everything’s archie, except not

I’m in the middle of reading a fabulous book, The Ecstasy of Influence by Jonathan Lethem. I already can’t wait to finish it so that I can write my review, but I also don’t want it to stop, so I keep putting it down and picking up magazines or Anthony Bourdain memoirs (un-put-down-able, really) every few pages. Right now Lethem’s riffing on comic books, a topic which usually bores me, because I’ve never cared about superheroes. I didn’t read comics as a kid, nor do I read them now, and I’ve only seen two or three superhero movies in the last ten years. Actually, no, I can count them. Four. The first two Spider-man reboots, and the Christian Bale Batman movies, because, well, it’s Christian Fucking Bale.

So I was sitting on the T thinking while reading, and then I remembered that I actually spent two or three years really into one comic book series (technically it’s like twelve different series, but they’re all the same): Archie. My best friend in elementary school and I were going to the pumpkin patch with her moms, and since it was a long drive to Willcox, she handed me a comic book (I’m still wondering why I hadn’t brought a book of my own–that’s so unlike me, even eight-year-old me). I was a little confused, because I had never even read the Sunday newspaper comics, but after I accustomed myself to reading panels instead of prose, I was fairly hooked.

It’s not that big of a stretch, I guess. It was about teenagers, oooh, exotic! And they did quaint, small town things like ride bicycles without getting hit by cars and went to the Chocklit Shoppe after school. Basically it was all my dreams of Americana life wrapped into convenient sitcom characters who never evolved. Comics, I’m realizing, are like television, and actually, that may be why I was drawn to them. Either that, or reading Archie so much drew me to television and movie writing as that secret thing I want to do more than public library service and literacy. But, err, I still really want to do that, and I’m not dropping out of school. K? Before Amanda handed me that Laugh Digest, or whatever it was, I wrote short stories and beginnings of novels. After that, I still wrote voraciously, but my stories became a lot more dialogue heavy. By sixth grade, I was writing skits and plays each week for drama class. In college, I was dying to focus on play or screenwriting, but neither was an option, so I settled for fiction. I’m not one for remembering or focusing on role models or specific influences (I prefer just to let things swim together in my mind), but when I really think about it, I think Archie comics might be what started to push me in that direction.

Certainly there are other reasons I like to write drama (as soon as I finish this draft of my novel, I have an old short story that’s dying to be a one-act play, and I have a pile of research half done for the screenplay idea I’ve been mulling over for a couple years). After all, I’m a talker. I have a natural gift for writing dialogue, and anytime I’m in a workshop, that’s what I get compliments on. My physical descriptions of characters and setting are non-existent, because I’d rather think and talk than look at things any day, and because I see a set very vividly in my head and see no reason to keep talking about. So it makes sense for me to write out exactly what chairs go on which part of the stage at the very beginning and then go into the talking. No random inserts of the color of the carpet or the floor plan of the building. No time, no time! Gotta chitchat.

Comic books, especially Archie, are also a great tool for teaching or learning basic criticism and literacy of media. I might have loved reading it, but I was totally aware of the formulaic natures of the plot, the blatant re-retellings of stories (I bought used ones all the time, so I could see when fashions changed but the Gift of the Magi base still stayed in tact in every Christmas issue, no matter whether it was 1972 or 1999), the fact that character changes were erased after each “the end,” and the lack of representation of anyone not white and middle class, except as tokens in special stories about tolerance, the lessons taught also erased after “the end.” Not only did I learn how to be critical, but I could also see that this was how repetitive, long lasting stories with the same cast had to go. What is “Friends” if Ross learns that it didn’t count that they were on a break? Who is Liz Lemon if she has a boyfriend for longer than a sweeps arc? Comedy that lasts week after week has to rely on repetition and identification of key traits to survive. Even new plot points, or larger narrative arcs, rely on the fact that you, the devoted, weekly audience member, will be able to anticipate how a character reacts to an event. If you’re not laughing before the laugh track does, anticipating some dramatic irony, comedy isn’t doing its job.

That’s also how I learned that I can’t be a comedy writer. First, I’m not actually very funny; I’m just good at telling ridiculous stories about myself and getting you to laugh AT me, WITH me. Second, even though my fiction tastes vary widely, I’m above all someone who is concerned with realism and character development, both in the creative sense that characters should be well realized, and in the plotting sense that a story has to begin with a character in emotional space A and end with him or her in emotional space B. So, thanks to Archie, I can enjoy immensely my “30 Rock” and “Parks and Recreation” fix each week, but I also firmly understand that I should be a writer on “Mad Men.”

Also, I am going to rededicate myself to my pursuit of a career in media, not just as a librarian who also writes. I love it all too much. That’s why I call myself a mediaphile, not a bibliophile, even though I’m certainly one of those as well. It’s nice to re-find yourself, no?

Also, it’s nice to bask in memories of childhood, like by reading Archie: A Celebration of America’s Favorite Teenagers or finding your old folder of “fashion” designs that you drew with the Betty and Veronica coloring pages as a body guideline. Also, I know I “designed” this stuff when I was 12, but there are still some outfits I totally want. As the girl on the school bus said when she saw me drawing one morning, “You got a sense of style, girl.” Except I really don’t. If only my Betty and Veronica fashion line were real!

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2 thoughts on “everything’s archie, except not

  1. Loved Archie comics, esp. anything with Betty & Veronica. Frustrated (being blonde) that Archie didn’t realize how hot Betty was, and what a snooty evil bitch Veronica was. Presaged my later love life, perhaps, when I always fell for the guy who was hung up on somebody else.

    Also liked Josie and the Pussycats. Tried to start a band like theirs with some girlfriends, and the only reason we didn’t succeed is we had neither instruments nor any musical talent whatsoever. Good times.

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