This month, Archie Comics co-CEO Nancy Silberkliet’s collection of Archie memorabilia will be in the hands of the children’s section at the main branch of the Charleston County Public Library at 68 Calhoun St. The collection will be there through Jan. 1.
I began reading Archie comics with my sister as soon as we were able to read on our own. Our mother had grown up reading them with her sisters at her parents’ lake house, and so she passed on the tradition, buying us each an Archie Digest at the start of every lake weekend. We ended up with quite a collection.
If you aren’t familiar with the series, here’s a quick primer: Archie Comics is like the Saved by the Bell of the comic book world. It chronicles the adventures of Archie, Betty, Veronica, Reggie, and Jughead, five typical high school friends who live in a town where everything revolves around them.
The main premise, however, is that Archie, Betty, and Veronica are in a hopeless — and endless — love triangle. Archie made his debut in 1942, and to this day he has not been forced to decide between Betty Cooper, the lovable girl next door, and Veronica Lodge, the beautiful but haughty heiress. This is what drives most of the stories in the series: Archie saves up his money to take Veronica on a date, but when his jalopy breaks down, she leaves him for Reggie, Archie’s snobby nemesis. Then Archie is reminded to appreciate the simple things in life, settling for a date watching TV with Betty while she bakes him chocolate chip cookies.
Recently, my grandmother sold the lake house. On my last visit there, I spent the whole weekend reading Archie comic books and took another stack home with me. Maybe I was connecting with a part of my childhood. Maybe I was mourning the loss of a place I love.
Either way, I enjoyed how dated and silly the stories were. I enjoyed passively reading them as a feminist — they’re funny in the same way those old ads promoting the freedom a corset can bring are funny.
Although Archie began as a series for boys and girls, it soon became known as a “girly” comic book option and by the 1950s, Betty and Veronica had their own monthly title. You can still pick up a Betty and Veronica Double Digest in the checkout line at the grocery store. You can depend on a Betty and Veronica digest for stories about school dances, fashion, and shopping, plus some truly innovative swimwear — everything from an angular, Cleopatra-styled suit to high necks and tiger stripes.
These were the titles my sister and I favored when we were kids. Is it strange that a comic read primarily by girls limits its female characters by their desire to compete with each other for male attention? Not really — after all, a lot of media for girls continues to show females in these sorts of roles. What’s stranger to me is how little the girl-on-girl sabotage stuck out to me as a child. It fit right in with other “girl media” like the Sweet Valley High book series, or most princess movies. Even though the comic ran strips that dated back to the 1940s, the characterization of the female protagonists seemed normal. Why wouldn’t I like Betty and Veronica? They were beautiful, and they had such interesting swimsuits.
I like to keep up with Archie comics the way I like to stay Facebook friends with people I don’t like — to watch them evolve. I like when their new self contradicts their old self. I like that it is all documented. In the same way, it’s interesting to watch as the Archie series tries to adapt and remain relevant. Betty and Veronica can’t reconcile their friendship and move forward as women who want each other to grow and succeed, because to do that, the series would have to abandon most of what we know of the two characters. As the writers of Archie struggle to drag the gang into the 21st century, they have begun producing new stories with possible future scenarios for Archie and friends.
In the story that’s made a splash on the internet (if you and I wade in the same internet puddles) we even learn how Archie dies — by taking a bullet for his gay best friend, army veteran, and newly elected senator Kevin Keller. I know it is a hokey series, but I still find myself looking out for the new covers in the check out line. I’m always interested to see how the series picks up its baggage and continue to carry on.