Why I Read Comics

I despise origin stories.

The beginning is the worst best time in a comic – either the material lives up to its promise, and offers something interesting and lively, or the collaboration between words and art wastes trees with hackneyed prose and sloppy pencils, and you feel cheated out of four bucks. Here’s hoping I don’t leave you feeling played.

I read comics because I did not easily make friends in elementary school. I was not shy or awkward. I knew the answers. To everything. Every question in arithmetic or social studies posed by our teachers left my hand raised amid a sea of the darker nation’s bright shining apathy, children who despised both their ignorance and my knowledge. (Maybe they were just being young.) No matter – I wanted friends. Badly. I did not make them, so my mother introduced me to a world where friends were plentiful and perpetual. She purchased my first Archie comic.

Archie, in my memory, is only painted in primary colors. I do not know the technical term for the coloring process used for those old 1980’s comics, but I recollect everything in Archie as saturated with tri-colored dots, in the billions. The sun always shines in Riverdale, and Archie Andrews’ antics never require discipline or any serious reprimand. He’s not the best student, or the best athlete,  but two women (at least, there’s probably more now) fall senselessly and hilariously in love with him. His best friend is an irrepressible slacker, perpetually hungry, without a drug problem. Even the principal and teachers in his high school only want him to succeed in life: actually, they have no other purpose whatsoever. Archie’s only real antagonist would rather embarrass him at a party with a flying cream pie than harm him in any serious way.

Yes, Archie was and is escapist media. But it kept me functional, because I aspired to Archie Andrews’ example. Archie was loved because Archie is good. Just good, without pretense or ulterior motive or self-interest to degrade the Golden Rule moralism that dripped from the pages. Archie was suburban friendly, so he had friends. He was pleasant, so girls liked him. He wasn’t standoffish, and never made fun of others, so he could count on the town genius and the town muscle to assist whenever he needed. Everyone loved Archie and enjoyed his company, and as a child I thought emulating Archie as a role model would help alleviate the stress of being young. Middle school unearthed errors in my hypothesis.

Obviously Archie posits a world largely drained of human difference. Archie is Eisenhower-era nostalgia in comic form, where even the character names scream prep school privilege, and a cast of young White teenagers discover nothing about themselves more cerebral than a root beer float at Pop’s. The comic’s one attempt at racial diversity in my youth was a brother named Chuck Clayton, who was essentially Archie himself with a palette swap and more common sense.

Even in his dreams, others take center stage.
Even in his dreams, others take center stage.

Chuck wore the varsity jacket modestly; a throwback to an earlier era where the Black athlete honed his skills amid close-knit two-parent families where earnestness and discipline garnered respect. Or he would have, if I’d ever read a story that reflected on Chuck’s parents. Like many Twentieth Century Black male comic characters, Chuck Clayton reflected not the melanin in my skin, but rather a lighter caramel designed to avoid fouling a shiny, happy neighborhood. I hated Chuck Clayton. He couldn’t engage the slapstick humor of a Jughead, or emulate the irrational rivalry of a Reggie. He emerged fully grown in the comic like someone studied Bryant Gumbel and cloned a teenager from his stem cells. His love interest was a beautiful mild-mannered cappuccino sister whose name always escapes because it was never important. Further, the regular characters always appeared in stories with Chuck and his girl where hanging out with Chuck and his girl was the entire point of the story – never could Archie and the gang solve a haunted house mystery with Chuck as an equal partner.

I could identify with Chuck Clayton; of course I hated him. This escapist fantasy proved a worthwhile aspiration so long as I could separate the constructed unreality of Riverdale from Black suburbia’s Reaganomic truth. I understood that I could never be Archie Andrews. I am not White. To assume that nothing bad can ever happen to me can prove a fatal mistake. But beyond the perfect syntax, beyond the complete absence of ghetto sensibilities or total lack of hip hop influence, beyond the academic prowess and conservative hairstyle, I was Chuck Clayton because I was both Black and alone, adrift in a community that never accepted my presence, where I’m politely received but never welcome.  I read comics because I exist in a world that only makes sense on paper, with tri-colored dots.