The Tiger Manifesto

Criticism with claws

Category: Kitsch

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.

Christian Kitsch #12: Kitsch in the Wild

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Having produced eleven pieces on various bits of Christian kitsch, I finally feel like I have some basis for talking about Christian kitsch as a whole. I already offered a definition of Christian kitsch in the series’ opening post:

The term [kitsch] is generally used to denote the binary opposition to high art, a form or genre of object that partakes in some of the same tropes as “proper” art so that it can stand in for some of the same purposes, but that does not participate in any discourse that stands above pre-packaged sentimentality, cliché, and a general unquestioning affirmation of whatever bourgeois values are in vogue at the time. Kitsch is also a product of the industrial revolution, and tends to be mass-produced and homogeneous, though there is certainly a sizable niche for homemade kitsch as well.

In short, I argued that kitsch is the aesthetic incarnation of common sense. The infinite flexibility of kitsch derives from the flexibility of the commodity itself. Standing in an aisle of themed greeting cards, you realize their apparent variety. The manufacturers have produced hundreds of canned messages, appealing to stereotypes about straight married people, scatological fascinations, the “relatable” irony of aging, about as mechanical as a babydoll’s wink.  Each card has been assembled with sophistication and professionalism, using traditional cartoons, digital photography, collage, etc. Yet the vast array of merchandise fits into a narrow circle of messages and values. As I mentioned in the earlier piece, kitsch’s most readily identifiable attribute is its ability to inhabit the corpse or shell of art while abjuring any qualities that might make someone think before buying it. If a commodity does not sell, it does not serve its sacred purpose: realizing surplus value and profits. Any barrier to selling, therefore, is an inhibition.

Kitsch, then, is a kind of art the way a virus is a kind of living thing. And like the virus, kitsch is an apt infiltrator and co-opter. As a trans and queer person, it’s easier to realize just how much kitsch fits into heterosexist common sense. But, in certain contexts, trans and queer kitsch can serve the same purpose but on a smaller scale: realize surplus value by gently affirming our common sense about ourselves.

Within queer and trans communities, it can also have the effect of projecting misleading ideas about us: that we are largely white students or professionals who come out, leave their parents, and work in the culture industry or maybe take up knitting. While there’s nothing wrong with fitting that profile (I certainly do, except for the knitting), the proliferation of such impressions (since they’re often not as solid as “ideas,” and kitsch is generally emotive rather than intellectual) obscures our siblings who do not conform to this archetype, especially racialized, proletarian, and older people. So although queer and trans-targeted kitsch might actually shock people who think that “women be shopping” jokes are still mildly amusing, it can have an insidious effect on our capacity to think and the vitality of our communities.

None of this is to say that people who appreciate kitsch are morally or intellectually deficient. Unfortunately, the comforting and domesticated aspects of kitsch are intrinsically appealing to people whose lives are troubled by uncertainty. To criticize kitsch is to condemn the deficiency of a system of production and its foul effluence. These objects, to be frank, are not worthy of any human being. If we flipped the argument and said that people who like kitsch are unworthy of “higher” things, we would indeed be slipping into elitist errors. Still, we should never hesitate to condemn them for fear of being called elitist.

At last, we come to the final piece of our little plastic and porcelain ecosystem: Christianity. After all this time wading through shoddy Archie comics and listening to sanitized “parody” music, two questions present themselves:

1. Why is Christianity in particular such a hotbed of kitsch production and consumption? Is there anything specific in popular theology that sanctions it, or can you explain Christian kitsch solely by the subjugation of the church in general to capitalist logic?

2. In discussing items like the Spire Archie comics, how do we understand the interrelation of “propaganda” and “kitsch.” Is it possible for something to be confrontational propaganda––designed to confront and convince, to make a real argument––and kitsch at the same time?

Number one is difficult to answer, though I suspect that the subjugation of most of the church to capitalism both materially and ideologically has inflamed certain inherent problems in Christianity. There is a reason why Christian art in particular is so often allowed to be garish pablum.

As for number two, the answer has everything to do with context. While they were authored as propaganda, they would only serve that purpose if given or shown to people outside of the Christian community or used as teaching tools for children or new converts. It seems, however, that when read by people who are already convinced Christians and agree with the noxious political perspective they contain the books function as kitschy comfort food. Propaganda has to have a certain political edge and aesthetic quality to avoid kitschy aspects, and the two sides are often complementary. Militant commitment to any position requires, in an environment of (real or perceived) widespread indifference opposition, that the committed person consume a certain amount of literary material to nourish that commitment. Like food for the body, like knowledge for the mind.

This question of propaganda vs. kitsch is not relevant for everything I’ve reviewed here. But the fact that a confrontational tone can still coexist with snoozy conformity in a piece of kitsch, especially when that object is appropriated ironically, shows how context and time can warp the meaning of an object beyond the recognition of its original author.

I’ll certainly be considering these two questions in further entries in Christian Kitsch. We’re coming up on lucky 13, so I will have to find an especially ripe example for everyone! Until then, keep your eye out for kitschy delights. If you have any suggestions, feel free to comment, but if not my nose for kitsch is unfailing. Best of luck.

 

Christian Kitsch #11: Archie Gets a Job!

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We’re rejoining Archie live in progress. After reviving the Christian Kitsch series last week, I rediscovered the joy of pure riffing.  Unfortunately, our next specimen, one Archie Gets a Job!, is about half the book I want it to be. The 13 pages of the book are just a summer parade of halfhearted slapstick gags involving the physical––possibly spiritual––destruction of Mr. Weatherbee. A brief montage of screenshots should be enough to give my readership the gist:

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Fig. 1: Archie tries to loaf at Veronica’s, is thwarted by Chinese vampire dad.

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Fig. 2: Archie asks for a job at Mr. Weatherbee’s scenic Christian bookstore, which is built into a lighthouse.

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Fig. 3: His employment uncertain, Archie resorts to drastic, physically implausible measures to get the job by “rescuing” Mr. Weatherbee from the crushing tide.

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Fig. 4: Mr. Weatherbee realizes that, no matter how miserable you are at your job, you can always rely on schadenfreude and violence to lighten your mood.

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Fig. 4.1: If you cannot reason with your opponent, silence him instead.

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Fig. 5: Archie takes obvious pleasure in sucker-punching Mr. Weatherbee with a heavy metal object. Vengeance is mine, sayeth Archie.

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Fig. 6: Even with his eyes snapped shut, Mr. Weatherbee realizes the extent of the horror he has brought on himself by bringing this deviant under his roof.

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Fig. 7: The company parts ways, and Archie and his friend head off to the beach to sell, sell, sell!

At last, on page 13, the propagandizing begins. In their ramshackle phallic jalopy, Archie and Jughead bound across the dunes until they find the author Al Hartley’s prop for preying on young women’s insecurities: Big Ethel.

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Fig. 8: Ethel’s desire to learn springs from the void of despair.

Classic propaganda setup has been established. Now it’s time for the hammer to fall. What kind of easy prescription will Dr. Archie Self-Insert recommend? Apparently the solution for patriarchal body expectations is about 500mg of nepotism.

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Fig. 9: “You can be sure it was written by a well-adjusted male such as ourselves.”

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Fig. 10: Text reads: “Dear Reader: There are hundreds of good Christian books I could have used in this story! So why not choose one my son wrote?–Al Hartley. P.S. Here’s his picture.”

Yes, not only is Al Hartley running commercials in his comics, but he is using his comics to promote books written by his own son, Fred Hartley. Fred is something of a Christian popular literary celebrity, having published books like Dare to be Different, That Morals Thing, and Growing Pains: First Aid for Teenagers. Obviously, the man found his niche writing Christian self-help lit for teenagers, but evidently lacked his father’s cartooning ability. And he also graduated from Wheaton, which suggests that he has some kind of work ethic, if nothing else.

Our redoubtable boys have made a sale––and I’m sure our author’s son made a few as well––though we never see them take anyone’s money so they may just be distributing Mr. Weatherbee’s merchandise without compensation. While Ethel seems satisfied with her purchase, not everyone is so enthusiastic about Archie and Jughead’s mission.

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Fig. 11: And he knows crazy ideas, having perfected the self-Heimlich.

Still, something must be working because Ethel’s dramatic reading of the book is drawing in the masses. Even Veronica feels outdone by Fred’s arresting words.

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Fig. 12: Archie is just as shocked as everyone other named character in the book.

Pause. Let’s remember that the book has so far been completely devoid of (un)helpful advice for children of any age. Hartley’s usually much better at rapidly hitting the bullet points and integrating the pratfalls and absurdities into the propaganda. The only mission he’s given us so far is to buy his son’s book. For which I suppose we’ll all have to get summer jobs. Frustratingly, the book once more turns to comic mischief (as the ESRB would have it) as Archie ties Jughead to a kite sporting a streamer with a truly memorable slogan.

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Fig. 13: Jughead’s monastic vow of silence has a surprisingly slapstick-y origin.

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Fig 14: Let the lighthouse turn me on! Everything about this panel is perfect, especially with the odd colour errors on her face.

Having enlightened the people and left Jughead-shaped gaps in people’s tans, this foolproof advertising scheme comes to a safe and happy end.

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Fig. 15: Mr. Weatherbee won’t be smiling when OSHA comes rapping on his lighthouse door.

This panel and the next are a perfect encapsulation of the bizarre dream logic by which Al Hartley’s Archie operates. In one panel, Jughead is basically Jesus in the Pietàa crumpled shell of a person whose eyes are shut and who is incapable of standing. One could only speculate about the internal and external damage he’s suffering. The very. next. panel. however…

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Fig. 16: They lied to us. Money can cure any ill.

No further acknowledgement of Jughead’s life-threatening injuries is to come. But we finally have some proper preaching to look forward to! Archie decides that he’s going to give ten percent of his paycheque to “the Lord,” by which I’m sure he means his local church.

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Fig. 17. A standard crab trap, beached and unloved.

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Fig 17.1: Enhanced view.

But we all wonder why we should give ten percent of our income to the Lord. Or church, whoever is easier to get to by car. Archie has a rather dramatic illustration of the true commitment that Christians should have for their God. It’s not the one anyone expected, but I’m sure it was persuasive.

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Fig. 18: I’m sure that’s what all our parents said when we were born. “See what did?”

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Fig. 18.1: And he looks ecstatic about it.

I’m fairly sure that Christianity abhors human sacrifice, and we’re meant to take this quite metaphorically, but I think the visual medium works against Hartley’s point here. We can’t help but empathize with the pig’s pitiful situation, stuffed and prepared for consumption. Is it alive or dead? Whichever it is, the moment that Hartley captured with his pen triggers a deep sense of identification with its plight, which our very souls cry out: “I guess that makes sense, but let’s leave the butchers out of this!”

After that, possibly the deepest, darkest panel Hartley ever cartooned, our comic can only manage to sputter to its conclusion. We have another bout of slapstick nonsense that culminates in another grim-seeming injury:

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Fig. 19: Jughead realizes the true extent of his sins, and he watches the heavens, trembling.

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Fig. 20: Archie breaks the fourth wall because he knows his time has come.

But Mr. Weatherbee remembers that his hapless employees have somehow generated a sensational amount of business for him, so all is forgiven.

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Fig. 21: It’s this panel that made me wonder: why did Hartley think “Yes, this has to be a Veronica panel!”

At long last, and after much dithering and padding, Hartley comes around to remembering what the true message of this book is all about: local bookstores are important cornerstones of the community. I’m actually not sure there’s much more to it than that. Observe:

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Fig. 22: I’m not sure why Jughead only has 90% of his paycheque left. Did God spirit away the tithe off-panel? Also, Hartley never figured out how to do a fourth-wall break that elicited anything other than fear and spine-tingling.

In summary, this is one of Hartley’s weakest comics, at least that I’ve reviewed on this site. Nuggets of preaching and ill-considered but hilarious situations are few and far between, separated by dusty canyons of ineffectual slapstick. Nothing comes to a head in the end, either. Despite this being somewhat less episodic than the typical Hartley Archie entry, his writing is flaccid and even distracted. More than any of the other comics, this one tastes distinctly of a rush job he didn’t have any feeling for. I may only be speculating, but I think that Hartley was more the chicken than the pig this time around.

 

Christian Kitsch #10: Barney Bear Out of the Woods!

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Yes, Spire Comics, we’re back. Back to settle an old score.

For the tenth instalment in our expedition into the mighty Christian kitsch industry, we’re considering a spawn of Spire’s children’s imprint. Kiddie Christian Comics was the company’s imprint for very young children, and also put out God Is…, which we covered in Christian Kitsch #4. We can only hope that this entry will achieve the same slapdash surrealism of that comic, though this time the preaching is grounded in a narrative form.

Because this is a special occasion, and these characters are Spire originals (though, as a friend named Tom informed me, Barney Bear is also an MGM cartoon and comics character), it’s only right to give them the honour of a dramatis personae.

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Barney Bear. Age: young. Religion: take a wild guess.

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Parents. Age: middle. Property owners, concerned citizens.

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The Wild Bunch. Hobbies: delinquency, immiseration, squalor, and noise violations.

And, last but certainly not least, the pillars of the community.

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Left to right: Church mouse, the owl, and the goat judge (Satanic affiliations unproven)

Now that we’re familiar with the many colourful characters of the Barney the Bear Extended Universe, let’s see what kind of adventures they get themselves into when they come OUT OF THE WOODS.

Al Hartley begins his story on a clear night. The parents are sleeping, until all of a sudden:

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Clearly, something is amiss, or else this bear would not be having trouble sleeping in his natural habitat. Though it appears that, in this world, only some of the anthropomorphic animals have assimilated into a domesticated life. I’m also unsure what Mama Bear’s curlers  are supposed to accomplish given how short her hair is. On an artistic level, they serve as gender markers, but other than that they probably just pull her hair and sort of sit there.

The entire comic, being meant for children, is also quite light on panels, often having only two or even one per page and very little dialogue. I’m not opposed to this approach, and we’ll see it actually leads to somewhat creative page layout, but the drawing itself is just as generic and overall lifeless as it always is on these books. Competent, but nothing above mediocre.

After the whole family wakes up and rushes into the parents’ bedroom, the father bear begins the story proper:

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Basic plot outline: white (brown bear) suburban paranoia.

How exactly has the neighbourhood changed? Basically, we’ve gone from cute, domesticated Disney animals, complete with Bambi, Toby the Turtle, and Air Guitar Frog…

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Is “Rabeet” what frogs say, or is it labeling the pink fluffy thing in the bottom corner as a “rabeet?”

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Pictured: Rabeet’s fourth album cover.

To Ralph Bakshi animals:

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The Redwall books had less obvious racial profiling of animals.

Having realized that their tranquil suburban bliss has been upended, the family rushes from their house and heads out to investigate the source of the racket. Perched on an overhanging cliff, they behold a landscape wholly and terribly transformed:

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Though it’s not stated or even implied by the text, I have to assume that the family awoke not from a normal sleep but from an extended hibernation. Otherwise, this level of urbanization would not have escaped their notice. And indeed this city is a swarming hive of misery and sin. People out at “All Night Movies,” being “Adult,” having “Fun,” and even heading to the “Grotto.” Take that inebriated elephant for one. His dome is smoking something fierce, though he doesn’t seem too worried about plunging over the green waterfall. I’m jealous of the bear triplets riding the useless water wheel in antique swimsuits, and much less jealous of the white-suited gentleman taking a swan dive right into the turf. Overall, though, it seems like a good time.

Not if you ask our nuclear family in peril, of course:

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Note the inexplicable day/night change, which suggests the rough part of the woods is in an eternal Gotham-esque night.   

Well well, what kind of bright idea is forming in the effervescent young mind of our young ursine scout? As we learn over the next few tedious pages, he has enlisted the help of the noble bachelor Church Mouse, a meek evangelist who hurries to the woods with his Tent of Miracles.

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My guess is that state repression is not available as an option in this case. I would guess that this bedevilled family would probably put in a call to the SWAT team or the National Guard to break up this tomfoolery, but it seems the Hobbesian state of nature is still strong and unfettered in these woods. And so one Church Mouse is summoned to do the work of a thousand gentrifiers and beat cops: clean up the damn neighbourhood with an old-fashioned revival meeting.

But perhaps our mouse of the cloth is not as unshakeable as he appears.

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On learning that his natural predators are likely to be in attendance––though why the derelict denizens of the wild woods would even want to attend such a meeting is never explained––the mouse hoofs it back to the car and doesn’t even think to bring the tent back. It’s all fight-or-flight in this predator-prey world. But the bears, optimistic and, shall we say, rather presumptive, think that the mouse would make a good vessel for the Word in reforming these critters. He offers to leave them tracts and literature, but they insist that the servants of God have to be a bit more involved than that.

So we have our first bachelor pillar of the community, the beginning of the somewhat incoherent core of our book. In propaganda like this, the point is to instruct first and entertain second. The artwork and the story are important but they are subservient to the political or, in this case, religious, point that the work is trying to make.

The structure varies, but in the general case, the characters in this kind of didactic literature fall into a number of fixed types. We have the wise teachers, the ones who espouse the views that the literature considers correct. In this case, the bear family acts as a unit, and if you’ve been paying attention they often finish each other’s thoughts and basically act as extensions of one another. They’re the embodiment of the conservative fantasy of the family as an organic and undifferentiated unity reproducing itself without conflict, especially between generations. Second, we have the characters who are ignorant, mistaken, or fatally flawed in some other way. In this case, the wild jungle animals. These characters are usually the ones who espouse positions the wise teachers have to criticize and correct. In this book, though, their problem is not so much possessing mistaken ideas but instead having no direction whatsoever. They are carte blanche, the people whom Christian evangelists imagine have somehow lived in the United States but never gotten the basic idea of Christian doctrine before. They will either conform to the words of the wise teachers in the end or are put to some kind of bad end.

But, to work our way back to the mouse and his fellow bachelor pillars of the community, there is also a third type: the well-meaning but mistaken “experts” who exist to exhibit arrogance and to be corrected by the wise teachers.

And look who we have here:

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The owl with the wicked eyelashes.

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Here is our second patsy, the intellectual who will, inexorably, bow before the simple folk knowledge of our put-upon Normal American Family. No matter his schemes for urban renewal or educational initiatives or what have you, Jesus can and will fix every problem. What kind of fiendish puzzle will Barney and co. pose to the posturing owl?

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I know what you’re thinking, but let’s first focus on the tree-house in the background. No doubt Al Hartley woke up that day, pulled on his drawing clothes, and said to himself “I’m going to draw windows wherever I damn well please!” Or, excuse me, “darn well please.” I also think we can definitively say that that owl is just a graduation cosplayer who’s never actually read a single word from that unsheltered outdoor bookshelf he has. J’accuse, charlatan!

Well, the church mouse and Barney know an easy catch when they see one.

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So the owl recognizes it on sight but apparently has never read it.

One more aside: the last panel I screen capped shows off one of Hartley’s strangest stylistic tics: the triple punctuation mark. If you scroll back up through this post you’ll notice that in almost every instance where a question is being asked or someone is particularly excited, Hartley puts another line in the dialogue balloon and fills it with three question marks or exclamation points. Notice what I mean??? It’s weird once you notice!!!

But, in an effort to keep up its nonexistent narrative momentum,the book debuts the third and final bachelor pillar of the community: the goat judge!!!

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“And I say that we should evict the purple gopher hobbits!!!”

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“Honey, get the pruning shears!!! We’re going to teach eminent domain a little lesson!!!”

Of course, we can’t have the state judge usurping the divine right. Again, our sphinx-like protagonists pose an unsolvable quandary before the magistrate.

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Once again, his ignorance is never directly corrected, even with something as simplistic as “read the Bible, it’s the truth!!!” Instead, the book leaves him to drown in his own question marks. Obviously the book has a sharp sense of irony: a judge who can’t judge and a know-nothing intellectual. What’s more, Hartley kicks the climax into gear, showing the dangers of running perilously long extension cords in a flammable environment. Although Hartley didn’t bother drawing the wire in a damaged condition, so it appears as though it spontaneously combusted for no reason at all. Well, I suppose it is just a plot device, so let’s scurry forward.

The next few pages show the fire spreading as the dithering judge and owl are no help whatsoever, culminating in their crowning moment:

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Pay close attention to this. Remember that one thread that’s been running more or less consistently through this comic is that one should take action. The bears admonished Church Mouse for suggesting that he just pray for the cats and leave some tracts, and the goat is shown up as a buffoon for his indecision and ineffectual attitude. Eventually, the goat judge does come to his senses and pronounces his judgment:

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He’s got some gumption taking on the spontaneously combusting extension cord industry, I’ll tell you what.

It gets better, since when you think through this comic’s theology and view of how the natural world functions, you have to conclude that the senseless fire was caused by God sparking up a totally intact electrical wire. I mean, if the plot supplies no answers and the art is shoddy and lazy, I have to assume that the judge needs to go after God Himself here.

Luckily, the book doesn’t contemplate deicide. Barney and the Church Mouse have had enough of the goat’s vindictive attitude and just want to get the fire put out. Behold their solution:

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Let’s think for a moment before I reveal what occurs next. As established, the book has criticized the idea that we can just lean on praying and not actually intervening in bad situations. God might carry the day but we have to be his hands and feet, etc. If the book actually wants to teach children something positive and one of the benefits of prayer, it might show the mouse and Barney taking a moment to compose themselves, gather their courage and, maybe, help out with rescue efforts, get the goat off that precarious log for goodness’ sake, or get professionals to help. They even ask for God to help them stop the fire, suggesting that they will prove Christian integrity by acting selflessly even in the face of danger. A raging fire is their crucible, the trial that proves they can live the faith rather than just preaching it.

Yes, the other shoe is about to drop. Along with buckets of…

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rain.

Conveniently, the divine rainstorm both snuffs out the blaze and forces the hapless sinners of the woods underneath the only shelter that apparently survived the fire: the tent.

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Finally, after some prodding and a pep talk, the Church Mouse delivers his beneficent message:

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Our moral has truly pivoted. After dedicating a good chunk of space to criticizing the mouse’s complacency and unwillingness to act, we get a literal deus ex machina solving every problem for everyone. The book has come utterly untethered from recognizable reality, and this is a deep flaw in a book that is marketed and produced to teach practical and religious lessons to children. Out of the Woods is not infuriating because it’s propaganda, but because it mistakes its audience for fools and chumps.  Children are naïve, not incapable of facing hard truths or life’s ambiguities. Even a message as simple as “faith needs action to be real” gets muddied up because the comic presents a world where the benevolent God will, say, send rain to douse your burning home. It’s convenient and shoddy, and children probably won’t buy it for a second. At least, not if they’ve ever had to face actual trials in their lives.

Also, it might just be a jerk move to start haranguing forest fire survivors and giving them the three-point sermon after––we have to presume––many of them have lost their homes due to environmental negligence and a lack of social services. And yes, I’m taking this gravely seriously, far more so than the lackadaisical writer and artist. Partly that’s for comic effect, considering just how fluffy and klutzy Out of the Woods is, but it’s also because  I hate the idea that junk media is acceptable just because it’s for children. If you’re writing propaganda and cushy comfort food for the converted, at least get your messaging straight.

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Site Recommendation: Radiooooo.com

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I’m not the biggest fan of the commercial genre of “world” music. Though I appreciate the work of people like David Byrne and many, many luminaries of British rock bringing music from the global peripheries to my attention, the fact is that it’s still selecting the most marketable and easily categorized music from a given country or––worse––continent and putting it up for sale to a hip crowd of Western consumers.

Still! I occasionally hanker for a 1970s Soviet cover of “So Happy Together” called “Vsegda Budem Vmeste.” Or maybe I feel a potato chip craving for the decadent yacht-pop of 1980s bubble-era Japan. Or, hell, 1970s East German funk rock. Radiooooo is a music streaming service that represents a seemingly infinite well of hilarity and genuine discovery. You click on a decade tab at the bottom, pick a country on the attractively old-school map, and let the site bring you to audio heaven. You can also adjust the mood to make it “slow,” “fast,” or (the only really valid option) “weird.” I’ve already spent a few hours browsing around and am impressed with both the interface and the selection of songs––there’s much more kitschy pop from 1960s China than one would expect! If you feel charitable or especially impressed, you can even buy the song straight from the site, though I have not yet been so moved.

Most importantly, the interface gives you a relatively decent map projection of the world to click around in, which means you’re just as likely to venture way out and find something unexpected as to stay on familiar shores. You can get at least a vague idea of global trends in (mainly) popular styles of music, which is attractive to an eclectic discovery-oriented listener like me. If you’re looking for something a bit quirkier and more specific than Pandora or Spotify or feel like your musical tastes are stuck in a box, Radiooooo might be the site to set it free. At least you’ll have a few laughs at how much of the music from the “good old days” was absolute tripe.

Christian Kitsch #9: Archie’s World

Tigers keep large territories, but tend to be insular creatures, preferring the superior company of our own thoughts to the intrusions of others. This is why it’s hard for tigers to develop a cosmopolitan streak; why fantasize about pouncing on some poor sap on the Champs d’Elysee if there’s a stagnant pool right around the corner just waiting to be waded in? I, on the other hand, have acquired a taste for the exotic, the kind of wanderlust that pushed Marco Polo down the Silk Road and led to the hoarding fetish that produced the modern British Museum. Luckily, Archie is here to take us on an adventure that’s sure to satisfy that restless streak.

Where are the "We are not a costume" people when you need them?

Where are the “We are not a costume” people when you need them?

Well, this is no an auspicious beginning. Not only has Archie plainly appropriated other cultures’ hatwear, but has also paid the ultimate price––beheading. No sign of anything below the neck on this cover. Maybe that’s a stylistic choice that will carry throughout the entire issue. Possibly indicating something about how your physical form gets “lost” when traveling because of all the newness you have to absorb.

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Well, the first page seems to continue the trend, though luckily we are not going to be subjected with a cavalcade of Archie heads solipsistically chatting to each other about foreign cuisine. A few things stick out to me about this page. 1.) The globe is entirely covered in water, suggesting that Waterworld has become a reality and fish people now rule the universe. Either that, or we’ve been able to terraform Europa and founded submarine lobster-fishing colonies there. 2.) Big Ethel seems to have a startlingly binary view of both geography and morality. Luckily, the world is a sphere and not shaped like a gigantic sheet of notebook paper. I know Marx wrote that history progresses on its bad side, but I don’t think that’s what old Al Hartley, son of a union buster, had in mind when writing that. 3.) The Earth is smoking and has dizzy stars cascading off of it. Apparently, the oceans have become far more geologically volatile in the Archie universe. Enough with the first page! We have yet to scratch the racist surface of this issue.

The next couple of pages explain our plot: Archie and friends are going gallivanting around the world on a quest to visit missionaries and see them propagate the Word of God to the heathens all over the world. What is their first destination? None other than Travis Bickle hometown New York City! Naturally. Hopefully they can get to the poor guy before he, well, spoils the end of Taxi Driver for everyone. One of the flight attendants (?) on the plane hears their destination and gasps:

Archie New York City

Time’s Square had such a distinct flavor before Giuliani, I must admit. I honestly prefer the fedora-sporting thugs to the costumed kitsch merchants.

Apparently the writers of Jungle 2 Jungle actually had something. Not much, but something. After looking at the weird post-deluge globe on the first page, you might assume that Archie is referring to the fact that the world’s cities were mostly reforested in kelp and coral reefs after the Second Flood. But no, he mostly means that cities have become hives for heathens and dens of degeneracy. Archie could make Rorschach and Travis Bickle proud, now that I think about it.

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Archie’s whirlwind tour has already taken him from New York to London and to Paris in a single page. Despite all that jet lag, the jolly crew has managed to accost, encourage, and leer at multiple sinners. Though their sins seem restricted to looking like they take drugs and hanging out in somewhat Bohemian locations. Since we’re given no reason to believe that the orange-haired, black-moustached chap in the second panel has a good reason for speaking to the poor woman there, I have to presume that he’s offering her Jack Chick tracts or something. Those tracts and that hair are probably both grounds to be arrested as a public nuisance. At any rate, we continue with the cavalcade of urban locations before settling into the meat of the issue: short stories about exotic locations.

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I checked, and there are in fact crocodiles in Tanzania. You got me this time, Al Hartley.

Yes, we can expect a bonanza of cultural sensitivity from what follows, I am sure. Of course, this being the 70s, these kids would be familiar with the American-backed plot to overthrow the socialist republic of Zanzibar and forcibly unite it with the friendly regime in mainland Tanganyika to form modern Tanzania. Armed with such information, they just traipse into the rain forest with nary a bit of bug spray. Shame, that.

Naturally, Jughead has difficulty adapting to his new environment, leading him to pine for McDonald’s. The missionary gives the following retort:

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Have to wedge that panel of a toucan and a monkey right in there, don’t you, Hartley?

Of course nothing about American culture seeps through when American missionaries are allowed to proselytize an American religion to complete strangers in Tanzania. I’m against all forms of proselytization in public places, which I’m sure is a minority position in some places, but one has to agree that the naivety here is astonishing. Of course, the role of American missionaries in, say, getting bills that will execute people for being gay in Uganda hadn’t become an issue yet. Plus, this is for children and you need to whitewash the whole enterprise in order to make its subtle colonialism more palatable.

A couple of short stories later, we’re in Kashmir, the disputed territory between India and Pakistan that has remained a semi-active war zone for decades. Suffice to say that they stumble into a nameless city during a “carnival” celebration and immediately set up a rock and roll band in the open. For some reason.

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While I’m not sure you would be able to openly set up a Jesus concert banner in the middle of a non-Christian (they never specify which religion) holiday, nor would I imagine the reception being so immediately warm, I am sure that this idea about people just attempting to buy random women with cow barter is complete hogwash. Cow-wash.

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Of course, the core message of the book isn’t hard to glean at this point. People who embrace Jesus no longer have any serious problems. Or, at the very least, they know that all problems can be solved with Jesus. Human trafficking could never happen in a Christian country, says this idea. Women are going to be enslaved wherever Christ isn’t. Of course, that last panel is meant as a direct jab at feminism, appropriating the concept of a liberated woman and tying it directly to simply converting to Christianity. Lurking in the background here at all times is the notion that the United States is a superior nation because of its Christianity, which is an idea that stretches far back in the colonial period. It directly fed the British idea of the “white man’s burden” and the French “civilizing mission” in Africa and India. Spanish colonization had an especially cozy relationship with conversion, that being one of the major justifications for forcibly interning native people in plantation labor and forcing them to work in the mines. Archie’s World might be a relic of a less judicious time, but that by no means implies that these kinds of attitudes don’t still contaminate all missionary work today. American missionaries work under the protective banner of the world’s most powerful military and a state that might mete out major punishments if these missionaries are forced out or not admitted in the first place. And there would be no point in being a missionary if you didn’t believe that you were somehow superior to the people you were coming to, at the very least by virtue of being Christian while they are not. It’s messianism of the most vulgar sort.

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This very well-educated man––he knows English so he must have had some schooling––has a point. Of course, he is a prop written by a conservative hack who has a blatant streak of paternalistic racism running right through his coronary artery. So I think we can safely put the rest of this issue to bed rather quickly. Oh, but first we have to discredit other religions with a catchy parable.

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Buddha and Confucius are just jerks. That’s what it comes down to. Anyone who knew a thing about Siddhartha Gautama or Confucius would know that they were models of ethical fortitude. If anything, Confucianism has a far more elaborate and sophisticated moral code than Christianity, the latter of which has tended to downplay acts of righteousness in favour of the idea of grace. That is probably the message here. What’s going on is that these people are metonyms for their religions. Christ for Christianity, etc. Confucius is a doddering old moralizer. Buddha just told people to think their way out of their problems––yeah, I’m sure that’s what Buddhism teaches. And Jesus, though divine grace, lifts the human race out of its predicaments. Let’s move on. I’m going to skip the anti-Communist tract about Hong Kong or the patronizing story about Myanmar and close out our discussion.

Screenshot 2014-11-30 13.19.38Luckily, the comic leaves its message crystal clear by the end. Namely this: it reaffirms the traditional Christian commitment to missionary work. The twist is that it argues that introducing Christianity to the world will be some kind of panacea for global problems. Accepting Jesus is the key to “the good life,” in their word, establishing a one-to-one correlation between conversion and life improvement. In many ways, it’s not too distant from the self-help and New Age craze the hippies inaugurated in the 60s. It’s a simple restatement of old Christian/American values with a groovy coat of comic printers’ ink.

Archie’s World is probably the most difficult of the old Spire comics to get through. It’s short on hilarity or absurdity except in short bursts, and its constant stereotyping and patronizing make it a slog to read. Unfortunately, the missionary industry is still thriving today, and you can hardly walk into a church, especially of a more conservative bent, without the requisite bulletin board celebrating junior colonizers’ escapades into the pagan wilderness. OK, I’m done. Time to gnaw on a deer carcass and reflect on the wonderful fact that, no matter how much filth he may have put into the world, at least Al Hartley is in a cold grave.

Spectacle as an End in Itself

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Recently, one of my peers brought Brad Brevet’s musings on Michael Bay to my attention. Though I initially dismissed it as mere vulgar justification for a lazy critical judgment, I reconsidered because I think it serves a good launching point for a discussion of the role of sincerity and spectacle in media criticism.

To summarize the article, it consists of a piece identifying Transformers: Age of Extinction as an “Abstract Expressionist” work made in a vulgar key––a mass-market Pollack, if you will. It also identifies Bay as a “vulgar auteur” and notes how the director has created a signature style within the Hollywood machine. At the end of the article, he argues that because of the “profound effect” the film had on him, it was deserving of more than a facile dismissal. He also compares Age of Extinction to Pacific Rim, another manufactured robot spectacle which he despises for its phony sentimentality. He prefers to embrace Bay’s unapologetic approach––his unabashed commitment to misogyny, lionization of excess, uncritical militarism and chauvinism, etc. In Brevet’s words:

“Bay’s Age of Extinction is 100% vulgar, aware of it, embracing it and wholly honest about what it is. Bay isn’t here to make you cry with his transforming alien robots or tug at your heartstrings, he’s bringing the awesome and here to bludgeon you into submission.”

And later, he asks the key question:

“How do you judge a movie such as Age of Extinction, decrying its sound and fury when that’s exactly all it is and all it’s meant to be? This is a film meant to evoke a mood and response through its visuals. That’s it.”

Though the film is reprehensible, overlong, and a tiring nightmare to sit through, he reasons, it cannot be criticized because it is those things fully and sincerely. While I see no evidence that Brevet associates with the New Sincerity crowd (he’s not religious or “spiritual” enough to fit into Jonathan Fitzgerald’s crowd), his question belies what has become a normative approach to criticism: you can only criticize something for what it is and not for what it should or could be.

There is some superficial logic to this argument if you approach a work of art from an idealistic position. After all, you cannot analyze a film that isn’t there; you can’t conjure up a speculative film substitute and use that to bludgeon poor Age of Extinction. Of course, to me this is where superficial criticism shorn of any commitments ends up: waffling on the most basic questions because it is incapable of criticizing a work of art at its very core. At no point does the question “should this have been made?” arise. I may be mistaken about that last point. Brevet points out in his original review that he was always “engaged” by the film, and that it produced “slack-jawed amazement.” So beguiling is this monstrous tumor of a film, apparently, that it was more captivating than offensive. This is film criticism imitating video game criticism at its worst. He celebrates spectacle for its own sake, and prioritizing sincerity and uniqueness over formal or political merit. He prizes the film from its context and treats it like a one-day carnival: don’t mind all the cages, whips, and chains. Just eat your cotton candy and appreciate it “for what it is.” Criticism that takes genre into account is one thing; this is another beast entirely.

What we lose in such a method, of course, is a sense of what it might be lacking. When we make the boundaries of a single film the extent of what we can criticize, we wall ourselves off from all wise analysis. Such isolation might be useful in certain instances, but it should not be the basis for film criticism, which needs to be rooted in a correct apprehension of the material conditions of the society that produced the work, how the work processes and produces the dominant ideologies of that society, and how its formal qualities interact with its political content. For me, this can obviously only take place within the bounds of historical and dialectical materialism within a Marxist political praxis. Criticism needs to be an intervention, and as such needs to be armed to the teeth, criticizing a film for what it includes and––and this can be even more important––what it conceals or omits. That is the essence of ideological criticism. Of course, Brevet isn’t trying to do that. He might argue that it is inappropriate for me to criticize him for this, to which I reply: why aren’t you attempting to make your criticism matter beyond generating page views and shuttling your readers to or away from one mindless spectacle after another? Doesn’t it bother you that your approach to evaluating films leaves you unable to make a lucid critical judgment?

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Lunacharsky disapproves.

One wrinkle in this story is the idea of vulgar auteurism, which blogger Girish elucidates at their blog. The idea is basically an extension of “auteur theory” in the vein of Cahiers du Cinéma to commercial Hollywood directors like Michael Bay, Tony Scott, and Paul W.S. Anderson. Vulgar auteurism in its current form basically exists to validate the works of masculinist action directors, though there could be a contingent arguing for the value of romantic comedies or other genres considered “feminine.” Auteur theory is essentially a critical lens that prioritizes the individual mark or signature of a particular filmmaker (usually the director). Hitchcock, Welles, and Wes Anderson are typically cited as auteur directors because they tend to address similar themes with similar techniques in their films. As Girish writes:

Let’s remember that the Cahiers du Cinéma critics of the time admired and championed two different and distinct kinds of filmmakers: European directors of what would today be considered “arthouse” cinema (Rossellini, Bresson, Renoir) and Hollywood directors whose work was considered “vulgar” by comparison (Hitchcock, Hawks, Ray). One could go a step further and say that the latter directors were more central to the politique des auteurs because they managed to imprint their signatures on films being made within a factory-like system of production.

One can draw the comparison between this comment about the “factory-like system of production” and Walter Benjamin’s classic essay about film and the disintegrating “aura” of art. What’s notable about this paragraph, however, is that it highlights how Hollywood’s capitalist ownership has adapted to changing tastes and expectations. Whereas Cahiers critics might have been able to argue that the ability to produce “individualized” auteur work in the studio system was a subversive and remarkable achievement, I would argue that today this is no longer the case. Yesterday’s auteurs are today’s petty Hollywood princes, packaged and sold as brand names. Like Wes Anderson, the Coen Brothers, and Quentin Tarantino, Michael Bay is just another brand name, a recognizable bit of language that gets butts in seats. Transformers is therefore not the only name recognition studios can wield. Bay’s own notoriety is a powerful marketing tool, both to the reactionary dudebros and the morbidly curious “critical” types who will fork over their money to watch Age of Extinction just to witness the “spectacle.” There is nothing oppositional about being an auteur in Hollywood, “vulgar” or not. Further, framing the question this way still establishes little of why a film might be of worth.

Can we even dispute that Wes Anderson's name is just another "franchise?"

Can we even dispute that Wes Anderson’s oeuvre is just another “franchise?”

This leads me back to Benjamin:

In Western Europe the capitalistic exploitation of the film denies consideration to modern man’s legitimate claim to being reproduced. Under these circumstances the film industry is trying hard to spur the interest of the masses through illusion-promoting spectacles and dubious speculations.

Given that that Benjamin published those words in 1936, we can see that little has changed in the last eighty years. The true danger, however, might be that the iron fist of spectacle is slowly crushing even the most vacuous humanism from the Hollywood system. Mirroring such wretched articles as this one from the Village Voice, Brevet makes apologies for the film as spectacle even if its has no other worth. There is no human element, not even an attempt to render humanity in a sympathetic way. Even Roland Emmerich, with his cast of thousands, attempts to ground his films in some kind of affirmation, a cursory nod to flesh and blood amid the digital chaos. Bay, however, appears to be completely subsuming his human subjects in machines and oil, akin to the Futurists only less heady and more cynical. I’m no humanist, largely following Althusser’s theories on that question, but what is occurring is the transformation of “popular cinema” into Olympic opening ceremonies. It’s something completely worthless, blatantly ideological (albeit in disguised forms), and completely ephemeral that, as David Harvey once put it, is materialistic only in the sense that it absorbs enormous amounts of capital. The only redeeming quality of such a work is that everyone has seen it. It is a shared experience, and on that basis alone, it seems, we can validate a work. It’s postmodernism taken to its most brutal, wasteful, deliriously capitalist end: the consumption of vast amounts of resources to create pandering garbage that endures for only one second at a time. As Brevet helpfully points out:

Bay and the digital wizards at ILM have reportedly built this film with a budget of $165 million, which is to say every minute of this picture cost $1 million each.

What a noble venture! And such brave critics! At least we can console ourselves with the assurance that they’re quite sincere in their committed mediocrity.

Christian Kitsch #8: Man Church

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When the formative years of your youth were spent in the Indian rain forests, where survival actually depends on physical prowess and skills, you tend to reflexively laugh at the comical posturing human males take on to protect their fragile egos. One of the most pathetic examples of this is the “Man Church” phenomenon. Man Church. Fearing the creeping “feminization” of church, men have now developed services designed only for the people of the penis. And given what we have discovered about evangelicals’ aesthetic ineptitude through this series, the laughable kitschiness of the imagery and ad copy for these manly seminars comes as no surprise.

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Our paradigmatic Male Man, everyone. Clenched teeth, adorably wrinkled nose, steel-grey eyes set for the kill, sweaty matted athlete hair, the works. Adding insult to injury, the graphic designer put this desaturated wannabe-hulk in front of a dusty chalkboard. Let’s not forget the football either. That leathery ovoid is clutched tight between the Male Man’s hands, standing in for any number of things men could clutch in like manner. Its resemblance to a penis is not going to raise any eyebrows, methinks.

Another church went with a more subtle approach:

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According to the ad copy, “this ain’t your momma’s church”

I’ll let the Cornerstone Church of Chandler, Arizona enlighten us as to what we can expect in what is surely a high-impact seminar:

A church for men; no singing, short sermons and time to process. Laugh, learn and be challenged in the company of friends. Straight forward relevant topics around the challenges facing men today – not like any other church you have seen. This ain’t your mamma’s [sic] church!

No, indeed, though for once I might prefer that it were. On the site linked above, you can sase that the tab for “men” is just one in a whole line of painfully specific, tailored services the church offers. It’s marketing at its most transparent, and because of that it’s tempting to write off the “Man Church” fad as just a way to check off another demographic niche. Let’s not be too hasty, however. The “Man Church” phenomenon has a more sinister air to it than many of the curios we’ve investigated in this series––which is saying a lot. While none of the rhetoric here is as fascistic as Men’s Rights advocates can be, the patriarchy runs strong and naked here. While all masculinity is bleak and oppressive, the iron-skinned, men-as-tanks ideology we see regurgitated here is especially pernicious. This is not to say that these churches are not responding to a really felt need; straight white men, being in every way empowered, are also constantly reckoning with insecurities. Men are not actually oppressed, but any place or situation they encounter that seems too feminine (God forbid it be church!) instantly becomes annoying to them. So accustomed to dominance are they that, even in the macho world of evangelical Christianity, where women are more often than not barred from leadership positions, the mere appearance of a female majority is enough to send them off-kilter.

These are aggressively reactionary programs aimed at capitalizing on male insecurity. While the American church is almost entirely a bastion of reaction and prejudice, the last squirrel hole for blatant chauvinism and militarism, this is an especially troubling phenomenon. I have no insights into whether these ministries are successful (especially given that the one from Cornerstone starts at 6:30 am!) but their existence points to a troubling pathology in the American straight cishet male mind: a maniacal need to hold onto power and demonstrate that power, usually at the expense of someone deemed inferior. To end on a deflating note, I would be remiss not to point out that such chauvinism is almost present within the Left, especially where its revolutionary hands are idle and petty posturing displaces praxis. It’s not too surprising to find reactionary sexism in the Church; what’s far more disturbing is that it infests even the bloc that pretends to the role of undoing it. It’s yet another point where the bourgeois’s ruling ideology seeps into every nook of a society.

L’Odyssey de Cartier: Ad Kitsch Epic

I understand that I am lagging behind the times, and that this ad has been a thorn in humankind’s side for two years. All the same, most of the reactions I found online were hardly critical, offering up vague oohs and ahs. Comments on the ad’s Youtube page can be almost as overblown as this three-minute monstrosity. Since this ad took two years to make, it’s only fair for me to jab it two years after it lands on us. What makes this ad fascinating to me is how it dolls up its “sophisticated” and “elegant” imperialism,  offering us the same kind of jewel-encrusted finery we saw in Craig Thompson’s Habibionly this time it’s literally jewel-encrusted. Running a company that shills out shiny rocks extracted from semi-colonial countries is a wretched business at the best of times, but Cartier expends an astonishing amount of effort trying to make you buy into their colonialist dream world.

Basic concept of the ad: a French leopard escapes from its diamond prison and goes on a fantastic journey through the colonized world before returning to Paris on an old-timey airplane. On the way, he encounters a Chinese dragon,

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more sad-looking bedazzled animals,

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an Indian city speared into the back of an elephant,

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Anyone who wants to make Salvador Dalí jokes can keep it to themselves.

this white dude,

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here the ad reaches peak mist

and a mysterious woman in a red dress, just to push some last-minute sexist decoration into the ad.

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The entire commercial runs three and a half minutes, making it the Gone With the Wind of advertising in more than one way. You need to understand that I am a big cat. I have almost inexhaustible reserves of sympathy for the plight of cats in film and television roles. When our kind gets a big shot at fame like this, I am hard pressed to insult the product. At the same time, turning China and India into unpopulated fantasy worlds that exist only to lend false grandeur to your ostentatious mining products seems a step too far. Maybe two or three steps, actually. At the end, you pair the exotic cat with a vaguely exotic-looking woman (no one’s done that before, right?), and the wheel of clichés goes full circle. Children’s choirs that sound like they were sampled from Howard Shore’s Lord of the Rings scores don’t help matters much, being only slightly less ridiculous than the ad’s nostalgia for the French empire. I imagine the leopard didn’t go to Africa–where most of the diamonds Cartier is sticking to animals come from– because that would be a bit gauche. Must keep within good taste, eh?

Cartier is attempting to infuse its products with some exotic mystique, and at that they succeed. Everything in the ad is ratcheted up to the highest level of pretentious schmalz, making “L’Odyssey de Cartier” the ruling class version of those “every kiss begins with Kay” commercials. Suffice to say, I’m not impressed. This is Orientalism at its nadir, dressed up in ugly diamond coating and put up on a pedestal to inspire the awe of the masses and open the wallets of the nouveau riche. I’m sure if the Victorians had had the Internet, they would have dropped their monocles at it.

Christian Kitsch #7: Archie’s Love Scene

033. Archie's Love Scene

A long time ago, in an unfathomable land between the civilizations of Canada and Mexico, a pasty comic book character named Archie became the subject of a whole series of deeply terrible Christian propaganda comics. Entrancing and yet repellant, the source of much derision and laughter, the comics had an aura of silly glory all their own. Though they appeared simple and plain, and truth be told had less intelligence and wit than the barrel of salted peanuts I’m gnawing on right now, they nonetheless brought delight to many. How they did so is a mystery best left to the mists of time. It has been too long since I have set my critical gaze upon the Spire Comics’ run of Archie issues. Today, I will be correcting this with a special Valentine’s Day edition of Christian Kitsch. It is time to enter the surprisingly erotic and fraught adolescent world of Archie yet again with an examination of Archie’s Love Scene. 

This comic is a compilation of short segments separated by vague themes and bookended by Bible verses. All of the segments address love as a topic, but in quite different and sometimes contradictory ways. Of course, those who are familiar with these comics and their writer/mastermind Al Hartley will know what to expect from Spire’s attempt to talk about love: upbeat preaching, regressive gender stereotypes, and a worldview so thoroughly whitewashed that Tom Sawyer would be sheepish around it.

Now for the comic itself:

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One page in, and we are already in the realm of this grizzled father’s worst nightmare: his daughter Veronica eloping with Archie through a window. His expression is not angry, contorted with so much sheer terror that all the vanilla custard is spraying from inside his head. I’m hoping that my own parents weren’t so nearly terrified by the thought that I might waltz out of the house on a ladder and elope in high school.

Of course, Archie and Veronica are not about to skip out to Vegas to pay Rev. Elvis a visit, right?

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The dialogue makes the excuse that Veronica didn’t want to wake anyone up, but, as we see, the ladder clanging on the side of the house was probably much louder than quietly sneaking down the stairs would have been. Enough of the superficial nitpicking, though. What is this comic trying to tell us about love? First of all, Veronica calms down her father’s conniptions (and leave Archie slack-jawed) by asserting that she knows “what the Bible says about real love and marriage.” Well, I know that the Apostle Paul thought that it was better not to marry and that the Old Testament is a veritable minefield of terrible marriage advice and doomed couples. For starters, just ask Leah how she felt being forced to marry a man who didn’t want her and thought she was her own sister. And then have tons of kids with him. Or all the times in the OT where the Bible just skips over the existence of women and talks about fathers just begetting sons, presumably emerging chest-burster style.

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First Lesson About Love: God will bring you your soul mate, to the horrified dismay of your aging WASP father.

The second part of the comic is about expert playboy Reggie, who demonstrates the kind of tactical error you don’t want to make while using weaponized Valentine’s cards.

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I can only presume that Reggie thought he had better chances with his four-pronged maneuver than focusing on a single woman at a time. It’s hard to tell, but I like to think that he got all four of them together, handed them all a card, and said “OK, now you can kill each other for me.” And instead they go Lord of the Flies on him. This page ends with a verse from the Bible (what, were you expecting the Qur’an?): “Love one another as I have loved you.” That comes from John 15:12. I assume that Jesus did not have a barrage of giant Valentine cards in mind when he said that.

Second Lesson About Love: Love the way that Jesus did–one woman at a time.

Prepare for a massive tone shift as we transition from a playful tale about an eviscerated playboy to a far more macabre yarn. Fearful Archie and hapless Jughead are about to take a ride through what appears to be the Christian version of a horror-themed roller coaster.

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“The weather is zilch,” Jughead? I concede that the dense overhanging forest does make it seem like there is no weather. The color of the sky in the top panel is perfectly ambiguous and all of the green fog ribbons appear to be emanating from the forest floor. Of course, we all know who the green-robed figure looming in the distance along a forest road is. Right?

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Jughead makes a point to register his astonishment at the cloaked woman’s peculiar fashion sense, but that’s the least of our concerns with this bizarro page. For those of you without an encyclopedic knowledge of Biblical prophecy, the person they have just picked up, named Mystery, is the legendary Whore of Babylon. Archie’s blatantly irresponsible driving and panicked expression are quite understandable in this case, since he just picked up a prostitute. Not only a prostitute, but one who represents all the depravity and worldly delights that send a shiver down the spine of any Revelation-reading, rapture-anticipating fundamentalist. I think it pays to be a bit skeptical of Jughead’s fearful ranting about Mystery, though, because it’s not as though she did anything bad to them. She just invites herself into the car, which apparently doesn’t set off any alarms at first, and sits there before vanishing. Granted, vanishing into thin air fall short of conventional behavior for forest-stalking symbolic ciphers for corruption and evil, but the two strapping straight men in the front of the car appear unscathed.

The next page has the gang running into a whole crew of Scooby-Doo worthy vices, including crime, fear, and hate.

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Being licked is Jughead’s greatest fear, for reasons he would prefer to keep in the dark.

This parade of hitchhiking weirdos still seems far from threatening, with the exception of Crime. He relieves our protagonists of their summer job money and beats it. That makes me suspect that he was just an actual criminal and not a hazy symbol like the rest, since he doesn’t look at all like the other apparitions. Of course, like any morality play, this comic needs to come to a shiny conclusion where the sinners on their wayward road are rescued by the powers of heaven.

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What a delightful turn of events! Not only have Archie and Jughead gotten clear of the forest and rid of the vile vagabonds that inhabit it, they now have a triple-double-date lined up. The comic wants us to think that these ivory-skinned beauties are eminent representatives of heaven, but I’m not entirely sure. For one, if the devil actually wanted to to corrupt the character of Hot Blooded All American Boys©, a triad of alluring sirens would seem a craftier plan than throwing random vagrants into the back of their car. Perhaps I’m being too presumptuous. After all, we should see how the comic ends before rendering judgment.

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Let’s do some math. Blonde woman=love. Love=God. God=ready to touch your life this minute. I have to say, that’s too close to pagan temple prostitution for my virtuous heart. While Reggie can’t get away with trying to proposition four girls simultaneously, God has seen fit to deliver unto this doofy pair three companions. Clearly, they are the chosen ones, or else the Almighty would not favor them with His “touch.”

I hope we’re all getting a sense of the somewhat split-minded attitude this comic has toward sex and love in relationships. In a more coherent and better-constructed work, I would assume this was evidence of some kind of intelligent ambiguity on the topic. In Archie’s Love Scene, though, I think it’s more symptomatic of sheer incompetence. We’re going to skip ahead through some of the more boring segments, though one about Betty’s diary entry pining for Archie deserves some notice. The comic shows her writing in her journal about her unrequited love for the titular character, before dismissing it as mere selfishness. She has to submit to God’s will for her life, she decides, and eventually the comic concludes this way:

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God not only touches people, he fills them up too. I suppose we’re given a disclaimer that God’s love is wholesome and pure. The comic becomes more absurd and far more interestingly queer when you assume that all of the comics are in continuity with one another. Why? So we know that God’s love has previously been equated with a blonde woman with a red rose in her hair. Taking that into account, we could read Betty’s “stepping out of the darkness” and wanting to snuggle up to God’s Love a sign of her realizing she’s more into women after all, though she makes allowances for when she wants to be filled up with God Himself. Not to mention that last panel. Jughead does look slightly catatonic, leaning against Archie’s shoulder that way. But Archie is grabbing him with some vigor, and even though he’s torn himself away from Jughead’s gaze to focus on the newly liberated Betty, there is a tiny bit of homoromantic subtext going on here.

The depressing reality, of course, is that this is all Christian propaganda encouraging women to put up with stupid men because being a good Christian will make you more desirable to the “right” man. Given this bleak reality, you will understand my desire to find a subversive reading or two in there. Especially since, not one segment later, Archie is out on a Smooching Cliff in a car with yet another woman. Veronica said she was a player, but Archie sure seems to get around himself.

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One problem with more aggressively propagandistic Christian kitsch is that it often doesn’t understand what it’s trying to fight against, and ends up stomping all over its overall message in exchange for taking potshots at its favorite villains. For instance, Suzy, taken with Archie for some unknown reason, is inordinately passionate about the stars, so much so that she seems completely oblivious to his erotic advances. He, being the sensitive, insecure male that he is, makes creepy claw hands and demands that she let him plant a kiss on her. While he’s clearly turned on by all the talk about Saturn(alia) and Jupiter, he seems to take offense at her astrological interests.

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Let’s stop to appreciate the breathtaking grandeur of what the author has done here. Ostensibly, this whole comic book is supposed to be a treatise on various aspects of love. It’s meant to impart virtue, defend against vice, uphold dust-dull bourgeois family values, that whole familiar tune. Up to this point, the comic has at least respected individual agency and condemned just the sort of tryst that Archie appears to be on at the moment. After all, we had paranoid white-haired WASP father panicking just because his daughter was using a ladder to leave the house. At this point, though, we’re being asked to sympathize with Archie–because he doesn’t hold any stock in that astrology nonsense!–at the point where he is not only alone with a woman in a car at night, but attempting to force himself on someone. It’s clear that he only cares about her proclivity toward less-than-rational adherence to horoscopes only after it’s clear he’s not getting any. Ask me why this travesty of a page belongs in a paternalistic comic book teaching children the values of monogamy and letting God into your life. I dare you. Though I suppose this kind of male jerkery being excused is perfectly consistent with the patriarchal, feudalistic claptrap the rest of this comic is selling. Which is more depressing still.

That would be a good place to end, but there is one more segment that tickles my fancy, and I would be remiss, nay, I would make a mockery of my blog without bringing your attention to this gem.

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Yes, the dog wants to be a hippy. Throw off your chains, canine! Set that ignoramus in his place. Once you put him in jeans, hip sandals, and a counter-culture headband, he looks almost as human as the crudely drawn hominids around him. Of course, the creators couldn’t resist pairing him up with the “ugly girl,”  but otherwise things look up for our social-climbing dog.

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What begins as a glorious expropriation of the expropriator and a liberation from the chains of dog-hood ends in decadence and alienation. I love that the story being told here almost exactly parallels the much-ballyhooed fall of the Baby Boomers from the youth in revolt to the kind of people who, well, watch Disney cartoons, waterski, go driving in a convertible, and listen to music on their expensive stereos. It’s weirdly prescient for a comic written in the 70s. Reaganite excess–prophesied in Archie, folks.

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Alas, alack, the ruler of the household is not to be downtrodden for long. A skinny, lunkheaded dude with a stripy T-shirt can only live on dog food for so long before he gets furious. With the proper human order reestablished, our yuppy dog ponders all his unanswered questions with a pensive expression. He follows his master, but class consciousness, once won, is difficult to get rid of. Jughead’s appointment of the guillotine has only been postponed, my friends. Faith is the answer, people. A romantic notion if I ever heard one.

There is a small coda about following Jesus, but it’s nothing that hasn’t been covered in previous posts, so I’ll spare you. Suffice to say that it’s been immensely pleasurable taking apart another Spire Comics monstrosity, and hope that by staring into its black and banal abyss we will conduct ourselves better this Valentine’s Day. Whatever your relationship status, take heart! For God will touch you and fill you up if you let Him. Adieu!

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