The Comic Book Club: Archie Meets Obama and Palin

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This is what happens when Techland goes to the comic book store: we end up talking about what we picked up. This week, Evan Narcisse, Graeme McMillan and Douglas Wolk discuss Archie #616–the Obama/Palin milkshake special.

EVAN: I haven’t picked up an Archie comic in probably close to a decade, so my response to this one has been as much about the experience of reading it as the story it contains. I’m pretty sure that the Alex Simmons who wrote this issue is the same one who did that great BlackJack miniseries with Jamal Igle about a black soldier-of-fortune a few years back. He’s also done some DC work.

The first thing that struck me was how clean everything in the book was. By and large, the panel layouts and the flow of the dialogue balloons were easy to follow. It’s mundane, I know, but Archie’s still the gateway for a lot of young readers. The well-scrubbed vibe also extends to the artwork, too, done in that famous Archie house style. But, looking at the house ads, that style still seems to allow room for a bit of individualism.

(More on TIME.com: The Comic Book Club: “Brightest Day” and “Bring the Thunder”)

I wound up liking the book overall–and c’mon, it’s kinda hard not to like a breezy story about a high school election–but Simmons really impressed me with how savvy some of the plot beats here were. Having Archie’s indecision (arguably, the key trait of a character who’s waffled between two girlfriends for decades) be a political liability was funny and spot-on. The photo ops with Obama and Palin were essentially tween-age primers on media manipulation and celebrity infatuation. Then, you get the competitive response, the brinksmanship and the fallout. Along the way, the political discourse of Riverdale High–and, no I can’t believe I just typed that either–degrades to something resembling the yell-and-stomp stuff that we see in the news cycle. It’s a little smarter than it needs to be.

DOUGLAS: Oh man, now I get to come in and play the heavy. Here’s my take on Archie comics: they are a fantasy for children about what high school will be like. Now, I realize that a whole lot of comics that I like as a grown-ass man were originally fantasies for children of one kind or another; a lot of them still are. (I really like what I’ve seen of Bob Bolling’s ’50s-’60s Little Archie stuff, for instance, and I’m really happy to see all the John Stanley stuff that’s been reprinted in the past couple of years.)

(More on TIME.com: The Comic Book Club: “Fables” and “Thor the Mighty Avenger”)

But Archie comic books have nothing to gain from aiming mostly at an older audience: once you’ve already experienced the reality of high school, the fantasy of it is a lot less potent. I find it weird that Archie appears to be going the route of courting controversy/getting press coverage for big events basically every month (Ms. Grundy dying of cancer? What? How is that a good idea?). Adding Kevin Keller the Gay Character was theoretically a good move, but I don’t think I saw him in this issue or anything.

Most of all, I find it not just weird but off-putting that they’re trying to sell these comics to adults without putting much in them to reward someone more mature or perceptive than an average nine-year-old. (And when there’s a house ad for mail-ordering variant covers in the same issue as a two-page spread of fashions and an ad for “Archie Digital Comics” whose tag line is “READ ‘EM ON UR COMPUTER:)!” it’s pretty clear that there’s an identity crisis going on.)

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