Aug 27, 2011

The Archie Experiment: Spire Christian Comics.

Oooo! Take that,, uhhh... unnamed girl.

So, a few posts back I told you about the late 1980s, early 1990s Archie experiment. It wasn't, however, the first. Not by a long shot. Hell, Archie's been experimenting since the 1940s. But today I want to tell you about something that's from the 1970s (And into the 1980s), Archie's experiment into Christian comics publications.

Yup, that's right, the super-secular comic company, run by a dynasty of Jewish publishers, decided to license their characters for use in Christian comics! How the hell does that happen?

So in the 1970s Archie comics artist Al Hartley began this experiment. He'd become a born-again Christian before joining Archie, and he tried to inject as much of his Christian values into his stories for Archie as possible. Sometimes it was relatively subtle. Like take this strip, which I scanned from Archie Annual Digest #64:

It's funny because Ethel is pathetic and lonely. Hah-hah!

Okay, so it's just a character play, right? But the twist at the end is that Dilton, on Christmas, is expressing a decidedly Christian idea, in a completely out-of-character way. It's subtle, but asking 'why' instead of 'how' is a call to look for spiritual answers ("why are we here?") vs. scientific answers ("how does it work?"). As I said, this is out-of-character for Dilton Doily, but it's part of Hartley's Christian message.

Other strips like this one were less subtle.

Y'know what? Dressed like that, Sabrina can ask
me anything she damn well pleases.

I don't think anyone would find Betty's declaration at the end of this strip ambiguous. It's a Christian message. In case you didn't get it she's even holding a damn bible. Hartley seemed to find Christmas stories the easiest place to generate these messages -- but it wasn't the only place. Still, I don't think his work got more blatant than Christmas stories like the following one.

Yikes. So obviously someone was going to notice this. Someone did. I've read that Hartley was asked to tone down these stories by his publisher, but only from second-hand sources so I can't say for sure if this is true. But the publisher wasn't the only one to notice. Spire, a Christian publisher, was wanting to get into comics at the time and they'd clearly noticed Hartley. They hired him to do a couple of adaptations of Christian books, and then Hartley had an idea...

Approaching his publisher, John Goldwater, Hartley asked if he could use the Archie characters in a series of Christian comics for Spire. Despite being Jewish, and holding the Archie company to strictly secular standards, Goldwater agreed and Hartley started producing a series of long-running and very successful comics specifically for the Christian market.

Can you tell these comics aren't
code approved?

I only own a handful of these comics, but since I first found out about them (I was told about them by my comic shop proprietor, then did some research on the interwebs to find out about them) I have been fascinated. The world of Archie is not a particularly Christian world. It's a teenage world -- and teenagers don't tend to be pure and wise. They're rambunctious, sexually driven, deceitful, violent, stupid and just generally ugly.

Well, at least they are in the world of Archie.

I have no idea what this could symbolise...

So what was this veteran Archie artist's Christian output like? Well, honestly, kinda hokey and kinda preachy.

I know, I know. Absolutely shocking, right?

The first few Spire Archie comics were structured exactly like real Archie comics. They had a few 5 to 6 page stories, and a few extra features, like letters pages and 'activities', and of course one-page joke strips as additional filler. These are without doubt the better of the issues. Later issues were full-length stories without the filler or additional content. They have  a lot less to say, and a lot more time to say it, unfortunately.

The characters in Hartley's Christian comics are cold shadows of their regular selves. Archie and Betty in particular become Sister Mary Sues, basically exalting the perfect Christian virtues that Hartley wants to emphasise in any given story. Characters like Reggie and Veronica don't have much to do in this world where there aren't really any antagonists -- just misguided people to preach to.

That Veronica, always... randomly talking about
other people's character traits?

At best Veronica might get to act like a bad example, but there's no ambiguity about her 'villainy' like there might be with a regular Archie comic. At worst, Veronica's a vacant, blank slate, without even the bland personality that Hartley gives to Betty.

Betty definitely seems to be Hartley's favourite character in these comics. See, Betty is portrayed as so perfect in these comics that it borders on fetishism. She's... she's Hartley's fantasy girl. A chaste, perfect, demure girl who is still incredibly hot with huge tits. Which of course leads to plenty of hilarity. Like this beach scene, which is positively creepy it's so fetishised.

I think these are the same exercises Sabrina likes to do...

The art itself leaves a lot to be desired. Hartley is not my favourite Archie artist ever, but he was generally fairly accomplished. In the Spire comics, though, his art starts to wander more and more off-model. That's not always a bad thing, putting your own artistic stamp on traditional character models can make things really dynamic and interesting. In this case, though, I think it becomes a problem. His characters become more and more vacant-eyed, almost zombified. Rather than seeming wide-eyed and hopeful (as Hartley might intend) they come off as the victims in a hypnotism act.

Vacant stares? That's what you mean right? Vacant stares
is why Jesus wants to be with us...
As well as the blank-eyed characters his poses seem more sloppy, and his backgrounds and environments less detailed than his earlier work for Archie comics. Not to say he got lazy -- more likely he got too busy, being basically Spire's only artist he had a lot of work to do. The downturn in his art on the Spire Archie comics probably comes from an increased workload.

In the three (I know, it's not many) Spire Archie comics I have probably the funniest moment comes from a Betty's Diary style segment. So I'm going to leave you with the specific panel, taken completely out of context. Enjoy.

Do I even need to say anything more?

--Andrew S.

Additional Reading:
A Great Blog About the History of Spire's Association With Archie.