old pages might harbour a gold mine of intellectual property.

Today’s subject is another anthology comic, 1975’s Archies’ Parables, which attempts to appropriate the allegorical narrative form Jesus used to teach many of his most valuable insights to his clueless followers. I don’t expect storytelling on the level of elegance as, say, the parable of the sower or the Good Samaritan, but in the hands of Al Hartley even the most despicable material can yield some winking enjoyment. Note, however, that the book contains six parables rather than seven, meaning the editors of this volume missed out on a great thematic link with the rest of the Bible, which is as rife with 7s as lucky slot machines.

Crack open the book and behold, the first parable:

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Transported to the medieval setting, we see that Archie might have grown a Prince Valiant hairdo but still lusts after the rich girl in town. Meanwhile, Jughead is using tongs on an anvil. Hartley could have left this blacksmithing equipment as a nonsensical but innocuous bit of set dressing, but he’s far too insidious for that.

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What is wrong with him?

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And why is he staring at me?

Had Hartley given Archie and Jughead any other medieval-looking profession other than blacksmith, his logic would have been airtight. Armour was expensive! Only the wealthy could afford it! However, he decided to make Jughead and Archie blacksmiths, which, although not known their combat prowess, probably would have been able to make custom armour for themselves if they wanted to. Compounding the issue, we have the Ren-faire turkey leg trash can occupying some Magritte-ian void with three boards across a door leading into some kind of wood-floored room. Perhaps Hartley thought, “Hmm, Archie won’t be able to cut holes out of a metal trash can and wear it like armour if he isn’t in some kind of metalworking profession, but I also want to make sure Reggie is a rich asshole and make Archie look like a goof with his head stuck in a…lantern?” Indeed, Al, and a lantern that has no air holes in it, to add insult to injury.

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I’m not sure if it’s just me, but the star patterns around the dragon make it look drunk or at least punch-drunk

Off ride our Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, here to tilt at empty signifiers. Except in this case, the mythical beasts are quite real, though Jughead seems to be lusting after the dragon’s tender flesh. I think Hartley is trying to write a motivation for Jughead into the story while also moralizing about gluttony, but trying to do both at the same time makes Archie look weirdly manipulative. Indeed, this logic knot tightens further in the next panels.

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In addition to the weird perspective and hatch lines on Archie’s head making him look like bizarrely bread-like (about to be toasted!) in the left panel, Jughead has blurted out the supposed moral of this story without making it clear at all. It takes real effort to be both blunt and utterly puzzling, so let’s give Hartley a gold star for flexibility.

How is prayer supposed to help against a dragon? Well…

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…it doesn’t really. With Jughead serving as a distraction, Archie pulls out his Anachronism Machine and chases the poor beast across the countryside.Screenshot 2017-02-12 19.47.06.png

And of course Archie doesn’t get Princess Veronica, who ships off with a sketchy beau in her carriage, but still gets a Sexy Reward Woman for saving the kingdom, as is a man’s right (ahem). Betty, by the way, has not been in this story at all until the middle panel in this last set, which means her entire role in the story is to wander into Archie to serve as his Dragonslayer Trophy, no doubt doomed to be plucked, stuffed, and shut in a trophy case in some obscure basement.Screenshot 2017-02-12 19.47.16.png

And speaking of unsettling implications, note how Neighbourhood Watch Archie and his trophy doll Betty (she deserves better!) stare unblinkingly forward telling you how to clean up the riffraff in your area. As far as dog whistles in this comic go, this is one of the subtler ones, and Hartley covers for it by associating the dragons not with people but with bad vibes or antisocial tendencies, which is a Decent Save. But alas, we can’t tarry long, friends, for we have five more of these to polish off! Now that we have the format down, we can tear through these a bit faster. Hold onto your necks!

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From medieval fantasy-land we travel long roads before dusting off our feet at a seedy saloon where clean-cut Sheriff Archie finds himself nestled with the vipers.

Video posted apropos of nothing.

After some scuffles with the armed miscreants, racist-caricature Jughead bolts through the swinging doors with an urgent announcement:

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Oh, this is going to give me a headache.

Despite this story being dull as blanched tripe on stale bread, it manages to set off more racism tripwires in four panels than any comic I’ve read outside of Holy Terror. For one, as mentioned, Hartley has decided to dress Jughead up as a racist caricature and give him stereotypical speech patterns. If you don’t understand the problem with that, I’ve got nothing for you. On the other hand, my supersonic hearing has picked up another dog whistle, this one much sharper and more sinister.

For those who haven’t picked the signal, refer to the last panel (panel 7). While its reference to school busing is certainly jarring in the context of the Old West, this was in fact a huge hangup for racist conservatives in the 1970s. Institutionalized school busing designed to produce racially integrated schools had white people’s hackles all up in a dander, because God forbid (literally in this case) that black people and other “troublemakers” associate with their pure Aryan children. This is still a simmering issue in many places, especially as urban areas in the United States remain and become more segregated by neighbourhood.

In any case, choking back bile, we return to the task at hand:

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Indeed, with the knowledge of their simian origins, the schoolchildren unleash a reign of chaos, egged on by “Filthy Books.” Oddly enough, however, Archie’s scheme is not to bring the iron hand of the law down and enforce a strict censorship regime. It’s rather more…enterprising.

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While admirably non-coercive, I’m not sure that the children of the school will willingly head to the newfangled Christian bookstore (so many of those in the old western towns) when the local trading post will apparently peddle the latest “filthy books” to them without repercussion. And we’re treated to that trademark Hartley End-of-Book Stare from Betty––who at least had something to do in this story––and a hell of a coda:

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Archie making sure Jughead gets all of his fibre. Time for the third story. We’re almost halfway through this drudgery, and we’ve already cleared through the worst racist dog whistles.

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From one pulp genre to another, we streak out of the sandy, semiarid American West and into the final frontier. After annihilating the bleak stretches of nothingness lying between them and their objecting, our in-tepid explorers park their pale butts on a strange landmass.

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“A Tale of Two Planets!” is basically The Sneetches with its message chomped up and twisted into right-wing space trash. Here we have a brave refutation of genetic determinism as a multitude of identical twins abjure each other, and act more like evil twins than identical ones. The pedagogical point of this is probably clear already.

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Because the author understands that setting up a straw man still takes a bit of effort he pauses to consider “maybe they’re just stressed out because they live in an environment that’s been polluted and made inhospitable…”

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“Nah, that’s not stark enough.” Again, the Respectability Police creates a twisted Great Chain of Ill Logic, which basically looks like this: People who live in rundown areas=bad people=thieves…Screenshot 2017-02-12 20.03.09.png

= poor caricatures of anarchists, I guess. The people on the unhappy planet are, as usual in these comics, furnace-blasted alloys of every right-wing phobia-object forged into one. No doubt disappointed by the banality of space, Archie and Jughead haul ass back to the Pleasantville from whence they came.

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Nevermind, this Archie and Jughead are as good at recognizing banality as fish are at recognizing water. Or maybe they’re just shocked that they found their Riverdale counterparts sleeping in the trash heaps on the bad planet.

What genre are we pillaging next time, Al?

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Let’s just hope we find Bugs Bunny in there.

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I’ll just leave this here.

Because I know my audience, and what they expect, I assume that you’re wondering what kind of awful reactionary stuff Hartley pulls in this story. Patience, patience. We have some setup to summarize. Archie and Jughead find themselves in the hospitable care of Beelzebub, of course, but what form would this diabolical being take (other than the example I’ve contributed above)?

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I can’t say I’ve ever seen the Lord of the Flies represented as a mad scientist––

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––except here of course––

but other than his unsettling smile I see no sign of any diabolical intentions. And we know how Jughead, the gourmand, loves his banquet food.

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So it turns out that Dr. Beelzebub’s evil plan is to lure children to his castle and give them what they want––food, in this case––and then keep them in his “spare rooms” (AKA prison cells) for an indeterminate amount of time. Probably just long enough before they get boring. Or else his castle is some kind of subtle metaphor for hell and they’re stuck there until the winds of time skeletonize them. Indeed, there’s a whole cornucopia of vice-ridden teens in this ghoulish museum of horrors:

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Archie is an avatar of purity, of course, (laugh here if you’ve seen Riverdale at all) but we as an audience collectively gasp as he is put to the test. What could be the means of temptation that Dr. Beelzebub will use? In other words, what do you give to the protagonist who already has everything? Well, before we find out, the good doctor shoves Archie in a cell while he’s preparing his “killer app.”Screenshot 2017-02-12 20.06.14.png

As much as I disdain cops and marines, and the entire repressive system we have to wriggle under in this day and age, Archie is probably closer to a solution to his problem than Betty simply because muscles and other forms of kinetic energy will probably be necessary to spring him from a dungeon. And, once again, Betty appears like a bolt from the black, though here it’s more as divine intervention than a prize to be won.

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What would Riverdale Archie do in this situation? Yeah, the age difference probably wouldn’t bother that guy very much.

Beelzebub is clearly strained, worried that Archie might yet resist him, though I suppose he could just keep Archie confined regardless of whether he has his soul or not. And though I would chastise the Lord of the Flies for supporting sexual unions between teenage boys and adult women when that’s a clear violation of consent laws and customs in this day and age, he is a devil, so I would rather blame the author and leave it nice and clean. Well, as clean as possible.Screenshot 2017-02-12 20.06.53.png

And the swipe at peer pressure here is just weird, considering that a bunch of your friends trying to get you laid or drink or whatever is not quite the same as an evil scientist who has threatened you with eternal confinement trying to coerce you into joining an orgy. Just saying that even as a “parable” this particular grayble has some jarring narrative choices.

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Archie survives in his time-and-space transcending Didactic Bubble, but it sure looks like everyone else is fried jumbo shrimp. Hartley makes it quite clear that the Betty just wished for a lightning bolt to destroy the entire castle. Not, you know, just freeing everyone and moving them safely outside and then destroying the fortress of sin-itude. Betty and God have some ‘splaining to do, is what I’m saying.

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Dammit, Hartley, you don’t get to have it both ways!

I’m sick of this, let’s get moving. While I’m recovering from my Archie-induced illness, let me just show the first full-page spread from the fifth story and let you fill in the rest.

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Note all the Hartley-signature triple “!!!” in this panel.

No further comment needed on that one. Suffice to say that JoHnathan got nice and reintegrated into the status quo in the end. Goodbye and good luck, JoHnathan. Next!

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Stop grinning, it’s not what you think.

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Also, just quoting “go out and attack the enemy” out of Chronicles of all books is just disingenuous considering that that book is a family history of the disobedient, prickish kings of Israel and Judah. Yes, in context, this is a message from the spirit of God speaking through a priest telling good king Jehoshaphat and the rest of Judah to go out killing Moabite and Ammonite soldiers, but I hope this brief lesson shows how quoting pithy verse passages from esoteric corners of the Bible to justify, say, a terrible comic book might be a bad idea.

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I wonder what it could be?

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Oh. Huh.

I guess the German army fought WWI with balloons adorned messages that don’t fit the advertising standards regulations! Scholars weren’t wrong when they talked about how important the air was was in those days, let me tell ya. In any case, Archie and pals shred the lie balloons and win the day. How?

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Yes, by dropping bumper stickers on the balloons.

And if you’re wondering what the title has to do with anything…

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Yeah. Go to church. Find one for you. I’m not sure whether the comic is saying that you will get high by going to the 11:00 morning service, or whether you just get high at church at 11:00, or if it’s just referring to the aerial system of indicating directions by using the clock positions. Still, I hate it.

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Fiiiinally.

While I’ve complained about the various rightist screeds, hackneyed or lazy art, and other assorted oddities we’ve become so used to in this corner of the Internet, I wanted to address a big structural problem with Archie’s Parables. That problem is its use of the genre of “parable,” or at least its attempts to claim ownership of that genre. If you’ll bear with me, I’d like to quote a parable in its entirely from the Matthew’s gospel, the so-called Parable of the Sower:

“Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.Let anyone with ears[a] listen!”

10 Then the disciples came and asked him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” 11 He answered, “To you it has been given to know the secrets[b] of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given.

A parable is pithy and highly metaphorical vehicle stories, using symbolic shorthand to get a moral or social point across while leaving ambiguities. Jesus uses parables, as he says here, to conceal and obscure his true purpose, which is an especially important theme in Mark’s gospel but shows up here as well. Note that Jesus didn’t say, “A man was fighting in a war and he was good and bombed lie balloons out of the air. Those lies were things like ‘churches are full of hypocrites’ and other such absurdities. Church is good and you should shop around before giving up on them. Good night.” Parables are didactic and allegorical, which Hartley gets, but they’re also to a degree ambiguous and riddle-like, creating as many questions (some good, some not, as the discipline show) as they do answers. Jesus’ parables vary in terms of their clarity and literalism (the Good Samaritan being more straightforwardly political and understandable) but none of them try to think for the listener as much as Hartley tries to basically substitute his work for listening and consideration.

This is the essence of bad propaganda kitsch: project an easy triumph against degenerate and weak-yet-powerful enemies and try to shut down thinking with appeals to emotion and prejudice. Trying to call these parables, while not a terrible crime in itself, shows the lack of appreciation these hacks have for their own supposed religion.