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The Riverdale Connect

What explains the enduring connection generation after generation of Indian schoolchildren make with a motley crew of imaginary teenagers from Riverdale, USA? As sales decline in the West but continue to rise in India, Siri Srinivas seeks to understand the Archie-phenomenon

Siri Srinivas  8th Dec 2012

The Riverdale gang’s tribute to the iconic cover of The Beatles’ album Abbey Road

t is an odd, even jarring sight. Archie Andrews in the midst of yet another caper on the cover of a comic digest magazine and, as if nothing is amiss, this red-headed permanently-teenaged resident of Riverdale, USA coolly delivers the punch line — in Malayalam.

It isn't hard to picture the entirety of this process, from a concept-slide in a sales-team-chaired  meeting to the thousands of copies printed last year for the Indian market. Grand ideas of "speaking the readers' language" would have been delivered, and the gathering would have amicably agreed. But to those of us who read these comics as children, it all seems at least a bit wrong. For the average fifteen year old, the adventures of Archie and his friends made for easy, funny reading; crucially, the allure of these comics lay in the specific exoticism of a culture many of us aspired to ape. Did we need, then, for these characters to inch closer home for us to like them more?

In an interview with the British daily The Guardian, Francine Pascal explains the enduring appeal of the wildly bestselling Sweet Valley High novels: "We like it because we don't lead those lives." Whatever the context, Pascal inadvertently speaks for nearly all the writing sold to young adults. As adolescents in India, with these comics we devoured stories of lives that we could only hope to lead. Where in the '90s were burger-joints and private swimming pools for us to visit except in steeply priced Archies Digests?

Psychologist Nikhat Grewal calls Archies' comics 'the American touchstone' that generations of young people, some with no cable-tv, so craved in those years. In her deconstruction, the simplified depiction of '50s mid-West America was accessible and uncomplicated to consume as a culture. Young people lacked the exposure in those years to challenge the questionable gender stereotypes that Archie comics are so often accused of. More importantly, she says, the comics gave teenagers prototypes to imitate, even if that meant hanging out at Nirula's and pretending it was a date at Pop Tate's.

Delhi-based Variety Book Depot is the exclusive distributor of all Archie publications in India, having started with a modest 3000 copies in ‘74. “We print over 100,000 copies in a year." — Om Arora

Domestically produced entertainment rarely managed to replicate the aspirational tug of imported comics. The '90s TV show Hip Hip Hurray, however, was for its teenaged viewers, the first (only?) purveyor of Indian Cool. Its characters played basketball, went to school dances and peppered their 'kya yaar' Hindi with easy Archie-style English, never making you cringe in the way that something that covertly wanted to be American would. HHH's writer-director Nupur Asthana, also an avid Archie fan, grew up on books about schools she wanted to belong to, and with her show carefully constructed a setting that young viewers would want to be a part of. Hip Hip...'s characters were very Indian and likeable and the setting idealised. Because it appealed to a particular young demographic clued in to urbanism, fans of the show in India were most likely also Archie comics' loyalists.

Archie and the Riverdale gang have entered the lexicon of pop culture, with filmmakers like Karan Johar deriving heavily from the Archie-Betty-Veronica triangle, using the basic traits of the main characters to launch a thousand and one rom-coms.

The show, like Archie's, portrayed school-romances in an innocuous light. "We never bloody dated" says Asthana in mock resentment, explaining the allure of Archie during her own years growing up in Calcutta. The comics continue to deal with sexuality covertly, though the world seems increasingly less-innocent. Sexual attraction, at least in its popping-eyes-at-a-string-bikini avatar, is somehow completely sanitised and acceptable despite our social conservativeness. Asthana says that the comics normalised things such as kissing and PDA (public displays of affection) to her while she was a teenager in the '90s. It is not surprising that these covert expressions of teen sexuality appeared in a medium that our parents and guardians deemed "safe"— Tinkle and Amar Chitra Katha may well have played a part — the graphic comic. To many others, nubile young things in low cut tops were a start for more pressing curiosities. "Young boys started their education with magazines our mothers read, didn't they?" Grewal pertinently asks.

Archie comics are for comfort reading. They are light, reassuringly predictable and only mildly funny. They were sometimes reduced to being vehicles of culture and lifestyle–veritably more substantial products than formulaic plots. And yet, long after years of feverish consumption, you can't help but wonder if the tropes stay relevant or even appropriate. Asthana dismisses the comics' conventions of appearances and gender, explaining that what she read as a child didn't create lasting impressions and weren't always acceptable to her as an adult.

Grewal insists that the culture that the comics peddle may not be exotic to current day readers. Children remain children, but with time, their vocabulary has come to include words like race and gender, she says. This, perhaps, explains the franchise's recent scramble to introduce Raj Patel, an Indian-origin character and Kevin Keller, a major character who is openly gay – identities that were conveniently ignored for half a century.

If Archie comics were undulating dispensers of old wine for many decades, the last few years have been anxiously busy at Headquarters. Falling sales in North America, where Archies' largest readership used to be, means that, in an ominous echo of a different consumerism, India is their next major market.

Given how the controlled explosion in media access has eroded the charm of most old-world paraphernalia to newer generations, the most perplexing twist to this narrative is that Archie comics are, against all expectations, selling like never before in India.

We print over 100,000 copies in a year" Variety Book Depot's Om Arora tells me. The Delhi based establishment is the exclusive distributor of all Archie publications in India, having started with a modest 3000 copies in '74. The demand, it appears, has spiked over the last ten years, with recent issues featuring Archie and gang travelling to India, eating Indian food and singing Bollywood songs. Arora says that the India-themed issues were a calculated move, stemming from the publishers' expectation of growth here, further demolishing my belief that the end is near. Unable to digest this information, I pry a little more to find that non-Metro regions have no role to play in the increased readership. While conceding that the initial run of 1000 copies of the Malayalam and Hindi versions didn't sell at all, Arora is more than a little optimistic about the English editions.

A the outset, it seems that young readers circa 2012 read these comics for the same reasons as those of us before them, leading one to think that nothing has changed at all. But it is true, also, that few view these as exotic tales from foreign shores; instead, the comics have become more relatable to its readers. According to Anusha Rao, 18, a student of journalism, to who like many others her age, the lure of Archie comics wore off after only a couple of years, the predictability and stereotypes make these comics hugely identifiable but also contribute to the quick loss of interest.

Curiously, at Rs. 75 a pop, the pricing of Archie digests has not changed in the last fifteen years. Where in the '90s a shiny new digest was a coveted object, it is now largely affordable for a child growing up in an upper-middle class household. This may be a reflection of the overall accessibility of the comics as consumer products. This mode of sale isn't even new; having been stacked for years in petrol pumps and supermarkets, its identity as a cheap, disposable read is perhaps now bringing it to the same position it has long held in the North-American market.

Wistfully reminiscing about the romance of saving for books, veteran Bangalorean booksellers MS Guruprasad and Venkatesh KV say that no price tag is really prohibitive to comics' fans anymore. These comics have always been popular and a light and easy franchise such as Archies is bound to do well as the lowest common denominator of this newly ballooned base of book-buyers. "Did you mean readers?" I ask. The gentlemen smile meaningfully.

Surely this prosperity and interest must extend to Indian comics? How are they different? Are they less entertaining, I wonder. It was talking to Prathiksha Ravishankar, a fourteen year old school student who gave me a bit of insight about popular reading in India I had completely overlooked: "You see, Archie comics aren't taxing. They don't really preach morals."

Siri lives in Bangalore. She reads and writes on weekends and fights emotionally charged battles with spreadsheets on other days.

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