Chuck and Nancy’s Infinite Playlist: Political correctness and the Archieverse

Posted: September 5, 2011 in Articles, Creative non-fiction
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Published February 20 2011 in The Ubyssey. Part of monthly column “Comics with Miranda Martini.”

February is Black History Month, and Black History Month always gets me thinking about Archie Comics.

You may have heard, back in September of last year, about a new character being welcomed into the fold of Riverdale High – a well-groomed transfer student named Kevin Keller, the first openly gay character in the Archie universe – as part of an aggressive campaign undertaken by the new management at Archie to transform the nostalgic comics into a hip global brand.

It is interesting the way you can track the progression of social values through Archie, which is frozen at a particular point in time and yet occasionally allows foreign contaminants from the evolving world outside to seep in through the fourth wall. Those of you who have read Archie Comics might be familiar with Chuck, a mild-mannered aspiring cartoonist, and his girlfriend Nancy, who quietly appeared in Riverdale in the early 1970s. A glaringly obvious yet virtually silent response to the civil rights movement, Chuck and Nancy were the first Black characters to appear in Archie, alongside Valerie, who appeared in the stead of an extraneous member of Josie and the Pussycats around the same time.

I read a lot of Archie when I was a kid. They were always there on the stands at the local corner store, tempting me as I bought my penny candy. I liked the small, safe, predictable world in which their adventures took place. I knew it was inane and vapid. In all my years of reading Archie Comics “funnies,” I don’t think I ever laughed out loud once, and that didn’t bother me. Escapism has its place, and for me that place was Archie, where the political, painful, morally ambiguous world I lived in changed its clothes at the door like Mr. Rogers.

Except that politics tend to stand out all the more for their absence. Archie’s desperate attempts to remain relevant and PC make it clear that it would never change if it had its way. Archie would have gone on chasing knee-high pencil skirts in a completely whitewashed world if enough readers in the ‘50s and ‘60s hadn’t started wondering where all the Black faces were. Archie has yet to introduce an Asian character, or a transgendered character, or a character of mixed race (of course Chuck and Nancy started dating each other the minute they moved into town).

It’s said that the human mind will see a human face or shape in the most primitive suggestions of animation: the swirls of the grains in wood, a flame flickering in the fireplace. We also tend to see our whole complex society in the vague caricatures of some cartoons. Of course, our reason tells us the truth: that the quaint apple-pie-and-baseball American town Riverdale represents never existed. Chuck and Kevin were already there, and they certainly didn’t sidle into the limelight without a word. However, another part of our brains sees how easy that world is, how simple, and lets it become a mirror.

Archie is a relic now, emblematic of a genre that has largely outlived its usefulness and popularity, but it still stands as an example of why it’s worth paying attention to what we read when we think our brains have checked out. Growing up mixed-race and struggling to define myself based on what I saw and read, I was told that making a problem of inequality and under-representation go away is as simple as introducing a quiet aspiring cartoonist with a flat-top. It wouldn’t be worth discussing, if mainstream comics – or TV or films – were different now, but the truth is there’s still a long way to go. This kind of lazy tokenism is still the norm, and we’re so used to it that it tends to slip under the radar.

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