Criticism. Essay. Fiction. Science. Weather.
1As the maps to our official past, monuments and memorials literally set our history in stone. 2Civil War Re-enactments and the Bradley Fighting Vehicles that Love Them. 3One whatever's perspective on
American/Iranian relations 4Tin soldiers and Nixon's coming - Or -
Delaware is the geographical center of Ohio 5This is not about Terri Schiavo.
We promise. 6Stick it to the Gideons. 7California increases its prison population six-fold and strikes a blow for the union man. 8It's not you; it's me... 9What's the Christian Coalition going to do with this one? 10Corporate nonprofit? Isn't that an oxymoron? Jed Emerson doesn't think so. And neither should you. 11You heard it here first:
Michael Jackson, not guilty! 12What's good for GM is good for GM. 13The Quaterly Review continues...
...with 2 Essays from the archives. 14What's that smell?
Saying no to the post-expiration date Nation-State. 15An antidote to the All-Star Break: Life before
the homerun call was on steroids. 16An antidote to the All Star Break: Life before
the homerun call was on steroids (cont.). 17Riding the city at night with a radio. 18Why shampoo really is the key to global economic development. 19Goat meat and digital watches: how to lay down the law without writing down the rules 20The control button is right down there. Next to the Z button. 21Clear Channels and
Herfindahl-Hirschman Indices 22Le Corbusier, meet Dr. Livingstone: using blank spots on the map to plan urban development. 23Sunk before it started raining: how the Army Corps of Engineers dammed Louisiana. 24The Carceral Continuum: I got my diploma from a school called Rikers, knowhatimsayin? 25Hey Betty and Veronica, let's find out
who wrote the Book of Love. 26The quarterly reviews go marching two by two, hurrah! hurrah! 27It's a mosque; it's a church; it's ... a museum! 28We're back for seconds, and it's not even Thanksgiving yet. 29The only thing standing between you and free Internet is the Titanic. 30Capitalism: the worst economic system,
except all the others. 31All the cool kids are doing it... 32In America you get food to eat; won't have to run through the jungle and scuff up your feet. 33Q-Tip never wanted Tommy Hilfiger
to be his friend. 34I am what I am not, even if it's only because
that's what people think I am. 35From Good ... to Great! 36Daylight makes these cities shrink. 37¡AGUANTALA! 38A chicken in every pot and
a deed to every garage. 39Celebrate the seasons with the Quarterly Review! 40The jig is up, Mr. Nobel. 41Will the circle be unbroken?
By and by, Lord, by and by. 42There's nothing to figure out, General Turgidson. This man is obviously a psychotic. 43It's the Buddhists and the Communists
in a fight to the death. 44Yes, this Essay is about
Punky Brewster. 45This article isn't just about being a bad friend. 46Something has gone wrong with the bathmat. 47It's more of a suspended state of poverty. 48Politics has always been complicated, I guess. 49The Cuyahoga Daily Mirror, this ain't. 50If Air America couldn't do it
maybe Al Jazeera can. 51Bzz, Bzz. Who's there? A culture of transparency. 52RVs (but no propane) in the R.V. 53Adding ads ad nauseum. 54Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes it rains: Peru's election goes to a runoff. 55The first kind is unpleasant and ill paid;
the second is pleasant and highly paid. 56Prison continues, on those who are entrusted to it, a work begun elsewhere... 57If versimilitude can be lost, then it must exist. But how can it exist in a world of irreconcilable inconsistencies? 58Certain young, beautiful, economically powerful women please take note. 59Bugs. On drugs. 60Progress. Genuine progress. 61Electricity and music. 62Garcia in; Chavez out. 63I thought globalization was
something we did to them. 64Twenty-three days, 189 bicyles.
Could there be anything better? 65The First Quarterly Review:
Taste it again for the first time. 66An undersized, ill-dribbling twenty-something
feeling jealous. 67Wal*Mart goes organic. Right. 68Stop us before we pollute again. 69Yes, they actually measure that. 70Even the Amish guys are cheating?
Not so fast... 71What Jeffrey Sachs would proclaim if he spent all day sitting on his tuchus. 72Blueberry or coconut infusion? That'll be extra. 73Point being: ride your bike. 74If it's still broke, don't fix it. 75If Judd and Sam can do it,
so can I. 76Grandma Kenya's new cell phone
package totally rules! 77Two bracelets and two necklaces?
That'll be $20 and your manhood. 78What Jeffrey Sachs would proclaim if he spent all day sitting on his tuchus. 79The elusive fall season... 80Kenneth Pollack gets no respect. 81900 is the new 300. 82That's affirmative. Or, at least, it ought to be. 83Where's the outrage? 84Saddam Husseing - not a good person. 85Headaches call for leeches on the temples. 86Less than nine months behind schedule
and OK by me. 87We may not know all the words,
but we know when it's done wrong. 88Nephrons. And Frank Ghery.
You make the call. 89All these activist legislatures are enough to make you miss Samuel Alito. 90See it again, for the 90th time. 91A Seventh Quarter Two-fer. 92The man they called Body Love. 93Five years old is far too old for a federal law. 94Being Very Professional 95Not a single loaf has left the building
for over a decade. 96An Absentee article. 97You're less than nothing.
You're dirt. 98Get down to the basics.
The basic basics. 99You can almost understand
why Britney shaved her head. 100April's coming.
Here's what's in store. 101The coolest thing ever. I think. 102Not only are we going to grow mangoes, but we'll sell them, too. 103Famous for being famous. Just like Paris Hilton, but less trashy. 104Fourth Quarterly Reviews bring spring
showers and 90ways anniversaries. 105There's a new bunny in town. Just in time for Easter.
106Dream small. 107If Hillside won, then I was Truckzilla. 108Disco boys on bicycles.
Archie and the Gang: A Politics of Desire
When I was younger than I am now, which was, now that I think of it, pretty young -- I didn't yet own a record player or know who Charles Lloyd was, and I hadn't yet understood a word of Derrida although I did already understand that it was important to have him on my bookshelf, and, come to think of it, I'd only had sex with one other person, which, given my age, was pretty humiliating but also probably fairly intelligent, and I'd only spent a total of fifteen months or so in Spain, and the list goes on -- and working on, or toward, my master of fine arts in creative writing, a piece of terminology that still gives me fits, and despite the fact that I was most definitely spending the majority of my time working on fictions which would, I hoped, fall outside of the critical jurisdiction of my peers, within whose critical jurisdiction I was supposed to be creating fictions during those two years, and even of my professors, most of whom I dismissed as less astute than I was, I pictured myself, when I finally was all grown up, fornicating a woman who would be much younger than I was, however old I happened to be in the picture, and also attractive in most of the most cliché and recognizable ways; or, now that I think about it more carefully, the young woman I really pictured myself fornicating was precisely the young woman who was always unavailable to me not because of the person I had grown up being but rather because of the person I had grown up not being. I spent the second half of my development to young adulthood -- qualifying young adulthood as the age at which you, if you are one of these people, head for the university -- in a Midwestern suburb outside of the in group, not so much a person who was not in as, more purely, an outsider, a person who placed himself in such a fashion such that he could not be classified either way. All the same, the people who constituted that quality -- popularity -- were the people I hated and, therefore, according to what somebody like Renee Girard might suggest, also the people I most wanted to be. Go figure.
I read of this notion last spring in Girard's Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, and though my regular summer trip to Spain interrupted me halfway through the book, and although, perhaps because of other textual obligations, I have not, since my return from Spain, returned to Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, I have been turning over in my head, cogitating on (and here it is probably worth nothing that, Latin, the word consciousness in our language comes down to us through a line that passes through, or out of, the notion of or language for cogitate) this question of whether the person we hate is the person we want to be. It seems that, therefore, there are two possibilities: first, that we hate the person who already is the person we most want to be precisely because if this person is the person we most want to be, if these qualities, or this particular conjunction of qualities, more likely, is the conjunction of qualities we most want to possess then, by contrast, these are also the qualities we are most afraid of not possessing -- here positing fear as the other side of desire, an opposite but (or therefore) identical quality -- and so, to guard ourselves, in a pathological or neurotic fashion, we strike out against them, hate them, a purely defensive posture; or, this the second possibility, that if the person we hate is the person we declare most openly we do not want to be, we fear that this person, or any other person, may come to believe that the reason we declare with such passion that we do not want to be this person is because we fear, pathologically or neurotically, that we do not have the capability to be him, or simply because we do not have the capability to be him we declare openly that we hate him and thusly or therefore would never want to be him, and therefore, given all of this, we do want to be him in order to prove the validity of our hatred, of our desire not to be him, in order to provide indubitable evidence that if indeed we hate him and do not want to be him it is not because we do not have the ability or capability to be him. Which, then, we can only prove by being him, or at least being him in certain respects. So, analyzing the situation further, I can only conclude that the young woman I pictured myself fornicating would have to be the young woman the person I hate would fornicate, because by fornicating her I would prove that my disdain for his sexual desires or practices was not founded on my inability to match them. So, no doubt, the young woman I pictured myself fornicating was the kind of young woman one fornicates for all the wrong reasons. Superficially attractive. Probably from a powerful economic background. The kind of woman who would generally or by general rule belong to the kind of man I would hate, or already did hate, and had always hated.
I met that woman shortly after I moved to Los Angeles, an event which occurred shortly after I finished work on or toward my master of fine arts in creative writing, a terminology that continues to, in starts, give me fits, and even less shortly after a trip to Spain, plus a short interlude in Paris during which I ate pigeon on my birthday, which all told lasted almost four months; and for the year and then some that I spent fornicating her she dominated me, she reduced me to a shell of a man, and all of this unintentionally, despite the fact that she was young and unprepared to reduce a man -- an older man, no less -- to a shell, and all of this precisely because I was more afraid of not being able to possess -- what other word can I use, here -- such a woman than I was desirous of possessing her. In reality, I was terrified: If I failed to possess her, then I would have proven to myself if no one else that I was incapable of possessing her, and if I was incapable of possessing her then I would not be able to prove that I did not want to possess a young woman for the aforementioned reasons -- or perhaps to possess a woman at all -- because I really didn't want to, and not because I couldn't. For example, not because I was not man enough, or not good looking enough, or not economically powerful enough. Or perhaps there was another reason for the torment that I suffered at the unintending hands of that particular young woman and all of the other young women who proved, or would have proved if I had, that I could: perhaps -- and perhaps this is more likely -- I was beset or set upon by guilt for being or becoming the person I hated, and so perhaps, subconsciously, or even unconsciously, I desired or even needed to punish myself, because I was beset by guilt: I was guilty; and I punished myself by causing myself to suffer intense psychic anxiety in relation to the relationship in question. Whatever the case may have been with this particular young blonde aspiring actress from rich parents in Los Angeles or any other young attractive and economically powerful woman, I eventually found her boring, or it boring, the whole thing boring, or, more likely, myself and my suffering boring in relation to her and all of it, and one day she disappeared before my eyes. It was as though I had never known her in the first place, but I have persisted in Los Angeles, this strange diaspora of place, into my old age -- or what, comparatively, constitutes an old age -- punctuating my placelessness here with yearly trips to Spain, a place that for me has become the place, and perhaps the only place. None of this has anything to do with anything, or perhaps it has everything to do with it. In any event, in addition to picturing myself in this state of fornication, I also pictured myself, when I grew up and became both avant-garde and bourgeois, working both sides of the fence. Perhaps I was thinking of T.S. Eliot, who once said, or wrote, or it is written that he once said: "The poetic critic is criticizing poetry in order to create poetry," and, also: "It is ... fatuous to assume that there are ages of criticism and ages of creativeness, as if by plunging ourselves into intellectual darkness we were in better hope of finding spiritual light. The two directions of sensibility are complementary; and as sensibility is rare, unpopular, and desirable, it is to be expected that the critic and the creative artist should frequently be the same person." Which is to say that, at that age, I was discovering in myself the desire to be not simply the creative artist but the critic, as well. Perhaps this desire was born, simply, out of another desire: a desire for those who were on the other side of the fence, on the academic side of the English department of a university that will here remain nameless because it seems to me that it would be tedious and unrewarding to name it, to not be able to dismiss me, simply because I was on the creative writing side of that fence -- and even now, that little piece of terminology oppresses me -- as less intelligent or intellectual or even less academic than they were. I cannot properly say that I hated them, at this time, nor can I properly say that I wanted to be them, but I can say that I did not want them to be able to dismiss me, because I had aligned myself with creativity, as someone who had done so because of an inability to line up on the other side. I was smart enough. My favorite class in college was called "The Post-Structuralist Turn," taught by a disciple of Richard Rorty, the famous nice-guy neo-pragmatist philosopher, who was himself not very nice but awfully great in just about every other way. And my second favorite class was called "Aesthetics and Social Change," taught by a Spanish-born and English boarding school-educated Jew whose first name I will reveal here to have been Jacques, but whose last name was not Derrida. That is to say, I was not on the mushy side of the creative side of creative writing, to say nothing of the fact that more recently I have been wondering whether it would not, in fact, be possible to conduct an analysis of the creation, as it were, of narrative, built around the notion or assumption that the "creation" of narrative (now I must put the word in doubt or play) is in fact not a process of creation so much as it is a process of reduction. At the time to which I am here referring, when I was younger than I am now and in a different place doing work within the construct of a creative writing -- the terminology makes my skin hurt, even still -- department, I had no such notion, but I did have a notion that if I were going to choose creative writing, as it were, it needed, for the integrity of the work I did underneath the umbrella of that objectionable terminology, to be absolutely clear that I had not chosen it, or begun to do it and done it, for an inability to have chosen and done or begun to done the other, not the creative but, to use T.S. Eliot's term (and mine, as well), the critical. At the time, in letters to prospective literary agents far away in New York, I posited that my self-deprecating young Jewish man attitude, coupled with my mastery of the complete genre -- the creative and critical sides -- would position me as something of a combination of Woody Allen and Susan Sontag, who famously and successfully worked both sides of the coin, although I have to admit that I've never read any of her novels, nor even any of the short stories a book of which has languished amongst a lot of other books that I have read -- and, I admit, a few others that I haven't -- for years.
It worked! I signed with Henry Dunow Agency at twenty-four and, that very evening, came down with a fever which was diagnosed at an AIDS clinic on Third Avenue as the result not of AIDS but of strep throat.
Or perhaps, by aligning myself as much with the critical side of the coin as with the creative side, I hoped to do all I had been really hoping to do from the beginning, which was to place the work that I was doing with the intent of its being judged, to some extent, outside of the jurisdiction of those who were supposed to or expected to judge it: my peers and professors in the creative writing department, a department the name of which continues to drag me down and wear me out. Perhaps, since then, constructing novels thousands of manuscript pages in length, I've been doing simply the same thing, the difference being that now those who are expected to and supposed to judge my work are the agents and editors and publishers, those responsible for the economic chain by way of which a piece of creative work must pass to publication: evading the very possibility of their judgment by writing unpublishable books, books that cannot be assessed for publication according to somebody's notion of quality because they are a priori unpublishable, too long for anybody to really read, too expensive to even consider printing as a first novel. I've thought a little about this, and it may be the case, but if it is, I don't feel regretful about it. Author, authority, power, precedent. Is not that which is new, and therefore meaningful, and therefore valid, and therefore genuine, always also that which falls outside of or outside of a relation to the terms that already exist for the existence of such a thing as it is? Or: to be an author, do we not always have to avoid or, more likely, evade the authority, that which has the ability, which is always transgressive and invalid, to judge or assess?
I would say yes.
I would, therefore, and do, apologize for nothing. I have written books born out of themselves or nothing, which -- Heidegger says -- is finally the same thing, books that have filled the void of their own absence of presence, or absence of absence, and, I hope, I will continue to do so, and if part of doing so means, specifically, reacting to avoid or evade that which professes the right or has the ability to judge what has been created or has created itself, then so be it.
And I would say guilt, yes.
I would say that I have hated myself for doubting myself, perhaps. That would be one way of thinking of it.
But I would also say, to my credit, that I have had sex with some very good-looking women. Some. A few of them.
And, strangely enough, they've excited me, as a general rule, much less than the less formulaically attractive women I've had sex with. So...
I'm not even going to follow this thread. I'll save it for my diary. But I don't have a diary.
Or them. Which I have. Okay. No. Forget it.
All of this context by way of contextualizing what I would like to here profess, which is that at the time to which I have here referred, when I was younger than I am now and working on or doing work toward a master of fine arts in creative writing, a terminology which then as now oppressed me, I envisioned myself bursting onto the scene from two directions at once, from both sides of the fence. I'd written plenty of what could constitute my first book of fiction, or fictions, but as far as the other kind of book went, I was still suspended, a bird of prey circling, a fox having sighted, waiting to strike, and my prey, I suppose, to spool out the metaphor, was to be, as I envisioned it at the time, a book called A Narratology of Archie Comic Books, at title which, I now see with clarity, was only half finished, as it is clearly that which would have come after the colon and, therefore, something, rather than nothing, would have had to have come before the colon -- I'm thinking some postmodern-ish tripe, Nothing is True, perhaps. Nothing is True: A Narratology of Archie Comic Books. It would have been sexy. I didn't even know what the word narratology meant, but I suppose that was part of the point. I still don't know what the word narratology means, for that matter: it falls somewhere near symbology on the continuum of words that I can use with great pleasure and, I think, effectiveness, but define with no precision whatsoever. It would have been sexy, and I could picture the book in bookstores, hardback with a dustjacket decorated with colorful images of panels from actual Archie comic books, and I even imagined that I might convince Archie Comics, Incorporated, to offer me some sort of grant money or sponsorship, knowing now as I did then that Archie Comics, Incorporated is a wealthier company than one might imagine: although not so many people buy the actual Archie comics these days, it's important to remember that the corporation owns the rights to such recent pop culture triumphs, by way of film and television, as Sabrina the Teenage Witch and Josie and the Pussycats. What would be good for the goose would also be good for the gander. The book would propel me to credibility. Somebody somewhere relevant would write about this strange and unexpected book of theory taking Archie comics -- the last text anyone would think of as deserving of critical inquiry -- as its axis, and therein the credibility; and at the same time help drum up a sort of nostalgic and ironic interest in the actual Archie comic books, which would pull the corporation back from the margins of itself, or in any event help to do so. In part, I suppose, my desire to write a book of criticism or critical theory about Archie comic books came from the same place, in relation to that pursuit, that my desire to write criticism or critical theory at all came in relation to my place, within an institution, as a creative artist, one dedicated not to the criticism of but the creation of the texts which would in turn, or could in theory, be inquired into by the critics, or in relation to my existence in the age, as Eliot might say, of creativity; that is to say, by conducting my critical inquiry into a set of texts which properly fell outside of the domain of literary critical theory -- Archie comic books, not even taken seriously as comics by comic lovers and junkies and theorists -- I would, as well, set the work that I did in that respect fairly outside of the jurisdiction of those who might otherwise be in a position to judge it: the real literary critics and critical theorists. Spineless, perhaps, one might again suggest, but then again isn't this the way everything on the humanities side -- the only side I know -- of the academy works? A doctoral candidate, searching for a subject for his dissertation, needs to find a niche that has not been occupied before, that overlooked or unresearched question, the unexpounded angle. And why? Precisely to ensure that he makes an argument to which no counterarguments exist already; precisely so that he falls outside of the jurisdiction of the very authorities -- the authorities in or of the discourse he is on the brink of entering, or writing in order to enter -- who will or in any event are expected to pass their judgment on his work. A friend of mine, for instance -- my best friend, for that matter, although that is a fact that will be of no relevance to any reader other than me, or, perhaps, him -- has begun work on his dissertation in the area of history of the American west, and is now in Oklahoma researching the black slave-owning practices of certain Indian groups that at the time of slaves occupied what is now that area of the country, and owned slaves. What is most important about this work is that no work has been done on it already. Information exists, primary documents and through-the-generations testimonies, but no books have been written about this very particular practice amongst this very particular group in this very particular place, no theses advanced. Therefore, who will be in a position, really, to judge whatever thesis he chooses to advance? This is how one enters the discourse; by way of this research and whatever writing he does about it, he will enter this discourse. This is how one becomes an authority within the discourse, the one who, when the future finally comes, others who then hope to enter the discourse will have to evade. And when that future finally comes, writing about the slave-owning practices of this particular group of indigenous Americans, or native Americans, in this particular area of what is now America at this particular time, will no longer present itself as a very good option for research. Advisers will say to somebody who expresses an interest in working in the area, go ahead, but you risk your potential authority. They'll say, probably indirectly: go ahead, but authority will find you there, and as long as authority can find you, you will not be authority. You cannot become authority until you make it to the place where authority can't touch you.
So I make no apologies for anything, not even for desiring to establish myself on the critical side of the fence by writing critically about something as stupid as Archie comics, nor for wanting to write on the critical side of the fence, on the first place, as a means of evading the judgment of authority on the other, creative side of the fence, nor for suffering from a desire to have sex with the girls the people I hate have sex with, for all the wrong reasons, just to prove to no one in particular that the reason I don't want to have sex with those girls is not because I can't. Because I can. Look at me. I'm doing it!
The other reason I wanted to write critically about Archie comic books is because I loved them, as I continue to love them, and as I had loved them for a long time, and instinctively, almost violently, I take seriously that which I love; or, at the very least, take the love seriously. My father brought me my first Archie comic book when I was home sick from school in the third grade. It was a Little Archie, actually, with a red cover, on which Little Archie, as he was known, was pitching horseshoes toward a stake that he had set in the ground right in front of Mr. Lodge's bay window, and inside, behind the bay window, Mr. Lodge was freaking out, because he, like the rest of us, knew what was about to happen (broken window, of course, although the completion of that promise would have to remain suspended for eternity in the messianic future beyond the artwork on the cover). The rest is history, although I didn't really become a major reader of Archie comics until, a year or so later, perhaps when I was in fifth grade and we had moved to a new, suburban neighborhood, when my parents found a mother lode of Archie comic digests at a rummage sale in the neighborhood one Saturday or Sunday morning when they were out for a walk. I was still reading them when I was working on or toward a master of fine arts in creative writing many years later, but many years earlier than right now. I had twenty or thirty of them with me in my apartment. I was sleeping alone, at the time, for the first time in a few years, and falling asleep had become trickier, or it had always been tricky. I'm a bad sleeper. I would read them after I got into bed because without that I wouldn't fall asleep, sometimes for hours and sometimes not at all. And as I was writing more, and reading more, and reading more theory, Derrida and Barthes and Baudrillard and a lot of pretty obvious writers like that, in part because I enjoyed their work and in part to begin the work of setting myself outside of the jurisdiction of those within whose or under whose authority I was supposed to be working as I worked on or toward my master of fine arts in creative writing, a terminology I did not feel comfortable with then as I do not feel comfortable with it now, and still reading Archie comics all of the time, I started to notice, or perhaps simply decided to notice, that something was going on in those comics, something that perhaps was of some significance to me as I discovered by way of my own work surprising things about what narrative is supposed to be and what, perhaps, it more likely actually is, or was, or is at this moment in the history of narrative, or was at that moment in the history of narrative, back when I was still young. What struck me, especially, was that something that I suppose I thought should have mattered did not: specifically that what was true in one story could as easily not be true in the next, and this fluctuation did not disrupt my sense of verisimilitude. I am not simply talking about the sitcom rule, here, according to which there must be no permanent advances in the existences of the characters, no real changes because what the sitcom is is the unfurling of a scenario, which itself must always remain unchanged, such that by the end of each sitcom everything must reset itself, as it were, to become again the same as it what it was. This is simple enough. But what I was noticing was that, for example, in one story, Archie could be the best player on the baseball team, and in literally the next story, or somewhere in the same digest, Archie could be the worst player on the baseball team, and despite this seemingly irreconcilable difference, he could still be Archie: the verisimilitude would maintain. This holds true for any, and countless, irreconcilable characteristics or situations, and for all of the characters.
One could object, of course, that there no such thing as verisimilitude in an Archie comic to begin with, such that it is not of note that irreconcilable differences, between moments of narrative, in characteristics of characters, does not disrupt verisimilitude? Or, in other words, how can that which does not exist in the first place be disrupted or destroyed? Well: I've been reading Descartes and Husserl and Heidegger, recently -- following a train of thought on down the line -- for reasons I'd prefer not to elaborate within this text, but, in any event, because of it, I have the rhythms of if-then style logical propositions in my head. Therefore:
Indeed, it seems entirely possible that there is no verisimilitude to begin with in something like an Archie comic book -- or, to be even more specific, not in something like an Archie comic book, but specifically in Archie comic books. For instance: there is plenty of evidence that suggests that verisimilitude -- the quality of appearing to be true or real -- could not possibly exist in such a world. For one, the characters are all cartoon drawings. But there have been plenty of cartoons in the history of the world, and one way or another, with ink lines or language, isn't every character drawn? But there are more particular evidences which suggest, a priori, an absence of verisimilitude in Archie comic books. For instance: the girls, and in particular the two main girls, the most important girls -- the only two girls who are members of the "immediate family," as it were, of what is referred to within that world as the good old gang -- Betty and Veronica, the two girls whose opposition to one another is crucial to the scenario from which the entire history of Archie and the gang unfolds -- whose opposition to one another is perhaps the crucial opposition which sets the entire thing into motion, as I might argue later -- actually, aside from their hair color -- Veronica is a brunette and Betty a blonde -- look exactly the same. There is effectively only one teenage girl face in the Archie comic repertoire -- excepting girls who are in some way particular: ugly or fat or big-nosed or ethnically something other than white -- and only one teenage body, once again excepting girls who are abnormal in one way or another -- skinny or fat or wheelchair-ridden -- and only, amongst these normal girls, one point of variety or distinction: hair color. And yet the distinction, in large part physical, between Betty and Veronica, is, as I have suggested, crucial to the Archie scenario. Although Archie would be comfortable and happy and consistently-loved with the one -- Betty -- he always finds himself aching for the other, and although the reasons for this -- as we will discuss later -- are complex, part of the reasoning, in any event, is supposed to be physical. Betty is nice enough looking, but Veronica is hot, and this difference is not something that could be attributed solely to hair color. While we could, of course, build an argument around this irony that would make some sense of it -- that we learn from it, for instance, that what we find attractive is actually not physical, but somehow prior to the physical and then attributed to or somehow filtered through the physical -- the simple fact remains that everyone in the Archie world perceives this difference, not only specifically in attractiveness, but in specific physical appearance, between Betty and Veronica, and yet if you actually examine the two of them -- put your hand over the hairdos, for instance -- you find that there is no difference. There are other issues, as well, including the seeming impossibilities to which I've referred already: in the same digest, we can find one story in which Archie is the star of the baseball team and a second in which he is an unspeakable klutz, the worst player on the baseball team, a bench-sitter, begging the coach for playing time. The fact that these types of opposition do not bother us might be used as evidence that there is, to begin with, no verisimilitude within this world: that the kind of internal consistency that produces a sense of verisimilitude does not exist, such that there is nothing, in relation to it, to prove.
But, in response to those possibilities, I offer the following: if it is possible to experience a lack of verisimilitude, then verisimilitude must exist, because if it does not exist as a general rule, or a general condition within this world, then it would be impossible to perceive the specificity of its absence -- always sudden and rude -- in specific moments within this world. And, especially lately, one -- that "one" being me -- does, from time to time, perceive the absence of verisimilitude, in a piquantly particular way. This is owing to a habit that the writers, I suppose -- or perhaps the directive comes from above the writers within that corporation that has more and more existed at its own margins -- have developed, recently, of changing the text in old stories before re-releasing them in contemporary digests.
To understand exactly what I mean by this, it is important to understand that Archie comics come in two forms: skinny, eight-by-ten newsprint-style comics -- your traditional comic book format -- and digests, which are smaller, as short as a paperback but wider, and much thicker, with somewhere around a hundred pages, and bound with heavier covers. New material is only constructed for the traditionally-formatted comics, which are released with frequency, and then that new material is re-released, along with a lot of old material, in digests which are probably released less frequently. I say probably, I should explain, because I am uncertain, in particular because I have never read the traditionally-formatted Archie comic books. They are too short, for one -- you're finished in a matter of six or eight minutes, rather than eighteen or twenty -- and, for me, anyway, they're not nearly as comfortable or convenient in the hand. How do you fall asleep reading one of those comic books? You have to fold it back on itself like newspaper to keep it from flopping over, or flopping closed. In any event, the upshot of all of this is that the digests, which contain maybe five or six times as much material as the skinny, traditionally-formatted comics, as I am calling them -- and maybe something more like eight or ten times as much material -- rely on reprinted old material to fill themselves out.
This old material goes all the way back to the 1940s, the time of World War II, when Archie and his gang first appeared on the American scene, perhaps not entirely coincidentally at a time when America was yearning for a return to the purity and simplicity of an image of self that had dissolved in the malaise of global politics and war. This means that, reading an Archie comics digest, you are as likely to encounter a story written in 1970 as you are a story written in 1955 as you are a story written last month for one of the traditionally-formatted quarterlies, and I've always been of the opinion -- although this opinion may be of only limited relevance, here -- that the occasional confrontation with unfamiliar references, reference points, styles of talking, and so forth, can be of great benefit to the young Archie reader, because it provides him with bits of confusion that he has to wrestle with, nonsensical moments which he must use his own wit, intellect, and imagination to make sense of, to fit into his own vision and understanding of the world in reference to which this other world, the world of Archie and his gang, exists. Traditionally, Archie stories present other kinds of challenges to their young readers, as well, these often having to do with the fact that while the majority of Archie readers are children, the writers are not, and these writers, traditionally, have not gone to great lengths to keep irony, sophistication, and even, occasionally, literary ambiguity, out of their work. This means that sometimes a reference, literary or otherwise, goes over a young readers' head, or that sometimes a piece of text twists around itself in a fashion which loses the young reader; sometimes, simply, things are not as clear for a ten-year-old, for instance, narratively-speaking, as they no doubt were to the much more narratively-experienced writer, and, once again, to make sense of it, to put it together so that it holds, the reader must exert his intellect, his wit, his imagination, or some combination therein.
I did, often, as a child, and often, struggling with these moments of uncertainty -- moments I could not simply dismiss as anachronistic or mistaken, because they feel right -- I came to what, retrospectively, were incorrect conclusions, was incorrect in my leap of logic or imagination, but this doesn't matter: the exercise of intellect and imagination is what was important, and for the loss of this, alone -- not so much for me, of course, since I am much older, now, and no longer rely on Archie comic books to stimulate my intellect (or do I?), but for the newer generation of Archie readers -- I was put off when writers started making changes in old material before re-releasing it as digest filler, in particular the kind of changes designed to prevent confusion, attempts to simplify, to re-historicize, to remove ambiguities. Some of the most brazen, for instance, have involved things like changing names: the name of the artist performing in a big concert from a story written in the mid-eighties, for instance, is blanked out and re-inked so that it says the Backstreet Boys. This is particularly unfortunate because until recently it seemed to be Archie policy to never use real popular culture references, but rather to cloak all popular culture references, and this cloaking provided excellent literary and poetic opportunities for the writers, who could invent Bruce Springsongs and Brad Prunepitts to their heart's delight, a move from which the reader learns something about the ironic literary importance of names, something he can carry with him, perhaps, into his first reading of "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," as long as we are speaking of Eliot; this kind of jocular re-naming of stars, always with just a touch of ridiculous, also teaches -- or taught -- a young reader to apply irony to the culture of celebrity.
In other instances, these little rewrites are aimed at making a story's inevitable perspective shift more explicit, or re-emphasizing a detail that is technically important to plot. Once again, these kinds of changes deny young readers the opportunity to wrestle with confusion with a text, to deal, when they do not understand what is happening or what has happened or how, by going back, re-reading, thinking, looking for context and new reference points. Perhaps nowhere are these changes more offensive than when they are aimed at making the content "more appropriate" -- a phrase that certainly belongs in quotation marks -- for the children who are supposed to constitute Archie comics' primary audience. I am thinking of one instance in particular, which is not hideous simply for the frightened suburbanite culture to which it caters, but is also a perfect example of how verisimilitude within the literature of the Archie world can be disrupted and, therefore, must exist. In this particular story, set in the middle of winter, Archie and Jughead -- and I will assume from the outset a knowledge of these characters, rather than bog down in tedious explanations and explications -- have decided to go camping for the night, winter camping, and Archie's mother is in a panic. Her little boy alone in the woods, in the cold, and all of that. Archie's father, meanwhile, defends the boys' need -- a need that he will define as essentially masculine -- to go out into nature, to contend with the elements, to survive, I believe is the word he uses, and even pokes a little fun at Mrs. Andrews -- who is entirely a woman in her inability to understand this need or support it -- playing an actual violin, at one point. The story, which begins from a sexist premise -- taking that premise into consideration -- ends admirably, in the middle of the night, the boys somewhere out in the wild, Mrs. Andrews sleeping peacefully in bed, and Mr. Andrews -- hey, hey -- sitting up nervously by the window, his chin in his hands, counting the minutes until his son is safe at home again.
It's not the best story I've ever read in an Archie comic book, but it's a good story, and it works. I remember when I first read that story, years ago, not understanding the reference to the violin. At the time, I was actually taking Suzuki violin lessons at school, and who knows what conclusion I must have come to? In any case, I recently re-encountered this story in a much newer digest, and although just about all of it remained intact, one important change had been made: in a speech bubble in which Archie must originally have been saying something more or less well-integrated into the story's discourse, now he was saying: and besides, Mr. Weatherbee is going to be with us (Mr. Weatherbee, of course, being the school principal). The first problem with this, of course, is that Archie comics is clearly making a narrative decision based on a fear of encouraging kids to go out camping by themselves. After all, what if a couple of kids reading that story decide to take it to heart, and head out for an overnight in the snow. They could die, and Archie Comics, Incorporated could be sued. Perhaps these are reasonable considerations, but literature -- literature of any sort -- should not be created subject to such concerns. More importantly, we can see how, in a very explicit way, this change in the dialogue disrupts the internal coherence of the narrative. If Mr. Weatherbee is going along, then what's the big deal? Don't they trust Mr. Weatherbee? After all, he is the principal of the school. If the parents don't trust him with their kids, they should probably enroll their kids in a new school. But this disruption of the coherence and internal logic of the narrative is not where the problems end. The real problem -- what is, in my opinion, the most serious and devastating problem -- is the loss of verisimilitude, and this occurs wherever text has been changed, for whatever reason. In part it may be due to the obvious intervention of a new hand -- it's far too easy to see the change in font-style, as every letterer, even as he abides by certain standards, is going to create his own unique alphabet -- but in any event, in that moment, in the moment of such a change having been made, or of encountering such a change, verisimilitude -- which, therefore, must have existed -- is lost, and all at once the story, and the world it is depicting, manifest themselves as false.
Let's make sure the logic is clear: if verisimilitude can be lost, then verisimilitude must exist. Fine. But if verisimilitude exists, how it is possible that there is verisimilitude within a world -- constituted by hundreds and probably thousands of different stories, written by many different writers and drawn by many different artists over the course of the history of Archie comics -- that is filled with irreconcilable inconsistencies?