Continuing my recent birthday related posts, I also got Archie: The Best of Harry Lucey, Volume One, and it’s fantastic. Harry Lucey drew Archie comics in the 1950s and 1960s, and he’s my favourite Archie artist by far. I used to get the digests all the time when I was a kid, and the old reprinted Lucey stories were always my favourites. Part of it was that I loved the cornball humour of those old stories, but the art was just great. Lucey is the definitive Archie artist to me.
However, a panel in the book reminded me of an article I read a few years ago by Ronald Glasberg called “The Archie Code: A Study in Sexual Stereotyping as Reflective of a Basic Dilemma in American Society” (you can get it at this link if you have access to some sort of academic library system, but if you don’t you’re probably hosed). Glasberg makes lots of interesting points about Archie comics and gender, but the one that’s always stuck with me is that female characters are drawn exactly alike. Thus, Archie comics suggest that women are interchangeable, which is not a great message about women, to say the least. Let’s take a look at that panel:
Their faces are exactly the same. If you switched their hair, you wouldn’t even notice a difference. Betty and Veronica have the exact same features. Sure, their personalities are different, but visually they are absolutely interchangeable apart from their hair. Everything else is identical.
And it’s not just Betty and Veronica… this is true of most female Archie characters. Midge, Josie (of the Pussycats), and Sabrina (the teenage witch) all have the same facial layout. Cheryl Blossom also has that basic face, just tarted up a bit. Nancy and Valerie, who are black characters, fit the mould with a darker skin colour as the only difference. Even the moms follow this pattern. Mrs. Andrews and Mrs. Cooper are often just a slightly fuller, slightly lined version of this generic face.
The only time women break this pattern is if they are undesirable or outside of the social order in some way. Miss Grundy, Miss Haggly, and Miss Beazly all look different from the norm and from each other, but they’re unmarried spinsters. Similarly, Big Ethel is drawn differently from the Betty and Veronica norm, strictly to illustrate that she’s undesirable. She’s only different to highlight her negative characteristics.
Now, let’s look at the boys. Each male character has their own distinctive look. Dilton and Big Moose are completely different. So too are Mr. Andrews and Mr. Lodge. Mr. Weatherbee and Pop Tate are easy to tell apart as well, even though they share the same rotund shape.
The same is true for the main characters. Take a look at Archie:
His face has a round shape, his nose is rounded, and his eyebrows are thick. Now look at Reggie:
His face is squarer, his nose is more angular, and his eyebrows are thin. If you took Archie’s hair and freckles and put them on Reggie’s face, you wouldn’t have Archie. You’d have Reggie very clearly pretending to be Archie, probably as part of some scheme to get a date with Veronica. The same goes for putting Reggie’s hair on Archie’s face. It just wouldn’t look right.
Jughead, of course, is even more distinctive:
Long face, long nose, eyes closed most of the time. He’s not even in the same ballpark as Archie and Reggie. Those two are the male characters with the most in common, facially, but they are very clearly distinct.
Another story in the Lucey book really shows off this interchangeability of female characters. Archie takes Veronica out scuba diving, trying to get some alone time with her. The conniving Reggie figures that everyone looks the same in scuba gear, so he enlists Betty to help him pull a switch. They’ll put on scuba gear and go break up Archie and Veronica underwater, and neither will know the difference. Reggie will get to be with Veronica and Betty will get to be with Archie, and they won’t know about the swap until they come up.
Of course, the plan doesn’t go smoothly and Reggie and Betty break up a different couple. Once the masks come off, the guy Betty ends up with clearly isn’t Archie or Reggie:
But if the text didn’t tell me that the blonde Reggie ends up with wasn’t Betty, I’d have been hard pressed to know, apart from her slightly different hairstyle:
The implication that men are all different, individual beings while women are essentially interchangeable isn’t particularly good. Nor is the message that women who are outside of the norm must be undesirable. I love Archie comics, and of course the creators aren’t sinister, misogynist fiends, but it’s good to be aware of the messages that comics send, even unintentionally.
This interchangeability of female characters continues today, too, even in that weird new style they tried a few years ago. Betty and Veronica are barely different, and you could swap their hair easily and no one would notice:
I think it says a lot about our society, and the comic book community especially, that it’s normal for men to look a range of ways but women have to look all the same. Most comic artists can draw a spectrum of male shapes, sizes, and faces, but few artists’ female characters are more than just slight variations on one core figure. Maybe if we made women actual characters more often, instead of love interests and derivative sidekicks, and invested as much in them as we do males, then a more nuanced approach to how women are depicted would follow.