Bart Beaty’s Twelve-Cent Archie resembles a grab bag of blog posts put under book covers. There are 100 capsule pieces, in no immediately obvious order, each lasting 2-4 pages and covering some aspect of Archie comics cover-dated from December 1961 through July 1969, when Archie publications sold for 12 cents. He’s read all the works the company put out in that time period, 17 different titles.
In particular, he’s focusing on the work of artists Harry Lucey (Archie), Dan DeCarlo (Betty and Veronica), and Samm Schwartz (Jughead), but he’s also trying, as he says in his introduction, “to approach this corpus from every conceivable angle and using every appropriate model.” There’s a lot of close reading, too. The intro has a number of blunt, wonderful quotes, including:
“Despite ongoing attempts to make Archie relevant for new generations of readers, the titles are widely regarded as old-fashioned, outdated, a relic of the way that the American comic-book industry used to work. …
“Arguments about the ‘mainstream’ of American comic-book publishing are all too often willfully blind, excluding children’s comics and humor comics in order to make an artificial argument about the cultural importance of superheroes and their centrality to the economics of the industry in a post-Comics Code publishing period.”
The most surprising element I found was his view of Betty, not as a third leg of a love triangle with Archie and Veronica, but as a constant, conniving interloper interrupting the long-term relationship between the other two, even sometimes as a violent stalker. The short chapter format prevents him going into this opinion in depth, unfortunately.
Beaty also highlights individual stories of particular interest (which may make the comics seem more interesting than they are, since we don’t hear about the majority of formula works), briefly profiles characters (from the main, well-known ones to Dilton, Moose, Midge, Big Ethel, Mr. Weatherbee, and even Jingles), covers various comic titles (Pep, Life With Archie) and story subjects (which include bowling, rivalry with Reggie, a hatred of modern art, Jughead’s sexuality, the cast as cavemen, and travel), analyzes the characters’ clothes (Jughead’s hat, Archie’s vest) and other art quirks, mentions related works (the daily comic strip, imitation titles), notes troubling areas (Riverdale’s whiteness, sexism and sexualization, pop culture parodies), and incorporates bits of trivia (such as the only story in the period to include a footnote).
As with many academic works, there’s a notable lack of images included. Each short piece should have had one, but they’re nowhere near that frequent, instead relegated to the few items that really need to show you what’s being talked about. As a result, many of the short chapters spend time on summarizing and describing the stories and images. They usually go on from the description to a small amount of theoretical analysis, another way in which the book reminded me of a blog — the reactions are short, sometimes surprising, but rarely get deep dives. Still, Twelve-Cent Archie is an entertaining, diverse read. (The publisher provided a digital review copy.)