Thursday, September 30, 2004

Things That Sort of Suck: Testify, Archie!

Do you remember those vaguely religious Archie stories in the digests you read as a kid? The ones where Archie would meet an angelic girl who identified herself as "Gabriel," or where Betty ended the story by telling the others that we all need to learn to love and trust each other? Those stories were written and drawn by a cartoonist named Al Hartley, who became a born-again Christian in the late '60s and went to work for Archie comics around the same time -- in part, it seems, because he was no longer willing to draw violent or suggestive comics. He started working religious themes into his stories; when management asked him to cut it out, he did, but somehow got permission to license the Archie characters for an infamous series of Christian comics for the publisher Spire.

I found a link to a PDF Version of one of these comics. It's a pretty big file, so it may take awhile to load. It's a pretty spooky experience, especially because it starts out more or less like a regular Archie story and slowly, gradually, brings in all the religion until we're drowning in a sectarian sea. I never really read Christian comics before -- I have, mercifully enough, never even seen a Jack Chick tract -- and I don't know that I want to read one again. The combination of the drawing style Hartley used in his regular Archie comics (any kid could identify his work, though not his name, because of trademarks like having the characters throw tantrums with puffs of "anger smoke" around them) with that relentlessly happy religious message... well, it's not necessarily badly done, but it's certainly deeply, deeply strange and disturbing.

While I'm posting this under my usual label of "Things That Suck," this isn't really fair; I don't know enough of the Christian-comics world to be able to judge this kind of thing. Besides, it doesn't seem like a hellfire kind of thing, the sort of thing that would make me really nervous; it's more of a happy, upbeat, God-loves-us-all message. Hartley's regular Archie stories were like that; he was always putting in not messages about sin and stuff like that, but just about how we're all supposed to love each other. As a child, reading those stories and not realizing that they were supposed to be promoting Christian messages, I thought they were supposed to be hippie flower-power, universal-love messages. (A function of going to a Jewish school is that you wind up knowing more about hippies than Christians.) Since Hartley became a born-again Christian in the late '60s and started working for Archie about the same time, maybe that interpretation wasn't far off. I've always wanted to research whether the boom in born-again Christianity coincided with the rise of the flower-power movement; the two have more in common, culturally, than is now apparent.

But anyway, though I have to admit that Christian comics make me nervous, they are what they are: comics aimed at a particular audience. Nothing wrong with that, really. After all, when I was a kid I read Mendy and the Golem, and I turned out all right. Oh, wait -- no, I didn't. Well, I blame Mendy and the Golem comics for that.

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