The Magazine

Funny Papers

Nov 2, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 07 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
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I see where my old friend Archie Andrews has got his rear-end in a sling. Seems he married the wrong girl, the sleek and wealthy, raven-haired Veronica Lodge, when most people were hoping that he would eventually wind up with the very blonde though less than bombshell Betty Cooper, the girl--or at least everyone's idea of the girl--next door.

Archie Andrews is of course the eponymous hero of the old Archie comic books. As a boy, I loved Archie above all other comics books. I could work with Superman, Batman, and Captain Marvel, and was less enamored of The Green Hornet, but I much preferred the uncluttered drawings of Archie, with its small cast of regular, entirely predictable characters: the crabby teacher Miss Geraldine Grundy, the high-school principal Mr. Waldo Weatherbee, the slick rich boy Reggie (Reginald Mantle III), and above all Archie's sidekick Jughead, who wore a beanie and the same gray jersey with an S on it.

I also liked, but had to read on the sly, a comic book published for girls called Patsy Walker. Once more I was taken by the clear, even more realistic drawings of Patsy, her boyfriend Buzz Baxter, and her rival Hedy. I must have read Patsy Walker standing up at the comic-book rack at West's Pharmacy on Sheridan Road, for I couldn't have bought it or taken it home lest I be accused of being insufficiently masculine. (Patsy Walker, Google reports, ran out after 124 issues, while Archie, begun in 1942, is still alive and in its 605th issue.) What my tastes in comic books showed, I now realize, was an early preference for realism in literature over fantasy and science fiction--a taste I have maintained throughout my reading life.

As with so many others of my generation, my first memory of reading was of reading the comics, which in the newspapers in those days were also sometimes called the funny papers. A radio show in Chicago read the Sunday funny papers over the air, with kids instructed to follow along. In our family, owing to my father's detestation of the Chicago Tribune, especially of its publisher, the isolationist Anglophobe Colonel Robert McCormick, the Tribune wasn't allowed in the house. This was a personal setback--and the first time in my young life that politics interfered with pleasure--for the Trib had far and away the best comic strips of all the city's papers, Dick Tracy and Terry and the Pirates notable among them. The best the Daily News, our family paper, could counter with was L'il Abner and, on Saturdays, a soap-operaish strip called Rex Morgan, M.D.

By the sixth grade, I had weaned myself off comic books and began to read the sports books of John R. Tunis: All-American, The Kid from Tomkinsville, High Pockets, The Kid Comes Back, The Iron Duke, and others. Still, I was far from being a passionate reader. I fell back into the clutches of comic books in the seventh grade, when we had to do weekly book reports, and I did mine courtesy of an enterprise known as Classic Comics. Week after week I reported on one lengthy book after another--The Count of Monte Cristo, David Copperfield, The Three Musketeers, The Last of the Mohicans--all cribbed from the 25-or-so-page Classic Comics version of these monumental novels.

My final encounter with comic books came in high school with the item known in Chicago as "eight-pagers," which put comic strip characters through standard pornographic exercises. Eight-pagers were purported to have been created up in the print shop of Lane Technical High School on the city's north side by evil young geniuses whose craft was as impressive as their taste was coarse.

I bring up my rich background in comic-book reading, to say nothing of my love for movie cartoons--I still do a strong impersonation of Elmer Fudd: "Scroo you, you cwazy wabbit"--chiefly to make the point that today I not only am bored royal blue by comic-book drawing of the kind that appears in so-called graphic novels but cannot watch any television show or film that is done in animation. I have been told by intelligent people that The Simpsons is filled with a fine anarchic humor, but on the few occasions that I have attempted to watch it my mind leaves the room more quickly than it does during a Mahler symphony. Other people my age I know who have been brought up on comic books have told me they find themselves in the same condition.

I recently read that Archie Andrews's marriage to Veronica has been so badly received by the comic book's still substantial number of readers that its creators have had, in effect, to annul it and remarry the amiable redhead to Betty. I have no plan either to attend the wedding or to send a gift.

JOSEPH EPSTEIN