Friday, December 29, 2006

Riverdale High

When I was about nine/ten, my Dad and I used to across the street from our flat in Megha Mallar (a multi-storied apartment in South Calcutta) to a row of shacks, which were called 'lending libraries'. These were second-hand bookstalls, which circulated pulp fiction and comics in return for a small fee (and a refundable deposit). While my father browsed through his Ludlums and Sheldons, I ran through a huge list of titles starring the world's oldest teenager - Archie Andrews.

Archie's dilemma over Betty & Veronica, Reggie getting clobbered (this is one of the few words I learnt from the Archies) by Big Moose, Jughead's burger gluttony and Ethel allergy, Dilton's cerebral adventures, Mr Weatherbee & Miss Grundy's exasperation with the 'gang' were all devoured with great energy and only a whiff of comprehension.
What was a 'prom'? Why does an act of indiscipline lead to a 'detention' instead of a whack of the ruler? How can school students have a car? (Even if it is jalopy... BTW, what is a ‘jalopy’?) What happens on a 'date'? All of these were integral to the plots and characters of Archie Comics and as Indian kids in pre-cable Calcutta, they were completely alien to us. And yet, we went through volumes of these comics at feverish pace. Even Sabrina the Teenage Witch and Josey and the Pussycats were not spared!
A weekly dose of the series appeared in the Sunday magazine of The Telegraph – as a three–row panel.

There were standard formats for the entire series. It would either be a Digest or a Double Digest. Each Digest would have 4-6 ‘long stories’ punctuated by one-page funnies and ‘pin-ups’. The pin-ups were typically one single panel in which one funny thing was happening.
Example of a pin-up: Reggie and Midge necking under mistletoe. Big Moose rolling up his sleeves and going “GGGRRRR”!
Betty (holding a stocking): “Where do you want to hang your sock, Moose?”
Moose: “On Reggie’s jaw!”
Learning 1: Sock is what we called ‘boxing’ in India. (As in, “Aee shnarey, doo kya box?”)
Learning 2: You kiss under mistletoe!
Some of the Digests had titles, which seemed to suggest that they were Betty & Veronica Digests or Jughead Digests. But since almost all the stories featured the entire gang, this naming seemed a little redundant.
There was one more series, which was called “Archie, Archie Andrews… Where Are You?” These were typically stories of Archie’s stupidity. One cover being Archie and Veronica riding in his jalopy with an aeroplane in the background (obviously on a runway!) and Archie going “I am sure the freeway exit is just down the road!”

And in the pages of those Digests, you had membership forms to Archie Andrews Fan Clubs promising membership buttons, pens, note-pads – all for a $ 2.99 fee. This was around the time when the exchange rate to the dollar was about Rs 10-12, so the money did not look too prohibitive. What made it completely inaccessible were (1) the instructions on the form which asked to “Please Print” and (2) the almost racist caveat “Valid for US and Canada only”. For some time, the merchandise looked attractive enough for me to wonder if I can put my aunt’s address in Pittsburgh for the delivery. But the other instruction remained insurmountable.
A long time later when I was taking the TOEFL, I realized that “Print” simply meant writing in block letters! Hell… and there I was, looking for an offset machine to print my name and address on to that form!

In its entirety, the series provided a happy glimpse into an almost forbidden world of romance, pranks and curiosities. Boys and girls kissing. Not having to wear uniform to school. Supplementing allowances through part-time jobs at soda fountains. Using the swimming pool at your rich friend’s house. Driving down to the beach for a day-long picnic.
All these were really high-end aspirational stuff, which – I think – formed the core appeal of this series. Given the fact that the jokes were quite pedestrian (not to mention – predictable!), I wonder what the American teenagers found appealing in Archie. I guess what we found aspirational, they found identifiable!

So, for the last few decades, Archie has managed to hold attention without having to die and get resurrected, without starring in a movie franchise (At least, none that I know of!) and more importantly, without having to wear underpants over his trousers.
For the last thirty years or so, he is breaking Mr Lodge’s Ming vases while trying to polish them and still managing to be popular!
In the mid-80s, Veronica swiping her credit card and Riverdale High having its own radio station were indicative of great modernity. But given that the location is suburban America, these probably happened even earlier. I would imagine that I-pods and mobile phones have made an appearance in the comics by now but the books, which I have seen in recent times, are still happily in the mid-90s!

And the trivia buff that I am, I managed to find enough nuggets to tickle aficionados.
* Jughead’s real name is Forsythe P. Jones III (which means his father and grandfather was called the same!).
* Mr Lodge’s first name is Hiram. Miss Grundy’s is Geraldine. Mr Weatherbee is Waldo.
* The Riverdale High school newspaper is called Blue And Gold.
* Jughead has a cousin called Souphead.
* Jughead always wore a jersey / sweatshirt with a S emblazoned on to it. I had tried to spot any references to it but failed. I was quite amused to come across a Sunday magazine strip in which there is an elaborate play on this S and it is compared with the disappearance of Atlantis as one of the greatest mysteries of mankind!

At least two major Indian signposts seem to have been inspired by this comic – the college of Kuch Kuch Hota Hain (and also the characters, to some extent) is unabashedly Riverdale. And the Great Indian Puppy Love Machine – Archies Gallery – would have taken its name from this icon of teenage romance. All wannabe Archies of India have spent countless hours in Archies Galleries trying to choose Tom Cruise calendars, Aamir Khan posters, pink-ribbon-swathed teddy bears, mushy-poem-laden greeting cards for their Betties and Veronicas. In a perverse acknowledgement of their popularization of ‘Americana’, a few Archies Galleries get routinely vandalized by Shiv Sena / Bajrang Dal activists every Valentine’s Day! And to think, it all started with the freckled, red-haired American teenager!
One more teenybopper movie – Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar – had a love triangle, which was very close to the Archies. With a middle class Betty (Ayesha Jhulka) being completely besotted by a truant Archie (Aamir Khan) who is wooing Veronica (Pooja Bedi) beyond his means, that part of the movie was quite similar to the comic book! The similarity could probably be extended to a rich brattish Reggie (Deepak Tijori) and a paunchy Mr Andrews (Kulbhushan Kharbanda) but thankfully, the original Archie never tried to win inspirational cycle races!

I have often wondered that Archie Comics violates all the laws of Economics and probably a few of Physics as well. For the simple reason that I have NEVER known/seen anybody buy a comic. I always borrowed them from Gautam, who borrowed them from Jojo, who used to take them from his cousin Mamon, who found them in her school bus… ad infinitum.
My guess is that these comics would have a combined sales running into millions of copies of which a large percentage would be coming to India. God only knows how these copies wind their way from one friend to a relative to a neighbour to a lending library?

I think I will pick up an Archie comic today and try to find out the first name of Professor Flutesnoot or marvel at how Coach Clayton manages to get the Riverdale basketball team to an improbable victory over Central High. To test my own maturity, I would also try to see if I still feel that Archie is an idiot for not choosing Betty! For old time’s sake…
I could buy a comic from the Oxford Bookstore – but I think I will just borrow it from my niece. After all, it’s for old time’s sake!

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