A Rebuttal: The Politics of Archie
All comics are liberal. All comics are conservative.
Yesterday, Comic Booked ran an essay whose thesis was that Archie Comics, unlike other mainstay publishers in the direct market, was clearly pushing a liberal “agenda,” that “Archie and his Riverdale gang are attempting to sway your opinions to the left.”
I disagree, very strongly. But I don’t disagree that Archie Comics contain a liberal strain of thinking. They do, as do most comic books, though it’s not as pronounced as panic-stricken pundits would have you believe. It’s the notion of an agenda which, frankly, misunderstands human nature.
The article is correct about a few more things. Life With Archie is a series about two distinct possible futures for the teens of Riverdale. This year, in issue #16, both those timelines featured the wedding of the now-adult soldier Kevin Keller, who met his black fiance during unspecified combat maneuvers. This managed to hit several “beats” at once– gay marriage, gays in the military, and equal rights for African-Americans– which are indeed traditionally seen as “liberal issues.”
And it is true that in “Occupy Riverdale,” the class warfare stacks the somewhat less sympathetic characters into the “1%” camp: spoiled Veronica, egomaniac Reggie, and Mr. Lodge, who’s been a tough taskmaster in most Archie titles and a Machiavellian mastermind in Life With Archie. But to call them “baddies” overstates the case significantly. Veronica is one of the company’s most popular protagonists, Mr. Lodge is usually given a sympathetic point of view, and even Reggie generally sees his malicious plans fall apart so quickly that he engenders the sympathy of a Wile E. Coyote. (In Life With Archie, Reggie has fallen on such hard times that he’d no longer qualify as a 1-percenter.)
Sympathy for the underdog is hardly new to Archie, or to mainstream comics, and if it happens to line up with liberalism, that can’t be helped. Veronica has always been more thoughtless than Betty in general, and Archie has usually struggled to pay for his own auto maintenance. While superheroes like Batman and Iron Man can count money among their many “powers,” the best-known superhero brands of all time, Superman and Spider-Man, work in the classically liberal profession of journalism.
The previous essay, though, would have you believe that all DC and Marvel comics product, unlike Archie’s, is basically apolitical. Somehow, it seems to think that Marvel’s “superhero Civil War” and DC’s “President Luthor” storyline are examples in favor of this position. When the best-known supervillain in America becomes a Republican president, during the deepest period of President George W. Bush’s unpopularity, the political intent does not appear to be subtle.
Civil War did make some attempt at even-handedness by lining up heroes on both sides of a civil rights issue. But once again, sympathy for the underdog ultimately drove the story. No matter how badly Iron Man might’ve felt about imprisoning his friends, readers were more inclined to cheer for Captain America’s team, the ones actually being hunted and imprisoned. Captain America represents America, and if he takes one side of an issue, that seems to be the side his writer endorses.
By contrast, the “Occupy Riverdale” cover image shows Archie, another symbolic character, paralyzed by indecision as his friends line up on other side of the debate. This is characteristic, of course. Archie is no Captain America, no man of action. He’s been defined by indecision between Betty, Veronica, and whoever else catches his eye, indecision about careers, indecision about life. When he takes a stand, it’s also an endorsement of one side of the debate, but only because it’s so rare. That endorsement is absent here. The sympathetic underdog is struggling to find the middle position between “whatever you say, Veronica, sweetie” and “EAT THE RICH.”
It shouldn’t be surprising, really, that artistic types and their works tend to be liberal more often than they are conservative. But there is a conservative strain in traditional comic books too, oddly rooted in their corporate nature. Comic-book companies conserve characters and series. For all their variations, reboots and reinventions, Barry Allen, Steve Rogers and, yes, Archie Andrews are pretty much the same people they were when they were introduced. And their values, rooted in earlier eras, have generally traveled with them.
All of this, though, happens naturally, without any master plan by anyone. I have worked for Archie Comics, and I know Gisele Lagace, the artist on “Occupy Riverdale,” quite well. And much as I admire some of the company’s publishing moves, I can testify that imagining it to have an “agenda” of any kind is assuming a hive-mind-like organization that could not be further from the truth. I’ve seen projects that the company thought might be pivotal wither and die for trivial reasons. Just as well. Occupy wasn’t even a thing three years ago, when Archie really started to ramp up its experimentation, when this theoretical “agenda” would’ve fallen into place. There’s something to be said for rolling with the times and just seeing what you come up with at any given moment.
Even if Archie did have an agenda, though, it wouldn’t be an attempt to change your political leanings. You want to know Archie Comics’ real goal? This is an easy one. You’ll kick yourself if you haven’t thought of it first.
Archie Comics is, at its heart, a company, and a company is an amoral beast. It doesn’t like Democrats or Republicans. It likes money. It pursues eyebrow-raising plots today, some of which are political and some of which are riffs on Twilight and Jersey Shore, because doing so permits it to continue making money. Just selling comics is hardly the endgame. Archie wants a new cartoon TV series, a new social game on Facebook, a line of dolls… you know the Simpsons media empire? It wants that. Only bigger.
Its corporate, 1%-ish interests commingle freely with the 99%-ish concerns of its working-class freelance contributors. Financially, the result is the selling of middle-class American stories to middle-class Americans.
Artistically, the result is the wisdom born of conflict.
Overall, the result is America.