By Christopher Haynes
Beaty, Bart. Twelve-Cent Archie. Rutgers University Press, 2015.
Comics scholarship has struggled to move beyond gatekeeping questions of legitimation. In its mix of fan culture and the expectations of traditional scholarship, comics studies makes visible the pathways of cultural capital that lend art its value in the contemporary academy. In her 2008 essay “Comics as Literature? Reading Graphic Narrative” published in PMLA, Hillary Chute claims that “today’s most enduring graphic narratives,” which she defines as those “serious, imaginative works that explored social and political realities by stretching the boundaries of a historically mass” medium, are ripe for academic study (Chute 456). These works are highly visible in the middlebrow art world, led by “autobiography, arguably the dominant mode of current graphic narrative” (Chute 456). While Chute’s essay launches comics into the academic literary establishment, it reinforces a set of generic privileges that too easily bait the existing expectations of its academic audience. In Twelve-Cent Archie, Bart Beaty calls this particular rhetorical strategy “cultural cherry-picking,” and he posits that it has too long plagued comics studies (Twelve 5). In its attention to the value of art objects in the field of production, Beaty’s book recalls John Guillory’s claim in Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation: literary works must be seen “as the vector of ideological notions which do not inhere in the works themselves but in the context of their institutional presentation, or more simply, in the way in which they are taught” (Guillory ix). Autobiographical comics like Art Spiegelman’s Maus and Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home intersect with the concerns of literary academics and cultural critics explicitly, and therefore are more likely to appear on syllabi. Archie Comics stories do not, despite their enormous influence on the comics world over seventy years of publishing history. In Beaty’s estimation, comics scholars cannot see the forest for the trees. As much in its form as its content, Twelve-Cent Archie reminds comics scholars to accept the challenge comics pose to the conventions under which art objects accrue and shed value in the academic marketplace and to attend their own unspoken biases.
Twelve-Cent Archie has two parts, of uneven length: first, a short polemical introduction; second, a survey through the formal and cultural history of Archie Comics books. The introduction, only a few pages long, lays out the book’s intervention in the field of comics studies and then addresses the idiosyncratic logic of the book’s organization. The book highlights just how reliant comics studies has become on an implicit logic of individual genius: “auteurism has been the key to the cultural legitimacy of comic books, and it is no surprise that scholars trained in a literary tradition that is so strongly structured around an auteurist canon would transpose that tradition onto comics” (Twelve 5). Archie Comics stories, in Beaty’s read, are “both typical and exceptional”â€”their typicality, evident in the redundancy of their narratives and the simplicity of their jokes, has been ammunition for their neglect by scholars (Twelve 6). Playing with the tension between typical and exceptional directly confronts Chute’s perceived normalization of the margins as mainstream in the study of comics art. This play is an enduring concern in Beaty’s work, showing up again in his most recent book, 2016’s The Greatest Comic Book of All Time: Symbolic Capital and the Field of American Comic Books coauthored with Benjamin Woo: “comics lacks a theory of the typical. Over and over again, comics scholars and critics have permitted atypical and exceptional works to represent comics tout court” (85). In Twelve-Cent Archie, Beaty writes that “the field of comics has simply sought to duplicate the canon-erecting tendencies of the literary hierarchy,” and that “scholars have focused nearly exclusively on those works that can be most easily reconciled within the traditions of literary greatness” (5). In both form and content, Twelve-Cent Archie pushes back against this tendency in the field.
Beaty’s conceit is that in misrepresenting the field of comics production, comics studies has suffered from blindness to its subject’s cultural lineage. The field has a “long history of misunderstanding and misrepresenting the contributions of the past, particularly when those contributions can be found in genres that are out of favor” (Twelve 6). Twelve-Cent Archie is thus positioned as a corrective agent. And its premise is simple: “this study is a reflection of [Beaty’s] reading of every single Archie Comics comic published” in the period of ninety months when the individual comics cost twelve cents, between December 1961 and July 1969 (Twelve 7). These parameters yield close to one thousand individual comic books across all seventeen titles published by Archie Comics during the period, made up of many thousands of individual stories. Because Archie Comics was not invested in any sustained continuity across or within its issues, Beaty’s book unfolds its argument over a series of roughly 100 short chapters, which read more like brief meditations than fully developed arguments. None of the chapters are particularly indebted to any other, and Beaty instructs readers that they might read them in any order. Archie Comics’ “lack of continuity, their brevity, and their independent functioning within a larger narrative system” are the factors that “suggest the very form” of his book, essentially a “scholarly version of the Archie textual digest” (Twelve 8). Twelve-Cent Archie mirrors the objects of its scrutiny, a critical gambit that garnered the book a tremendous amount of attention, and a good deal of praise. In taking the shape of the stories it studies, Beaty’s book at once interrogates the conceptual conditions of comics publishing and the conventions that have historically determined the shape and scope of the academic book.
After its polemical introduction, Twelve-Cent Archie proceeds in a fairly consistent pattern: Beaty introduces a particular formal, cultural, or historical aspect of an Archie comic and explicates it. This explication can be a few pages long, a few paragraphs, or, as in the case of the chapter “Veronica’s Mother,” two sentences. Often, these short chapters are structured around a specific page, panel, characterization, or effect. Sometimes Beaty focuses on a novel effect, like in the chapter “Self-Referential Metafictions,” or perhaps a particular artistic idiosyncrasy, as in “Dan DeCarlo’s Foreground Portraits.” Across the book, in perhaps its most direct nod to conceptual continuity, Beaty establishes the Archie Comics story-building mechanism and highlights interesting or revealing deviations from it. In this way, the book plays out the claim that the works published by Archie Comics in the period are simultaneously typical and exceptional. This tension provides Beaty with more room to move, as a critic, than he might otherwise have had given the volume of material and degree of repetition. Archie, as a character, “is actually little more than a cipherâ€”a blank space on which stories are written” (Twelve 17). Likewise, Riverdale, the setting of so many Archie Comics stories, is ambiguous, nowhere in particular: “the key to the narrative functioning of Riverdale is not the idea that it might be an actual place but rather that it could be any place” (Twelve 30). These people and places are containers for other things, jokes, pratfalls, and the idealizations of American suburban life in the post-war period alike.
The characters and tropes Beaty highlights in the Archie Comics world resist the individuation of the era of the novel in favor of more archetypical narrative modes, genres like romance and epic. The characters of Riverdale are anti-real, devoid of personality, metaphor, or meaning. They are the opposite of the frank and uncompromising autobiographical comics privileged by comics scholars as the field has developed its academic visibility. To Beaty’s credit, he has been an integral part of that development. Twelve-Cent Archie is not the book of a disruptive upstart crashing into the establishment but rather the product of an author capable of wielding considerable cultural capital envisioning one pathway forward for the field. Beaty uses his book to make a good-faith attempt at breaking out of the logic of legitimation that has handicapped comics studies, the unhealthy attachment to those “serious, imaginative works” that stretch “the boundaries of a historically mass medium,” to recall Chute’s terms. Beaty wants to show how exceptionally weird and compelling the typical can be when we actually attend it.
But there are liabilities to his approach. In so closely mirroring its structure to its subject, Twelve-Cent Archie risks eclipsing what sustained academic study into a particular set of art objects provides. Patient and consistent attention, the elaboration of thematic, narrative, and material connections based on a logical reading of evidence, and the synthetic conclusions about art and people that emerge from them are enduring and important contributions of the academic humanities to culture. While Beaty amply proves that comics have much to teach scholars about their privileges and biases, it is not unreasonable to say that scholars can and should bring to bear on comic books and graphic novels their considerable legacy of expert research, critical thinking, and creative interpretation. As I read through Twelve-Cent Archie, I could not help but be anxious about the implications of drifting too far in one direction or the other.
The main body of the book, the survey through Archie Comics of the early to late 1960s, eschews rigor for coverage. By taking so many literary, theoretical, and material approaches to so many different aspects of the expansive Archie story world, Beaty showers readers with smart and incisive ideas (there really are so many interesting ideas in this book), but provides little interpretive follow through. For example, at the end of a chapter on the short prose text pieces that conclude many issues during the period, Beaty highlights a particularly ironic advice request from a fan. A female reader writes in with a problem: her so-called best girlfriend is trying to date her boyfriend. Sound familiar? It should. This is the basic premise of the Archie Comics universe and the epitome of the relationship between Archie, Betty, and Veronica. The response from the editorial staff: find friends who will be more loyal! Beaty concludes: “here the text piece is used to contradict the entire narrative construct of the Archie universe, and the readership is told, essentially, to ignore the moral of every story that the company has ever told” (Twelve 112). Beaty’s reading of this letter is rich and provocative, but instead of the start of a discussion on irony and ambivalence in Archie books, the chapter ends and we are on to the next thing, maybe a few pages of cultural critique on “Riverdale’s Racial Problem,” or a segue to the semiotics of “Betty’s Ponytail.” Because the book’s chapters are intentionally un-ordered, and (like their subjects) not burdened by continuity, the cognitive load of synthesis is shifted almost entirely to the reader. Twelve-Cent Archie is as much a testament to Beaty’s critical endurance in reading and processing so many Archie stories as it is a provocation to the flexibility and responsiveness of its readers’ critical thinking.
Twelve-Cent Archie calls attention to the challenge comic books and graphic novels pose to the canons of legitimacy in the academic world. But what ultimately stands out about the book is its consistent attention to what Archie Comics stories have meant to those who read them, Beaty himself included. In a late chapter, Beaty writes that his “most fascinating Archie comic,” is his copy of Pep 216 (published in April 1968), damaged almost beyond readability. A previous owner, one Yasmin Ibrahim, has clipped a coupon from an advertisement page, recreated the coupon herself on a separate sheet of paper, and taped the replacement into the empty cut-out space in her comic book. To reconstitute her now incomplete comic book, Yasmin redrew the missing portions of the panels that appeared on the back side of the coupon, recreating the bottom portion of a splash and two partial panels. Yasmin’s care and attention to the integrity of her Pep comic powerfully challenges the way critics stigmatize some art objects and privilege others as being worthy of care and endurance. As Beaty notes, “children do not mend toys that they do not care about” (Twelve 189). The story of Pep 216, of the cherished object repaired by a conscientious child, drives home the overall effect of Beaty’s book: the scholarship of comics is always embroiled in the powerful pathways of memory, nostalgia, and desire inscribed in the pages of these mass produced and continuously deteriorating objects. While Beaty closes Twelve-Cent Archie with a chapter which (endearingly) tells his own story of “Archie and Me,” from childhood experiences with his own tattered comics to his son reading the newly collected archival material for his book, it is Yasmin’s story that sticks. The ghostly presence of the child’s hand, lovingly recreating the art that means so much to her, models an attention to the material, personal, and narrative intersections housed in the objects we study. Comics scholars have much to learn from Yasmin (and from Beaty, too). We must allow our selves into the tenor and rigor of our criticism.
Beaty, Bart. Comics versus Art. Toronto University Press, 2012.
—. Twelve-Cent Archie. Rutgers University Press, 2015.
Beaty, Bart and Benjamin Woo. The Greatest Comic Book of All Time: Symbolic Capital and the Field of American Comic Books. Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.
Chute, Hillary. “Comics as Literature? Reading Graphic Narrative.” PMLA vol. 123, no. 2, 2008, pp. 452-465.
Guillory, John. Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation. University of Chicago Press, 1995.