Author Archives: Richard Jones

Smallville ’58 – Stories You Told Me About The Future

This year, some of DC Comics’ biggest stories circle at a distance around a transformational moment in the story of Superman. This article gets in close.

1) Two Ways To Be Doctor Manhattan

It is 1958. Clark Kent is a lonely teenager. The girl knows his secret. She is joined by the two boys he saw earlier. The three begin to undress in front of him. Something has changed. 

It is 1958. Clark Kent has had a hard day at work, reporting for the Daily Planet. The buzzing penetrates his window. His parents step from the vessel. His heart is to be broken. 

Cosplaying Doctor Manhattan could either be seen as very brave or very lazy. Whichever it is, crafty old Geoff Johns has ducked the question. He’s finding another way to explore his personal relationship with the character. Eschewing the blue body paint and public indecency charge, Johns has instead written a series, Doomsday Clock. In it, various deficiencies in Johns’ earlier work are revealed to be the fault of this iconic fictional character. 

Doctor Manhattan
RIGHT: Johns, Frank and Anderson. LEFT: My friend Martin.

2019’s Doomsday Clock #10 tells the story of Doctor Manhattan visiting various different iterations of ‘the DC Universe’ and ‘Superman continuity’. He fiddles about with these nonsenses to make them worse. This ultimately creates the ‘New 52 Universe’, a fictional reality we saw ushered in by Chief Creative Officer Geoff Johns in 2011. Many have found that universe unsatisfying and ugly and, since 2011, given some thought as to why it might be so. It’s now, in 2019, that Johns can, at last, reveal that full responsibility lies with none other than the dastardly Doctor Manhattan. One of Manhattan’s stops on this calamitous journey through DC history, was Adventure Comics #247, a Superboy comic from 1958. It’s one where he made a decisive and ruinous intervention.

It is a popular destination. Brian Michael Bendis began his stewardship of the Superman books with a ‘Man who Destroyed Krypton‘ storyline. Bendis’ menacing Rogol Zaar being the latest in a procession of baddies to have claimed responsibility for that one, starting with Klax-Ar back in a Superboy comic from 1958. 

Since then, Bendis has been busily and enigmatically moving around certain items of furniture in the current books. He made abrupt changes to one of the two Superboys in his care. Why he made them seemed a bit of a puzzle. The popular Jon Kent was ushered offstage to be abused for five years before being returned to the story’s present, aged-up and now lacking the key dynamics between him and certain other characters. But to what end? This seemed such a peculiar choice. Much was lost and nothing obvious was gained. What was Bendis playing at?

“[I]t’s not just a, ‘Ha ha we ruined your favorite thing.’” Bendis assured CBR in May, “There’s a story being told that we think will be additive to that thing you liked about him, a big one. And we haven’t gotten to the big reveals yet, but we’re getting there.”

We are there now. This has all been done to reenact and re-stage certain story elements from Adventure Comics #247, a Superboy comic from 1958.

Superboy, The Man of Steel, Adventure Comics, Legion of Super-Heroes Smallville
Various men and maniacs claim to have destroyed Krypton while various Superboys meet the Legion of Superheroes.

Frank Miller, meanwhile, is not interested in reenacting specific story elements from Superboy comics from 1958. But he’s on their turf, and not for the first time. The New Adventures of Superboy #51 collected the stories of a young Clark Kent bringing his time as Superboy to an end. Although perfunctorily followed by issues 52 to 54, it closed the book on Superboy as an ongoing concern. Frank Miller provided the cover. It’s no small thing when Miller comes to Smallville. Last time he was here he shut the place down.

Superman: Year One #1 deals with the same period in Clark Kent’s life that covered by the books Johns and Bendis are eyeing. Growing up in Smallville, being raised by Jonathan and Martha, having a relationship with Lana Lang, the broad strokes are all here. All part of the “child’s fairy tale” Miller flags up his first issue as telling. 

Like fairy tales, Miller’s Superboy story is full of vulnerable children, bullies, and rapists. Like fairy tales, the comic is aggressively didactic. Its world of victims and predators are arranged so Miller can discuss and negotiate how he feels the American superpower should best deploy violence in the great high school drama of the world. The post-911 anxieties that have dominated and soured Miller’s work are all here, running the streets and stalking the corridors of Superboy’s Silver Age.    

The DC Comics narrative tirelessly regresses, revokes, restores and recontextualizes. In the limited terms of that narrative, there’s something very current about Superboy comics from 1958. Enough so that I thought it might be fun if we all squeezed into one of those big glass time bubbles and popped back there to have a little nose round. 

2) The Cathedral of Cologne 

What happened back in Smallville? We have a powerful sense that some things did, but not many. A child was found in a crashed rocketship. He was inculcated with the old-timey values of an idealized America. Maybe he had a love interest? Or maybe he didn’t. Maybe a militia of radiant wonderfolk from a thousand years hence manifested across the time barrier, like hormonal angels, to announce that he was the center of Everything. Or maybe they told him the truth. Maybe his parents died. Maybe they’re fine. Between two and five things certainly happened in Smallville. But probably not more than five.    

Which is odd. First in More Fun Comics, then in Adventure Comics, then across both Adventure Comics and two volumes of Superboy, the adventures of a small town dwelling teen Clark Kent ran from 1945 to 1984. Thirty-nine years worth of comics, often coming out two a month, treating of the Superboy of Smallville. Something must have been going on in those thousands of pages of story. Something must have been happening.

One thing that is happening, in the year we’ve set the dials for, is the Silver Age, although it doesn’t know that yet. ‘Ages’, times and periodization are important yet strangely mutable here. It is 1958. 

Say “Silver Age Marvel!” to someone and they’ll probably start thinking of Fantastic Four and a shift towards superhero drama that arises from relationships between differentiated characters. Say “Silver Age Batman!” to someone and they’ll probably start thinking of psychedelic conflicts on alien worlds and large versions of everyday objects, even though they know perfectly bloody well that those Bat-Things predate the Silver Age and they’re just being obdurate. But what happens if you just yell “THE SILVER AGE!” at someone? 

Chances are they’ll start thinking of Weisinger-era Superman. The Silver Age Superbooks, edited by Mort Weisinger, built things to last. They demonstrated a commitment to both invention and consolidation that exemplified the Silver Age as a whole. Here is the new, and here are the mechanisms by which it will endure to be old. That trait makes the books that came out of Weisinger’s office a reliable map with which to explore the territory. Alan Moore’s Supreme was more illuminating than his 1963.

When Marvel wants to investigate what characterized their comics of the period, or sometimes what those comics lacked, they’ll do it by creating a Sentry or a Blue Marvel. When the door opens to welcome you into this resurgent and reinvigorated era of comics, it is Curt Swan’s Superman holding it open for you with a wink and smile. With as close to those expressions he can muster should he have the head of an ant or lion at the time.

Presumptuous, really, because Superman got to the party a little late himself. The Silver Age is generally taken to have started with the debut of Bartholomew ‘Flashy’ Allen in 1956 and to have started for the Superman books at some more ambiguous point in 1958. Action Comics #241 is a popular choice, but I’d go for something from a couple of months earlier. I’d go for Adventure Comics #247. 

June 1958’s Action #241 sees the return of the frosty hideaway that would become the Fortress of Solitude, a celebration of Superman’s place in our world, false jeopardy as part of a ruse, and some buddying around with Batman. In its structure, tone, and concerns it is unquestionably a Silver Age Superman comic. I don’t know how you can say it’s the first when Adventure Comics was introducing the Legion of Superheroes back in April. If you’re looking for a punctuational moment that marks the start of something new and different, that would seem to be your best bet. 

Except that Action is a Superman book and Adventure is a Superboy book. It would be strange to think of this era of Superman as beginning in Superboy, wouldn’t it? No, it wouldn’t. It’d be fine. For two reasons. One being that the Superboy stories are simply an integral part of the world-building project underway. As well as the Legion, the Superboy comics of 1958 introduce Bizzaros and Red Kryptonite. Both are crucial parts of the era’s lore and emblems its interest in the strange and wrong. The elements that make Weisinger-era Superman look and work the way it does are being developed right here. The other reason is a little more abstract. It has to do with the results of a beauty pageant that took place five years earlier.  

Lana Lang isn’t who you think she is. She’s certainly the winner of the ‘Miss Smallville’ contest that took place in Adventure Comics #172. The decision was unanimous and she was duly adorned with the victor’s sash. “Miss Smallville 1952,” it read – the year of the comic’s publication. These ‘Adventures of Superman When He Was a Boy” were set in the present day. As were the stories of the adult Superman simultaneously appearing in Superman and Action Comics.   

“The Adventures of Superman When He Was a Boy” was an unlovely and inelegant tagline. It feels awkward to say out loud. But it endured because it made the purpose of these stories explicit. We’re not traveling to the time in which Superman grew up out of any interest in that time. We just want to see Kid Superman. Children who better identify with a hero closer to their own age are the demographic being served here. Not anyone nostalgically misty-eyed for the rolling cornfields and down-home mannerisms of pre-war America.        

“Some time ago, in the cathedral of Cologne, I saw the skull of John the Baptist at the age of twelve.” 

“Really?” I exclaimed, amazed. Then, seized by doubt, I added, “But the Baptist was executed at a more advanced age!”

“The other skull must be in another treasury,” William said, with a grave face. I never understood when he was jesting. 

 – Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose.

See here the skull of John of Baptist! See here the skull of John the Baptist at the age of twelve! Thrill now to the adventures of Superman! Thrill now to the Adventures of Superman when he was a boy! Both occupy the same present, just different treasuries. Perfectly reasonable as both skulls, like all of Superman’s adventures, are imaginary stories.   

But that was 1952. Check the sash. This is 1958 and Mort Weisinger is bringing the mixed blessing of internal consistency to Superman’s world. Smallville, and Clark’s youth have officially been pushed back to the 1930s. Not in a big way, just in an “if anyone asks…” way. If a visitor from the future came from “a thousand years from now” that still means the year 2958. If people wrote to the letters page wanting to know why everyone in this pre-war town had televisions then the editors would be like “Ugh. FINE. No more tellys. I GUESS.” Should Lana have earned that sash five years later, it would have carried an earlier date. She’s allowed a Polaroid camera though and I doubt she’s surrendered her television. The sense of Superboy occupying the present wasn’t lost. It was just brought about by a different mechanism. 

In 2012, Jason Aaron started writing a very long Thor story and occasionally he threatens to stop. That he’s out after this year’s King Thor is his latest threat, but I’ll believe it when I see it. Since the start, a feature of his run has been the involvement of three Thors who are all the same fella. They are Thor as a callow youth from the Viking Times, Thor as a superhero from the Hollywood Times, and Thor as an aged and embittered king from the End Times. Thorboy and Thorking’s appearances aren’t so much ‘flashbacks’ or ‘flashforwards’ so much as strands of story that each drive and reveal events as they seize and occupy the present of the narrative. There’s also a bunch of time travel. One memorable scene sees the three iterations fighting side by side as their enemy taunts them, “You should have brought more Thors.”    

On telly, excepting anniversaries and oddities, successive actors form an orderly queue and take their turn to play Doctor Who, a time-traveling show-off. In audio dramas then everyone plays him all at once. Big Finish Productions release ongoing adventures for the Fifth Doctor, the Sixth Doctor, the Seventh Doctor, two supporting characters from a super-racist seventies story with a giant rat, and any confused franchise-related actor they can get to uncomprehendingly read a few words into a microphone. And these stories interact; A companion of the Eighth Doctor can walk out of his time machine and into an earlier version of the same vehicle to join the Sixth’s Doctor’s crew. The actions of later and earlier incarnations of the character carry consequences for each other to the extent that none can be thought of as the ‘current’ Doctor, and as narratives emerge across Big Finish’s output, they are narratives in which each Doctor occupies the present. On television then Peter Capaldi was the Doctor and Jodie Whittaker is the Doctor. In the audios, we have the Adventures of the Doctor When They Were Boys.       

The Silver Age Superman books are very much like Big Finish’s Doctor Who or Jason Aaron’s Thor. Breaking the ‘Time Barrier’ is a very casual matter for the Super Family, and traveling back into the past via Carter Nicholls’ magic hypnotism is as every day for the Bats as popping down the shops. This ease of movement across the fourth dimension allows Superboy to function as a character who is an autonomous member of the Super Family rather than just a phase Superman was going through. In the comics we’re going to talk about below we’ll see him team up across time with Robin, as the Boy Wonder just blithely visits the past to avert dangers with future knowledge. Why not, eh? For the heroes of this era, the past is not another country, their childhoods are their next door neighbors.    

For the clearest example of how causality and interpersonal relationships work for this crew, it’s best to look ahead to when Supergirl joins the Legion of Superheroes. Supergirl lives under, and defers to, the weird oversight of Superman’s patriarchal cousinhood. He’s an authority figure in her life who sets very definite limits on her freedom and self-determination. However a lot of her time she spends in the Thirtieth Century, with her friend and peer, Superboy. The same guy! She’ll be pals with this kid all day, then he’ll head back to the sort-of-30s and she’ll head back to the sort-of-60’s where he’s her sort-of-dad. She has two, ongoing and developing relationships with the same dude at two different times in his life. Nobody lives and loves as eccentrically as the Super-Family.       

Through their contributions to the unfolding mythos, through the lingering historical power of John the Baptist’s skull, and through the revolving door of the time barrier, then the Superboy stories of this time are forcefully set in the present tense. It is 1958, they are set in the 1930s, and they are happening now. 

3) I DON’T THINK WE’RE IN KANSAS YET, KRYPTO.

Two mountains hold two magnets. The region is generally craggy, and not one of its mountains are unremarkable; One has been moved into place to bury a petrified forest of pure kryptonite, while another has been chiseled by lightning into the face of Bizarro. But it is the twin magnetized mountains that are useful to us right now, as their opposing forces suspend a metal beacon at a point equidistant between them and impossibly high above. “Smallville,” reads the beacon, “100 miles below.” There’s an arrow. Follow it down.     

We’ve arrived. 

So let us put Lana’s sash and Supergirl’s Legion membership behind us and live in the moment. Adventure Comics #244-255 and Superboy #62-69 were the issues cover dated to 1958, so we shall concern ourselves today with those alone. Countless details from comics published before them and after contradict everything we’re about to say, but hopefully that will prove to be the point. Those nineteen issues alone shall be our canon, no matter how much I’d like to tell you the amusing tale of how young Oliver Queen moved to town the following year and disappointed everyone.

Largely written by Otto Binder, Jerry Coleman and Alvin Schwartz, with George Papp, Al Plastino, and John Sikela most often found holding the pencil, this year’s worth of tiny adventures is offering us a tiny world, so let’s take them up on that and see what we can we learn about this town that attracts so many time travelers, revisionists, and time travelers who are metaphors for revisionism. 

Appearing on the light entertainment show ‘Unmask the Truth’, three Superboys are questioned by a panel trying to discern which of them is the genuine article (Superboy #67). One panelist invites them to talk about unique ways in which they’ve recently used their cape – stopping elephants, making bridges, etc. Fun! Another panelist asks about giant objects they’ve recently constructed – giant umbrellas, giant pots of stew, etc. Fun! Lana Lang is the third panelist. She asks Superboy to relive the death of his birth parents, destruction of his home planet, and extinction of his race. Lana Lang isn’t who you think she is.        

But Smallville, to the extent that the ‘Unmask the Truth’ broadcast reveals, is just what you think it is. It is where a rocket crashed and a kindly local couple found a space baby to adopt. It is the home of Superboy. 

The world where that rocketship came to rest is one which sees the arrival of matchlessly puissant alien life as a matter of principally local concern. When this god-child from the stars works his wonders in the big city then the headline reads “METROPOLIS THRILLS TO SUPERFEATS OF SMALLVILLE YOUNGSTER.” The world knows of him, just as the galaxy knows of him thanks to interplanetary telecasts, but they know who he belongs to. He’s a Smallville thing. 

 So what does that do to a town? Perhaps less than you might think. You’re welcomed to town by a “You Are Now Entering Smallville – Home of Superboy” sign, but once you’ve passed it then you’ll find his residence hasn’t much deformed the community in any of the more obvious ways.

There is little evidence of excessive media or tourist activity. Reporters will certainly show up if something spesh is going on, like Superboy spending a couple of days staging an unexplained mid-air sit-in, but then so will a life-drawing class on top of a bus. No journos seem to be camped out on the Superboy beat. The crowds are there for the various cultural events that involve the lad being handed trophies, but the crowds are also there for the kite-flying contest and the reception ceremony in honor of visiting pen pals. Sometimes children will just decide to dress up as mice and march through streets which will fill with delighted onlookers. Smallville people love to get out of the house.

And they love Superboy, I think. A monument marks the spot where he landed. Sculptors chisel away to make stone Superboy busts in the hope of pleasing him. Parents make ornate little model bank vaults to inspire their children by reminding them of that time he saved someone from inside a bank vault. Bit weird that one. Public trust in him, however, is very all or nothing. He is judged never to have made a single mistake in his career and, when he briefly appears to have slipped up then the people wail “We’ll never be able to have complete confidence in him again!” before remembering his super-hearing and silencing themselves. It is ambiguous if they do so out of fear or politeness.

Other shared values of the town include deference to authority that perhaps supersedes respect for the law. Everyone involved in its justice system is cool with staging a fake trial to protect military secrets. Smallville can show tremendous generosity to its own, promptly raising twenty thousand dollars for those in need, but shows that generosity in strange ways, allowing a family to independently discover that both their store and house had burned down before jumping out with the cheque and going “Surprise!” On the outskirts, a trailer camp houses several Native Americans – Chief Red Stag and his family – who Superboy recently saved from wolves. It is unknown if the wolves menaced anyone else on the trailer park. Their many children attend the school, bringing the only detectable racial diversity to the area.

As well as the plot-relevant mountains and the rolling hills visible in the panel backgrounds, there are many other things we know about Smallville’s geography. The town has a large working harbor joined to the nearby river by a canal. Should the dam break then the river will flood the town, but even restrained it offers dangers aplenty to those who would traverse it. Nobody in these stories dips a toe in the water without requiring some super-intervention, and nobody is said to have ever gone over Roaring Rapids and survived. Fast-moving and rocky, the river’s bed is thick with centuries of shipwrecks. There has been brisk, if perilous, trade through this region for hundreds of years even though the town itself is only this year celebrating its centennial, marking the occasion by having Superboy put on a really stupid hat and pretend to be a firework. The railroads are falling into abandonment, while the town is very proud of its new highway.

The city of Metropolis comes up all the time. The only other American locations mentioned in these stories are Hollywood, New York (where Lana has a cousin) and Midvale, the next town along, which gets mentioned quite often for a place that won’t really hold any significance until 1959. Is Metropolis nearby, or the center of all national life? It’s unclear. “Once a week,” we’re told, “the Kent family reads the Sunday edition of the Metropolis Daily Planet, as well as their own Smallville news” and many Smallville kids have pen pals from there, who visit like exchange students. There’s evidently some association between the two places, whether it’s cultural or just simple proximity, that means if you live in Smallville you need to keep up with what’s happening in Metropolis. We know you can drive there, perhaps along that fancy new highway, but it’s more usual to take a plane.  

Smallville has its own airport and aeronautics seems to be of particular local interest, as we also see used plane lots, a competitive air racing scene and private companies like Wilton Experimental Air Projects launching actual rockets into actual space. On the subject of rockets, there’s a nearby army base where nuclear weapons are stored inside a canvas tent. A small wooden sign outside the tent cautions, “WARNING – ATOMIC BOMB.”      

Scientific and technological research are very much part of Smallville life and appear to drive its economy. Local employers include the steel mill and the glassworks and we see that both are innovating, the steel mill by experimenting with different minerals to produce new varieties and the glassworks by discovering that, treated in a certain way, ordinary glass becomes a terrible explosive that threatens the world. These discoveries may differ in how socially useful they are, but science marches ever forward and science is the business of Smallville, from its museum to its Science Fair, an event so “colossal”, and of such international importance, that it requires Smallville’s “largest stadium.” I have not been able to find any clues as to how many other stadia it has.       

‘Gem shops’ prosper here. There are at least two, in addition to a more conventional Jeweller’s. The town must be known for them as, when a bunch of crooks in a submarine discovers a cache of gem-stealing weaponry on a desert island, it is straight to Smallville they dash from such tropical climes. These gems, what we know of the steel, glass and aeronautic industries here, and the size and importance of the local scientific community, strongly imply that this is a town with mineral wealth that has made it an attractive place to do your Mad Science, and that the technological applications of that science are driving industry. There’s certainly no evidence here that Smallville’s economy is based on agriculture. One farming couple, Hiram and Hilda, briefly appear for one page in these comics to ‘adopt’ Bizarro, and that’s your only glimpse of anyone working the land. These Kents run a general store and flashbacks suggest they were never anything other than the mercantile petite bourgeoisie.

People are getting rich. Some suddenly, like Neighbour Smith who gets made an Oil Baron by Clark’s clumsy underground tunneling, but others less remarkably. It’s not unusual for classmates of Clark such as Jimmy Greeves to live in a mansion, but even so, the wealth of the Van Dyke family is viewed with awe. Their mansion stands high above the town, overlooking it from within a vast, retractable glass dome. Apparently, its swimming pool is shaped like Superboy, but I’ve stared at the thing and I just can’t see it myself.   

Perhaps the Van Dykes had better keep their dome tightly sealed as the gem thieves are everywhere. Dazzler Dyke and Sparkler Smyth may well both be “notorious” in the community, but they are far from lone, ruby-hungry wolves. Crime here is organized and ever so bold. Hoodlums will think nothing of carrying out daylight public assassinations in the middle of the children’s mouse parade, and racketeers like Ace Grimes walk the streets, gloating openly of their crimes. This being the home of Superboy is no deterrent to these mobs, who’re threaded tight into its institutions. Their gambling rings drag pillars of the community down into infamy, and they even operate in the schools, helping wicked children cheat on tests by sending answers via semaphore from the windows of their smoky dens. Less brazen is the “bandit leader” Superboy knows as ‘Young Luthor.’ Appearing unmasked in only one panel, this one keeps to the shadows.

4) YOUR PAL CLARK

So in one sense, we know quite a lot about the people living in this, frankly enormous, small town. But in another sense, we know very little because there aren’t any. Elsewhere in mythologized comic book America then, by the late fifties, Riverdale was filling up nicely. If Archie goes for a walk he’s going to run into Betty, Veronica, Jughead, Reggie, Moose, Dilton, Midge, and countless other peppy recurring teenagers and suspicious recurring adults. The streets of his imaginary town throng with them. Smallville’s are deserted. 

The storytelling needs of Archie’s ebullient romantic comedies have generated a persistent cast. Superboy’s fretful, secretive yarns generate disposable teens. If an Archie story of this time needs the school’s top athlete they, hey, here’s Moose Mason! If a Superboy story does, and a couple of these do, then we’ll meet an all-new top athlete who’ll evaporate at the end of the story to be replaced next time by another incumbent of that precarious position. Even that Weisinger world-building project that’s contemporaneously bestowing Bottled Cities and Frosty Forts on adult Clark is slow to give his teen self any enduring peers. Adventure Comics #246 and Superboy #62 both feature a fabulously wealthy heiress called Gloria and a practical joker called Alvin. The two Glorias are different characters and the two Alvins are the same, even though they’ve different surnames. 

In Jerry Coleman’s ‘The Super-Clown of Smallville’ Alvin Smith/Wilson is there to enable a “What if Superboy did jokes?” story by being a kooky funster who Superboy is compelled to impersonate. By the end of the story, Alvin says he’s learned his lesson and renounced fun, so you’d have thought that’d be the last you’d hear of him, but then Otto Binder brings him back to be one of three teens suspected of being Smallville’s local hero in ‘The Girl Who Trapped Superboy.’ He meets a functional requirement of each story – the first just needs a practical joker and the second just needs a kid Clark’s age – but the interesting thing is that in the second story Alvin retains a character trait not necessary for the plot. He’s back to being a practical joker, down to perplex girls with stretchy arms and scares them with mechanical mice, unleashing those japes simply because he’s that Alvin rather than because the plot needs him to.   

I think that’s the last we’ll see of Alvin. That little experiment over, the creative team make no other moves this year to make anyone happen. When Clark is warned in Adventure #250 that a villainous time traveler is disguised as someone he knows well then he has a good think about all the people who meet that criteria. He manages to list four. His dad and three other blokes he might accidentally call dad – Professor Lang, Mayor Brooks, and Principal Sands. Are these mighty patriarchs then our principal cast? The movers and shakers of this community whose high-stakes power games decide the destinies of the Smallville small folk? No. Sands and Brooks are unnamed in any of the other comics and Brooks only ever turns up to dish out trophies. 

Lang’s inclusion, however, personalizes the list a little, as Adventure Comics 245 shows an interesting response from Clark to seeing the Professor in danger. Up until that point he’d been conservatively managing the threat of a giant flying centipede whose legs each had the powers of a different element, but on clocking that it was menacing members of the Lang family he gets quite aerated. He even ends up saying “Yipes!” in the next panel. It’s a stressful situation. “Lana Lang and her father are my dearest friends!” he flaps.

His dearest friends. His girlfriend… and her dad. These, outside his family and a couple of civic dignitaries, are the people Superboy holds closest to his heart. Two-thirds of the Lang family. What a snub to Ma Lang. It’d be a bit of a snub to the brothers too, but one evaporated circa 1956 and the other in ‘51, so it’s really just Lana’s mother who is of no interest to Clark. 

Lana herself should be boring. She should be two boring things, but thankfully she isn’t quite either.  We remember that Lana lived next door to Clark in a small town and was his high school girlfriend so, wow, there are enough cultural associations right there for us to already suppose we know this character. These are all signifiers of a ‘sweetness’ and ‘innocence’ that arise from male-centered nostalgia and cluster together as the ‘Girl Next Door’ archetype. But remember that these stories aren’t written for nostalgists. They’re written for people whose adolescences are exploding around them as they read, and consequently, there is no wistful misogyny attached to Lana about how much nicer girls were before they had make up and money worries. She is mercifully neither sweet nor pure.              

Superboy Vol 1 #64 Smallville
Iconoclastic

Check her out on the cover of Superboy #64. The Boy of Steel watches aghast as Krypto the Superdog smashes through a statue of his once-beloved owner. Lana stands there, her posture relaxed, her eyes far away and her smile wide. “Forget him, Superboy,” she advises, “Krypto hates you! He’s MY dog now!” In the story itself, she doesn’t actually say those words or command the destruction of any statues but, in a very real sense, that cover is exactly who Silver Age Lana Lang is. It is someone glorious.   

The other boring thing she should be is woman-as-problem, an othered figure who presents obstacle and nuisance to the male with whom the story is aligned. And is she that? Yes, she is that. These are grossly sexist stories and this character exists to serve a grossly sexist function within them and I’d be chatting bollocks if I tried to suggest otherwise. She serves the same unlovely purpose in these stories as does Lois Lane in the Superman stories of the time. That’s something Teen Clark immediately apprehends when he catches his first sight of Teen Lois, recalls Lana, and froths up a thought bubble to the effect of “Same energy.” 

I’m glad he does because the comparison to Lois moves us on. We all get that the character of Lois Lane is to some extent detachable from the narrative function of Lois Lane, and the evidence suggests that Superboy’s contemporary female readership was performing that operation on Lana. Girls were reading these comics – whenever Superboy addresses his audience, normally at the top of an activity page suggesting something wholesome to make or do, it’s always as “fellers and girls” – and they were writing to the letters pages. Three topics mostly occupied them; “Why haven’t you invented Supergirl yet?”, “I should like to date Superboy please” and “Give Lana a break.”. One such correspondent in Adventure #253 was Dorothy Watson of New Jersey or ‘Dotty’ as the editor decided to rename her while issuing the condescending reply “You girls stick together, eh?” Too fucking right. Girls liked Lana and were on her side. 

And why wouldn’t they be? When you gather together all the details about Lana then you’ve everything you need to create a fascinating and sympathetic character. Except that we know not to gather those details together. In Superboy #66, Clark does horribly in a test and his humiliating results are posted on a board. “Look Clark! You’re the only one in class who failed this EASY exam!” Lana says as the two stand there regarding his public shame, “Aren’t you embarrassed?”  We understand this sort of storytelling, so we know that the reason she’s saying this is to economically establish that Clark has failed an easy exam and should feel embarrassed. We are not being invited to think about what sort of a person would talk to their dearest friend like that or what she gains by doing so. As competent readers we know to disregard most of what these characters say and do when considering what kind of character they should be taken to be.

Sod that. I am an incompetent reader. Lana’s in the details. 

“Gosh these Geography questions are hard,” she says, boldly chatting away during one of Superboy #66’s many tests. We glimpse her marked paper in the corner of the next panel. She got 96%. Lana is someone who is both very clever, and very concerned with managing her own reputation. It takes some managing. At the social center of Smallville’s teen life, she knows everyone but can be overconfident in how she applies that knowledge; one day Clark shows up at her door wearing his uncle’s jacket and she is unable to recognize him as Clark, Superboy, or anyone from the town because she is so utterly certain that nobody in Smallville has a jacket like that. 

Just as she has thoughts on everyone’s jackets, everyone has thoughts on her. The gossip around town (according to Superboy #64) is that she’s always getting into danger, which is kind of unfair on the evidence of these mostly low-peril stories. She works on containing that one, swearing people to secrecy about the time she drove her boat backward (Superboy #63), but there’s no keeping a lid on that other thing they say about Lana Lang. They say she’s in love with Superboy.

Which she is. She’s also dating mild-mannered Clark Kent. She very much is. They attend parties together, walk home together, go to the movies, go to ‘teen dances.’ He is absolutely Lana Lang’s Boyfriend, Clark Kent. She keeps several “cute” photos of him on her bureau, while on her wall she keeps pin-ups of Superboy. After all, she suspects to the point of certainty that the two are one and the same. She’s seen enough staged simultaneous appearances of Clark and Superboy by this point that such performances are no longer going to put her off the scent and is deeply unimpressed by would-be teen detectives like Gloria van Dyke trying to whittle down a list of suspects to arrive at Superboy by process of elimination. She knows perfectly well who Superboy is and that she’s dating him. Except when the most extreme circumstances cause her to doubt herself then her agenda is never to discover the identity of Superboy, but just to possess tangible proof that he is Clark.  

Her priorities become very clear when she comes into possession of a magic Polaroid camera that lets her take pics of whatever Superboy’s looking at. Obviously, this gizmo is a sure-fire way to prove his secret identity, and obviously Lana cottons on to that after it’s rattled out a couple of evidential snaps, but it’s far from her first thought. Her first thought is “Golly, it’s exciting to have a super-camera like this!” because she’s thrilled at the thought of “seeing the world through Superboy’s eyes.” Using this opportunity to corner Superboy is lower down her list than using it to experience that Super life. 

Which is what she’s really after. She’s one of the smartest kids in school and is especially invested in the social dynamics of her peers, but the biggest social fact in her life – my boyfriend is Superboy – is one she’s expected to pretend, even to him, that she doesn’t know. Her situation is a very specific kind of disempowerment; She gets the thing she wants, a relationship with Superboy/Clark, but at the cost of the things she values about her own identity.

So whenever there’s an opportunity to empower herself, Lana’s there. When Superboy’s trying to bestow super-speed on her father then she’s going to be using a recording of his voice to steal the power for herself and whizz about until her roller-skates catch fire. If Superboy’s super-dog has fallen out with him then she’ll be adopting that pooch and directing him to do her fearsome bidding. There’s a bottle of super-power pills on the table? She’ll neck the lot and make all her friends watch as she apprehends fugitives and chops down really big trees. Her main goal is always to correct the power imbalance in her weird relationship and to get to do awesome shit while doing so.

On a day to day basis that means torturing Clark Kent; Putting him through hell on quiz shows, mocking his exam scores, quasi-diegetically smashing up his statues. I’d say the narrator has a line in Superboy #63 that perfectly sums up their relationship (“Yes, Clark, you’re at Lana’s mercy”) if Lana didn’t have a line in the same story that captures it even better – “Put that piano down and remove your shirt.”  

When the Kents are impoverished, Lana is there to make Clark mend her roof while she watches. When Clark is amnesiac, Lana is there to make Clark wash her dishes while she watches. The fellers of the fifties are not the only ones being offered power fantasies here, and Lana’s wider behavior contextualizes all her efforts to prove that Clark is Superboy. She doesn’t need that proof herself and there’s nothing to be gained by showing it to others, so she isn’t really trying to find any so much as cheerfully bullying Clark with the possibility that she might.

How ugly or cute all of this is depends on whether or not Clark’s into it, and while he’s unreadable on most of the torments Lana subjects him to, the game of Lana trying to prove his identity is one they both seem to be enjoying equally. Clark’s full of smiles and winks on the matter and, when a day goes by without her accusing him of being Superboy then it’s enough to make him suspect that she’s been replaced by a time-traveling descendant who’s come back to steal some cobalt. Superboy #63 ends with a Lana who came very close to ending the game conceding that she’s not smart enough to have the proof and that she’s glad she didn’t find it. I buy one of those two things. 

Neither Lana nor Clark have the vocabulary to articulate what they’re doing here, and obviously, they’d be headed towards something less risky if they could, but they can only work within the conceptual framework available to them. Lana is someone who’s socially competent and practically powerless in a relationship with someone who’s socially isolated and practically omnipotent. That’s not an easy thing to make work, and I’m not going to suggest that what Lana’s found is entirely healthy. But they both look like they’re having fun.    

Moving on to Superboy’s other bestie, Lana’s father, Professor Lang. Another misunderstood figure. For example, people say he keeps a tiger in his shed on which to conduct experiments. Even Lana gets that wrong about him in Superboy #62. Rubbish. He keeps a succession of tigers in his shed, replacing them as they grow “old” and “sick.”

A collaborative worker, Lang participates in Science Clubs and Explorer’s Clubs and sometimes they give him shiny medals. Unlike some of the petulant boffins we meet, such as Professor Dalton who stroppily decides it’s no more science for him after his gizmo breaks in Superboy #68, Lang is all about this life. Tiger abuse is only one string to his bow, with his main expertise being in archaeology, a field he understands as involving jaunts to ‘the jungle’ and ‘the Orient’ to steal various cursed artifacts before bringing them back to laugh at the superstitious ways of the people he’s robbed. There are plenty of reasons he might of settled in Smallville – the museum, the thriving scientific community, the abundance of Native American artifacts and ancient alien bug-monster eggs for him to dig up – but fewer apparent reasons why young Clark would count this geezer as one of his two dearest friends. As we’ll come to later, that may tell us more about Clark than Lang.          

Clark’s extended family all live out of town, from the rheumatic grandfather to the widowed aunt and her many children, to Uncle Frank. That one sometimes visits though, and I choose to believe he’s a time-traveling Frank Miller on a fact-finding expedition. But other than him, and a couple of fake phone calls during ruses, the Smallville Kents potter along alone. The nostalgic small town myth we’d expect of these stories implies a family rooted into its community by generations of blood ties, but there’s not a bit of it. The immediate Kent family unit are the only Kents in town.      

They are a slick operation. You remember in the nineties when there used to be all those little books about what Winnie the Pooh could teach you about different management styles, or how the real secrets of the X-Files related to improved team-building? There’s one to write on how the Kents run their shit. They are on this. They have identified three ongoing concerns –

  • Running a grocery shop.
  • Keeping the house nice.
  • The Superboy project.

And each brings all their skills and resources to all three. Clark’s got specific responsibilities with regards to dusting, we see Pa getting busy with a mop and bucket around the house, and just as the housework isn’t demarcated as being Ma’s Job, so being Superboy isn’t Clark’s job. They’re in this together. They chose the name together, Ma made the costume, and they negotiated how it would mean reducing the time Clark works in the shop to just a few hours after school. The Superboy Project isn’t even dependent on the presence, or indeed existence, of Superboy. They have a bunch of Superboy robots which Pa is adept at remotely piloting when his son’s incapacitated. In the event of Clark’s death, Pa intends to carry on operating the robots in his memory, with Smallville never even needing to know he has died.

Ma Kent is a tough customer, easily mistaken for Grandma Molly, the international gem thief. When she finds herself with super-powers there’s no note of comic incompetence to how she employs them; presented with a car about to crash into a train and only x-ray vision with which to prevent it, she’s shown to be competent and quick-thinking, arriving at a classic lateral Silver Age Superman solution with time left over for the narrator to proudly declare she’s “doing fine.”   

She keeps up to date with the weird science experiments Clark is performing down in the basement. Not just to the extent of making sure that he’s not borrowed a tiger from next door – She’s properly paying attention. If he’s working on a new kind of lightning rod then she’ll know what it’s composed of. Pa’s in on this action too, even knowing enough to be able to work out how to reverse the effects of Weird Basement Science. In fact, it was Pa that first puzzled out the mystery of Kryptonite.

Admittedly, they can both be a little forgetful. Pa can forget to send off completed insurance forms, forget about secret cameras he has mounted in nearby trees and forget he’s been told not to open the door in the middle of weird basement science.  Ma can forget which box contains the super-power pills. But whether it’s deceiving the school when necessary for super-business, providing the attention to detail necessary to maintain the secret identity, piloting robots, using their own temporary super-powers, or doing super-science, Ma and Pa can be relied on. When circumstances occasionally force them out of the loop, like the secret reasons for Superboy’s mid-air sit-in, then it’s confusing and upsetting for everyone. 

So, that’s the Kents considered as a shopkeeping/housekeeping super-team. What’re they like just as a family? The idea of a Superman whose values come from having been raised in the pure simplicity of a bygone America would seem to demand they be in a position of moral authority over their child and be busy instilling him with their wisdom and homilies, like Jonathan Hickman and Scott Synder’s sagacious dads do in the funny books of today. Come to think of it, one of the most recent comics in which I’ve seen Pa Kent was Snyder’s Justice League #25. There he was teaching us some important life lessons via instruction on how to make paper lanterns. Will we, or Clark, be on the receiving end of any similar practical, hands-on parables today?

Absolutely not. Nobody can tell this kid anything. Nobody, as far as these stories are concerned, needs to, as Superboy is presented as the moral and intellectual superior of his parents, his parents are presented as fully accepting of this, and the household is presented as one in which Clark holds patriarchal authority. “Other boys look up to their fathers as ‘heroes’!” reflects Clark in Adventure #249,  “But I’M the ‘hero’ in this household, because of my secret career as Superboy!” 

One of the biggest power fantasies these comics are selling to teenagers is simply “What if I was in charge around here?” In Superboy #69, Clark says “I’ll tell you what to do, Dad… and you must follow my instructions exactly.” There’s a lot of dialogue like that, a lot of talk of how the adults must follow Clark’s plans and abide by his rules. This is a fantasy of the child as the head of the house, a note which sounded ominously in Miller’s Superman Year One where it was suggested that, from babyhood onwards, Clark was calling the shots through telepathic manipulation of his earthly hosts. Nothing here suggests quite that horrorshow. It’s just that the Kents defer to Superboy because he is Superboy and because there is nothing in his behavior for them to correct and no gaps in his understanding that they can fill. 

The tabula rasa Superboy who arrives amnesiac at Lana’s door needs no kindly parents to arrive at his fundamental moral position, he just gets there from first principles. Lana tries to cut his hair, the scissors aren’t up to it, and straight away he’s like, “Amazing! I must learn more about myself! Such powers as mine should be used to their utmost to help others who are weaker!” Ready to leap up, up and away to take on whatever bullies he’s hypothesized using nothing but the might of untrimmable hair.         

Stories where Clark is in dispute with his parents, like Superboy #66, end with them coming to understand why their son was entirely right. Stories where Pa seems jealous and unaccepting of Clark’s authority, like Adventure #249, end with this being revealed as a cunning ruse to trick mobsters. These comics are clear that Clark needs his parents’ love and practical support, but are profoundly hostile to the idea that there’s anything he can actually learn from them. 

This is a loving family, they’re all proud of each other and they tell each other so, but like every component and iteration of the Super-family, it’s full of strange and terrible behavior, at times emotionally distant and at times oblivious to boundaries. The Kents take two vacations without Clark this year, and Ma will think nothing of reading his diary. There’s a scene early into the Bendis run where Lois Lane drives a stake into the heart of the assimilationist Tomasi run that preceded it. Her monologue feels to me like the key to understanding anything the Superfamily do in any era. “Normal life rules do not apply to us on any level,” she says, “We will not have normal family responsibilities to each other or to ourselves.” What might seem like our basic expectations of behavior and basic minimums of decency don’t map that well onto these impossible people in their impossible world.  

It’s still shocking though. The choices Lois is justifying in that speech are shocking and a choice Ma Kent makes here is even more so. When a ruse Mobster-fooling ruse of Pa’s demands that she be fooled into thinking the Kents are disowning Clark and swapping him for her nephew Freddy, Ma is super-into the idea. For one panel she has a genteel  sob into a hanky, then in the next, she’s smiling adoringly at a photo of Freddy, as Clark’s is removed from the mantelpiece, delighted to be having a son who’s her “own flesh and blood.”

The Kents’ slick and mutually supportive operation, using the resources available to the three of them to pursue their shared and individual goals, is in stark contrast to the unfortunate life of Krypto Mouse, a briefly empowered rodent under the thumb of the vile Tommy Ewell. The Ewell child lives out his own dreams of being Superboy by directing his confused and unhappy captive to perform acts of heroism his mouse-brain cannot fathom, then punishing and admonishing him when they are not performed to his satisfaction. The amoral little tale ends with Tommy being rewarded with a big diamond. Ugh. 

Nothing more is heard of Krypto Mouse. The character’s wikia page only wants to tediously insist that Crisis on Infinite Earths would have scrubbed the wee beastie from existence and assure us that, since mice have a short lifespan, he would have expired off-panel some time before Superman reached adulthood anyway. The things that the internet’s collective memory wants to be sure you know about Krypto Mouse is that he never existed and that he died. Never mind though, there’s also a Krypto Dog, even though nobody ever makes any connection between the two. 

Krypto the Superdog is not part of the Kent family unit. He doesn’t live with them, preferring his ‘space roaming.’ In the letters pages, the editors assure us that this is perfectly normal; Since earth dogs like to run free and frolic through meadows, naturally superdogs prefer lives of near-total isolation in the trackless void of space. The logic is sound, but nevertheless, there’s something just a little uncomfortable about the life of Krypto as it’s presented here. He takes the lead in three 1958 stories and they’re all about the absence of trust.    

The people of Smallville do not have confidence in this dog. The boy with the power to end the world, they trust. The matching dog? No. That is asking too much. In Superboy #67’s ‘The Execution of Krypto’ they need little evidence before immediately believing that he has killed a child and calling for his extermination, almost as if they’d been waiting for the day to come.

Superboy’s plan in Adventure #254 seems eccentric – convincing the populace that Krypto is hypnotizing him to give his powers away one by one so that the hound, now possessed of the greater number of powers, will be ‘master’ – until you see how the locals eat it up with a spoon. “I can see the headline!” enthuse the gentlemen of the press, “Krypto Wants To Be Top Dog!” Even Ma Kent buys it. Jealously hypnotizing Superboy into divesting himself of his powers is something they think absolutely fucking typical of this dog.

Krypto does not especially trust Superboy. That Superboy #67 story sees him absolutely convinced that his master has ordered and is enabling his execution. And that cover to Superboy #64, the one where Lana is crowing about how Krypto “hates” Clark now? That is no misrepresentation of the story within. No mind-control, no red kryptonite, no cunning charades. It’s straightforwardly a story about Krypto being furious with Clark. There is a misunderstanding involved – Krypto believes a trophy the Mayor has awarded him has instead been given to Superboy – but his feelings and behaviors all stand without it. Krypto is jealous of Superboy’s status and the misunderstanding was just the final straw, causing him to resolve to never again bark hello to him and to defect to being Lana’s super-pet.             

Clark’s response is brutal. He acquires an ordinary sausage dog and uses it to shame the renegade Krypto by proving it a more effective crime-fighter than he. ‘Hot Dog’, the dachshund in question, is wrapped in foam rubber and used as a shield to stop bullets then rolled into a hoop and hurled at ne’er-do-wells. We don’t have enough textual evidence to say if ‘Hot Dog’ was as miserable as that mouse was, but what we can say is that any inanimate object could have performed those functions as effectively. We can also note that a bulletproof teenager probably doesn’t even need a foam-wrapped dog as a bullet shield. Krypto notes none of this, falls for this attempt to convince him that he isn’t shit without Clark, concedes that ‘Hot Dog’ is “the better dog”, and abandons both his rebellion and self-respect.    

At this point, we really need to start asking ourselves what’s going on with this Clark Kent character. I think we’ve all got quite strong ideas about what we want from a portrayal of a young Superman, and the failure of several movies this decade suggests that ‘nothing edgy, please’ is high on most of our lists. We are now resistant to the idea of Young Clark as an alienated and socially isolated figure because we’ve seen it done very badly and/or by people like Max Landis who we might be disinclined to trust to tell us the tale of the man who stands apart.

Nobody with any interest in Superman has a neutral reaction to the sullen, slouched and hooded Clark on the cover of Shane DavisSuperman: Earth One. It’s fascinating how that image shifted so many units in the book trade while how so many Superman fans recoil from it in atavistic revulsion.  

Superman Earth One
These wounds they will not heal.

There’s nothing slouched or sullen about the Superboy of 1958, and any question of if these stories are ‘edgy’ is preposterous. But look, every day at school the kid excuses himself from his peers, proceeds to a secluded spot and takes his lunch hour alone. We do need to talk about that.          

How his classmates feel about him is hard to read. When he’s seen to be persecuted they’re heard to say “Shame on you for picking up Clark! He’s the weakest boy in our class!” so they’re at least protective of his person if not perhaps his feelings. What we can be certain of is that he can leave a Clark-shaped balloon sat in class while he goes off on a mission and be confident that nobody will try and interact with it while he’s gone. In the social sphere of his school, Clark is 100% interchangeable with a balloon. That’s a bigger deal than a dachshund. We see him attend two parties this year and at both, he seems to be there mostly as Lana’s plus one and is only seen talking to her. On the walk home, they discuss how the others made him feel uncomfortable. 

Talking to another child is something we see him do far more often as Superboy than as Clark, and naturally, those conversations are all about teaching them important lessons and protecting them from harm rather than just shooting the shit. The Boy of Steel persona is not one capable of maintaining a friendship, and ‘Superboy’s Unknown Rival’ from Superboy #64 hinges on that idea. There we learn that having a personal friendship with Superboy would be seen as social capital in Smallville High, and we watch poor little rich boy Jimmy Greeves flounder as he’s hoodwinked by crooks into thinking he has one.

The story works because it’s taken as absurd that Superboy could have a young, bow-tie-wearing friend called Jimmy. Extraordinary, given that issue 28 of Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen was on the racks the same month. It feels like a very crisp contrast; Superman may have pals while Superboy may not. Even if the story does end with Superboy telling his Jimmy that they’re friends, he does so while explaining that this is a reward for Jimmy having learned an important lesson and because publicly displaying their friendship will teach Jimmy’s classmates a secondary important lesson. The last panel sees Superboy fully in pedagogic papa mode, not buddying around with a new chum.              

Teaching important lessons to his classmates comes naturally to Clark, while humor does not. When a story in Superboy #64 compels him to spend its duration performing practical jokes, he can only breakthrough that personal barrier by making his gags also serve some other, more practical, function. That’s no trouble as his habitual ‘lessons’ and ‘ruses’ both structurally work like practical jokes anyway. Elaborate deceptions to convince one of the Glorias that she dreamt the several days she spent as his sister, or to convince Lana that he’s dying, nobody will listen to her, and that she’s going mad, are all part of his daily routine but he’s uncomfortable trying to make a funny. The immediately following story bears this out as he awkwardly tries some light tomfoolery in front of a safe adult, Professor Lang. Lang doesn’t laugh and the town is almost destroyed.  

Hollywood is another thing Clark’s not so sure about, and his telescopic vision keeps the place under close surveillance. Its film stars are his rivals in the scrapbooks and hearts of several girls, but that doesn’t seem to be his issue so much as how hard it is to tell their world from reality, whether they’re faking mobsters or giant creepy-crawlies. Clark almost derails a happy ending by ranting against the falsity of the movie people, but Pa puts him right. This is one of the only examples in these comics of Clark’s parents providing him with direct moral instruction, and the instruction is that the entertainment industry does valuable work.

His own work, or the parts of it other than housework and shopkeeping, the parts that constitute ‘Being Superboy’, has a number of elements. There are lots of little helpful tasks to do around town like fixing fire hydrants and carrying neighbors’ houses to more desirable locations, and part of the phenomenon of the ‘Superboy of Smallville’ seems to be that he is committed to this being a town in good repair and to carrying out general acts of maintenance. Involvement in research is another of his roles, usually by bending big metal things or having them a shot at him. Some of this, like the steel alloys he tests in Metropolis, seems to be on behalf of private industry, but mostly it’s for the army, who maintain a Department of Unusual Weapons.

Following ‘Fixing stuff’ and ‘Testing stuff’ then the list of Superboy activities is completed by ‘Generally keeping an eye on stuff.’ Smallville expects a daily patrol from Superboy and worries that something’s up if he doesn’t show, even though they know perfectly well that sometimes it’ll just be a robot flying about, because Lana’s told them. Magazines may run articles on ‘How Superboy Broke Up a Crime Ring’ but he doesn’t take a particularly investigative role in these stories.

We never see him try to solve a crime or dismantle any mobs, just have a look round with his telescopic vision and his flyovers to see if there’s anything immediate that needs doing. Which raises the question of why if he can monitor the planet, as he’s shown to do, his exploits almost all take place in Smallville. Since we see that he does leap into action when there’s a famine that needs alleviating somewhere and that he is prepared to absent himself from a major plotline when zoo animals are escaping in Metropolis, all we can assume is that this doesn’t come up very often. He is mostly active in Smallville because that’s where the action is, while the rest of the planet’s fairly quiet. Certainly, Smallville has an above-average number of wild animals on the loose. In Adventure #247 alone it suffers its own zoo breakout AND a derailed circus train. Lang must never have to look far for a tiger.

Whatever the problem, it’s rarely solved by violence. When, towards the end of ‘58, Superboy comes up against a problem that can’t be solved by gaslighting, boy-balloons, or digging little tunnels, and decides that the time has finally come to do someone some physical damage, his first instinct is not to roll up his sleeves and start swinging punches. He calls in the army. Fighting is their job. It’s not part of Superboy’s. 

Superboy has got enough to do, but he also finds time for the things he wants personally, and his relationship with Lana is one of those. It’s not part of a cover story or a ruse to keep his persecutor close. He pursues and enjoys social time with her and, during the amnesia story, is jealous of the other him that she’s into. Clark likes being Lana’s boyfriend. Almost as much as doing Mad Basement Science, which he is so excited about.

Repeatedly he complains that he wishes he had more time for the experiments and his contraptions he’s got stashed under his house, and he’s always anxious to get back in the lab. What he’s building down there is telling. Many of his experiments are about overcoming personal limits, like becoming immune to Kryptonite or able to see through lead, but others are about seeing the future. I’d like to be able to tell you the amusing tale of how, in one of 1959’s comics, he invented a time-space visualizer to gaze upon the wonders of the world to come, only to disappoint everyone by displaying the adult Oliver Queen, but even here in 1958 his “favorite invention” is the Oracle Computer, which gobbles up today’s headlines and gives you tomorrow’s.    

Like the archetypal young man of Aristotle’s On Rhetoric, Clark lives “not in memory, but in expectation” yet the past does weigh on him. He can get wistful thinking about everything that was lost with Krypton and when apparently confronted with the planet’s destroyer, become so upset that he starts having rare lapses in judgment and observation. The plot of ‘The Man who Destroyed Krypton’ is unusual in that it depends on Clark’s emotional state to work.

Most of these stories would play out the same no matter what mood he was in because he’s not really living in the present. He knows his name will be ‘Superman’ one day. He knows he’ll live in Metropolis. He’s resolved to be a reporter for the Daily Planet because he’s tried it as an intern and been terrible at it – as with seeing through lead and resisting kryptonite, anything that Clark learns he can’t do goes straight on his To-Do List.  

Kozz of Mars is a very petty Martian, and, had Superman III steered closer to its source material from Adventure Comics #255, Richard Pryor would have been hilarious in the role. Splitting Superboy and Clark into separate entities just to prove a point, Kozz then buggers off smugly in his flying saucer, happy to have won his argument and with no concern at all for the really tedious argument he’s lumbered us with about what it means for Superboy and Clark to have been split into separate entities. It hasn’t been something Superboy/Clark has thought about much.

In Superboy #65 much misunderstanding occurred between Superboy and a further alien visitor, Dworn, because our hero failed to understand that Dworn would respond to him differently in his two personas. Dworn answers a question from Clark differently than he would have answered it from Superboy, and Superboy spends five pages flapping about, his mind blown. 

Talk of Clark/Superboy dichotomies are not the sort of thing our Boy of Steel is immediately equipped to engage with, so before Kozz the Pettiest Martian zaps him in twain, he turns his red Kryptonite rays on a couple of other beasties by way of example. A caterpillar “instantly splits into its other form as a butterfly while its original form also remains!” while red Kryptonite “makes a tadpole form out of [a] frog! See — Now both forms of the same creature exist!” Not sure these work exactly the same, Kozz. Butterflies aren’t known for transforming back into caterpillars after they’re done testing military hardware and tadpoles rarely have to make sure that Lana Lang can’t prove they’re frogs. To follow the Martian’s analogy is to assent to the idea that either Superboy or Clark is a larval state. 

Which would be an interesting idea to try and puzzle out, but neither Superboy nor Clark is inclined to. Superboy is adamant that he is simply real and that Clark is merely “the disguise I used at times” while Clark is having none of it. There’s a fantastic panel of him saying, “Stop telling me I’m your ‘secret identity!’ I’m Clark Kent, that’s all! Get out or I’ll call the police!”

All this is our first chance to see how the personas differ, Ma Kent may sometimes say she feels like she has two sons but that feeling rarely reaches the reader to whom Clark is mostly just a good boy and Superboy an airborne good boy, but that chance is quickly snatched from us. The red kryptonite has warped the extracted Clark’s sense of RIGHT and WRONG and left him naught but a conniving crook with a lust for snazzy ties, useless for making subtle comparisons with Superboy who isn’t a crook and doesn’t wear a tie.

One significant that does happen though, since before Bad Clark eventually carks it, Superboy starts referring to him as “the second Clark” implying himself as the first. Over the course of the last Superboy story of the year, Superboy moves from thinking about Clark as merely a disguise to thinking of him as the life he’s living. A life in a Smallville that is and isn’t 1958, growing up in a Tech Bro Nightvale with his lonely lunches, a fraught relationship with his dog, a fragile sense of self, no idea how to talk to people who aren’t parents or parent-shaped, and a girlfriend with no model for how to be an ethical domme.  

Something around here needs to change.

Long live the Legion.  

5) I WANT TO CONNECT BUT THERE NEVER WILL BE A BATMAN

Superboy’s mid-air sit-in goes on long enough for him to become quite bored, so he remotely seizes control of two of his robot duplicates and makes them play chess. Or rather, plays chess against himself by taking turns as each of those two replicas. A solitary self refracted then reflected. Like Bizzaro, a less compliant duplicate, who caught sight of himself in a shop window and immediately smashed it, appalled at its ugliness. Throughout these stories, Superboy is forever being splintered and thrown back at himself.

“It’s all about living in the ocean, being wild and free” insists the theme tune to H20 Just Add Water but, for the three mermaids of that teen drama, life was anything but wild or free, as they spent their heavily restricted youths having to avoid the slightest contact with the earth’s most common substance or face being dissected by Australians. Secret identity stories offer a lot to teenagers, as they’re equally useful for providing empowerment fantasies and for giving voice to anxieties.       

We’ve talked about the story where Ma and Pa get X-Ray vision, the story where Smallville High’s students receive invisible messages from the criminal underworld via special glasses, and the story where Lana’s magic camera shows her whatever Clark’s looking at. Those three stories all come back to back in Superboy #66, and any attempt to read that comic in one sitting ends with the reader rolling around on the floor screaming, “The Eyes! The Eyes! Stop looking at me! Stop looking at me! The terrible, terrible Eyes!”

Adolescence, for many of us, is the time where we stop having one consistent one-size-fits-all personality and start to become acutely aware that we’re displaying a different range of behaviors with our parents, our teachers, and different groups of friends. That we’re even talking differently. It’s frightening, moving from a sense of just being one person to a world where we’re losing count, as we step out of childhood and into, well, into the Spiderverse. Into a great big web of versions of oneself. These stories are interested in that. Superboy #65 has an incredibly blatant one about post-masturbatory guilt, ‘Superboy’s Moonlight Spell,’ where Clark’s mind goes places he feels it oughtn’t whenever darkness falls, his mother makes appalling discoveries while putting away his pajamas, and he’s left lying sad and flat in bed asking himself, “Why am I only bad sometimes and good others?” The story ends with Clark saying, “Now I’ll bottle up the volcano — and bury that danger […] forever!” Good luck with that, kid.

 ‘Moonlight Spell’ is unusual in that the good Superboy and the evil wanking Superboy occupy the same body, Jekyll and Hyde style. The normal tendency is to slice Clark up into as many little bits as possible. The second Clark created by Kozz of Mars survives the iconic cinematic showdown in a junkyard, only to die in a remarkable conflict later on. Evil Clark and Superboy decide to duke it out by proxy, each controlling a Superboy robot. Two Clark Kents fighting each at the command of two other Clark Kents. Eventually, the evil Clark, wearing one of his ill-gotten snazzy ties, decides to cheat and make all the spare robots attack Superboy. Two Clark Kents battle using two other Clark Kents while five Clark Kents attack one of those Clark Kents at the command of the other Clark Kent. The control box overloads and kills the wicked one. 

Clark must always feel a bit like overloading in the face of all these externalized selves. “There isn’t room on Earth for two Superboys,” says Dworn, an inverted Superboy who’s strong in the presence of Kryptonite, as he abandons the planet based on that reasoning. But there seems to be room for dozens of them! Clark has seven robots, one evil doppelganger, life-sized balloons of himself and a plastic dummy of himself that was once thrown over a waterfall by a dog dressed up like him. Clark’s lost in a maze of himself, of pin-ups and statues and billboards. The anxiety here is solipsistic – Clark’s secret puts him in a psychic space where there’s nothing but Clark, a world of Clarks. Corrupt, uncanny, robotic and inflatable. 

The queer reading hangs low, despite occasional heterosexual rubbish from the narrator like, “Would you think it great fun to have a double identity like Superboy, keeping your secret from all the world?” Nah, mate. Not so much. A secret isolates Superboy from the world and so he spirals inwards. His motorized and inanimate duplicates both live in a closet in his room, which Adventure #251 sees his parents show up to tidy. “Your secret storeroom needs cleaning too, son” advises Ma. 

But Clark cannot keep his secret storeroom clean. Out tumbles piles of alien bric-a-brac as an embarrassed Pa says “Looks like there’s…er…too much stuff in there! It’s crammed with Superboy trophies and whatnot!” Superboy needs all this Superboy. The story ends with him deciding he needs to keep all his robot duplicates as they squabble among themselves as to which it to go out into the world, pretending to be him.

But sometimes the double must die. There are no tears for the death of the Clark in the Snazzy Tie, and Superboy is resolute in his intention to kill Bizzaro. Created by a duplicator ray accident, the Bizzaro of Superboy #68 isn’t an inversion or mirroring of Superman as later Bizzaros will be. He doesn’t speak in words with opposite meanings, just in a childlike, Hulk-speak. He is simply an imperfect replica of Superboy. His up is not down, it is just a less good up. And everyone absolutely freaks out. It’s a Frankenstein story, right down to the kindliness of the blind, but one totally reluctant to indict its baying mob.

Ma is revolted by him, and Superboy just disgusted by his ignorance. All act as if he’s the most revolting thing they’ve ever seen even though, visually, the only difference between him and Superboy is a receding hairline and a lower poly count. Despite his evident consciousness and agency we’re repeatedly assured that it’s fine to kill him because his body isn’t made of organic matter. After driving him to suicide, Superboy does sort of say he’s sorry but only while explaining that he was right to do it and it’s for the best, so it’s not a great apology.

Perhaps the most visually upsetting depictions of Clark’s diminishing self comes from Superboy #69, where a sick and immobilized Clark watches his dad control one of the robots in a desperate battle against determined outlaws. The robot loses its arms, then its head, but carries on fighting the good fight, the sickly Clark glued to these images of his own fragmentation. The legs go next, and then the body. Until all that is left of ‘Superboy’ are three scraps of colored cloth, red, blue and yellow, fluttering before his eyes under the direction of his father’s jet tubes. Big mood. This lad desperately needs to get out of the secret storeroom and start talking to some boys his own age.    

Like Robin the Boy Wonder, who travels back from the future to help out in Adventure #253. It’s a touching story, as he brings real companionship into Clark’s life. Solving mysteries together as equals, having lunch with Ma and Pa, chatting about cute domestic trivia, the great tides of Atomic Age history, and their personal triumphs and tragedies. Robin looks like exactly what it was absurd to claim Jimmy Greeves was. He looks like a friend, and with him, he’s brought the promise of more.

Robin’s exposition about his journey to the past starts, “One day, when Batman was out of town, I was flying to visit you, Superman at your secret fortress, when suddenly…” Look how much is implied there! That one day a ‘secret fortress’ will be a place for friends to visit (exactly as it will be ‘Fort Superman’ is reintroduced in Action #241 as a social space) and that one day he’ll be part of a community with multiple moving parts. That one day there’ll be a Batman. That last thing is what little Clark really latches on to, despite the total relevance of Batman to this story, because Robin’s told him what Batman is. One day, Clark is promised, he will have a “best friend.”

The most heartfelt panel in any of these comics comes when Clark has had cause to doubt that. Or rather cause to doubt Robin’s whole story, but it’s the existence or otherwise of Batman that bothers him. The reality of Batman makes no difference to the immediate palaver with exploding clocks and flying battering rams, but it’s the one detail Superboy cares about.

Superman and Robin Smallville

“All those stories you told me about the future — and BATMAN! They’re all lies! You’re not from the future — and there never will be a BATMAN!”   

He turns his back to Robin, a vulnerable pout on his face. Clark simply cannot make the idea that he’ll ever have a best friend feel real to him. Robin tries to convince him by listing ‘great feats’ that Clark will perform as Superman. He has no idea what’s up. How could he? Robin’s Bat-family. He was never alone.

Clark does eventually accept that Robin’s on the level, but doesn’t bring up Batman again. I still don’t think he can quite take that into his heart. What he’s been offered is an ‘It Gets Better’ narrative, and they’re never sufficient. Never sufficient but not useless either. As Clark waves goodbye to Robin and the promise that one day he’ll be part of a community, his voice catches. “Thanks Robin, thanks for saving my future life! I’m — I’m sorry to see you go…” The World’s Finest team can offer him hope for tomorrow. If only there was someone that could offer him tomorrow… today.

It is 1958. Clark Kent is a lonely teenager. The girl knows his secret. She is joined by the two boys he saw earlier. The three begin to undress in front of him. Something has changed. 

The Legion of Super-Heroes changes everything. Their first appearance in Adventure #247 is that one precious detail that everyone’s after from the Superboy stories of 1958, those twelve pages are what Johns and Bendis et all want, but I hope that by contextualizing them in the three hundred and seventy-two pages of Superboy comics that were published around them they look even brighter and stranger. I hope it’s evident how exciting it is to watch this Clark roll the word ‘super-hero’ around in his mouth, thinking about what it means for that to be an order of being, for there to be tons of them, and for them to have a cute clubhouse in an upside-down rocketship.

Because the first thing they offer him is space. The “hang on in there for Batman” story is simply a time travel story – someone comes from the future with news about how that is. ‘The Legion of Super-Heroes’ is only a time-travel story in the most literal sense. The Legion takes Clark to the Smallville of the thirtieth century, sure, sure, but that’s not what’s really happening. The Legion is teaching Clark to see a different Smallville. 

“What a relief that my secret identity is still safe here in Smallville!” says Clark after his new pals have made it clear that they see him, making that link between different spaces and different expressions of the self, taking that step out of his hall of mirrors. They take him to their Smallville. Parts of it look the same. His house is still there, looking exactly as it was, but now a plaque outside declares it the home of “Clark (Superboy) Kent” and a robot factory stands next door. It’s his house, but in a Smallville where who he is isn’t secret or separated and where the robots have moved out.

Those robots, the artificial faces that stand in for Clark, are used so tellingly here. He attends the Legion’s school, identical to his own – desks, chalkboards, yellow walls – and watches a history lesson in which a robot is demonstrating super-strength. The robot clicks, whirrs and winds down, exhausted from a thousand years of duty. Clark rises from his desk and offers to stand in for the robot. His entire relationship to these figures inverts as the truth replaces the lie.

He’s then assessed for membership in the Legion through a series of rigged tests and brought to believe he’s been utterly rejected. Legion stories will grow to become their own thing, largely be about worries about inclusion, exclusion and the navigation of friendship groups, and that thing will have grown out of this one sequence. “Who gets to be in the gang?” is what writers will mostly use the Legion to talk about, and where they’re running a very specific test to see if Clark does.

They’re testing for humility. Testing for grace. They’re testing for a willingness to fail. Of course, Superboy can perform super-feats, that’s not what the Legion need to know about him. He’s a socially-isolated white male and DO YOU KNOW WHAT it probably isn’t a bad idea to have a check to see if he’s safe. How will he handle rejection? How will he handle being bettered by a girl? What does he believe he’s entitled to? The exciting thing is… we don’t really know this as readers either. We can’t get answers from any of those other eighteen comics about whether or not this lonely boy is prepared to do the work and take the risks. Does he want to connect?

“You’re a super-good sport, taking it all with a smile!” says Cosmic Boy. He’s in.

In with Cosmic Boy and Lightning Lad and Saturn Girl and crowds of silhouetted figures to be colored in by later stories. In with people dressed in colors other than his own, with names that don’t start with ‘Super’ and faces that aren’t his. Out of a legion of robots and duplicates and into a community of people who’re like him, but who are not him. 

6) MILLICENT AND CEDRIC 

A third way to be Doctor Manhattan is be Captain Atom, the character’s original inspiration, as he appears in Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s Pax Americana. There we find him explaining Morrison’s notion of hypertime with reference to the comic book he’s holding (Morrison and Mahnke’s Ultra Comics).

Captain Atom

“The story’s linear, but I can flip through the pages in any order, any direction. Forward in time to the conclusion. Back to the opening scene.” This is brane cosmology applied to comics. The issues are branes, objects with a given number of dimensions, floating in a bulk (or hyperspace) with a greater number of dimensions. Our three-dimensional world contains their two-dimensional worlds and so our greater freedom of movement gives us control over the passage of their time. The good people of Smallville must experience their lives in order from panel to panel, but I can decide which comic to pick up and bring into my present experience. Today I am reading some old Superboy stories and therefore, as has been mentioned…

It is 1958. Clark Kent has had a hard day at work, reporting for the Daily Planet. The buzzing penetrates his window. His parents step from the vessel. His heart is to be broken. 

… but of course, it isn’t as simple as that.

For one thing, these particular stories in the two-dimensional space rely on non-linear storytelling, and for another our higher-dimensional position isn’t really so privileged. Captain Atom concedes this, saying, “Complete yet always beginning and ending. Always different.” I can read these comics from 1958 but I can’t read them as they would have been read in 1958.

Demonstrably I’ve made absolutely no effort to do so. I’ve read them in a nerdy Watsonian way by pretending that all the isolated details cohere to make a consistent imaginary world, and I’ve read them by applying some basic ass entry-level queer reading to talk about what they mean to an awkward bisexual who grew up in South Wales during the 80’s and 90’s. There were other choices I could have made, but I couldn’t not have made choices. That’s just something we all have to do when we bring material from the past into the present.

Which is the theme of Action Comics #247. A Superman story. 

Throughout 1958, Superboy and Adventure Comics did the work to establish that their Superboy stories were the authentic past of the Superman appearing in Superman and Action Comics. In December of that year, Action Comics worked to establish the same and to ask a question; Does it matter?

Between two and five things happened in Smallville. An infinity of things happened in Smallville. This is a period of Superman’s life that is completely vague in all the stories that matter and minutely detailed in thousands of stories that don’t. Does all the granular trivia of Smallville really just lift right out?

That’s what Ma and Pa seem to be wondering on the opening page of Action #250. They’re stood looking at an adult Clark and at statues of his Kryptonian parents holding him as a baby. Clark was a baby in a world without them and is an adult in a world where they’re dead. Does it matter that, in between, he lived as head of their house, the child enthroned?      

It matters, most modern versions of the story would claim because that’s when he learned to be America. Six years ago, in her redemptive reading of Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel, Liz Sandifer wrote…

In most renditions of Superman, the character learns his flawless values of truth, justice, and the American way from his hardworking agrarian father. [G]iven that the American values of hardworking folks in rural Kansas are, not to oversimplify, responsible for almost everything wrong on the planet, I am not averse to this being interrogated a bit. The fact of the matter is that a Superman raised by hardworking farmers in Kansas who has fully adopted their values would, and we can state this as empirical fact based upon their voting patterns, be overwhelmingly likely to be a misogynistic, racist religious fundamentalist who actively supports regressive politics that leave the poor to starve so that the rich can get just that little bit richer. Perhaps the Kents are one of those handful of progressives that exist in rural Kansas, but with counties that went 85% for Mitt Romney last year, well, you know.

Oh, but they have done worse since.   

The Pa Kent we’ve been looking at in this article doesn’t come from Kansas, doesn’t come from a farming community and hasn’t once been portrayed as the source of Superman’s values. This body of work is simply not what we remember it as being, and the process by which we’ve come to misremember it is surely adjacent to the process that leads us to situate the origins of decency in such an incredibly implausible location as the white America of yesteryear.  

Action Comics #247 Smallville

In Action Comics #247 a time bubble arrives in Metropolis, looking just like the time bubble that brought the Legion to Smallville. Only while that one came from the future, this one comes from the past. Ma and Pa Kent, both long dead, have come to pay their grown-up son a visit.

For the first half of the story, we see how that plays out as he assures them that they did mean something to him and they continue to be valued, just not entirely without qualification. To this rendition of Superman, they are thought of not fully as parents but as ‘Earth parents’ or ‘foster parents.’  He does not see these guys as being where he’s from. Opening one last secret storeroom, in which replicas of Ma, Pa and Young Clark enjoy a meal together, Superman explains to the Kents who they were. They were people who made him feel happy, safe and loved.

Later, the telephone rings. The speech balloon which emerges from it is jagged and vicious, the words it carries are broken up by malicious cackles and mocking quotation marks. It is a terrible conversation. Millicent and Cedric are calling. Everything has been a lie.        

There was no Time Bubble. It was a movie prop. Ma and Pa never visited. These were actors on the swindle. They were Milicent and Cedric. Clark was right to distrust the movie people, wrong to let his guard slip. His heart is broken. Hollywood has had its revenge.

The rest of the issue is spent containing the threat of the False Kents, their stolen goods and secret knowledge, but by the end of it Clark is in no better place emotionally. His past was brought into his present and vandalized before his eyes. Haha we ruined your favorite thing. Looking sadly at a photograph of the Kents, Clark wonders what he can do to fix this. After all, when we bring the past into the present then we have choices to make. Clark makes one. “Regardless of how it turned out, I’ll just pretend Mom and Dad Kent DID visit me from the past!” he says and our story ends.    

He replaces this uncomfortable memory with a happier delusion. Just as we’ve done to Smallville over the years, through reboots, retellings, and adaptations. We’ve taken a weird place like nowhere on Earth where this character had a weird family life like nobody’s ever and decided, culturally, that we’d rather remember it as something else. We decided that it was more useful to us as Sandifer’s nightmare, a myth of truth and justice arising from an America that was great. 

These stories aren’t widely read and that doesn’t matter. The DC wikia pages are all out by two issues on when Red Kryptonite was introduced and, if anyone asks Reddit for stories of Superman’s adolescence then they’re going to get arms waved vaguely in the direction of this material and specific recs for the Jeph Loeb and Max Landis versions. But if it were not so then the world would not be other than it is.

If today’s schools taught the doings of the Superboy of 1958 as rigorously as do the schools of the Legion’s time, there’d still be a fascist in the White House. But the myths that put him there are within a milkshake’s throw of the myths we perpetuate when we privilege nostalgia with moral superiority. We’re not detached, higher-dimensional beings when we bring the past into the present. We’re making active choices, and making our own stories in which we must take care not to become the villain.

Which we needn’t. The key material that depicts Superman’s formative years isn’t interested in telling the story of his formation. Allowing the reader to decide what it all meant. Over the decades, we’ve perhaps not done a brilliant job of that. Putting it about that it tells the story of how moral certainty arises from a traditional family structure in a straight, white, monoculture. That big fib was built from fragments originally thrown down to meet deadlines, pander to kids, and supplement the writers’ therapy sessions. Those fragments can be rearranged into better shapes. They can tell stories of how queer kids need queer spaces. Stories of how much easier it is to understand and know yourself in a multicultural society. They can tell stories about the future. 

Everything’s Riverdale: S2E8 House of the Devil

Love! Sex! Death! Car dealerships! Amateur porn!

Everything’s Riverdale!

(But hold the worm)

YOUR PALS

 

Margaret Howard believes that her father was driven mad by the mystery of the Devil’s House, dragging himself back there there “day and night for hours,” scratching and searching for that one clue that might yet make sense of it all.

Sheriff Howard returned to the Devil’s House every year. Every year. Day and night. Hours and hours. That one elusive detail forever out of his grasp.

Veronica finds it in exactly one minute and fifty-nine seconds. In the dark. Without her Sleuthing Cloak. She used counting.   

I am being unfair, of course. Sheriff Howard did know there was a third Conway child. It’s just that, unlike Veronica, he never thought to ask that child what happened.  

Sheriff Keller can rest easy, knowing that history will not remember him as Riverdale’s most useless lawman.

Portugal. The Man perform ‘Feel it Still’ over a scene in this episode. But which scene? Let me just look it up on the Riverdale Wiki. Ah. Here it is. “SCENE: Jughead narrates as Archie and Veronica have sex.

Jughead narrates as Archie and Veronica have sex. What a way to behave! Even if he is pledged to write every day, the subject matter was left open. This is a striking choice for him (How was the data even gathered?) and it’s a striking choice for the show, as to have a series of saucy scenes narrated by a third character, to make a third character dramatically present in those moments, is no small thing. Archie and Veronica having a lot of sex becomes nowhere near as interesting as why and what Jughead is thinking about Archie and Veronica having a lot of sex. What mystery is he trying to solve today?

Betty is not having a lot of sex. “PG-13 grope sessions” with Jughead, very possibly, but not a lot of sex. This, the episode makes abundantly clear, is very much on her mind. Kevin may have been spot on when he told her that she has the privilege of being free to explore her “BDSM sexuality” but such explorations are evidently not happening at her pace.    

Byrdie informs Betty that becoming “serpent adjacent” will involve a public display of sexuality.

Toni supposes that this will put her off.   

Children Waiting For The Day They Feel Good are evoked as Betty begins her verse. Archie and Veronica’s disastrous attempt at a duet, a shared romantic moment, has collapsed and Betty has taken to the stage to complete the song, get her kit off, and touch herself up a bit. Once again, a third party has been introduced into Archie and Veronica’s intimacy.

People run in circles. Betty is trying to work out how she stands in relation to sexuality; She knows she’s waiting to enter a sexual world and needing to know how she wants that world to work. Jughead is trying to work out how he stands in relation to sexuality; Does he want to enter a sexual world? Both are trying to solve their mysteries by juxtaposing themselves with Archie and Veronica’s straight, vanilla rumpo and romance, by imagining themselves as third persons in that relationship. Bless their clueless hearts.

Veronica asks “So… you want us to be you guys?” Oh, Ronnie. It’s so much more complicated than that.

The Penultimate Lyric of Mad World is “Enlarge your world,” an imperative which suggests the gloom of the prior verses is escapable by putting yourself outside their limits. All our little lost lambs need do to beat the devil, to be able to look in the mirror, is make it to the end of the song.

The Devil has so far this season been identified with Hiram, Penny, Dilton and the Black Hood. They’ve all been the devil, or been said to resemble him, for at least one scene. Meanwhile, the Reaper has been imagined to worship him, and we’re heading towards an adaptation of a comic in which his occasional wife is a major character. ‘The Devil’ as a symbol has roamed freely around Riverdale, laying his hat in everyone’s hallways. Now he finally has an address of his own.

The Conways are a hard done by family. First they’re murdered, then the Devil takes their house. I wonder by what process the house came to be thought of as evil, given that it was a threat external to the house that killed them. Murder and evil did not, in any account we’ve heard so far, gestate and develop within the house; Murder just walked in out of the woods.  

The Conways could equally be a loose reference to J.B. Priestly or to the ill-fated Conway family from super-racist Top Notch Comics story ‘Dick Storm in India.’ Therein lies the duality of this show.

Dick Storm.

Sweet Pea performs this week’s most exemplary off-screen 180, having gone from being in favour of mortar attacks to being in favour of seeking rapprochement with the Mayor.

Hermione is far more relaxed nowadays. The Lodges started this season suspicious of each other being supervillains and stressed about being trapped into supervillainous lives. After their righteous vengeance on Nick St Clair, the family appear temporarily united around the idea that supervillainy has its virtues.

Cheryl’s story right now is about a lot of things, but a biggie is how she stands in relation to ideas of female solidarity. Everyone kicking the shit out of Nick St Clair was a joyous and cathartic moment and the week it aired was one in which a lot of us were in the mood to see a group of young, would-be celebrities beat a rapist mogul to a bloody pulp in a hotel room. The trouble for Cheryl is that that moment, a huge moment in her life, was made possible by the Pussycats’ “women help women” ethos and that’s not an ethos to which she feels she can connect.

Jason remains the only person with whom Cheryl feels any solidarity, and her “me and my dead brother against the world” worldview can’t permit any of this “women help women” business. So feeling beholden to that ethos for her rescue is an unimaginable crisis for Cheryl’s mental functioning, and she’s found herself in a position where she either has to rethink the whole way she sees the world or violently alter reality to allow “me and my dead brother against the world” to remain tenable.

Cheryl is violently altering reality. Veronica, Josie, Melody and Valerie did not come to her aid. Josie did. Josie saved her. Cheryl has reduced an instance of collective female action to an idea she finds more manageable and containable; Josie saved her. The whole event has been condensed down into the person of Josie. Now all Cheryl need do is violently alter Josie’s reality, so she too can be managed and contained.   

Hiram is such a plausible father for Veronica. His flustered “That’s my preference” line is a wonderfully Veronica-ish line with wonderfully Veronica-ish delivery. Benefiting from being a Season Two introduction, he’s what a TV dad looks like when you have an established character to create a dad for.  

André is trained in the martial arts.

The Red Death shows up in ONE Edgar Allan Poe story, Jugs! Why’re you talking like it’s Poe’s Team Rocket? I think he’s got confused because that story was published as both ‘The Mask of the Red Death’ and ‘The Masque of the Red Death.’ Assuming these to be separate stories, the Mighty Serpent Prince has imagined an entire series of “Oh no! It’s the Red Death!” misadventures round Prince Prospero’s gaff.   

Freddy Krueger is the horror icon that Jughead finds Tony Todd most reminiscent of.

Svenson may have been a red herring in last episode’s mystery, but with a quick tweak of the Conway story then he can be repurposed into relevance here.

The Reaper was both a preacher and a con man. For anyone unconvinced by the ‘PUNISH SIN!’ motivation espoused by the Black Hood, then it’s interesting to see the figure he mirrors established as those two particular things.

“A Group of Men” killed the Reaper. Veronica takes Svenson’s approval of their actions as a sign that he’s the Black Hood. The idea that a member of this retributive posse might be the Black Hood does not seem to have yet been considered. They’re obviously the Secret Origin of something though, aren’t they? Maybe, in their role as community protectors, we’re looking at the first Serpents.   

The Serpents are very strict about their induction programme. There’s all sorts of things you have to do – shouty ceremonies, getting tattoos, being punched, pole dancing, dog sitting, etc – the formality and ritualisation of which suggests that when you join the Serpents you’re making a lifelong commitment. Seems not though. If at any point you want out you can just say you’re retiring and get a preppy looking teenager to hire a karaoke machine. It seems that’s an option that’s available.     

Josie is either being paid to escort Reggie or Reggie’s dad. It is unclear.

The Serpents very keen on ‘Mad World,’ very disappointed when not sung through.

Penny has taken over Clifford Blossom’s operation. Which we know wasn’t the distribution of Jingle Jangle, a substance we haven’t heard of since the Sugarman died. Real drugs are in resurgence and fantasy drugs are on the wane. This better not stop us getting Jingles the Elf in the Christmas episode.

Archie stepped outside of Riverdale’s storyspace last episode and glimpsed the Archie multiverse. He’s having a hard time reacclimatising. All he wants to talk about is love, in an episode that wants to talk about not talking about love, and he acts throughout like he’s the one with the least personal interest in the Black Hood. His life won’t quite let him back in.  

FP’s smirk regarding how sexually frustrated he may, or may not, have been in prison would be the finest moment this episode. Were it not for the same character’s choice to use a daintily extended pinky to illustrate recovery from alcohol. The whole “respectable people don’t have problems” lie that Alice pretends to live by gets destroyed with a single digit parody of gentility.   

Alice should get a slow motion entrance every episode.

The Serpents are remarkably gracious in responding to Alice with “Hey look! It’s Alice! From back in the day!” rather than “Hey look! It’s Alice! Who constantly publishes articles about how we’re the greatest menace since Spider-Man!”

Familiar Faces, Worn-out Places, Worn-out Faces appear.

The Penultimate Lyric of ‘Mad World’ does not appear.

Everything’s Riverdale: S2E7 Tales From The Darkside

In ‘Death Proof,’ Riverdale pushed its eccentric format to a point of fulfillment where it was most utterly and distinctively itself. So what’s next? Change the format!

As Pocahontas and Heraclitus both sang, you can’t step in the same Riverdale twice. Or, as Robert Browning and Sarah Polley both sang… everything’s strange and new…

Everything’s Riverdale!

WEIRD MYSTERIES

Betty and Veronica

After some opening narration that threatens a found footage episode, we learn that we’re in for a horror anthology instead. One in which the Black Hood sets our pals a fun challenge and, over the course of three interconnected stories, they will proceed to completely ignore it and not trouble themselves to reference it in any way.

Across the three stories, Cheryl is the only character who alludes to its framing device. Once. Dismissively. 

Good for them. It was a silly challenge.

The Hood’s rules are that they are to avoid sinning for forty-eight hours or otherwise he’ll “take up the sword” once more. No element of that is well defined. The Black Hood is shit at game design.

First of all, we’ve still no idea what you understand by ‘sin’, mate. Seems very random and lacking any theological rigour or substance if you ask me. All over the place you are with your ‘sin.’ And what’s this ‘Forty-Eight Hours’ business? Forty-Eight hours from when? From when the news broke or from when you nailed your theses to the door of Pop Tate’s? Sounds like you meant the second, but that’s hardly fair, is it? People would have been sleep-sinning for hours before they learned they were even playing.

Then there’s “take up the sword again.” You can’t threaten us with resuming killing when there’s been no indication that you’ve stopped! You killed someone just last week! What sort of terrifying threat is “things will continue as they have been”? You have to at least threaten to escalate or something.

(Unless by “take up the sword” the Black Hood literally means he’s going to switch weapons. Unwise if so as he’s only just got the hang of successfully shooting people)

Directed to abstain from unspecified activities for an unclear period of time or face unclear consequences, everyone apparently decides to not bother playing and to just get on with their lives.

Betty’s life involves accusing random people of being the Hood, but it would have anyway.

The episode ends with Archie shocked they didn’t win.        

 

THE TOWN WITH PANCAKE MIX

Archie and Jughead

We zoom in on a road sign, the central image of this segment. In one direction it points to Riverdale and in the other to Greendale. No mileage to either is given. That’s not the information it’s there to provide. It’s simply there to tell us this; we are in a place between. Archie and Jughead are in a story about what it means to be on that road and a story that happens because it is happening there.

Tony Todd’s character has more to say  on this. He’s quick to fill us in on some of the things we’re specifically between. Archie could have been Jason Blossom, he tells us. That’s something that’s possible on the road to Greendale. It’s also something we were told fairly often in season one, but it meant something different then. When we’ve previously considered the idea that Archie could have been, or could yet be, Jason then that’s been a statement about roads he could have taken or roads he could yet take. Here it’s a statement about the road on which he stands. Archie could be Jason on the road between Riverdale and Greendale because that road is a space between life and death and also a space between the self and the other. It doesn’t matter who Archie is and it doesn’t matter who is alive or dead. Those concepts are blurry here.

We’re outside of the show! Driving to a town that belongs to a different television programme, an exciting new show that was confirmed as having been commissioned on the week this episode aired. ‘Riverdale’ often means Riverdale, and never more so than it does here, where it’s being contrasted with the setting of a show other than Riverdale. Under those conditions then to drive out of Riverdale is to drive out of Riverdale and launch off out into extra-textual space.        

Riverdale’s gestures towards mimesis never include the idea that its reality is consistent, but they do aim for a certain integrity. Its world strives to flow but hold together. Yet the word ‘Candyman’ is present in this episode. Not spoken, but present. When horror icon Tony Todd from Candyman shows up in a horror themed episode, we know it’s because he’s horror icon Tony Todd from Candyman. The arrival of that knowledge inside the head of the viewer is an event that occurs when this episode is watched. “Candyman” is said, silently, at least three times, and that’s a dangerous word to have in the air when you’re still telling a story about the death of a mythologised childhood terror called the Sugarman. If you’ve ambitions to pretend that you’re presenting a world of flesh and blood rather than a world of writing and lighting, then it’d be risky to remind your audience to think about actors, names and Candymen while also expecting them to pretend the Sugarman is something that actually happened. But there’s no such risk and no such ambition. There’s no need to treat Riverdale as anything other than a production once you’re out in the wilds between it and other texts.

Which is exactly where we are. Deer wander on from Life is Strange and crates plonk down from At the Mountains of Madness. But most interestingly for Archie and Jughead, being on the road between texts puts them between themselves and other versions of Archie and Jughead.              

“I had this stupid idea…” says Archie, and then shares a fantasy of him and Jughead moving into a place together in New York. What’s being referenced here is pretty clear. Archie’s Stupid Idea is Archie’s Weird Fantasy, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s 2003 play about Archie moving to the big city and coming to terms with being gay. Being outside of Riverdale is important in that story as it equates Riverdale with the closet, but being outside of Riverdale is important here because it makes all this sayable. Outside of his show then Riverdale’s Archie can talk of what he wants when he’s other people.

And Jughead can listen. His one question, “Where are Betty and Veronica in this scenario?” shows that he’s understood perfectly. The question makes no sense if this is a childhood dream of the Riverdale character who met Veronica less than a year ago, but all the sense in the world if we’re eavesdropping on iconic Archie Comics characters trying to puzzle out what they really mean.

Betty and Veronica would, of course, get a place of their own together. Archie presents this world in opposition to the lives they’re living right now, to the world where Jughead is trapped as a serpent and they’re all trapped in the ongoing plotlines of Riverdale. What stands between this Archie and him living his weird fantasy is that he’s Riverdale’s Archie.  

If this wasn’t our lives, he’s saying, if this wasn’t our version of our lives, if we weren’t living moment to moment in a shambolic CW show, then the most true and natural fate for all us Archie characters is that we’d end up happy, gay and metropolitan. 

‘Candyman’ is never said out loud. ‘Bert and Ernie’ is said twice.

 

WEIRD MYSTERIES

Josie

Did anyone ask for a Chuck Clayton redemption story?

Not that that’s really what this is. There’s no real interest here in him as anything other than a piece of misdirection. This story doesn’t care about him any more than it cares about that janitor. Chuck’s role is to mislead us that we’re watching a story about a young black man trying to be a better person before ending up blamed for the invisible creepcrimes of an old white man. His role to tell that decoy story and also to be someone who can be ironically berated by Cheryl for thinking “women are playthings to possess or torture” shortly before she’s unmasked to the viewer as a possessive torturer of women.       

One of Mayor McCoy’s main roles in this show is to judge people unfairly. So as soon as she’s judged Chuck irredeemable and dragged Josie out of Pop’s then we all feel reasonably sure we’re being directed to see Chuck as hard done by. We, as an audience, may well not feel like following that direction. We may not feel like buying the story they’re selling but we feel pretty sure we know what’s on sale. And it isn’t really that. Chuck gets off scott free at the end and nobody cares much either way because SHOCK! Look what the story was really about!

But to pull that off, the show had to gesture at what it thinks a Chuck Clayton redemption story would like like.

What would a Chuck Clayton redemption story look like?

The sketch of one here is kind of weird. It involves Chuck doing nothing to address the specific failing of being an abusive misogynist but instead be shown to be vaguely striving to be a ‘better person’ through three different endeavours.

Going to Church. Trying to become a kids’ book artist. Trying to become a comics artist.

‘Going to church’ as evidence of being a top bloke is interesting as, the last time we heard from organised religion in this episode, some preacher on the radio was going off like a Godspeed You! Black Emperor track, while Tony Todd’s character was putting it about that the local godly folk were right behind the Black Hood.

‘Trying to become a kids book artist’ is a straightforward signifier of innocent pursuits.

‘Trying to become a comics artist’ seems less so. “You know what the opposite of predatory misogyny? The Comics Industry!” sadly isn’t a move available in Two Thousand and Seventeen. But it makes sense when you remember that this Riverdale always stands contrasted with the supposedly idealised Riverdale of the comics. Comics are a symbol of innocence for Chuck because the Good Chuck is still in the comics. Write it in your diary.

Josie at first seems sceptical that going to church, trying to draw kids books and trying to draw comics constitutes any real sort of moral reform. Then Pop Tate confirms that Chuck is indeed going to church and she withdraws her objections. It turns out that she has granted that doing those random things somehow evidence that he’s a changed man. She just didn’t believe he was doing those random things.

A Chuck Clayton redemption story would look ill-judged.   

 

YOUR PALS

Poirot is so weirdly pronounced that I wish the script had called for Jughead to have a go at his first name too.

Brian Lyster, Production Sound Mixer is a man not afraid of undercutting the tension of a spooky tale of the Riverdale Reaper with a big ol’ farting noise from a ketchup bottle.

The Riverdale Reaper shot all his victims. Left no survivors. I have no idea why people think he might be the Black hood.

Kevin is getting high readings on the Agency-o-Metre this week! Interested in his own life and happiness? Displaying interests that aren’t listed on the generic Gay Best Friend character sheet? This is all encouraging.

Veronica, Betty, and Sheriff Keller all agree its best to keep everything secret from Kevin so he doesn’t have to have any feelings or make any choices. They have neglected to check the readings.

Josie has an extraordinary way of placating a mother who’s concerned for her safely and and about her drug use. Comparing herself to Whitney Houston.

Cheryl chose that version of ‘Milkshake’ to send to the producers. Should have been our first clue.

Mayor McCoy’s intonation suggests she takes particular exception to the twist.

The Candyman does not appear.

The Sugarman appears in flashback.

 

THE TOWN WITH A KILL KIT

Betty and Veronica

Betty’s and Veronica’s investigation uncovers two facts about Sheriff Keller. That he is having an affair with the Mayor and that he is diligently and thoroughly investigating a number of local crimes.

They only treat the first of these as a genuine revelation, although both seem such to me.

Perhaps the shock of learning that the Sheriff is actually having a fair crack at doing his job hasn’t quite sunk in for them yet. Indeed, Betty’s entire reasoning for thinking that a big wall of clues and evidence regarding the Black Hood suggested that Keller was the Black Hood relies on her not even being prepared to consider that he might have been doing any sleuthing.

What’s now becoming a classic Riverdale inversion visits itself upon Betty in this story. An episode will position a character ready for a development… and then the subsequent episode will do the opposite. ‘Death Proof’ ended with Betty presented as having come into her own as a detective and having seized the reigns of the narrative. Look out world! Here comes Betty! What’s she going to do now she’s all super-charged?

“Act like a nob,” answers ‘Tales from the Darkside.’

There’s not even any consolation in Betty having been right about something. There’s no “Oh well, she was wrong about Keller having been the Hood, but she knew something was up, alright, and that hunch led her to the actual truth.” That’s not a face-saving story available here as the actual truth is just what Veronica intuited at the start.

Betty’s isn’t the most striking inversion though. ‘Death Proof’ had Cheryl as sympathetic and heroic. I wonder how she gets on this week.    

 

THE TOWN WITH A SPOOKY LITTLE GIRL

Josie

As soon as we see that the first story is called ‘Archie and Jughead’ then we feel certain that one of the remaining stories will be called ‘Betty and Veronica.’ Then the second story appears. It’s called ‘Josie.’ We might think it strange that it’s not called ‘Josie and the Pussycats’ but then the story goes on and explains why it isn’t. Then we might come to find it strange that it isn’t called ‘Josie and Cheryl.’ The reasons for that are also eventually provided. Josie is alone.

Since early in the first season we’ve been told that Cheryl and Josie are friends but we’ve never really got a chance to see how that friendship works. Now at last we do, only to learn that there’s no friendship here. There’s something alright, but there’s no friendship.

Since the first episode of this season we’ve seen Cheryl portrayed as a torturer and possessor of women. In that instance it was her mother and in that instance it was awesome. It wasn’t morally justified in any way, of course, it was just the abused becoming an abuser. But within the fiction of this theatre of monstrosity then Cheryl remained a sympathetic character. She does not here.

The timeline isn’t clear so we don’t know exactly how long her relationship with Josie has been characterised by this sort of manipulation and control, but it does seem that its recent escalation relates to the attempted rape. Cheryl tells Josie that the reason for her outward attempts to control her career is that she’s trying to express her gratitude for the rescue. It would seem to follow that her hidden fixation on Josie and more horrific actions towards her are also part of her trying to process exactly that.     

If we were to apply real world morality then we would see little to have changed with Cheryl. She was a well-motivated monster and she remains so. But dramatic morality is very different; In the real world then everyone’s real and everyone matters, while on telly then nobody’s real and how much people matter varies wildly. We are not with Penelope as she experiences any effects of Cheryl terrorising her in the hospital. We are with Josie every step of the way as Cheryl’s cruel manipulations destroy her relationships and leave her with lasting trauma. In terms of television morality then Cheryl is an entirely different kind of monster now.

And then there’s race. That’s what we’re talking about about when Mayor McCoy says, “There are people in this town with hate in their hearts. You’ve read the letters I used to get. The words they used.” The viewer has not read the letters. But the viewer knows which words she means. “I’ve worked so hard to get us here,” she says. “To shield us from this kind of hatred.”

The sustained and consistent hate campaign against the McCoys has been a racist one. That’s very clear even before the script goes for a glancing and indirect Trump analogy with the idea that their harassers have been emboldened by the successes of the Black Hood. Cheryl’s motives for escalating and repurposing it are not racist, but that hardly matters. Her creepy doings are as effective as they are because they harness the power of the terror that Josie and her mum have already been subjected to for being black women. Again, she looks like a different kind of monster now.

 

WEIRD MYSTERIES

Archie and Jughead

“Riverdale had a Reaper?” asks an astonished Jughead. Jughead whose recent interests include researching all the murder and whose most abiding interest is in the social identity of his community. That this is new information to him is almost as curious as Alice having been able to just erase her past from the public record and have almost everyone act as if it had similarly vanished from their memories. Things drift in and out of Riverdale’s past. It is editable.

Because we know what should be there. Seventy-Six years worth of Archie and the gang’s antics naturally fill the entirety of the town’s history. It was born with them in 1941 and their distended adolescences bloat to fill its days and years. Before them was nothing.

Archie’s Weird Fantasy dealt with this by supposing an eternal present, by supposing that the characters existed in a NOW! where anything that had ever happened was happening as we speak, provided it was of sufficient cultural relevance. Riverdale instead supposes a vacuum. If the town’s past exists as a empty space, stripped of the eternal summer of Archie’s youth, then the present balances on that emptiness and must adapt as Reapers and Serpents are sucked in to fill it.      

Why is Riverdale a river? Why is Greendale green?

Whatever the historic reasons for the two Archie Comics towns having these names, you can’t pair two terms like those as explicitly as they’re paired here without letting Meaning in.

Talking about Riverdale in isolation then the important thing is that its on a river. It’s on a boundary, and very specific one. Pick just about any folk music tradition in the English language and you’re going to find the word ‘sweet’ frequently and powerfully associated with death. Sweetwater River is drawn as the boundary between life and death from the first episode’s opening scenes. To live on its shores is to live at the frontier of the mortal world.

So that’s pretty straightforward. But what does it mean when you have other [Something]dales that are also positioned on that river?

‘Riverdale’ normally signifies in terms of what it stands next to, but when another town is next to the same river and not named for it then that positions Riverdale as of the river. To be Riverdale then Riverdale must share qualities with the river that Greendale does not. I’ve argued so often in these columns that the defining characteristic of this show is a churning inconstancy of character and narrative that you already know what I’m going to say here. Riverdale is the river because it is the place where everything’s fluid and in motion. 

So why is Greendale green? We’ll find out when we get there, I suppose. The safe bet at this stage would be, like much that’s lush and green, it grows on top of death and decay. Archie stands next to death. Sabrina stands upon the dead.

Everything’s Riverdale: S2E6 Death Proof

There was no Riverdale last week, the CW opting instead to screen the 7th Annual iHeartRadio Music Festival. I’ve not watched it, but I’m going to imagine that the cast all went and filmed in-character vignettes to be used as whimsical inserts. The two shows already share Harry Styles.

The week before that the CW aired ‘Death Proof,’ Riverdale’s best episode since ‘The Sweet Hereafter.’ An episode so accomplished and assured that I don’t even resent it for breaking the pattern of my favourite Riverdale episodes being named after films I hold in similar regard.

Let’s revisit it now before the series resumes.

Engines warm and ready?

Everything’s Riverdale!

THE TOWN WITH LIARS, DOPE FIENDS AND FORNICATORS

There are two keys to understanding this remarkable piece of television. Betty and Veronica’s crash into the House of the Dead is one of them. Cheryl’s outfits are the other.  

We all know by now how character works in Riverdale. We all know by now how storytelling works in Riverdale. The two episodes previous to this one (S2E4 & S2E5) have walked us through both. Now we can just get on with things and enjoy the pleasures this odd show offers. That’s the project of ‘Death Proof.’

Set-ups will not be paid off. Character development will unravel and flap dangerously in the wind. Enmities and affinities will appear and disappear from our characters hearts, blinking in and out as how they feel about each other is set and reset. Escalators will go nowhere. This is not a show that’s trying to present coherent made-up lives in a coherent made-up world. It’s a show that’s trying to capture the feeling of living in a world that lacks that coherency, like teenagers and Americans have to.    

Veronica, still a newcomer to this reality, is typically the best at figuring out how to navigate it. When Betty tells her that there are no sane explanations for the previous episode’s events Veronica just fixes her with a look that says “Why would there be?” and demands to hear the insane explanation. She knows how this works.

And how it works is that everything is mobile and adaptable. Since nothing is attached to any commitment to narrative logic then any element of the show can be picked up and put down where it is most effective. Cheryl doesn’t need any plausible reason to be at the drag race to be officiating. She’s got that gig because that’s where she visually belongs at that moment, as surely as she earlier belonged gothically sunbathing in the shadows of a cloudy day. There’s similarly no need for any kind of tonal harmony between Betty and Veronica’s investigations and Archie and Jughead’s negotiations for one plotline to suddenly intrude on the other.    

Whenever I’ve talked before about how this show is the true successor to Twin Peaks then it’s been in terms of how Riverdale embraces the camp, the kitsch and the soapy – all the vital elements of Twin Peaks that its lesser imitators skip because they’re mistakenly shooting for clever. But something else is now becoming very apparent.

Jon Nguyen and Rick Barnes’ documentary The Art Life has an illuminating and hilarious scene where David Lynch recalls his move to the filmed image. With a slow, deliberate thoughtfulness he tells us how he got to thinking how interesting it would be if his paintings could move. He just couldn’t get the idea out of his head. Paintings…that moved. What a concept! So taken was he with this fancy that he didn’t seem to recollect or exhibit any awareness of the fact that moving pictures had been around for some time prior to the Nineteen Seventies. The existing traditions of television and film were not (in the myth Lynch is selling, anyway) the impetus for him to pick up a camera. He never wanted to tell anyone stories, he just wanted to make paintings move.

That all feeds into Twin Peaks, and flows downriver into the best of Riverdale. Like Racing Queen Version Cheryl Blossom, striding into the exhausted and diminished Gothic murk of Thornhill to demand love from the mother she burned. The story that gets us there is a vacillating, elliptical shambles. But watch that paint writhe.                  

WEIRD MYSTERIES

Watching is very important. Windows too. Painting have frames.

We first met this incarnation of Betty Cooper as she and Kevin perved on shirtless Archie from her bedroom window. It was an effective scene that let Kevin drop that trailer-ready “Archie got hot!” line as if it was an elevator pitch, but as well as explaining to the prospective viewer that this new series will offer the opportunity to letch at teenage characters, it also set up how this voyeurism will be constructed. The hot version of Archie comics is to be the object of  female and queer male gazes.

Now, the terrible tides of television have rolled as ever they do and this unlikely promise was not kept. A couple of months later and, in the Sexy Women Beg For Healthcare video, Camilla Mendes and Madelaine Petsch were reading a script that reassured straight men that “giving you erections” was a function of their “soapy teen drama.” However accurate that might be, and wherever the balance lies, the pertinent thing here is that we start with Betty at her window.

Betty at her window is a place where she’s powerful and a bit creepy. In ‘Death Proof’ it’s to her window that she returns to shift the balance of power between her and the Black Hood. We start the scene watching her through it, then she says, “It’s my game now” and directs her own line of sight to the window. For the rest of the scene all her threats against him are matched by her lingering looks out.

Riverdale is a show built around detective stories – Who killed Jason Blossom? Who is the Black Hood? – and the viewer is invited to be a detective. But viewers always need teaching how to be a detective within the bounds of any given show; How you solve a mystery in Jonathan Creek is not how you solve a mystery in Line of Duty. So it falls to a show’s Official Detective to model what it means to solve mysteries round their neck of the woods. Betty Cooper is Riverdale’s Official Detective, and she’s performing that educative role for us here. We have been presented with mysteries. She will teach us what do with them. She will teach us what it means to be a detective in Riverdale.

“I found out who the Sugarman was,” she says in triumph. A claim that may not immediately feel true. Cheryl found out who the Sugarman was after Betty “defiled” her traumas to motivate her. But that’s okay, we learn from Betty at her window, that counts. Being a detective in Riverdale is a kind of passive thing. You don’t really piece together clues, interrogate suspects or rummage through trash. You watch and wait.

“Can you feel me breathing down your neck?” says Betty at her window, imparting her second lesson. The show positions Betty, and the viewer, as a detectives in the same way it positions them as voyeurs. Being a detective in Riverdale is creepy.           

YOUR PALS

Kevin is just providing running commentary again, but on two occasions references his own interests and desires and on one occasion presents a opposed viewpoint to a friend. This earns the episode three full points on the Kevin Keller Agency-o-Metre.

Toni feels much more like a real character this week. Maybe now that her rather artificial function of “shaking up Bughead” and her expository function as Jughead’s guide to Serpenthood are both winding down then she can start to come into her own. Or maybe just confirming on screen that she’s bisexual has been good for the character. They should try that with all the others to check. Well, not Kevin and Jughead, obviously. But everyone else.

Jughead confirms in his first two scenes that he’s always interested in food and that he wasn’t interested in going further sexually than “a PG-13 grope session.” Progress. Other Jughead highlights this episode include him picking up the title “Mighty Serpent Prince” and a wonderful bit of acting from Cole Sprouse in which he’s struggling not to mouth along his own words as Phillips reads them out loud.    

Betty is also visited by the spirit of her current comic book incarnation as she does car mechanic stuff ready for a street race. It’s quite disorientating watching a scene where the dialogue is all concerned with immediate Riverdale concerns while the visuals and action are letting you know that the show is starting to look over at recent events in the comics. Collections of the ‘New Riverdale’ Archie comics have been marketed as “the stories which inspired the show”, a lie apparent to anyone who looks at what was written and developed first, but we’ve now arrived at the point where that lie is coming true.     

Archie is making plans that’ll “hopefully keep everyone alive.” They are terrible plans. Plans more likely, as the Mighty Serpent Prince notes, to just get a greater number of people killed a month later. This is trying to solve a trolley problem by slowing the tram so more people have time to get on the tracks. Nevertheless, the important thing is that “getting Archie killed” is no longer the intended goal of Archie’s plans. Good for him.

Veronica looks so at home joining in with the Lodge family’s terrible vengeance on Nick St. Clair that, the way the shot is composed, you expect the chess board to distort into a trapezoid ready for her to take her place at the newly created third side.

Sheriff Keller wonders if he should ask Betty what she’s doing in Nick’s room. Decides not to bother. After all, that sort of information would only be of interest to anyone trying to investigate a complex series of interrelated violent incidents involving the Cooper family.  

Mayor McCoy is far more proactive, having discovered that she can have people arrested by pointing at them dramatically. There are limits on her power, however, as under Riverdale law you are protected from her custodial powers if a door obstructs you from the line described by her digits. Doesn’t matter if the door’s got a big window on it. That makes no odds. It’s not about visibility. A patio door would be fine. Just get on the other side of one quick when Mayor McCoy’s waving the long finger of the law around.  

The Krampus was invented to scare children. Cheryl is right about that.

The Sandman was not invented to scare children. Cheryl is wrong about that.

Jose and Reggie is such a great idea that I find I’ve written “Jose and Reggie is a great idea” three times in my notes.

Cheryl says the word ‘rape.’ For a while it looked very worryingly like the show would be dancing around the word, as it did in the early scenes with Veronica. But no, they were waiting for Cheryl to be the one who says it out loud. As they did with the word ‘abuse’ in the season’s opening episode. In the often mealy-mouthed world of this show this is a power almost unique to Cheryl – to look at the evil and call it by its name. 

Penelope looks so genuinely shocked when Cheryl explains that what she wants from her is for her to act like family. That that was still a possible thing that Cheryl could want is something that genuinely hadn’t occurred to her. How beautifully horrifying for everyone involved. “Care about me more” is one of this series’ best moments.

FP appears.

DJ Kahled, Pink and Kesha appeared at the 7th Annual iHeartRadio Music Festival.

Everything’s Riverdale: S2E5 When A Stranger Calls

In episode four our young sleuths and lovers discovered that, in a fictional reality that denies them consistency of motivation or action, the only way to take control of their lives is through consistency of affiliation. In episode five that’s taken away from them too. Everything’s in the wind.

Everything’s Riverdale!  

WEIRD MYSTERIES

This is the first episode in which the Black Hood is interesting. How did they do that?

Having him on the end of Betty’s phone completely changes how he works. He now functions more like ‘A’ from Pretty Little Liars in that he’s something our characters are being told they’re responsible for creating and something that can have a direct effect on any of the other subplots.

Until now then “an ineffective serial killer stalks the night” has integrated poorly with the teen romantic melodrama, remaining an external threat, creeping around the periphery, taking shots at peripheral characters. The Black Hood has been sold as this season’s big deal, but hasn’t ever felt like much of one because of the wall between him and the regulars. The sense of fear that he’s provoked in the community, and the chaotic choices arising from it, have been interesting. He hasn’t, in and of himself,  because he could have been anything, from the airborne toxic event in DeLillo’s White Noise to the lone bear that strolled into Springfield in that Simpsons episode.     

Look at him now though! Up in everyone’s romantic storylines, in thier peer pressure drug storylines, and their My Parents Just Don’t Understand storylines. The Black Hood has found a way to play nicely with the kids.

Okay… when Betty gets her first phone call from the Black Hood in ‘The Town that Dreaded Sundown’ then her mobile rings with a standard tone. But all through this episode it announces incoming demonic calls with ‘Lolipop’ by the Chordettes.  

Has, in the midst of all this, Betty decided that ‘Lolipop’ by the Chordettes is to be her new general ringtone, or has she assigned it specifically to the Black Hood?

We need to know everything surrounding that choice.

Doubles and shadows and mirrors abound. The Black Hood is keen to prove that he and Betty are ‘the same’, but we’ve been reminded recently about ‘Dark Betty’, that she also puts on black headgear to become someone else. The way in which Betty and the Hood are most importantly ‘the same’ is in that neither are always the same as themselves.

Add to that the information that the two letters from the Black Hood have different handwriting and we’ve lost the certainty that the Black Hood is the Black Hood. This situation has at least two Black Hoods, at least two Betty Coopers, and no guarantees that the boundaries between any of them are stable. Alice has already said out loud that, as far as she’s concerned, one of the Black Hoods was Betty. The voice on the phone is telling her the same.   

How much does Betty lean into real feelings when going after her friends and family?

She really is angry with her mother for all the reasons she gives when having to explain why she exposed her serpentine past. Watching that scene you have to actively remind yourself that she’s saying this stuff because of the murderous blackmailer telling her to.

She really is revolted by the posh druggy party side of Veronica’s life and deeply uncomfortable that she can fit back into it easier than she’d assumed. Watching her go for Veronica you have to actively remind yourself that it’s because of the murderous blackmailer telling her to.

Then there’s breaking up with Jughead. Up until that point the Hood’s exhortations have been more like permission slips for Betty’s darker desires. But she doesn’t seem to want this, does she? It’s very interesting having Archie do that speech on her behalf as his lies come from an honest place too. Betty doesn’t want to break up with Jughead. But Archie lists all the reasons he thinks she should.  

 

YOUR PALS

Josie seems to have let go of her previously very clear idea of the Pussycats’ brand. Veronica and Cheryl both seem to drift in and out of the group so regularly that at least one of them keeps her ears within easy reach for whenever the Cat Signal is lit.

Valerie and Melody are consequently back to being undifferentiated by the script, functioning as a single character called ‘the Other Pussycats’, no more individuated than ‘The Bulldogs.’ This is a generally a shame although collective action and unity of purpose are super-enjoyable to watch as they kick the shit out of a rapist.  

Archie can not be shown to drink rum but can be shown to take fictional ‘gutter drugs.’ I bet there were Meetings about this. Archie Comic Publications Incorporated surely haven’t adopted as laissez faire an approach to brand protection as Josie has.

Jingle Jangle being a fictional drug probably helped this get to the screen – nobody was ever going to snort what Nick was offering earlier. There’s also an expectation in teen drama that drug use will be shown to have Horrible Consequences, an expectation which, in the context of the story being told here, created the anxiety that Riverdale was about to tell us that drug users carry the responsibility for leaving themselves vulnerable to sexual predators.

Happily the show doesn’t go near that. There’s no suggestion that Veronica or Cheryl’s decision to jingle jangle made them in any way culpable for what happened to them with Nick. A bullet was really dodged here as, out of eagerness to make it clear that Drugs Are Bad, a lot of shows would have failed to make it crystal clear that rapists are responsible for rape.        

Betty has avoided Game of Thrones. That has positive and negative consequences, one of which is that she doesn’t know to say “You” when the Black Hood asks for his next sinner to kill.

I’m not suggesting for a moment that Nick St. Clair isn’t an excellent choice, just that it would have been really funny to hear the Black Hood go, “Oh…like on Game of Thrones. Shit.”

And then Betty say, “Well kinda, but it just seemed the obvious answer anyway, really. In the circumstances.”

And then this long and awkwardly hesitant conversation in which the Hood tries to think of a solid reason not to top himself that isn’t just “We can’t resolve our through-arc mid season with another show’s schtick.”

Pop Tate greets customers with “I don’t judge you.” A fun policy. Put it on your badge.

Sweet Pea is keen to do some terrorism.

Jughead has to become a full Serpent so that there’s someone who’s allowed to discourage this. As we see more of the different areas in which the Serpents are active – the school, the biker bars, the law offices – it becomes more and more interesting how independently these work. There seems to be no adult oversight over Sweet Pea’s branch of the Serpents – The Shouty Man from the bar isn’t going to tell Sweet Pea not to do any terrorism. He’s just allowed to get on with it.  

Toni is ambivalent about doing some terrorism. She’s still a very mechanical character really, there to guide Jughead around rather than to want or think anything.

Someone Next Episode, on learning what Betty has done, will say, “You couldn’t have just done the thing from Game of Thrones?”      

Fred is happy to hear the Red Circle is over. It mildly concerned him.

Kevin nods and smiles while Veronica tells him about her life. Very much back in role after his brief rebellion.

The Black Hood threatens Polly with sharp objects. Has abandoned trying to aim at things. Wise.

Cheryl would have been a better person for Betty to go to than Archie, don’t you think? She’s invested in Polly’s survival. She’s sneaky. She’s someone the Black Hood is less likely to have expected Betty to go to and therefore been watching. So far that’s two ways this episode that Betty could have wrapped this whole thing up.   

Hiram gets this week’s super-dramatic Biblical metaphor, promising “A new Eden” in the South Side. No direct talk of the Devil this week, I don’t think, but this at least associates the serpents with the serpent.

Hermione remains a timebomb, as it all goes off when her loyalty to Hiram snaps. She straightened Fred’s tie this week. Intimate.    

Alice is such a great character, isn’t she? Her real moment of glory this week is publishing a Lodge-critical article when thus far Hiram’s been treating her as a useful idiot. That and her appearance at the party establish DO NOT UNDERESTIMATE ALICE COOPER as a major theme of the episode. I love her as everything except a parent.   

Veronica is a good person.

Hal has got a little moustache.  

Hot Dog 3 appears.

Sheriff Keller does not appear, but provokes much of the action with his extraordinary choice to question the motorcycle gang over last week’s fracas while taking no equivalent action against the squad who publicly said they’re out to kill someone.   

Harry Styles does not appear but is heard.

Gal Godot does not appear but is heard of.

Hot Dogs 1 to 2 do not appear.

 

THE TOWN WITH DEMOLITION ORDERS

However much the Black Hood’s sinister commandments might align with Betty Cooper’s darkest desires, the align more perfectly still with the producers’ practical needs. Keeping things moving in a romantic drama, while keeping your audience from rioting, is hard.

The pieces have to stay in motion, the stories cannot be allowed to end. Couples brought together must be brought apart again so more things can happen. Here in real life plenty of interesting things happen to stable couples. Plenty of interesting things also happen to stable couples in detective fiction and SF; Paul and Steve Temple solved loads of mysteries and Valerian and Laureline have been been shot at by loads of political metaphors holding laser guns. But the sort of sensational event that teen romantic drama wants to offer cannot be offered if everyone settles down and gets cats.

Trouble is… teen romantic drama is very good at getting people invested in the couples it throws together. Or people are very good at getting themselves invested. It doesn’t matter which way round it goes. It just means that you get segments of the audience whose attachment to the show is closely linked to that show’s portrayal of particular relationships. That’s certainly happened with Riverdale, where Betty and Jughead’s romance is the draw for many people.

Most relationships end when one or more party notices that it’s not a very good relationship. That’s the basic mechanism by which couples frequently break up, as good relationships, or terrible-but-oblivious ones, tend not to. Yet that basic mechanism is denied you if you’re trying to keep an audience sweet. Bad enough you’re breaking them up, worse yet if you’re breaking them up in a manner that in way implies they had anything less than a miraculous love.

So external agencies will often come in as demolition squads. Heading into Riverdale’s second season, with Archie paired off with Veronica and Betty paired off with Jughead, we all knew to look out for these external agencies. These forces from outside the relationships that’d come along, break them up, set the show in motion again, but leave the concept of the relationships untarnished and ready to be revisited down the line.

This is so familiar that the show has been able to play some sneaky tricks with our expectations. Every press release about Vanesa Morgan’s role in the show promised that Toni Topaz would ‘shake up’ Jughead and Betty. Oh hello, we thought, here comes the girl who understands a side of him that Betty doesn’t to usher in a storyline about jealousy and temptation. Which isn’t really what happened at all. There’s been one scene that gestured at it, but the real way in which she’s shaken them up is just by being his guide into Serpenthood.

Then we get something similar with Nick St. Clair. Before he arrives we’re very much invited to assume that this old flame of Veronica’s is there to ‘shake up’ her and Archie. Turns out that is not his function in the story at all. It now looks like the character will have several functions, but none of them are likely to be as effective as the consolatory pleasure offered by watching his vicious beating.       

Meanwhile, as these decoy ‘shake up’ characters play out their roles, there’s the Black Hood, shuffling the deck and rearranging the furniture. His cruel dictates perfectly in accord with what needed to happen anyway.  

Everything’s Riverdale: S2E4 The Town That Dreaded Sundown

All-Star Serial Killer line-ups loiter in our libraries! Wilbur Wilkins stalks the night! Elbows are being thrown! Actual elbows!

It’s chaos out there. But don’t worry. Reggie’s brought pizza and I’ve brought a recap.

Everything’s Riverdale!

 

THE TOWN WITH TIES

Jughead declares the night of the Town Hall Meeting to be an existential turning point for Riverdale, a change in what the town fundamentally is. Now, to be fair, he’s always saying things like this, he’s an excitable young man, but he’s got a point with this one. The events of this episode see Riverdale changed as it arrives at and consolidates a new unity between its narrative quirks and its content. What’s going on in Riverdale and how stories work in Riverdale come together in a way I’m not sure they have before.   

Here are three things I think are true about this show. Firstly that there is, at the heart of it, an emotional truth about adolescence, namely the pace at which it’s experienced. The tiny windows presented to teenagers in which to make choices on which they’re told their whole lives will depend accelerates everything going on in those already melodramatic years of one’s life. Huge choices are demanded of one in a social space set up to minimise one’s ability to make considered choices, and I think Riverdale does a pretty good job of capturing how fast and dangerous and frustrating that can feel. 

Secondly, that it’s currently exploring how a community that has lost its illusions, and with them its sense of identity, behaves. Everyone in the Town Hall meeting applauds all of Alice’s arguments, and then everyone applauds all of Fred’s counter-arguments, and then everyone applauds all of Alice’s again, and then all of Fred’s. For as long as those two keep care to keep talking, the crowd will keep switching between their contrary positions. Riverdale doesn’t know how Riverdale is meant to behave so has excused itself from having to behave consistently from moment to moment.    

Thirdly, that the writing on this show is erratic. We’ve learned how to watch Riverdale by now and we know what we can and can’t expect in the way of consistency. When we rejoin characters for each week’s episode then we know there’s no reason to assume that they’ll be positioned where we last saw them, neither in terms of their motivations or in terms of their relationships. It might be disappointing seeing Kevin walk in this week and act like last weekend’s character development didn’t happen, but we know that’s in the rules of Riverdale. It might give us whiplash watching the entire football team go from being super-hyped to do some vigilantism, to being very opposed to the whole thing, to being passionately up for it again as soon as they learn that Archie protected one of them from getting into some demonstrably trivial bother, but we know that that’s how Riverdale likes to pop, patch and re-inflate its story-balloons. We know this show is a bit of a mess.

The flashing lightning fuses these three things and illuminates Riverdale as a town in the grip of teenage impulsivity, civic trauma and flailing storylines. As a town in a radical state of flux.

This episode is about Betty and Veronica solving puzzles. Betty’s puzzle is that thing with the code. Veronica’s is more profound. While everyone else is coming to terms with what Riverdale/Riverdale is, she’s on the next level trying to answer the question of how you live a life inside a town/show like that. What can you base your choices on when the people who surround you and the people who write you are a chorus line of jerking knees? What can you hold on to?

“These are fraught times,” she recognises. “No one’s thinking straight,” she further recognises. “We have to hold on to each other,” she concludes.

Her answer is loyalty, the proper application of which has been a theme of this season since its first episode juxtaposed Betty’s resolution to support all of Jughead’s choices with the awful consequences of Jughead’s choices.

Veronica’s not so hasty. She doesn’t arrive at loyalty as her conclusive answer to the Riverdale problem until she’s tested it out from a couple of different approaches and found a way it can work. A way it can be something better than fetching your boyfriend’s gun and designing a fashion line around his attempt at suicide-by-proxy.

Part of what gets her there is a brief scene with her mother that stands out as the most honest we’ve ever seen the two characters have. As Hermione tries to explain that supporting someone cannot mean putting yourself in a position where you cannot criticise them, it’s finally made explicit what Hermione wants. She wants her daughter’s life to be entirely unlike hers.      

 

WEIRD MYSTERIES

The Black Hood leaves messages for Betty in envelopes marked ‘BETTY’ but messages for Alice in envelopes marked ‘COOPER.’

There’s potential for confusion here. The killer needs a more consistent system for how he communicates with this household. If, as seems as likely as anything, the Black Hood is Hal, then the way things are going he’ll be unmasked while sloppily delivering a message labelled ‘ME.’

What does it mean to be a South-sider? The North/South divide is more tangible than ever this episode, partly because it’s a story about people actively working to make that happen, and if this is going to be a thing then it’s a thing that probably needs to be thought about carefully.

Most of the time it appears to be a division based on class and economics. Other times it seems to be a division as arbitrary as the Ghoulie/Serpent battle lines being drawn over whether cars or bikes are best. But one way or another, the show’s now very clear that the South-siders are a group over which the North-siders have privilege, and that privilege is an active force in the narrative. It’s very clear because Toni told us. Riverdale knows it wants to associate Toni with that social justice lingo that the kids have nowadays, but doesn’t yet know if it wants her to be for or against.    

Is this a Batman story? Jughead raises the question in response to the villainous riddle, and it’s weirdly apposite. Telling stories about what happens to a community’s self-perception in the face of catastrophe was the new function that Scott Snyder put the Riddler to in ‘Zero Year’, and that’s to some extent carried through into Tom King’s recent War of ‘Jokes and Riddles.’ The version of the Riddler that’s been prominent in the comics over the past few years would be very at home in this town right now.

While Hiram Lodge sounds like a more cinematic Batman baddie, gloating over all the delicious “chaos and confusion” his dastardly schemes have provoked among the unsuspecting populace. Even then though, his ultimate goal looks like it’s about driving the town towards gentrifying the South Side so he can cash in on the redevelopment. That would be quite a Scott Snyder-ish Batman story too.    

 

YOUR PALS

Veronica puts on her cape and makes someone dispose of a gun. Definitely thinks this is a Batman story.  

Betty has more reason to think she’s in Buffy, finding herself an unwilling Chosen One whose best option is to rustle up a study group and a pile of library books.

Jughead is very proud of being the first person to call the Black Hood a serial killer, beating all those cowards who were waiting for him to kill more than one person.

Fred isn’t happy about his son’s choices but acts generally more resigned to them than he did towards the music career.

Archie has an alarming remix of his naff video going round his head. I wonder how his music sounds now? Never mind all this autotuned milkshake, let’s have him up on the stage performing this catchy little number about the B-B-B-B-Black Hood.

The Zodiac Killer is returning some Catherine Cooksons.

The Axeman has come to pay his fines.

The Phantom Killer just dropped in to do a bit of photocopying.

That Librarian seems a likely suspect. Judging by where Juggy plucks his selections from, then at least three stacks of Riverdale’s modest public library are given over to books on serial killers. Who’s stocking this place? She is, I reckon. According to her own murderous interests. This same shady character admits to being afraid of the Red Circle and would have known that Betty always used to take out that Nancy Drew book. She’s the Black Hood, I tell you. Who else could have known that?

Hal just sits there quietly through the episode again.

Weatherbee has no evident sense of embarrassment over supporting the Red Circle last week.  

Sheriff Keller is very gracious not to give him shit about this.

Dilton gets the ever-mobile devil imagery applied to him this week, toying with a shiny red apple while leading Archie into temptation.  

Wilbur Wilkins was a safer bet than Bingo Wilkin.

Reggie speaks for the Bulldog hivemind, brings pizza to the apocalypse. So it is written in the Book of Reg.

Toni is an expert on serial killers because she is from THE DARK SIDE.

Betty’s ponytail flicks against the fourth wall.

Fangs Foggarty appears. Presumably he won’t be Penny Peabody’s boyfriend in this continuity, although actually you never know with Riverdale.  

Cheryl appears.

Adam the Alien does not appear.

Everything’s Riverdale: S2E3 The Watcher in the Woods

At the end of each episode of Riverdale my daughter writes a flurry of texts to her friends, because she’s the intended audience, and I write a recap for a geek culture website, because I’m not. Here’s what you get to read.

It’ll be okay. Everything’s Riverdale.

YOUR PALS

Sheriff Keller is active or relevant in every single plotline this episode offers; the formation of the vigilante group, the activities of the gangs, the behaviour of his son. In normal television this might serve to centre his character, but normal television isn’t what we’ve got here. We need talk no more about the fellow. Well, not much more more anyway. His name will necessarily come up when we discuss Jingles the Christmas Elf.

Betty, in a departure from her stated policy this season, questions one of Jughead’s stupid choices. He quickly overrules her objections with a snog and the observation that she likes him when he’s reckless. Jughead should know, as he appears equally turned on by the thought of Archie going “all Travis Bickle.” With Veronica’s solitary reference to her boyfriend putting himself in the sights of a murderer being one that suggests she finds this trivial and cute, then the impression is given of a friendship group who find each other’s self-destructive behaviour to be either endearing or arousing. Except in the case of Kevin. The straight kids all agree that he should behave.

Jingles the Christmas Elf has been bringing festive cheer to Archie since 1961, but has never manifested in as surprising a form as he takes in Riverdale.

When Sheriff Keller said the words ‘Jingle Jangles’ in this season’s first episode then I think we all felt sure what was happening; The writers were fondly remembering the “hopped up on goofballs” line from The Simpsons and thought they’d give their own comedy policeman some old-timey drugs speak.

Then when the phrase recurred through the second episode I think we felt equally confident as to what was up; the writers had been tickled by a phrase and couldn’t stop typing it; like ‘waste extraction system’ and ‘self-sealing stem bolt’ on Deep Space Nine.

Now, as of the third episode, the truth is clear. ‘Jingle Jangles’ are how we are to talk about drugs in this show going forward. In the decade where music channels now censor metaphors about clinical use of morphine out of old Pink songs, ‘Jingle Jangles’ is the vocabulary in which the show is permitted to have this conversation.

Veronica alludes to both Audrey Horne and Hamilton in the same conversation. I find this relatable as that’s how I live my life – before this recap is done I’ll allude to Audrey Horne and Hamilton in the same sentence – but I’m not sure Veronica should talk like me.

Kevin. Kevin, oh Kevin. Kevin, my child. I knew you could do it. Sweet Kevin. You’re a real boy now. A whole episode in which you take a week off from reacting archly to the terrible and dangerous choices all the straight kids are making and get to make terrible and dangerous choices of your own. As if you want things! As if the things you want are different to them and as if your opportunities to pursue them are subject to different cultural constraints! Not only this but you get to articulate that effectively. Good Kevin. Best Kevin. But not a Kevin we’ve never seen before. This is the kid who was in the leaked pilot script. Riverdale’s Kevin Keller has finally caught up with where he was before Riverdale was filmed. Hopefully it’s all forwards from here. Oh, Kevin.

The Black Hood has killed 100% of the people he has tried to kill with cello bows and 0% of the people he has tried to kill with guns. Needs to have a rethink.

Cheryl and the lighting department are endgame.

Jughead has remembered which school he goes to and that it is not the one he appears to have been attending for the previous two episodes. “Can’t you just keep going here?” asks Betty. Unclear why he dismisses this plan as he seems to have been getting away with it undetected.

Archie tries rum. Presumably. We never see him take a sip. The scene cuts away at the exact point it would be really weird for him not to.

Fred doesn’t like guns. No wonder he was unsure about Archie having musical instruments in the house last season. Deadlier. Proven.

Hermione’s position becomes clearer and uglier. She knows she’s failing to protect herself and Veronica from Hiram but, since the toothpaste of shame always squirts out of the tube at inconvenient angles, how she feels about this has turned into a sozzled resentment of Veronica.

Polly is also squeezing that tube. It’s unclear how much poor Polly’s belief that she’s “the poster child for sin” comes from self-disgust and how much from an attempt to see through the killer’s eyes. But with her and her newborn twins all off to toil in the fields together then the important thing for the show is that they’ve now got somewhere to park these characters.

Hiram’s reactions to The Matchelorette are unrecorded.

Alice continues to serve as the voice of the press this season, a role I trust she’ll continue to enjoy until one of the two school papers scoops the killer.

Weatherbee is bold to think that “it’s a school club” is sufficient to end all questioning of an armed vigilante gang. Oh! Oh they’ve got a treasurer? Oh, then that’s fine.

Moose gets to talk about his queer identity, but it’s framed by him diminishing the idea that he might be attracted to Midge. Getting frisky in the woods was all her idea. He’s not sure if they’re ‘a good match’. We can’t talk about Moose being into blokes until we’ve cast doubt on the idea that he’s into a girl. Nothing in this show makes me so anxious as where it’s going with its framing of bisexuality.

Toni, our officially licensed bisexual, uses the implication of male homosexual desire to shame Sweetpea, shooing him off with the jibe that Jughead is “not that into” him. The way the character is being positioned is very telling and deliberate. Look! She uses ‘safe space’ and ‘snowflake’ mockingly! So don’t worry everybody, she’s not one of those bisexual teens.

Midge is unhelpful at identifying people. Reports that the killer’s eyes were blank, satanic and devoid of all humanity. Okay, fine, but you just cut off someone who was about to tell us if they were green or not. Let’s get the basics down first.

A Cuddly Toy Moose appears on screen for the first time during Midge’s ‘devil’s eyes!’ speech. Undercuts sense of infernal dread.

The Ghoulies solve a problem. The Serpents are established as a frequently sympathetic organisation. The Serpents are also established as a drugs gang. Morality on this show is exactly as black and white as it keeps telling us it isn’t, so we need these guys; the bad gang who distribute the bad drugs. They are street racers while the serpents are bikers but it remains to be seen if that will be mapped on to the moral schema.

Reggie is immune to these considerations. A free floating ‘bad kid’ unrestricted by consistency of action or facial features. As the comics used to superposition B&V as both best friends and bitterest rivals, Reggie is traditionally both an integral part of the gang and an external bully. Riverdale’s version of the character is an equally adaptable ne’er-do-well. When there are drugs to sell, he’s there selling them. When there are skulls to crack, he’s bought the wrench. He is naughty.

Dilton fits in better with the Bulldogs than you might have thought. That someone who has previously just been ‘dangerous outsider nerd with a gun’ happens to be sat comfortably and confidently in the room with the football team as the Red Circle is no accident. Archie drops the ‘no weapons’ pretence as soon as he gets in the car with Reggie; He wanted Mister Guns invested in this from the start.

Sweetpea is our new voice of young serpenthood in the show, there to articulate the Serpent party line within the apocalyptically lit halls of Southside High. Shame it couldn’t have been Joaquin really. That would have been more fun. Presumably a reimagining of an old Archie Comics character, but I’m going to pretend he’s the baby from Popeye.

Hal appears.

Captain Murder has yet to appear. Suspicious.

WEIRD MYSTERIES

Is there a cascade of educational damnation? We know that if you fall from the grace of Riverdale then you plummet down to Southside High. So if you get expelled from Southside High, do you then go to Ghoulie Schoolie?

What is the provenance of the Cuddly Toy Moose? Either it’s a gift from Midge (which would be weird as their relationship seems too far along for “Ha! You’re name is MOOSE! Like a moose!”) or Midge has brought him his favourite Cuddly Toy Moose from home to make his stay in hospital more comfortable.

What is sin? Jughead often packages events up for us in a Manichean “LIGHT VERSUS DARKNESS” narrative where light is an idealised nostalgic fantasy of small town Americana and darkness is pretty much anything else. But the notion of sin that debuts here feels different, like the Al Hartley Archie comics have somehow sneaked in.

Presumably the Black Hood has a conception of what he thinks sin is, but his language is all over the place. Fred’s shot for adultery. Classic. Classic religious taboo, your adultery. Bang to rights there, Fred. Then the Hood identifies his next victim as “the child predator” which isn’t particularly theological language, but okay.

After that though, he says the teenagers got shot at for being “drug and sex addicted.” Whoa, whoa, whoa. Whatcha doing there, Mister Hood? Addiction’s a whole different discourse and one that noticeably manages the concept of attribution differently to a discourse of sin, and noticeably is one that nobody else is applying to Midge and Moose.

What sort of a comics reader is Archie? I feel like the sort of kid who has DC Rebirth posters on their wall and the sort of kid who treasures a stack of ‘80s Red Circle books are at different stages of their journey with the medium. More data is needed.

 

THE TOWN WITH LIE$

There are two sorts of agent in this story, two sorts of people that make things happen. People making dangerous choices in pursuit of their goals and people escalating the consequences of those choices to serve goals of their own. Archies and Cheryls.

What Hiram wants is unclear. What Archie wants is very clear. The audience is with Archie, inside his head, as we follow every step that takes him towards the posting of an embarrassing YouTube video that will blight his entire life as much as Michael Rosen’s has been blighted by that one clip from his mashed potato poem. Nice.

We know what he wants and we know where it gets him. But we also know that Archie doesn’t get there, attempting to menace a 25% effective angel of death with his personal exploration of BDSM aesthetics, without being nudged by Hiram. The formation of the Red Circle and their adoption of these tactics are outcomes that Hiram wanted and has brought about to suit his sinister schemes, but there’s no intimation of what these sinister schemes relate to. To be honest, it’s hard to pretend that the writers have settled on what Hiram’s sinister schemes are, isn’t it?

Over in the woods, Cheryl is exploiting Betty’s concern for Kevin to drive a wedge between them. We know which desires motivate Kevin’s choices. We know which desire’s motivate Betty’s. And we also know what desires motivate Cheryl – She’s re-asserting her power over Betty and getting some revenge for last week’s blackmail – but we only know that because we saw last week’s thrilling instalment. None of that stuff is in the recap and no reference is made to it in the episode whatsoever. This is a story about Cheryl taking a shot at Betty that creates a deliberate distance between the viewer and the reasons why Cheryl’s taking a shot at Betty.

Cheryl’s sinister schemes aren’t like Hiram’s, her motives are established while his are [tbd], but their presentation is identical. At this stage in Riverdale there are people who make choices, like Archie and Betty with whom we ride along in their heads as they do, and people who steer those choices like Hiram and Cheryl. Their desires, even if known to us, are positioned at a remove. As Audrey Horne sung in Hamilton, isn’t it too dreamy in the dark?

Everything’s Riverdale: S2E2 Nighthawks

Can you remember what happened in this week’s Riverdale? Of course not! That was days ago! Who could expect that of anyone?

All that’s expected of you here is that you play along with the idea that the best way to refresh your memory is by reading a slightly vinegary recap by an old Welsh man.

Everything’s Riverdale!

THE TOWN WITH POPS

Here in the UK, Riverdale is branded as a ‘Netflix Original’ show. Early last season that lead to one British press review charmingly mispositioning the series next to the service’s award-thirsty gloryshows and assuming that the source material must be worthy and acclaimed graphic novels indeed. This week the ‘Netflix Original’ branding  had me briefly wondering if the wonky ‘Death Diner’ letters were intended as promotion for their Death Note thing.

Last recap we were wondering how a second season would find its way between continuing to be a response to the tradition of Archie Comics and becoming a response to Riverdale as a now pre-existent artefact. We’ve seen a bit of the second thing – Grundy’s death felt partly there to give the people what they want – but overall Riverdale is still more interested in how Riverdale follows the Archie Mythos than in how Riverdale follows Riverdale.    

The earlier “Save the Drive-In!” episode comes up a lot in this “Save the Malt Shop!” episode, but this story is far more focused. Locales associated with nostalgic Americana are again associated with the security of childhood, with the security of nostalgic old Archie comics, but it’s one specific childhood illusion under consideration here; That our fathers won’t hurt us.

“This is a town where fathers are killing their sons!” says Jughead last episode, like that’s unheard of. 

“Blindfold’s off. Can’t just put it back on” says Veronica here.

Alice wants to call her article REQUIEM FOR POPS and is no doubt gutted that Riverdale‘s titling convention means she can’t give that name to the episode itself.

The chain of emotional logic that the kids are following here is explicit.

  • Childhood was a more innocent time.
  • The heyday of malt shops was a more innocent time.
  • In our childhoods we trusted our fathers.
  • THEREFORE if malt shops are preserved then our fathers are less likely to kill us.   

Jughead makes no attempt to distinguish the “Save Pop’s!” and “Save our pops!” issues in his confrontation with the Mayor, and even though Betty’s a bit rattled she goes with it.

Betty’s  in a dangerous place now, committed to supporting Jughead’s goals but prepared to go further than he is to achieve them. Diverting all system resources away from her “Should I do this?” faculties and towards her “How do I do this?” faculties, she’s practically powerful and critically impotent. Cheryl tells her the very real and non-trivial ways in which FP has hurt her and Betty can’t hear any of it, coming back with the non sequitur that “FP didn’t kill Jason.”

It’s Betty’s actions that achieve the final unity of “Save Pop’s!” and “Save our pops!” by providing the two problems with the same solution; Blackmail Cheryl into saving both. The figure of the patriarch is to be preserved by perpetuating the victimisation of the abused child.

WEIRD MYSTERIES

This episode felt like it was in conversation with me. I’d shout things at the screen and then it would shout “That’s a plot point!” back.

“If she’s on retainer for the Serpents, why has she not given FP her legal advice already?”

“That’s a plot point!”

“Why is everyone acting like a small business is a charity?”

“That’s a plot point! As is the obliviousness of everyone except Alice Cooper to everything that’s happening around them!”

Moose becoming the latest victim genuinely disrupts attempts to identify the killer. Up until now then the obvious suspect was some sort of external entity created by Archie’s suppressed anger.  We can abandon that now, I suppose. Put it to the back of your mind. Forget you thought it.

Many people have made the connection between the gunman and the Black Hood, an often violent vigilante figure who first appeared in 1940’s Top-Notch Comics #9.

Fair enough, but I worry we’re all neglecting 1994’s Archie Meets the Punisher.

It’s wonderful how consistently the series treats the river as the boundary between life and death. It’s the body of water you cross to be reborn. It’s where you go when you die. We stand in Riverdale because we stand at death’s shores. It’s even more delicious this season now that we know what’s physically on the other side is the numinous town of witches.

This week Archie stands in the middle of the river, between life and death, and picks up a gun.

YOUR PALS

Veronica is in the most horrifying situation I’ve seen on television since Spencer Hastings last had to have a family breakfast. Her parents are now gaslighting each others’ gaslighting. When all is known then complex diagrams will be required to map the extent of the malice and harm. Her survival strategies are diversion and feigned indifference.

Jughead is the one friend able to see how much she’s struggling. His advice isn’t great, but good on him anyway.

Sheriff Keller has better instincts than I thought. He suspected from the off that these crimes were jingle-jangle related and now, as of the third one, they are.

Penny Peabody makes a Mephistophelean pact and guarantees a future episode will called Devil’s Advocate.

Hiram has been defended by Veronica “every time someone called [him] the devil incarnate.” V. specific.

FP is saved at the cost of being left beholden to a character positioned as the devil.

Pop Tate is saved at the cost of being left beholden to a character positioned as the devil

The traditional role of ‘The Father’ is irredeemable once the blindfolds are off.

Hermione is going to wreck everyone’s shit when she eventually turns on Hiram.

Archie gets called ‘daddio’ to highlight the dark path he’s on. His journey this episode takes him from thinking that drugs will make him the Man of the House to thinking that guns will. Thanks to the side effects of jingle jangles then the drug plan involved him being constantly erect, so the phallus is very much the consistent feature here.  

Moose requires jingle jangles to get it on with his girlfriend. Last season Moose had his intended plotline curtailed by Kevin, on behalf of the CW, declaring him not really into guys. Least bisexual bisexual. Gets shot.

The Angel of Death is very unlikely to be brought to justice by Archie distributing drawings of his mask. “Have you seen this man?” asks the header, so presumably what’s written below is “Me neither.” I may mock, but flyers just like these would actually have got season four of Line of Duty wrapped up quick.

Midge is okay, isn’t she? Surely? Her introduction was too much of an introduction not to be the introduction of a new regular and not enough of an introduction to be the fake introduction of a fake ‘regular’. She’s fine! Which makes the Angel of Death a bit rubbish at death. He is at most the Angel of 50% Death.

Reggie gets to look more reasonable than he is thanks to Riverdale being such directive television. In drama like this then two opposed people can’t both be presented as massively wrong in the same scene or we won’t know whose wrongness we’re being pointed at. So he gets to show up at Archie’s house dressed as his father’s shooter with that being allowed to stand as ‘a prank’ rather than chillingly weird behaviour.

The Dream Warriors were the heroes of A Nightmare On Elm Street Part Three. First horror film I ever saw, that one. I didn’t know what was going on.

Mister Weatherbee has tragic news to share. Which is a good thing really. Imagine him trying to have a bit of fun or lighten the mood. End of term and I bet he dishes out the book tokens mournfully.

Sabrina the Teenage Witch is further foreshadowed by the soundtrack promising that this will be her season.

Kevin is shocked to meet Veronica’s father! Kevin is shocked to hear of Grundy’s death! Other people’s lives have so many events in them. So much to take in.

Betty‘s eyebrow raise while Cheryl is on the stand is far more scary than the initial extortion. “No, no. The forgiveness we agreed upon will not be sufficient,” it makes clear, “Perjury is also required.”

Cheryl goes the extra mile not just on the stand but in other areas of her life. Such as trying to out do the cast of Victorious for extravagance of locker modification.

Josie has a really interesting friendship with our Chezza and I really need to see more of the dynamics of how it, y’know, works. Josie gets no reaction shots while she’s standing next to Cheryl during her dismissal of B&V. How does she feel when she’s around Cheryl at her most performatively Cheryl? How does she fit in with that? 

Valerie has the norovirus. Worrying news as she visited a hospital last week. Whole ward likely shut down now. 

Melody appears.

Fangs Fogarty has yet to appear.

Everything’s Riverdale: S2E1 A Kiss Before Dying

Fourteen years ago the legal department of Archie Comic Publications torpedoed Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa satirical play about a gay Archie Andrews. Four years ago, Aguirre-Sacasa and Jason Moore walked out of Perks of Being a Wallflower with the idea of filtering the Archie characters through something a bit like that. Earlier this year, season one of Riverdale aired.

What a winding route to the screen it took. Along the way there were versions where it was a movie with time travel and dinosaurs. Along the way there were drafts where Kevin was an agentic and autonomous individual. There were all manner of things, and following them all came season one; Camp, compromised, and with an insistent heart pumping pure molten television around its overheated veins, boiling your syrup and cracking your ice.

Now here’s season two to follow that. Season one got to be a response to seventy five years of a peculiar strain of American pop culture and to one peculiar writer’s efforts to understand how it relates to his life. Season two gets to be a response to all of that and also a response to Riverdale. Here’s where things get really interesting as its success and its strong foundation free it up to take bigger risks and ask bigger questions. Or maybe here’s where things get really boring as its birth cry hushes and it settles down to become a well-behaved CW show.  

I’m hoping it’s the former, as I’ll be writing these weekly recaps, Everything’s Riverdale. Welcome. Let’s see what we get. Let’s see what we do with it.

THE TOWN WITH A PAST

Teen drama series, as they go on, have to negotiate the problem of the parents becoming people. Watching early episodes of Pretty Little Liars and it feels inconceivable that the mothers or fathers could ever have storylines of their own in which they’re the viewpoint characters and the stakes are their personal wellbeing. Then by season two you’d die for Hannah’s mum. Early UK Skins had a neat trick for managing this, casting Eighties comedians we hadn’t heard from in a while as prominent parents, their recognisable faces a clear signal that their characters weren’t to be understood as ‘real’ in the same way the kids were, that they weren’t to be understood as something that mattered right now.

Riverdale went for a related strategy, looking to actors associated with shows in this show’s DNA. Luke Perry is here as Luke Perry from 90210. Mädchen Amick is here as Mädchen Amick from Twin Peaks. There to show us where this came from, not what this is. What seems to have disrupted this “Remember these Nineties guys? From the Nineties?” function of the casting is that most of them then turned in unignorably brilliant performances. So here we open season two with an episode where many of the set piece scenes are not only from Fred Andrews’ perspective but set inside his brain.

What parents are for isn’t the only question about how the past relates to the present that this episode has to wrestle with. Having treated itself to the fun of doing two big finales to season one, Riverdale now has to open its second season with an awful lot of aftermath. Amazingly little happens here, as characters mostly turn up to visit the hospital and fill each other in on the various different forms the apocalypse manifested to each of them.    

And as we look back, the town itself starts to acquire more history. What were these riots all about then, Pop Tate?  

 

YOUR PALS

Jughead is the character most in motion this week, finding himself with the power to hurt people and trying to work out if he can handle that. Being the central character interferes with his always shaky ability to function as an outsider narrator, and he delivers the opening voice over in the most extraordinary way, putting the stress on Archie not owning a driver’s license as if that were the most curious aspect of Fred’s shooting. When we talk about others we’re often talking about ourselves, I suppose, so I suspect what’s really on Juggy’s mind there is that he shares Betty’s concern with how he himself instantly learned to ride a motorbike.

Kevin, conversely, never talks about anything except other people. He stresses that everyone’s thoughts are all about Fred but that if they weren’t they’d all be about Betty. He is briefly invited to consider his own life but moves things swiftly on.  

Pureheart the Powerful is chosen by Jughead as Archie’s superhero name. Sounding unlike any superhero name in current popular culture, this only really makes sense if Jughead somehow knows that ‘Pureheart the Powerful’ is his superhero name in the comics. This isn’t like in Season One when Kevin plucked the name ‘Madam Satan’ out of thin air – that was obviously his unconscious mind trying to alert the gang to the proximity of Actual Madam Satan in the form of ‘Miss Grundy.’ This is something else. My theory is that Jughead has been secretly writing Pureheart the Powerful fic for some time.

Archie continues to be someone unable to name his traumas. It remains unclear if he’ll ever understand that he’s been sexually abused and it’s very clear here that he doesn’t have the foggiest idea why he feels so guilty about not having got himself shot. He’s also very cross with himself for enjoying dog walking and sex while his dad is at death’s door. This anger at having enjoyed sex he then takes out on Veronica. In the Pureheart the Powerful comics, Archie loses his powers when he thinks sexual thoughts. Not sure Pureheart the Powerful is an altogether healthy hero to be. 

Cheryl can name her traumas. She knows what was done to her and can say it out loud. Magnificent and terrifying in her always significant white, she resembles an Angel of Life and Death more than anything else in an episode replete with references to such. Moving from establishing her control over her mother to acting like her kiss can resurrect Fred Andrews she appears to genuinely believe that she can damn or save any of us. I’m not suggesting she can’t. She’s for reals, Baby Jane.   

Sheriff Keller continues to be entrusted by the state with the investigation of serious crime. This one, he suspects, may be jingle jangle related.

Doctor Master is an unusually large man in usually sized scrubs.

Alice has been kind of reset. She’s now a fussy but protective mother with a role as one of the show’s main anti-Serpent voices. Her redemption arc seems to have left her as funny-controlling rather than sinister-controlling. 

Hermione remains Schrodinger’s Mother. Owed either jail time or innumerable apologies.

The Virgin Mary looks suspicious, judgemental. Knows more than she’s saying.

The Pussycats appear at the hospital, looking as if they’re all set to support Fred with an immaculately choreographed dance routine.

Reggie appears at the hospital looking as if he’s all set to support Fred with the secrets of true immortality, timeless perpetual bodily regeneration.

Veronica is exploring two new roles. Having drawn a line between Old Veronica and New Veronica then she’s feeling her way to how New Veronica works as someone’s girlfriend. ‘Incredibly giving and supportive’ is her answer to that so far. Meanwhile, she’s also puzzling out how the well-established rules for domestic squabbles among the Lodge family apply when those squabbles might involve a body count. How do her tactics apply when the stakes have changed? For her the episode ends with a scene that looks like something out of The Godfather but is pretty much just her being told off for raiding the fridge.   

Betty is not blessed with such narrative complexity, as her entire episode is just about the learning to be a supportive girlfriend thing. Her arc this week ends with her announcing that she’ll back Jughead’s choices no matter what, before we cut to a scene that illustrates she was doing uncannily better back when she was questioning them.

Hiram appears.

Count Drago, Betty’s Vampire Uncle, has yet to appear.

 

WEIRD MYSTERIES

 

What is Jughead writing? Is this a sequel to his novel about Jason’s murder or a continuation? If it’s a sequel then what’s he doing with his completed Jason book? Will we see him seek publication over the course of the season? If it’s a continuation then what does he even see this book as being about? Just ‘all the stuff that happens to my friends’? Tighten your focus, Jughead, or you’ll never finish the thing.

–  

As Twin Peaks first season opens with “Who Killed Waterborne Teen?” and its second opens with “Who Shot Grown Man?” then so goes Riverdale. Hold on for a wild ride in season three.

Or maybe sooner. Greendale, you guys! Greendale! Home of actual teenager and actual witch, Sabrina the Teenage Witch! From Sabrina the Teenage Witch! And also from the forthcoming CW series based on the Chilling Adventures of Sabrina comic.

Now look. Here’s the thing about that. Sabrina’s main antagonist in that comic is Madam Satan, a pre-Archie Archie character whose deal is that she’s a dead woman who goes around wrecking people’s lives with sex. Specific to the Chilling Adventures version being adapted as a Riverdale sister show is the fact that Madam Satan is also a substitute teacher.

Our first look at Greendale in this show also sees us witness to the death of Jennifer ‘Miss Grundy’ Gibson, an itinerant sexual predator working as a music teacher.

At this point I would tell you that ‘Miss Grundy’ is Madam Satan. But I think you’ve always known.   

Have Them Fight God: Everything Starts on Yancy Street

I’m reading every Fantastic Four comic and posting four thoughts on each. The concept of articles about the Fantastic Four was invented by Rich Johnston. No infringement is intended.

Today it’s…

Spider-Man #90

Spider-Man_Vol_1_90

… from April 1998. A Spider-Man/Fantastic Four team-up with a difference.  

Written by Howard Mackie. Penciled by John Romita Jr. Inked by Scott Hanna. Coloured by Gregory Wright. Lettered by Kiff Scholl. Edited by Ralph Macchio.

ONE

This issue is a prelude to an event called ‘Identity Crisis’ which….WAIT! STOP! COME BACK! It’s alright. It’s alright. Different ‘Identity Crisis.’ This one’s a bit of harmless fluff about Spider-Man dressing up in four different costumes as part of an elaborate plan to beat a murder rap. It’s bags of fun. Fun which I’m over-simplifying it a little, as Spidey doesn’t just adopt four new costumes but four new names, four new personae, four new fighting styles, and three new speech patterns. The costumes are what matters here though, as this issue is the origin of one of them.

The ‘Hornet’ costume he gets given by a friend, the ‘Ricochet’ costume Mary Jane puts together in a charity shop, the ‘Prodigy’ costume he and MJ design together, and the ‘Dusk’ costume is inherited from the figurehead of a revolutionary uprising within a universe of antimatter. Only that last costume is thought to need a whole introductory issue rather than a brief introductory flashback, which probably sounds fair enough until you know that the look the spider-spouses collaborated on is the one that involves Peter slathering himself in gold body paint and gluing on a big fake nose. My opinion on how entertaining their marriage is to read about could be completely reversed by twenty pages of them workshopping that. Trying on different noses. Brilliant.

But this issue is about introducing the Dusk costume, so let’s try concentrate on that. Which won’t be easy because the issue doesn’t. Before it gets to Dusk it introduces another new costume that’s got nothing to do with any of this. Another new costume that serves no narrative function whatsoever and which only gets referenced once in the text. “A little costume change,” notes Peter as he takes stock of the effects of being converted into anti-matter and crash-landing on an alien world. After that no more is said about it. Not much is shown of it either. Three pages pass between Peter noticing that he’s wearing something different and us getting a proper look at what it is he is wearing.

littlecostume   

That one panel, bunched up at the top right of a page, is as good as it gets for full-length looks at this outfit, which is then just shown in head shots, long shots and ass shots for another four pages before he changes out of it and into into the Dusk clobber. There is an implicit rationale for the design – Peter has been gifted part of the Dark Force of a vigilante called SHOC and this get-up shares some features with SHOC’s costume to the extent that it’s monochrome and John Romita JR-ish – but it’s still incredibly eccentric. We’re given a new costume for Spider-Man that isn’t talked about or shown off, and we’re given it in an issue whose purpose is to introduce a different costume for Spider-Man. What’s going on there?

I’ve got two guesses! Maybe you could look this up somewhere, but guessing is fun. One is that Romita Jr designed this costume for the ‘Identity Crisis’ event without it having been explained to him that the concept wasn’t ‘four different Spider-Mans’ but ‘Spider-Man dressed up as four different people who aren’t Spider-Man.’ The mix-up having left him with a spare spider-look, he decided to get some use out of it here whether the story called for it or not. Does that sound plausible? I don’t blame him at all if that’s how it went. This costume really is pretty cool. Monochrome Spider-Man outfits are almost always onto a winner – the symbiote costume, the Future Foundation costume – and this is no exception.

My other guess would be that JRJR was maybe just trying to put off drawing the Dusk costume for as long as possible because it’s a bit shit. It’s a featureless silhouette, such as could only be of any possible interest as a move in the Anish Kapoor/Stuart Semple artwar, and it’s got those stupid flying squirrel wings that join your arms to your legs. You know the things – Banshee has them sometimes and Spider-Man threatens to go that way whenever his armpit webs are getting out of hand. Here they’re even worse than usual. Take a silhouette, join its arms to its legs by big flaps of material, and put it in an action pose and all you’ve got’s a big ol’ blob. Monochrome Spider-Man outfits are almost always onto a winner and this is the exception.

I might hate the Dusk blob but it means a lot to the people of Tarsuu, the planet within the Negative Zone where all this is going on. There’s a heroic rebellion against an evil empire underway round those parts and Dusk was its inspirational leader until he went missing and a second Dusk took on the identity. That second Dusk  gets wounded in this story and passes the identity to Peter. At this point you’ve probably got suspicious that this is all a bit like the Dread Pirate Roberts from The Princess Bride and that there’s no single individual who is the authentic ‘Dusk’, just a myth and a lineage. Doesn’t seem to be the case though. The leader of the evil empire understands his opponent to be a singular, recognisable individual and the later Dusks to be imposters. The second Dusk believes that the first is out there somewhere, that he’s just keeping his seat warm, and his final words are an unheard repetition of his plea that Peter find the true Dusk.

So becoming Dusk, as it’s explained to Peter, doesn’t mean that you actually become Dusk. Just that you take on his responsibilities and the further responsibility of having a look round to see where the original’s gone. Which I think makes what he does next a little bit rude.

He deals a big blow to the evil empire, which is helpful. Then he gives a speech to the grateful rebels about how Dusk will always be with them when their need is greatest, which is a big fib but also probably helpful. Then he vamooses back to Earth, which is fair enough as it would have been a big ask for “Dusk fights an endless war across the Negative Zone” to be the new status quo of the Spider-Man titles, but the least he could have done is leave the costume behind for a fourth Dusk to stick on. The very least! What’s he need it for back on Earth? He can get new identities just by rummaging around charity shops and gluing on comedy noses, while these beleaguered rebels are short a mythic figurehead now he’s run off with their vantablack pyjamas! What a dick.

Look at what goes through his mind regarding the Dusk role. As he leaves Tarsuu everyone’s cheering him and he’s loving it. As, still dressed as Dusk, he returns to New York with some rescued kids then everyone there is cheering him and he’s loving that too. “I don’t mind basking in a little hero worship for a change,” he tells SHOC. Peter ends this issue thinking about how much he likes being Dusk because everyone likes Dusk.  But once ‘Identity Crisis’ starts then he’ll opt to play Dusk as a sinister crook and disgust himself so much that he’ll start showering excessively. Starting to suspect this boy doesn’t want to be happy.      

Someone else inherits this identity after Peter, so maybe she eventually returns to Tarsuu, finds the original Dusk and sorts it all out. Looking her up, it seems like she falls off a roof and dies in her first appearance so it doesn’t sound too promising.  

TWO

There’s a lot of overlap between the world of Spider-Man and the world of the Fantastic Four and many team-up stories explore that, but there’s another sort of Spidey/FF adventure that works by putting Spider-Man in the parts of their world that are not part of his. Often those stories are written by Dan Slott and often they’re my favourites.

I’m thinking of things like that abortive trip to ‘a weird dimension’ from Spider-Man/Human Torch #2 or the two different jaunts to the Macroverse we see in Amazing Spider-Man #590-1. Stories that have the Fantastic Four going about their most generic day to day work of travelling to new realities with different laws of physics and finding themselves in circumstances where they have to decide the fate of entire alien civilisations, some of which will probably be some kind of techno-barbarians who’ve glued canons to big lizards. The sort of FF stories that can become very overfamiliar, but defamiliarised by having Peter Parker along to be freaked out by it all.

HTFGjaunt  

Beyond having Spider-Man be alarmed and refreshed by the technobabble and the Kirby dots, stories that contrast his life with the Fantastic Four’s tend to want us to notice two big differences; Scale and integration. Swapping jobs for a day in that Spider-Man/Human Torch issue then Peter wishes Johnny good luck with saving the city and Johnny tells him he’ll need good luck with saving the universe. We’ll investigate scale below, but the basic idea of having Spider-Man visit somewhere called ‘the macroverse’ is obviously to put forward the idea that he’s stepping into a bigger world.

Integration’s where the real emotional stakes are in contrasting Spider-Man’s life with theirs. His life is defined by a harsh separation of its components and by the horrors that arise from his struggles and failures to keep those walls up. The Fantastic Four’s lives are defined by the absence of those walls. Being adventurers and being a family are the same thing for the FF, family is the word for the adventure they’re on, and so there’s a real poignancy in seeing Peter Parker on a Fantastic Four adventure. They’re inviting him into their family, where they all have reasons to want him, and there are limits to the extent to which he’s capable of accepting. Limits set by his inability to imagine living one life where the pieces fit together. Imagining being five different people is easier for him than that.       

Spider-Man #90 has almost all the features of a story in which Spidey tags along on an FF romp. We open on Yancy Street, part of their New York, not his. Mary Jane immediately understands that they’ve stepped out of their personal story space and opens the issue with the words, “I told you we shouldn’t have gone walking in this part of town.” Sure enough, this part of town soon leads us to the Distortion Field, and the Negative Zone, and Blastaar the Living Bomb-Burst and having to decide the fate of entire alien civilisations, and everything short of techno-barbarians gluing canons to big lizards.  As soon as he swings down on to Yancy Street then, other than a brief appearance by SHOC, everything he encounters originates from, or is typical of, the Fantastic Four mythos. Spider-Man spends none of this issue in a Spider-Man story.

One odd thing though. The Fantastic Four aren’t in this comic anywhere.

That’s annoyingly disruptive for the rules I’ve chosen for what this project is and isn’t supposed to cover, but really interesting in terms of what it reveals. How does Spider-Man cope with a Fantastic Four crossover to which only he’s shown up?

The answer is “Um…kind of…better?” Or at least with much more comfort and confidence. Part of that is because they’re with him in spirit as a knowledge base; He can remember what Reed once told him about surviving the Distortion Area. He can remember what Johnny once told him about fighting Blastaar. With all these facts in his head he breezes through this issue with aplomb, leaping between worlds and toppling empires without breaking a sweat. He has a lovely time and everyone’s very pleased with him.

If Spider-Man’s life contrasts with the Fantastic Four’s in terms of scale and integration then it’s clearly not the scale part that spins him out. He ignites flames of revolution that burn from world to world without really stopping to reflect that this is an unusual day’s work for him. When it does register then it’s with mild approval. “This is cool! I get to fly… and have an entire world singing my praises!” is as reflective as he gets.  

Spider-Man can step out of his life and into the Fantastic Four’s and it doesn’t rattle him at all. As long as they’re not there. As long as there’s nothing to remind him that the parts of one’s life are parts of a whole.  

THREE

In Onslaught/Heroes Reborn, as I find myself summarising most weeks, the Fantastic Four and the Avengers died, only to be somehow transferred across to a new universe of Franklin’s creation. A lot of things happened and then they sailed back to their original lives in a big space boat.

I am fascinated by every trivial detail surrounding the journey in that big space boat. It feels to me like such a strange and poetic move between the physical and the metaphysical. The heroes who Franklin initially shunted over into his world have different bodies and minds to those that died in their own, so if we grant that he really did save anyone then he can only have done so as an essence distinct from both physicality and consciousness. Those who entered Franklin’s world did so as souls. Then they left it by all physically getting on a big space boat.

How they reenter their original universe is not consistent. The boat explodes and the heroes return home at different times, in different places, with different mental health problems and with differing levels of memory regarding the alternate lives they’ve just lived. Nobody just passes from one world to another as a stable object; They’re run through Google Translate and then run back through it again the other way.

This comic is unusual in that it addresses Spider-Man having been on that boat.

Spider-Man didn’t die in Onslaught, nor did he get reborn in Heroes Reborn. He was kind of just along for the ride. Heroes Reborn: The Return saw him accidentally dragged into Franklin’s universe because he was holding the Hulk’s hair while the Hulk was being accidentally dragged in. Once there he performed his plot function of being an independent witness who could confirm to the Avengers and Fantastic Four that a bigger world existed and they were all from it. Then he stood politely in the background as he caught a lift home. He was with the Avengers and the Fantastic Four as they returned. He was on the boat when it exploded in the gulf between realities.

Then next we see him, in relation to these events, is in Marvel Team-Up #6, where it’s still the night of the Heroes return but now Peter is sat at home learning about it with Mary Jane. She’s keen for details and he’s not really got any to give, unable to recall what Franklin’s universe was, how anyone got there in the first place, or who made it back. The most he can manage is to say that it was “Weird. Very weird.” We don’t know how he got from that inter-reality explosion to that sofa, but the process seems to have left him with less than perfect recall of the details. Then, in Amazing Spider-Man #360, we see him swinging about shouting “They’re alive! They’re really alive!” as if this is information which he’s either only just learned or only just been convinced of. Everything suggests that, for Spider-Man, his late game involvement with Heroes Reborn has been left as a bit of a blur.

Here, however, he seems well appraised of the specifics. Passing through the Distortion Area, he thinks to himself, “I recognise [this] place. Made a trip through it not too long ago… during the return of the heroes from that strange universe. I think I heard Reed Richards call this the Distortion Field. A Portion of subspace where matter is converted into anti-matter and vice versa.”

What’s interesting about this isn’t the inconsistency but rather the consistency with how Heroes Reborn frames the Negative Zone. In Heroes Reborn it’s the place you go to remember things that happened to you outside of your life. The Reborn Fantastic Four visited there from inside Franklin’s universe, met Blastaar the Living Bomb-Burst, and received visions of their lives in their previous continuity. These visions changed Sue, who would continue to dream of a son she’d met but never had. Later, Reed proves to Tony Stark that their lives aren’t what they thought they were by getting him to carbon date some old rock; dating it within the world showed it to be a sensible age for some old rock to be, but taking it outside of the world and into the Negative Zone to run the test showed it to be less than a year old.       

If the logic of Heroes Reborn positions the Negative Zone as a figurative space between the Fantastic Four’s two lives, the logic of the boat trip home goes further, making it the literal gulf between the two realities in a complex multidimensional geography that brings in the Distortion Area and the literal boundaries of Franklin’s imagination and invokes the Microverse. All these bits of what Sandman calls “psychic real estate” are rezoned as places to be traversed in the act of translating yourself from one person to another. The Negative Zone is established as a space between who you are and who you aren’t. As places to acquire a new identity go, it’s at least as good as the rubber nose factory.    

FOUR

Some things become absurd when you try and systematise them (I’m reading every Fantastic Four comic and posting four thoughts on each). ComicVine’s summary of Fantastic Four #29, for example, lists the issue as featuring four different ‘teams’; The Fantastic Four, the Yancy Street Gang, Super-Apes, and Communists.

That FF issue is titled ‘It Started on Yancy Street…’ while this Spider-Man issue is titled ‘It Started on Yancy Street…Again!” but what event is recurring? Can’t find any Super-Apes or Communists round here.

They’re all over Fantastic Four #29 though. Especially the letters page, the story pages serving almost as a prequel to its debate over how Fantastic Four should address the Red Menace. Alex Nicholson from Nashville wants to see the FF continue to be pitted “against the forces of Communism, which is a much bigger threat to our nation than crime is” while Jim Gibson from Santa Rosa reckons that the book “should quit cutting down the Soviet Socialistic Republic’s leaders.” Jim is concerned that Fantastic Four might start to look a little like propaganda. Surely not!

As ever, the story itself has no interest in considering or discussing Communism as anything other than a Foreign Threat. It likes the idea that it’s Totalitarian, because that’s a bit like Nazis, but that’s about as concerned as it gets with any ideological critique.  But the story is very interested in puzzling through questions such as those raised by Nicholson from Nashville’s letter. Who should the Fantastic Four be fighting? Nicholson’s approach to answering the question is to consider various real world threats (“Crime! The Commies!”) and rank them in order of danger, with the FF best advised to direct their efforts against the most severe. That’s fine as far as it goes, but is sod all help in working out how they should prioritise time travelling Pharaohs and pranksters from the planet Poppup. Where do they fit on your national threat scale, eh Nicholson?

As Superman says in JLA Classified #3, superheroes live in a complex world. Comicvine has it right; Fantastic Four #29 has the Fantastic Four, a street gang, communists and super apes. It has all those things and a real interest in sussing out how they fit together. Does Spider-Man #90 have similar interests, or it it happier to live in the desert of the toybox? Let’s play both stories out alongside each other.

The Spider-Man of Ninety Ninety-Eight visits Yancy Street to investigate some Algerian cuisine he’s read about. The Fantastic Four of Nineteen Sixty-Four visit there to investigate a drastic rise in crime they’ve read about. One is under the impression that they’re someone who gets to go out for a nice meal and the other under the impression that they’re suited to investigating urban crime. Both are swiftly disabused of these notions, Spider-Man by witnessing some teenagers being dragged into another reality and the Fantastic Four by having some cabbages and things thrown at them. Spider-Man throws himself into the portal and the Fantastic Four just go home to have a think.

It starts on Yancy Street for both of them , but it leads them to very different places. On arriving in the Negative Zone, Peter clocks the space war that’s going on around him and thinks, “A good old-fashioned, George Lucas inspired, rebels versus the evil empire rebellion is taking place.” He’s keen to pitch in but unable to tell which side’s which. “Oops! Problem solved!” he says a panel later, “The bad guys would be the ones blasting the buildings with women and children.” His conclusions are shown to be uncannily correct, right down to the rebels being called ‘The Rebels’ and the empire being called ‘The Empire.’

Peter’s journey has two stops; from Yancy Street to the Negative Zone. The Fantastic Four’s has several. From Yancy Street back home to look up who might be behind all this in their Big Book of Baddies, then back to Yancy Street to fight Super-Apes, then to the Moon, then to the Watcher’s home. Each move comes with an escalation of scale; our first visit to Yancy Street deals with spiralling crime so petty that it would be truer to say the area has seen an alarming rise in the prevalence of pranks, our second visit deals with a Communist plot enacted with the help of super-apes, and from there the sky’s the limit.

“Let me warn you that this ship works on magnetic power and can be controlled only by my orangutan!” cautions the Red Ghost, and you’re not going to read a better sentence than that today. Magnets and monkeys lift us off to the moon, where our concerns eventually move beyond the solar system as the Watcher shows off his treasures from other galaxies and our dastardly communist foe falls through one of them and off into infinity.

That’s a move from the criminal, to the super-criminal, to global politics, to the solar system, to intergalactic space, to a vastness beyond knowing; Fantastic Four #29 but every time it gets faster. What’s remarkable though is, as we shift scales, everything remains in play. There’s a little of this in the Spider-Man comic. Peter found himself in the Negative Zone because of his attempt to rescue those teenagers and so, when the rebel leader asks him what he’s doing there, he answers “the protection of innocents” and the rebel leader concludes they are in the same line of work. But other than the endorsement of this uncontroversial principle, there’s no interpolation of the two worlds. Peter is not left with any impetus to fight crime on Tarsuu or incite revolutions on Earth. It starts on Yancy Street, but it will not continue there.

The Fantastic Four issue is the very opposite, in that story then everything is part of everything. Supervillainous microdrones buzz unnoticed around Yancy Street. Familial proximity to supervillains forces Ben to reevaluate his love life. The Russian space program begets super-apes. Super-apes fund street crime. The Fantastic Four may operate more effectively at certain scales, as they abandon their efforts at community policing Johnny comments that he hopes Spider-Man never hears of it, but once again it’s less a matter of scale than of integration. Because what happens on this one New York street happens because of Space Gods and the Cold War and what happens to Space Gods and in the Cold War happens because of one New York street. It starts on Yancy Street and it never leaves.

       

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