x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

American splendour

Last word With Archie scheduled to wed, S Subramanian ponders the comic character's career in public diplomacy.

With Archie scheduled to wed, S Subramanian ponders the comic character's career in public diplomacy. Over the course of history, many men have suffered the misfortune of having to choose between two women, but few have taken as long to decide as Archie Andrews. For 68 years now, Archie has bounced back and forth between Betty Cooper and Veronica Lodge, veering often into romantic detours with other women, but always drawn back into exploration of what seems to be his eternal personal dilemma: blonde or brunette?

But perhaps that isn't entirely fair. Setting aside the mysterious ability of the Archie Comics school of illustrators to draw only one type of female figure - which makes Betty and Veronica look like two versions of the same sleek, hourglass-inspired chassis with differently-coloured hoods - the two characters are significantly unalike. Betty is hardworking, generous, patient and honest, as American as apple pie. Veronica is wealthy, spoiled, manipulative and selfish: she reeks faintly of European blue blood. So it comes some surprise to learn that all-American Archie will marry Veronica in an August issue - that he passed on apple pie and chose the rich, frosted gateau instead.

Lurking behind the choice is the question of why Archie has to choose at all. Cynics - rightly convinced that marketing departments will toy with even our most sacred emotions - insist that the wedding will be revealed in time to have been a dream or a hop into an alternate dimension. Pessimists predict the imminent end of Archie Comics, and console themselves only by observing the state of other American periodicals: if the New York Times is in dire straits, how can Archie thrive? Wise international readers, however, may recognise in this development a dolorous last gasp - not only for Archie and Archie, but also for an era in which a country's image could be constructed for generations of foreign readers (particularly south Asian readers) by the children's literature it happened to print and export.

Entirely by coincidence, the two years in which I read the most Archie were 1989 and 1990, roughly around the time when India was reorienting itself, philosophically and strategically, away from the Soviet Union and towards the United States. Of course, I knew nothing of such geopolitical shifts: I was more fascinated by Archie's teenaged world. In Riverdale, students nominally attended school but spent remarkably little time studying. They played all-American letter sports, lived in all-American suburbia, and drove all-American jalopies. They were so incessantly out on dates, swapping partners and saliva with such regularity, that they probably made thousands of young adults around the world ill-prepared for how diabolically difficult dating really is. Much the same could be said, at least in my case, about the consumption of hamburgers and milkshakes, the perennial diet of Archie's friend Jughead Jones. I ordered my first burger and milkshake, at a faux diner in New Delhi, entirely in tribute to Jughead and his gluttonous lifestyle. Ten minutes later, when that cargo proved to be too substantial for my eight-year-old stomach, I gracefully threw it up in the car park.

Before Archie and America, there was Misha. Every month I received a copy of this uncomplicated Soviet publication, enclosed in its plain brown-paper covers, with its homey illustrations and glossy pages that smelled (at least in my memory) of pine, salt and long distances. Misha was intensely old-school: I read heartwarming socialist fables of peasants, wolves, sailors and naughty mice; I played glue-on games; I learnt, at least in theory, how to make model aeroplanes from things found around the house (just ask your mother for ice-cream sticks and rubber-bands); I wrote to a pen-pal in Vladivostok.

Misha was part of a whole raft of children's publications that arrived in India from the Soviet Union during the Cold War, during which India claimed to be non-aligned even as it threw an arm around Moscow's shoulder. At the frequent Russian book fairs at my school, I paged through thick volumes of folk tales from the Baltic states, brilliant books for boys about boys (usually involving swimming, the circus or dreams of becoming a cosmonaut), and primer after primer on how to get good enough at chess to play Mikhail Botvinnik. My mental image of the Soviet Union was, consequently, one of apple-cheeked peasant boys who sat about eating black bread and playing chess, only getting up occasionally to chase away the Baba Yaga.

Even before Misha, Indian children had absorbed a manufactured idea of another country, this one from the books of Enid Blyton. Blyton's England was a pastoral idyll untouched by its colonies, or indeed by much of the world south of Dover. Groups of children on their hols would bust crime syndicates with the help of disguises and dogs, and then they would head back to boarding school - not a hellish place like George Orwell's St Cyprian's, but something more like a jolly holiday home, with long afternoons of tennis and midnights spent putting away feasts of meat pies, buttered bread, lemonade and condensed milk. This image of England, with its glowing, unchanging and unchangeable outlines, was an aspirational one; so were Misha's Soviet Union and Archie's America.

In one way, these aspirations worked because they embedded themselves firmly in a time warp; in their immutability lay a comforting sense of security and order. But this changelessness worked against them whenever newer, flashier aspirations came along. Although I didn't know it then, Archie was outdated even in 1990: for all the rampant dating and bikini-clad temptation, there was no trace of hormone-powered sex; Archie's only black friend, a consummate jock, dated the only black girl in school. Today, the anachronisms are positively painful. In a 2007 Betty and Veronica double digest, Veronica urges Betty to stop writing in an old-fashioned diary: "Computerise! Get with it... It's cyberspace time!" Then she shatters her grasp of the cutting-edge by holding up a floppy disk - an actually floppy disk, mind, not one of those smaller, less floppy diskettes that later took the name - and exclaiming: "I hide my secret thoughts on this computer disk! It's my hi-tech diary!"

The aspirations of today's 10-year-old Indians are still tethered to America, but they are no longer built by children's literature. Instead, they are shaped by our stock villains: television and the internet. In their reruns of Friends, kids around the world get Archie redux: still plenty of rampant dating, partner-swapping and all-American pizza, but this time in Manhattan instead of Middletown, USA. Online, between MySpace and YouTube alone, there is enough detail to build a more updated, more nuanced image of America then we could ever hope to glean from Archie. Something so quaint as a comic book can't hope to compete.

Except that, given the ubiquity of the internet, the image of America it presents becomes everybody's image of America; any sense of intimate familiarity with an idea must be diminished by the prospect of sharing it with billions of co-owners scattered around the globe. When the moment captured by this image lapses, as all moments do, it will be difficult to feel much personalized nostalgia for that loss. There is, on the other hand, still unbounded Indian nostalgia for Misha and other miscellaneous Soviet jetsam, and considerable nostalgia for Archie, even though it remains in print. (This isn't as contradictory as it sounds; it is nostalgia not for the product but for a bygone reading experience that is impossible to regain.) It doesn't matter that both Misha and the Soviet Union are dead, or that, in the United States, Archie is now sold primarily at supermarket checkout counters next to tabloids and gossip magazines. On the contrary, that helps. It's easier to lavish nostalgia upon the fictitious, elemental America of Archie, an America that is unfamiliar to Americans because it probably never existed, and so an America that belongs very much to us.

S Subramanian, a regular contributor to The Review, is a journalist based in New Delhi.