The eternal teenager is finally ready to choose his one love. Manjula Narayan remembers why we care
THE PAST is a foreign country with its own twee customs and now-unfathomable joys. In your early adolescence, leisure meant curling up on your favourite sofa with a stack of comics from the neighbourhood circulating library. The pile included issues of Bahadur, the scourge of the dacoits of the Chambal, Mandrake who was always “gesturing hypnotically” and ridding the world of evil with the help of African prince Lothar, Phantom aka Mr Walker, who had the strange habit of lowering himself down a well when he wanted to get home, Amar Chitra Kathas that educated you on such arcane matters as the names of Arjun’s wives, and Archie, oh yes, lots and lots of Archies.
This was the 1980s when prime minister Rajiv Gandhi was conjuring up visions of India’s brilliant computerised future and you were spending hours gabbing to your best-friend-of-the-month on your black Bakelite telephone. Chayageet was the acme of entertainment, you thought nothing of changing two buses to watch Amitabh Bachchan and Dilip Kumar do their ‘thang’ in Shakti, and any distant aunt/neighbour’s uncle-in-law going to the magical US, Land of the Free, was importuned for soaps, Michael Jackson records, Thriller posters, Levi’s jeans and the 99 cent pet rocks and sea monkeys advertised on the back cover of Archie comics.
Incidentally, though each pre-24/7 television generation seems to think Archie grew up with them, ‘carrot top’ has actually been around since December 1941, when illustrator Bob Montana, writer Vic Bloom and editor John L Goldwater created the character and his accompanying universe. Archie and his friends were based on people the trio knew, and Riverdale was named after a New York area where Goldwater’s school was located.
Archie Andrews, his two love interests, cupcake-baking- and-car-fixing Betty Cooper and upper class Veronica Lodge, best buddy Jughead Jones, arch enemy Reggie Mantle and the community that populates the fictional town of Riverdale, were part of your generation’s education in the exotic mores of the US of A. And they were impossibly exotic.
While your teachers were clamping down on girls who “talked too much to boys”, the kids at Riverdale High were going on ‘dates’ — a mysterious ritual unrelated to the dry fruit your neighbours nibbled on to break Eid fast. While the ‘fast’ kids in your class advertised that they were ‘going around’ by buying each other Kwality choco bars, Archie was ‘getting fresh’ with his girlfriends in his red jalopy which, its beat-up condition notwithstanding, was an excellent make-out chariot at the neighbourhood Drive-In. People, Riverdale had a Drive-In! You only learnt of the one now-defunct open-air theatre, favourite of assorted sex fiends, in Mumbai, when you were well into your twenties. While you were wondering how to avoid spilling the ink from your fountain pen onto your school pinafore, Betty and Veronica were kitted out in ‘hep’ clothes straight out of Seventeen. And oh yes, while you were wriggling into your training bra, every girl in the strip, with the honourable exception of Big Ethel, (ah, Ethel with her long legs, flat chest, protruding teeth and undying love for misogynist Jughead probably grew up to be a supermodel) were magnificently buxom beauties who never suffered from body odour, suppurating pimples or bouts of the blackest adolescent angst.
Truly, you had emerged from Enid Blyton’s world of scones and picnics on the heath only to plunge into an equally foreign world of cheerleaders, the prom and banana splits. Like Blyton’s books, Archie comics also triggered fantasies about foods that, until a decade ago, were still exotic and therefore desirable.
“When I was 12, I used to borrow Archie comics from Kamal Circulating Library in Gamdevi, Mumbai. What I remember is the pizzas Jughead used to eat!” says filmmaker Sooni Taraporevala. “When I was growing up in the 1970s, there were no pizzas in Mumbai. It was only when I went to the US to study that I finally tasted them and became a total addict,” she laughs.
WHILE THE slim slice of Americana represented by the Archie comic was irresistible to some, a few argumentative Indians pronounced it obnoxious. “I used to read every comic (and my sisters’ Mills & Boons) but my favourite was always Tintin. Archies were really uninteresting because they were about American kids. I didn’t like the characters and I didn’t like what they represented at all,” says model and actor Milind Soman, the original Made-in-India man. Rather strangely, his dislike didn’t extend to DC and Marvel comics with their stable of all-American superheroes.
Though Archie never did push his ambitions beyond Riverdale (except in a few episodes where the gang appeared in superhero avatars), the success of the strip is largely due to the universal nature of the characters. Archie is the quintessential teenage boy with wild hormones, limbs rendered uncontrollable by growth spurts and brain befuddled by his eagerness to experience life. Betty is the sweet girl next door and Veronica is the princess and trophy wife-in-waiting. Much of the comic action centres on Archie’s inability to decide whether he wants bitchy-but-irresistible Veronica or saccharine, dependable Betty.
“Archie comics had a character that everyone could relate to. There was the stud and the loser, the nice girl and the Veronica-type. I was the Betty kind of girl and there was always the Veronica kind hanging around. I guess teenagers identified with these comics because they were about urban culture. But, as my mother used to say, it wasn’t challenging reading at all!” says actor and playwright Kalki Koechlin.
This must have been a general complaint because several titles attempted to build the vocabulary of the readership. Indeed, you first learnt the meaning of the word ‘juxtapose’ from one that featured Archie and Veronica, or was it Betty, in a close clinch. Which brings us, finally, to why Riverdale and all its quaint denizens are back in the news: The world’s only 68-year-old teenager will get married in August this year — an attempt, no doubt, to inject new life into a franchise that seems out of date in a comic book universe ruled by manga with their multiple lives and bizarre preoccupations. Combined sales for Archie titles now stand at 15.5 million, a figure that’s sure to shoot up with the ‘proposal’ issue. Will the life and loves of Archie Andrews continue to draw comic book nerds? Will the thrill of watching him opt for Betty or Veronica bring in new readers? Will Archie decide that he’s going to Tibet, not like Tintin did before him, but to join a holy order of celibates? Or will the Archie story turn out like a John Fowles tale, with multiple endings and a post-postmodern twist.
You’ll soon find out.