Thinking Out Loud

April 3, 2017

Pushing the Envelope of Decency

Filed under: Christianity, media, parenting — paulthinkingoutloud @ 6:09 am

Archie Andrews is sleeping with Miss Grundy.

For those familiar with the original comic, this may take a moment to digest, but Netflix’s new “Riverdale” series offers a very different take on the original.

So begins a March 15 article by Ryan Moffatt which appeared in the English editions of The Epoch Times under the title “‘Riverdale’ oversteps boundaries better left alone.” The piece is half information, half editorial, and it’s only out of respect to blog ethics that I don’t reproduce it in its entirety.

The series premiered on January 26th on the CW network. One look at the trailer and you almost want to conclude that the similarity between this and the classic Archie comics is simply a coincidence. But the setting and the character names are the same. An article by Tony Wong in the Toronto Star begins:

In the town of Riverdale, Archie Andrews is brawnier than Moose Mason. Jughead is a cynic. Veronica has lost all her money. And Betty has serious mental health issues. And yes, there is a dead body.

So same characters, but as the trailer indicates, one-to-one correspondences end there. In a video interview, actor Cole Sprouse who plays Jughead describes the production as “film noir.” In another interview, the sexuality of the character is discussed:

One of the biggest speculations in anticipation of the series has to do with Jughead’s sexuality. In one of the newer Archie comics, it is revealed that Jughead is asexual – which means that he doesn’t experience sexual attraction. Fans of the comics have been wondering if that aspect of the character’s identity would carry over into Riverdale as well.

Cole tells Teen Vogue that he “did a lot of research” on asexuality as soon as he got the role, but notes that season 1 of Riverdale ultimately will not explicitly be the story of Jughead’s asexuality…

But Cole understands that representation matters – and that it means the world to young people to be able to see characters who are a reflection of themselves. With that in mind, he tells Teen Vogue that he is fighting for Jughead’s sexual identity to become highlighted in future episodes. “I hope that huge corporations like the CW recognize that this kind of representation is rare and severely important to people who resonate with it,” he says, “That demands representation. It would be a wonderful thing if that were the case.”

So why play the Archie connection in the first place? Much of the target audience wasn’t around for the original versions of Archie and Jughead. Why not:

  • Use the characters to inspire a new series, but do so covertly, with a different location and character names, never mentioning the source of the inspiration.  Or,
  • Just write an original series.

At The Verge, Megan Farokhmanesh compares the series to The Vampire Diaries.  Concluding a review of the series she writes,

Riverdale doesn’t feel like a spinoff or a brand partnership — it’s a reboot. Archie Comics has chased whatever’s popular, but it turns out teenage dramas were popular all along. They just needed to fit into 2017, not 1967.

Archie’s Christian History

Missing from all the articles however is the Christian connection between Archie and comic artist Al Hartley. Two years ago, in a Wednesday Link List we included this biography found at Lambiek Comiclopedia:

The year 1967 was a big turning point in Hartley’s life, both professional and personal. The last remaining Patsy title ceased publication and his marriage was in trouble. Hartley found answers to his problems in his newly found faith in God. Completely out of work, Hartley found employment by Archie Comics, which he himself thought of as “God’s work”. He injected a lot of his Christian faith into his early Archie work and was eventually told he had to cut back. He began a collaboration with the publisher Fleming H. Revel, who assigned him to do comics adaptations of religious stories like ‘The Cross and the Switchblade’, ‘God’s Smuggler’ and ‘The Hiding Place’. His religious output for Archie also increased with the launch of the Spire Christian Comics series. He co-created new titles as Archie’s One Way and Archie’s Love Scene. In all, he did somewhere around 60 Christian comics, including at least 19 Archie titles, 6 Bible story adaptations, 12 biographical adaptations, 4 other book or movie Adaptations, and 9 children’s Christian comics. Al Hartley was awarded the Inkpot Award at the San Diego Comic Con for his entire oeuvre in 1980. During the 1980s, he wrote and illustrated Christian children’s books and he continued to work for Archie until the mid-1990s.

Contrary to what some believe, Hartley didn’t create the series or the characters. In a Wikipedia article on Archie Comic Publishers, Inc., he’s not even mentioned. But he is associated with the series to many, and would probably not be thrilled with the latest edition of the series on The WB and Netflix.

In an article on Hartley at ChristianComicsInternational, more details are provided:

Hartley and the publishers had what they believed to be a God-given idea — To create completely original comics using the Archie characters. It was, as Hartley put it later, “a fantastic idea for evangelism,” but permission had to come from John Goldwater, president of Archie comics, who was Jewish. Hartley had already cultivated a relationship with Goldwater, enjoyed several conversations about faith with him, and found Goldwater to be “a man of deep moral and spiritual principles.” (John Goldwater was among those who created the Comics Code Authority in 1954 to help control the way sex and violence were portrayed in comics.) Hartley telephoned Goldwater “with an optimism that had to come from God,” and “within one minute” Goldwater had given his approval. Hartley always felt that it was “the Lord’s timing” that they had published The Hiding Place comic just prior to his approaching the Archie publisher, because it had “showed John a side of Christianity that few Jews have seen.”

I just can’t but help wonder how the current television series would impact kids who grew up on the Christian version of the comics. Worst case, some might tune in thinking there is a correspondence to the characters they loved.  Moffat at Epoch Times warns,

Don’t tune in if you are looking for nostalgia; this latest incarnation is sure to shatter any pastoral impressions of teenage life left by the paperback comics.

In the Teen Vogue interview Sprouse tries hard to find the upside:

Ultimately, Cole thinks that fans of the original comics will be extremely satisfied with Riverdale – despite the fact that the new series is noticeably darker than the comics.

However, there’s also this: Isn’t Archie dead? Well, yes and no. In a piece titled “Comics’ Archie dies heroically” CNN reported in July, 2014:

It was one of the most unexpected announcements of the year. In April, Archie Comics released the news that its lead character, Archie Andrews, would die in an upcoming issue of “Life With Archie.” The story won’t affect the overall Archie storylines, as “Life With Archie” takes place in an alternate timeline.

The nature of comic book Archie’s death is interesting, given this discussion, as reported in People:

The famous freckle-faced comic book icon is meeting his demise in Wednesday’s installment of Life with Archie when he intervenes in an assassination attempt on Kevin Keller, Archie Comics’ first openly gay character. Andrews’ death, which was first announced in April, will mark the conclusion of the series that focuses on grown-up renditions of Andrews and his Riverdale pals.

“The way in which Archie dies is everything that you would expect of Archie,” said Jon Goldwater, Archie Comics publisher and co-CEO. “He dies heroically. He dies selflessly. He dies in the manner that epitomizes not only the best of Riverdale but the best of all of us. It’s what Archie has come to represent over the past almost 75 years.”

Moral Concerns

I suppose this loose structure gives creators license to do as they wish with Betty, Veronica and the rest of the gang. Literally, nothing is sacred. Moffatt continues,

In the Archie world of yesteryear, Miss Grundy is an old schoolmarm and the polar opposite of adolescent desire. But in the television series she is a young, sultry librarian with a predatory eye for the 15-year-old Archie Andrews. In the alternate “Riverdale” universe, this is just par for the course of young people making very adult decisions.

This Grundy subplot has been described as a “racy” and “forbidden romance,” but there is another phrase more fitting: statutory rape. It’s a term that doesn’t sell nearly as well as “racy” but it is most apt considering the circumstances.

If the genders were reversed in this instance the reaction would be much different…

This is the fare to which a generation of impressionable adolescents is being exposed. Moffatt notes,

There should be legitimate concern when things of this nature creep into mainstream television—making it seem like a teacher having sex with a 15-year-old is par for the course of growing up. The blurred lines between reality and fantasy are getting harder to distinguish when it comes to the societal influence of our entertainment consumption.

The bottom line for the producers of the series is the bottom line. Moffatt:

When the implicit condoning of deviant behaviour makes its way into our entertainment universe, alarm bells should be ringing—and they aren’t. There is a great fascination with the  taboo, an attraction to what is forbidden, and it’s an easy sell when packaged as a teen coming-of-age drama. The entertainment industry is very aware of this and more than happy to oblige our appetites by steadily pushing the envelope of decency. Shocking is only shocking for so long, and the ante needs to be upped.

He also notes that the end results of the downward spiral of decency on television has yet to be seen:

The real issue at play here is that damaging behaviour is being presented as normal to school-age kids, who rely heavily on the digital and entertainment world for the barometers of their moral compass. Unrestrained access to the darker corners of the Internet and the false reality of the digital universe are influencing the minds of teenagers who are forming their perceptions of the world. These perceptions will influence the decisions they make and the rules they abide by as they take their place as members of society…

He concludes:

…The Archie/Miss Grundy relationship treads on some sacred ground. Archie has been a mainstay of Western culture for 80 years now, and the storyline has remained more or less unchanged in its projection of teenage life as a time of innocent misadventure and light-hearted humour.

It is a concern on many levels that this just doesn’t sell anymore.

 

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