Aug 19, 2011

The Archie Experiment: Jughead's Diner.

Dan Parent and Bill Golliher are my heroes!
It's hard to think of Archie comics as being particularly experimental. After all, they're such incredibly formulaic comics. Believe it or not, though, Archie comics do go through some really experimental phases.

The one I'm most familiar with is the late 80s, early 90s Archie experiment. During this period there was an explosion of new, experimental, often insane titles. New aesthetics were experimented with. Character dynamics were experimented with. Some things were successful, some things weren't, but it was an exciting time to be reading Archie comics.

Don't believe me? Don't think they would have been brave enough to mess with the formula for familiar, iconic characters?

Well, my friend, during this time Jughead Jones acquired not one, not two, but three new love interests. (All of them were redheads, and one of them was actually Archie's descendant from the future in the comic Jughead's Time Police. Yeah... that's an entire other post in and of itself.)

One of my all time favourite Archie experiments, though, was Jughead's Diner. Jughead's Diner was a fantasy sci-fi comic set in a surreal 1950s diner setting, starring Jughead as basically the chosen one, meant to save the world. No... seriously.

Okay, so here's the nuts and bolts. Jughead's diner was launched in 1990 (dated April), and sold bi-monthly. It, like nearly all the other experimental titles of the time, was not successful and it only lasted 7 issues, or about a year. Maybe it was just too weird to succeed?

The scenario goes a little something like this -- Jughead is driving home when his car breaks down. Trying to contact home he stops at a broken down old diner. Sitting down on one of the seats he's magically transported to another dimension, to a place called Dinersville. In Dinersville Jughead is charged with saving one of the last independent diners from being absorbed by a huge corporation.

The result is a non-stop roller coaster of puns, weirdness, and just general surreal nonsense. After the opening sequence (which is done all in blues and greys) the comic explodes into colourful life when Jughead finds himself in Dinersville. Then he's subjected to a massive exposition dump in the form of a huge rap number by all the diner's main characters.
It seems weird now, but in the 1990s all exposition
scenes were rapped by 50s Elvis impersonators.

The cast is a grab-bag of seemingly random characters. There's a fat waitress, a toothless old dude, a lounge singer, a trio of black singers, a pair of vegetarian twins, a fat dude with a baby, and of course a little Asian kid with a propeller beanie. Oh what's that? I forgot the bingo-mad housewife? And the psychic ex-con chef? Yeah... it's a big cast.

At this point I could launch into a huge list of all the weird setups and zany jokes from the series, but... that would be a bit deceptive.

If I just describe the plot lines of the issues, well, they'll come off as the really tired obvious cliches they are. Basically, every issue "Slimy" Sal Monella, the owner of the enormous chain of Slimy Sal's Slopeterias tries to destroy the diner, or get Jughead to sell up, only to be foiled in outrageous fashion. It's the same story you've heard a million times.

On the other hand, if I just described the actual events, you'd get the wrong impression too. There's stuff like Sal trying to launch Jughead's diner into space to ruin his grand opening Bingo Bar-B-Q Jubilee. Or how about Jughead sending two of Sal's spies back to him in a giant take-out container? What about the food fight? Or Shakespeare jokes? Or Jughead kicking a flamboyant interior decorator out of his diner by telling him,  "put those pinking shears back in your pocket, pal"?

And all that just from issue 1!!

It's Slimy Sal and his wife uhhh... Zarana? Nah, couldn't be...
But... neither picture of Jughead's Diner -- as cliche, or as madcap insane, is quite accurate. This is surrealism for children. It's a kind of weirdly safe surrealism. Jughead's lost in another dimension, and this are kind of insane. But the basic fears and troubles are very familiar.

When I was reading this as a kid that was a really good thing. The grounding in familiar territory made the journey less of a strain to take. As an adult it gives the whole book a kind of strangely contrived air.

That's the only way I can think of to describe this comic to adults. Contrived surrealism.

The other thing that strikes one reading this comic as an adult is that... all the characters in it (apart from Jughead himself) are either really young children or adults, with many of them being senior citizens. It adds an extra level to the book.

Archie is so intrinsically tied into being 'about teenagers', that a book that's really not about them at all is kind of a weird surprise. All these years later the saga of Trigger Tessie, a retired vaudeville cowgirl, and her dancing cow Beulah caught me off guard. Despite being a really cliched tale (Beulah is kidnapped by Slimy Sal and Tessie and the Diner crowd have to save her), it's an oddly touching story, in a way it wouldn't be if it was about young characters.

Plus there's this:

I can't decide whether this is the greatest parody of all time, or just
the most horrifying thing I've ever seen.
And that's not even the biggest moment of brain bending weirdness in the book. See, in this issue Beulah the cow is kidnapped by Slimy Sal, and he and his pink-haired wife are trying to work out why she's special. Why is it the Jughead's Diner crowd care so much about this stupid cow? Well... then this happens...

Wha... I... what?
I... almost don't want to know.

I think that if Jughead's Diner has any claim to greatness it's this sort of thing. It's these weird little details in panels, portraits in the background, random people trapped in a pie, a roller blading Asian kid stealing a baby -- all these things that have nothing to do with the main action but which fill up the panels.

Jughead's Diner is a busy comic.

So I guess at this point I should tell you whether I actually recommend the comic. In all honesty? I can't really do it. I only own four of the seven issues (though I'm sure to correct that in the future), and while I really enjoyed them, I'm also really nostalgic for them. Reading them as an adult I'm not sure they really hold up.

If you want something weird, but weird in an accessible way? They're probably perfect for you. They're not masterpieces, but they're punny, and full of irrepressible energy that just seems to burst from the page.

--Andrew S.
(So uh... in the end maybe I did recommend them?

1 comment:

  1. What the--? I think I'll stick to this dimension, thank you! - Hyrum