On our way from the pumpkin patch in Willcox to Apple Annie’s Orchard in maybe third grade, I slid in the car after my friend (her moms were driving us around for this very Tucsonan of October adventures), and she offered me a choice: “Archie or Betty and Veronica?”
I knew of the existence of these things because of intertextuality. I’m pretty sure I had seen those comics mentioned in a book I read at some point, but I had no idea what they were, really. I had no idea if I would like them. But since boys had cooties, I chose Betty and Veronica, and that was the end. And the beginning.
(Can I sidebar for a moment to say how much I value that in my childhood, I had more than one friend with whom this – sitting silently together in the same space and just reading by ourselves – was considered a perfectly acceptable and normal friendship activity?)
Anyway. I didn’t really know what I was looking at. I wasn’t a comics kid. My mom had handed me Calvin and Hobbes once and I hadn’t been into it. I wanted to be into the “Sunday funnies” because kids in books were, but to be honest I didn’t care enough to remember to look for them when my parents got the newspaper. But this one held my attention. It could be that the occasion demanded it – I didn’t have other material – or it could be that there’s just something so fantastic about these comics in particular.
There really is. I was sucked in pretty instantly, and for a good three to five years after that, I’d say, I tortured my parents with my piles of Riverdale-based digests that I insisted on reading, rereading, and buying at every used bookstore and grocery store in sight.
Eventually they lived in two purple milk crates, stacked to the brim and overflowing, and the few actual “comics” that I had, with the larger trim sizes and vintage appeal (because they were so expensive to buy new, like the same price as a digest in the grocery store, I mostly bought used ones at the comic shop my mom took me to a couple times, which means I had 1960s and 1970s-era comics before they had been recolored and updated to replace “women’s lib” with “feminism” and the like) lived in one of those magazine files. They were my prized possessions. I could tell you just by looking at the cover which stories appeared, even though the same stories were printed multiple times, not to mention repeated in different iterations a million times more (I would love an official count on how many distinct “Gift of the Magi/Archie sells his jalopy” stories they’ve done over the years). I loved them.
And it wasn’t just that. I loved how they made me think.
I know. But really. They made me have thoughts that were formed in more or less the same way I form thoughts now, except now I have context and vocabulary and awareness, whereas when this started, it was largely unconscious, and if I did become conscious that I was having higher thoughts, I mostly thought I was a weirdo.
I try to explain this a lot, and usually I fail, but my memories of being disparaged for reading series fiction and Archie comics are the biggest pushes I got to study children’s literature in graduate school. I learned so much without even having to try, and it was the type of thinking that I found fun and intriguing and without answers – that is, it was exactly what I wasn’t getting in school, for the most part, even though by all accounts, I went to high quality schools with great, nurturing teachers, many of whom I still think about to this day. But nothing ever got me so engaged with literature and the cultural and social forces surrounding it than formulaic things like paperback series fiction and the Riverdale gang. When my parents started saying things like “Do you really need to read another Baby-sitters’ Little Sister book? Aren’t you tired of Karen? Those books are all the same,” I was responding (in my head, at least; outwardly I of course reacted with the proper 8-year-old retorts of “But I liiiike them!” or “Don’t tell me what to reeeead!”) with “Ohhh, wow, every single one of these books has exactly 20 chapters and has a preview of what the next book in the series will be. I wonder what the publisher is doing to ensure that they can make that happen?” Or in the case of Archie comics, probably something like, “This is the same story that I read in an earlier comic but they’ve changed some words and cultural cues so it’s more now; that’s interesting” or “Betty is supposed to be the poor girl, but she has a different outfit in every single comics story, so is she really that bad off?” I didn’t have the slightest idea that what I was doing was crit, nor that it was at all legitimate, and that’s probably what kept me from liking English classes or being particularly inspired to participate in them until like late in college when suddenly it became okay for literature to have social and cultural and political contexts, not just a theme statement that you can express with a subject and predicate and an Important Symbol and a Fascinating Metonym in stanzas 1 and 5.
You want a student to learn how and why to analyze literature? Ask them questions about formulas. Ask them to watch any TV show and point out who the villain is, who is keeping a secret, and who is in love with whom. Ask how they know this stuff. Because formulas. Where did they get those formulas? Series fiction, comics, and/or sitcoms. Those things that rely both on longstanding understanding of character flaws and intrinsic qualities and tics as well as on a reader/audience’s willingness to believe that this character can make a mistake and learn a lesson and then completely forget everything by next book/next week. The thing is, of course, that it’s not that series fiction, comics, and sitcoms are the only things that do this; they just do it loudly and proudly so that you can recognize it. Once you know what you’re looking at, even if you’re not totally aware that you have parsed it out, you understand so much more about Story, from High Literature to cheap crap. You also know how to do crit, even if it is years before you learn the word “problematic” (but really, what even was my life before my consciousness knew of “problematic”).
So I got really good at reading culture by reading Archie comics. I didn’t really know what to do with it, but I was aware that there were things to unpack with regards to gender, to white middle class American values, to body image. Also, I was becoming visually literate and adept, which is a great skill. I even tried drawing, in the form of sketching faces in the same style and “designing clothes” (I still have the entire folder of designs, and I would legitimately like to wear many of the things I designed when I was 12, now that I have the body for them – read more here). Then I think I got embarrassed or something and just took all of my comics to the used bookstore and never read them again. This was probably the same time I got rid of my beautiful, very old editions of Betsy-Tacy and other little kid things, because, like I said, I didn’t know that having crit thoughts about these books was a legitimate thing that I would later be awarded a fancy Master’s degree in, so I thought it best to get them far away from me and pretend I had never been interested in them.
So fast forward about ten years and I’m in grad school with zero idea of how to read a graphic novel. Like, no idea. It’s foreign. I don’t know what the bubbles mean; I can’t get myself to slow down and read the pictures; I go about thirty pages and then realize I don’t know what’s going on because I have only been reading the words. It’s a foreign world and I would swear I’ve never seen anything more longer or complex than a New Yorker cartoon before, except that as a tween I regularly spent hours reading this form, so what the hell is wrong with me?
But I learned, and I took a class specifically about visual rhetoric and literacy as it pertains to comics and graphic novels, and I got better. But also, that class was in the many ways the worst thing ever (all of us are collectively scarred from the emotional damage inflicted on us), so while it taught me that graphic novels are Fucking Amazing and Legitimate Literary Works and An Important Literacy to Be Developed, they are also tied to emotional anguish and getting bad grades even when I felt like I had scarcely ever worked so hard in my life. So after that class, I tried not to read graphic novels anymore.
However, the kids at my school do love graphic novels, and we had an entire grade come in for booktalks specifically on graphic novels, so I started reading them again. Begrudgingly. But then, as I only recently learned that I am actually entitled/required to have a paid 15-minute break every day, I started getting really into them, as the thinner volumes are things I can read in their entirety during my break, or at least I can start them during my break and finish them that evening, and that is satisfying.
Also, I didn’t know this, but comics are where all the marginalized people are. Did you know this? All of a sudden, I am discovering all of these fictional characters and all these memoirists who speak to me and who have lives I can identify with or at least recognize around me. Mariko and Jillian Tamaki write about mixed girls and draw chubby girls and let tween girls act their ages. Alison Bechdel is a fucking genius who is a master of being at once highly educated and highly accessible. Laura Lee Gulledge has a visual metaphor for fucking everything, and she tells you that you’re actually allowed to be depressed whenever you damn well want to. Princeless is what Disney pretended they did with The Princess and the Frog – namely, put a black girl into the Disney fairy tale world, not created a pseudo-real, pseudo-Disney world in which a black girl can succeed but within comfortable-for-white-people racialized and social dynamics. Julia Wertz is as angry as I was when I was 14 and at my angriest, so I guess I hate myself less now. Runaways should be a TV series.
I can’t even imagine what I was missing out on, and I also can’t figure out how I didn’t get from Betty and Veronica to there without the help of grad school and a job to force me. That is a soul searching task and a post for another time. But at any rate, I’m really glad I’m here now. I better go read some more stuff.