This post is part of Forever Young, How to Love Comics’ celebration of Archie’s 80th anniversary. Find out more and read other posts in this series.
Seven-year-old me was not a happy kid. I found life frustrating and confusing. I was only one of three non-white kids at my school, and I grew up in a household that prioritized speaking Mandarin instead of English at home. My dad was stay-at-home, and my mom worked. When I was meant to bring cookies to a school bake sale, the best I could do was Pillsbury Dough pre-mades wrapped in saran wrap. It was a far cry from the cookies that the other kids at school brought, freshly homemade and in fancy cookie bags and boxes. All this is to say, that I wasn’t really a “normal” kid. I didn’t even know what normal looked like.
But then I discovered Archie’s Digests in the supermarket checkout aisle and stumbled across a shining example of what “normal life” could look like. My life was about as far from the town of Riverdale as it could get— from the lack of snowy winters in Southern California to the idea of having a best friend who lived in a mansion, so I became a bit obsessed with the rosy world of Archie comics. Through reading a metric ton of Archie Comics I learned that dates are supposed to happen on Fridays and that school food is disgusting. I learned that parents, though frustrating, usually meant well. Everyone in Riverdale seemed to know everyone else, and everyone knew where to go and what to do.
I wanted a script for how to live the “right” way. Something that would teach me the rules of how to act, how to be cool, how to be a regular person. When reading Archie, I could deduce the rules of how to interact with the world. I wasn’t quite as interested as the Archie-Betty-Veronica will-they-wont-they as much as I was taken with the knowledge that teenagers go to dances on the weekend, buy new clothes each season, and drink milkshakes at a diner after school.
There were rules in Riverdale, and they were rarely broken. There’s something comfortable and comforting about those simple patterns and the millions of possible configurations of storylines (mostly funny, some faintly saccharine) that could exist within those patterns. We know that Reggie is going to be a jerk (but not that big of a jerk). We know that Jughead may abandon all for a burger from Pops, but that underneath it all, he’s still a good friend. And we know that no one is ever going to cross any serious lines. Everyone is a good person in Riverdale. Everyone knows their role in Riverdale. Everyone stays within their box in Riverdale.
Archie is full of regular people, but only of a certain kind. It’s hard to talk about Archie without also talking about whiteness, about gender roles, and class divides. We get charming vignettes featuring flower power and anti-war protests without the accompanying dread of the draft and actual war looming over the story. Colossal financial divides are reduced to a punchline when Veronica and Reggie come out on top because of their wealth or Betty and Archie get some sort of inverted type of humorous success. The few times I’ve seen an Archie comic touch on discrimination or racism, the perpetrators of bad behavior have been outsiders or people who don’t even appear in the story. This portrayal of bad behavior as only being linked to outsiders makes the conversation much more comfortable than, say, having to deal with a character in the main cast creating similar problems.
There is no poverty in Riverdale. No real sense of death or illness (at least not any of our key characters or their parents). Money problems are simple, though omnipresent—Betty may have a summer job, but she’s never really at risk of losing her home. With these miniscule problems that always have clever but simple solutions, the world of Archie is completely uncomplicated and unthreatening.
In this way, Riverside exists within a bubble of sacred timelessness, a perfect example of the rewriting of American culture post-war, when an imagined life, an imagined America was required. Something safe and understood. A desperate imagining of a life that never really existed, and if it did exist—existed for the few and at an enormous cost to others. When considering it this way, it’s a quite callous comic, dreaming up a world of small-town American perfection during the American tribulations of the sixties, seventies, and eighties.
Of course, Archie isn’t meant to be about the real world at all, and it’s also true that the problem isn’t that Archie is what it is. The issue is how the imagined world of Archie and other similar images of Americana have been used as a weapon in our own world, against anyone who doesn’t fit into the neat little boxes of Riverdale. A perfect shining image of an imperfect world can be dangerous, and this is never more apparent when, at the first whiff of progress, people call back to the “way things used to be.” They relate to a time before things “got complicated” or “so messy.” Back when people living in privilege were able to avoid thinking about complication (whether by emphasizing conformity or even just keeping “undesirables” out of their neighborhoods and simply profiting off of them).
Sure, Archie Comics may be fun, pure comics-form nostalgia, but Riverdale and images like Riverdale are still symbols that hold power in American political and historical discourse. This power dictates what paradise looks like, and it’s a power that can include and exclude. There will always be space for imagined paradise, a place where one can go and forget about life’s real troubles. I only wish Riverdale could have been a little more radical in its imagining.
A few years ago, when Kevin Keller, the first out gay character in Riverdale was introduced to the cast, Co-CEO of Archie Comics, Jon Goldwater said, “As I’ve said before, Riverdale is a safe, welcoming place that does not judge anyone. It’s an idealized version of America that will hopefully become reality someday. Kevin Keller will forever be a part of Riverdale, and he will live a happy, long life free of prejudice, hate and narrow-minded people.” This way of looking at Riverdale is an interesting one and makes sense to a certain extent. But who is Riverdale serving in its idealized version of America? And is a world safe for everyone if it only imagines certain types of people?
If not, then why are there only pretty much two black people in Riverdale? And in the main cast, where are the Latinx people, the Asian Americans, and the Middle Eastern people? And when you do include non-white, non-straight, non-gender conforming people, how do you include them? Is a space safe because nothing bad happens in it, or it a space safe because of how the bad is addressed?
In the first issue of Kevin Keller’s own series, he declares to the reader, “They don’t care that I’m gay, they like me because I’m Kevin!” On one hand, it means a lot that a gay character gets to be “All-American Kevin Keller,” that he gets his own book that follows his dating exploits the same way Archie’s books followed his. There’s even a storyline about the difficulties one of his friends has in coming out. But on the other hand, boiling down homophobia to bullies from another town or a mean lady who is in the minority is a bit of a problem. It’s not that homophobia doesn’t exist in Riverdale, it’s just that it’s something fairly easily solved with some hijinks and well-placed threats. The main cast never has to question themselves or what role they may be playing in these situations.
What is glossed over in paradise? Or, what must be glossed over? Who must be ignored to create a paradise? Who is this paradise for? What does a paradise without work or even without acknowledgment of reality mean? Yes, knowing that real Riverdale citizens would never do anything bad is comforting, but when that is compared to the fact that, in my own life, the places that look most like Riverdale— that houses citizens that most look like Archie and Betty and Veronica, are also the places where I’ve felt and been the least safe, it all gets a little more complicated.
Reading Archie Comics now (which I still do from time to time), I can’t help but admire the craft of the tradition. The world is just so gosh darn comforting. It’s fun to imagine that life’s biggest problems could be having the same hairdo as another girl at a big event or not being able to decide between asking two girls to the school dance. To know that unfair situations can always be solved over the course of a few pages. I’m always impressed with the constant invention within the familiar structure, and I do find the comics genuinely funny. However, I also wonder what America would be like without this myth of a certain type of perfection and safety. What could Riverdale look like, without this artificial, sanitized dream of a sentimental past?