Sunday, March 7, 2010

Archie Americana -- Best of the Fifties

Archie Americana Series: Best of the Fifties, volumes 1 and 2
© 1991/1992 Archie Comics
96 pages each
(I wouldn't normally comment on comic books, but these are part of a special collection.)

I grew up on -- indeed, learned to read with -- Archie Comics. I've been enjoying the silly stories of the gang from Riverdale since I gained the dexterity to hold a book upright. They're a family obsession spanning the generations, so no sooner did I buy this set for my dad than did he begin to pass them around. Back in the 90s, Archie Comics issued a series of anthologies showcasing their favorite comics from the 1940s, 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s. Each volume begins with a two-page article introducing the volume: volume 2 of this set's intro is particularly helpful, as it explains the birth of the American teenager in the 1950s consumer culture and Archie's place in documenting that world. Each volume contains twenty stories, and together the volumes amount to a little over 190 pages.

The central characters of the Archie universe are five American teenagers, although stories almost always involve their friends, parents, and school authorities. Archie Andrews is the star, being the object of a love triangle between his best girls Betty Cooper and Veronica Lodge, the best friend of food-loving Jughead Jones, and the favorite target of chronic prankster Reggie Mantle. The kids are perpetual eleventh-graders, forever seventeen and always getting into trouble with their parents, their teachers, or among themselves. Some of the basic stories I read as a child were around in the fifties, although it's obvious that the characters have become more fully developed  in the passing decades: Betty and Veronica  share the same basic personality at this point, the only hint of Betty's future role as a tomboy coming in a story in which she plays baseball. Many of the gang's defining traits have not yet been developed by this point, it seems.

The forty stories presented here were never intended as explicitly portraying "the fifties": the art and props just reflect the times in which they were written. Based on my experience seeing the comics change through the 90s and early 00's, they generally take a few years to catch up. Still, the comics from every generation reflect the fads and fashion of the time: just as the late 90s had the gang obsessing over Beanie-Babies and electronic pets, these comics demonstrate the popularity of Elvis, sock-hops, and (oddly)  genealogy-tracing. The general culture displayed in the books reflects the American 1950s: girls wear dresses that are both flowy and (very) form-fitting, Archie wears sweater-vests and drives a '30s jalopy,  and Mr. Lodge is a captain of manufacturing industry. (Contemporary comics have him as a commercial overlord who does a lot of Wall Street trading.) Stories about Elvis or the the conversion of Archie and Jughead to the "Beat" lifestyle are the  most explicit evidence that these comics were taken from the fifties. (Jughead will become a hippie in the 1960s.) One fifties element I looked for was Cold War paranoia and obsessive American patriotism, but the closest the stories come to that is in covering the fad of genealogy-tracing, when after deflating the egoes of several people who have gotten haughty as a result of being descended from royalty, a teacher infers that the only "coat of arms" worth wearing is the American flag.

As far as art goes, the characters look less refined than they are today. The style that predominates these two collections isn't unusual for me: I only read Archie comics in digest form, and they tend to recycle stories from across the decades. I'm thus used to wide variations in dress, in props, and in slang. The stories tend toward the goofy -- even 'cornball' -- but I'm sure fans of Archie will appreciate the volumes. I think the volumes could benefit from being bigger: while they convey a sense of the fifties, it's not  very rich. Then again, I may not notice the distinction because so many of the classical elements -- the gang living in an old-fashioned town in which the neighborhoods have sidewalks where one may walk to school or the corner malt shop -- remain in the contemporary comics.

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