Thursday, August 19, 2010

A Lesson Learned from Archie Comics

My daughter is nearly eleven years-old. About a month ago, we were visiting my in-laws and, while there, my mother-in-law gave her a comic book she'd found around the house and that she thought my daughter might like. It was an Archie-related title and my daughter really enjoyed it, so much so that she's been picking up additional titles whenever we're out and, since these things are available literally everywhere, she's amassed quite the collection in short order.

After my daughter had finished the first book, the one my mother-in-law gave her, she started talking excitedly about it and spoke to my wife and I as if she didn't think we'd know what Archie comics were since they were "old." We had a good chuckle about this and explained to her that Archie comics have been around a very long time (the first appearance of Archie Andrews was in 1941 -- nearly 70 years ago) and that most adults read them at one time or another in their lives.

My daughter was a bit surprised by this, since the issue her grandmother had given her was "so old." In point of fact, the issue in question was published sometime in the mid-90s, which I guess is old if you were only born in 2000. As it turns out, though, my daughter didn't think the comic was "so old" because it had been published more than a decade ago; she thought it was old because it didn't look like any of the comics she'd seen on the newsstands or in bookstores nowadays. Regardless, she wasn't criticizing the comic for its appearance or its content. As I said, she loved it, as evidenced by her desire to purchase many more. It was purely a comment about its appearance and she lacked the esthetic vocabulary necessary to articulate her reaction more precisely.

What's interesting is that my daughter, my wife, and I were able to meaningfully converse with one another about Archie comics, despite the fact that my daughter only just discovered them, my wife hadn't read them in years, and everything I knew about them I mostly picked up by osmosis, having been around girls who read them when I was a kid. Looking through the new issues my daughter's been buying, I noticed that each issue contains quite a few reprints of much older comics, but, because the art style of Archie has remained more or less the same over the decades (with a few slight changes here and there, owing to popular fashions), stories published in 1960 don't look that different than stories published in 2010. More importantly, the content of those stories is virtually unchanged: Betty Cooper is still sweet, Veronica Lodge is still spoiled, and Archie Andrews is still inexplicably a babe magnet.

I have no idea if Archie Comics is a successful publisher. On some level, they must be since they're still in business after all these years, but my definition of "successful" is probably not a good gauge of these things. Still, it's interesting to consider, in light of my discussion yesterday, the possibility of a world where RPGs -- or indeed any kind of pop entertainment -- didn't warp and twist unrecognizably with the passing of the years so that children and parents (and even grandparents) could discuss them without having to explain an absurd level of changes and alterations to one another ("Oh, no, Batman's not Bruce Wayne anymore; Bruce is dead."). It's a wonderfully refreshing thing and, while the Eternal Now of Riverdale isn't necessarily a model to be emulated in all creative endeavors, it's nevertheless a solid option and one that I find increasingly attractive. Go figure.

27 comments:

  1. DC Geek nitpick: Bruce Wayne neither is nor was dead, just missing temporarily.

    Archie is fun stuff. Unfortunately they frown on fanwork, so that's limited its use to me a little.

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  2. DC Geek nitpick: Bruce Wayne neither is nor was dead, just missing temporarily.

    Fair enough. I don't read nor have I read much in the way of comics, so my examples are likely to be poor, but I'm sure the more well read amongst my readers can find a better example or three to use.

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  3. I had a similar realization regarding Archie a few months ago:
    http://knights-n-knaves.com/phpbb3/viewtopic.php?f=2&t=6898

    Here's my opening post:

    When I was a child in the 1970s, I'd read my girl cousin's Archie comics when I had exhausted the superhero comics. Until today, I hadn't read an Archie comic for at least 30 years.

    Today I took my 5-year-old daughter to the public library where they were giving out free comics for Free Comic Book Day. My daughter picked-out 2 Archie comics.

    At home I read them to her, and my memories came flooding back of Archie, Jughead, Betty, Veronica, the fat school principal, etc. Nothing had changed. Then it occurred to me...

    NOTHING had changed. The characters, the basic storylines (boys looking at girls, girls getting the better of the boys, etc.), the art, even the freaking Hawaiian Punch guy advertisements...It was all EXACTLY the same as the Archie comics I had read in the mid-1970s.

    I looked at the copyrights of my daughter's two Archie comics: One is 1994 and the other is 2010.

    How is it that Archie Comics stay unchanged from at least the mid-1970s to 1994 to 2010? SOMEBODY must be buying the things. It must be a profitable line of comics.

    So how is it that Dungeons & Dragons has to continually change, "evolve", "improve", etc.? The rules, the presentation, and the art is all considerably different going from 1974 to 1989 to 2000 to 2010. If Archie Comics can make an essentially changeless product be profitable for decade after decade, why does WotC think that D&D has to continually be fundamentally changed in order for it to be profitable?

    If D&D had followed the Archie Comics route, it would still have Gygaxian rules and presentation, and it would still have art along the lines of Trampier, Sutherland, and Otus. And, if Archie is any indication, D&D would still be profitable.

    [In short: I thoroughly agree, James.]

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  4. I just wanted to point out that I LOVE Archie comics!

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  5. > So how is it that Dungeons & Dragons has to continually change, "evolve", "improve", etc.?

    Because D&D wasn't released into a relatively mature market in order to tell familiar, comfortable stories?

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  6. They experimented with a different art style for a while in a very limited capacity, and I believe the backlash was New Coke-esque.

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  7. Geoffrey,

    I'd totally forgotten about that post of yours! If I'd have remembered, I'd probably have referenced it. Goes to show that my memory really is going :)

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  8. Actually, the reason D&D had to evolve was marketing. Each player only needs a single PHB, each DM only one DMG. Once all of those people have purchased a book, they don't really need to keep buying it over and over again, like with comic books. Each month, readers drop money on an issue of their favorite title like clockwork. The only way a role-playing game to continue selling their core books is to attract new people to the hobby.

    Basically, each corebook is a single, one-time sale. By updating and revising the game system, not only is it possible to streamline and introduce improvements (assuming it was an ideal world), it is a method for selling product to people who have already bought the old versions, as well as to new players.

    Think of it this way... do you think people would spend years collecting the same rules set, buying it every single month, even though there were no changes? I don't. Its an entirely different situation and cannot be compared.

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  9. Actually, Archie is very willing to experiment and are a lot more experimental than you'd think. Read this recent article in the NY Times.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/15/business/media/15archie.html

    The key with Archie is that they don't let the hardcore fans dictate the product. Other comics have become mired down in complex continuity. Archie hasn't, and that has more to do with their success than their art style.

    I definitely disagree with D&D should have kept the same date presentation in terms of art. If you take a good look at Archie, even though they ape Dan Decalro's style a lot, they do change the fashions and the definately write stories aimed as much as possible towards the modern era. (Which leads to some anacronisms as Jughead's hat, but that can happen to the best characters like Charlie Brown's shirt).

    One way to see this is how the Sabrina character changes over time. Archie adapted the character to reflect the changes in popular culture, and got rid of the 60's doo and the Classic Witch look of her aunts, then they embraced Manga art, and that appears to be their most successful comic.

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  10. Reg was a Barbarian?!?

    I can agree how hardcore fans can create a problem. Look at how DC's tagline was once, "Not just for kids" or something like that. They knew they still had adult followers and were still trying to keep them as well as bring in new fans. It can be a slippery tightrope.

    D&D in a bubble is okay if your gaming group has a long history. Your established gameworld has the nearest thing to actual history because of the length of time devoted to it. But, what do you do when you get a new group? They have been raised on a newer continuity for them. How do you make them feel "at home"? It's a compromising situation.

    It might have been nice if D&D stayed the same, and other games just sprung up around it. However, it's not totally reallistic. It's not monopoly. Even Gygax was quoted as saying it would be a long, long time before the rules could be engraved in stone, if ever. It's because teh random element in the game is the players & GM playing the game. We're the reason it can't stay the same because we don't.

    Ciao!
    GW

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  11. You should see the Jersey Shore parody. ;-)

    It's possible to keep the same principles as a publisher or a creator while also keeping up with the times. Archie seems to keep the core character concepts, but they change over time.

    Some people forget that Archie was originally based on Andy Hardy movies.

    I also think Archie would not be around today if it wasn't for the success of the Sabrina character in other mediums. I think Archie could have ended up shutting down like Harvey comics did.

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  12. I loved Archie comics when I was kid. Don't know why - they simply entertained me. Richie Rich and Hot Stuff, too (Harvey Comics).

    In reading your post the Star Wars franchise comes to mind, in which I've experienced the opposite. My 6 year old nephew, who is into Star Wars, will talk about Star Wars but mention characters I have never heard of (from the new SW cartoons). I could tell you the names from the movies. But this cartoon... I have no idea what he's talking about.

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  13. Keep in mind that one of the reasons that Archie can do this is that they are aiming at a fairly specific demographic, and members of that demographic (pre-teens, mostly girls) fairly quickly age out of it, and move on to other things. (This is the theory behind, say, Pokemon/Yu-Gi-Oh, and Magic:The Gathering, although less successful).

    So the Archie authors can recycle stories without too much trouble, because by the time they come around again - the story is new *to the current audience*.

    (Some DMs do the same thing, I've found - by the time they're ready to run Keep on the Borderlands again, they can get a completely new group of players to run it for).

    This is more difficult to do with a game, especially a theoretically "all-ages" game like D&D, where someone might start playing it at age 10 or so, and still be playing thirty years later (might, hell - that's me!)

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  14. There's a similar level of continuity in another comic that is also, at least here in Australia, available just about everywhere - The Phantom. Apart from newer issues being eerily similar to older ones, even when the story is set in the past they are clearly all of a piece with each other. The writing style, the story forms, the graphic style all follow a well established pattern. Whether he's fighting Singh pirates in the 16th century or investigating polluted rivers in the 21st, he is still clearly the same character, and is still wearing the same purple suit.

    Actually, having glanced at the Wikipedia entry, it seems that there has been some recent retconning. BTW, I think that the older Phantom & Mandrake comics, with their human scale adventures, would make an interesting addition to your pulp fiction library.

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  15. > Izzylobo wrote:
    > Keep in mind that one of the reasons that Archie can do this is that they are aiming at a fairly specific demographic, and members of that demographic (pre-teens, mostly girls) fairly quickly age out of it, and move on to other things. (This is the theory behind, say, Pokemon/Yu-Gi-Oh, and Magic:The Gathering, although less successful).

    Games Workshop learned that lesson as well, of course, and applied it to good effect once their particular market /was/ relatively mature. ;)

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  16. I think the comic book analogy is a good one. The mention about how "Bruce Wayne is dead" (regardless of the finer point on whether he died or not) is pretty apropos, because what happened was that DC Comics changed a fundamental part of the comic that people who read that comic want to have. Someone who read Batman back in the 70s should be able to pick up a Batman comic in 2010 and within a page or two, know what's going on.

    It's fine to introduce new characters, new villains, update the weaponry, car designs, and things like that. But, you do NOT change who Batman is. Bruce Wayne is part of what makes Batman, Batman. Once it's no longer Bruce Wayne, then it's no longer Batman. It's just another vigilante guy out beating up bad guys.

    This constant re-imagining and re-defining of the DC Universe (Barry Allen died, and then Wally West was the Flash, and then whats-his-name was the Flash, and now it's Barry again???) is so frustrating, because you can't be a casual reader. You can't step away for a year or two and then come back, because you've missed too much. That's why I choose to only read non-canon, non-continuity comic stories as one-off graphic novels, because then I don't have to worry about who the Flash-of-the-Month is. I can just find a story about Flash, or Batman, as I remember them and want them to be.

    The same thing holds true with RPGs. There are certain things that help define what D&D is: classes, levels, alignments, dwarves/elves/halflings, etc. These are things that people who play D&D expect to see in their games. Once you start messing with that, then you're not playing D&D any more. You can try to stretch things a little, but some things should just be "sacred cows." 4th Edition did not subscribe to the "sacred cow" theory, and changed things so much that they're not recognizable. Even 3rd Edition did this to an extent.

    The idea that the rules need to completely change to keep products selling is, I believe, a false premise. We'll never know because that's the way it's always been done, but instead of changing the rules every 5-10 years, there should be room for ways to stretch the basic rules - new classes, new races, spells, magic items, adventures, etc. It's a completely different business model, but it seems like (again, following the Archie Comics analogy) it could work.

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  17. Martin: It's not just some guy, it's Dick Grayson. If anyone has a claim as Bruce's heir, it's him.
    To be honest I don't think I agree with the point you're making...

    Ehh, this discussion is too much about comics and not enough about the game.

    Dave basically nailed it. What's good for a comic that gets new issues every month isn't necessarily good for something that only needs a handful of books.

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  18. Hey Rach - I think I didn't clearly make my point, but what I was trying to say is that certain forms of entertainment seem well-suited to establishing the fundamental aspects that determine what it's about.

    Once you start changing that, people no longer know what to expect and you end up with a huge, bloated mess that is difficult for anybody, newcomers as well as those "returning to the fold" to get into.

    The analogy applies to both comics and RPGs. A clear set of fundamental guidelines should establish the expectations of people, and once you have those, you don't deviate from them significantly. But, the guidelines should be loose enough to encourage slight modifications in order to keep things vibrant.

    The idea of Bruce Wayne no longer being Batman breaks those guidelines too significantly. It's too far outside the established guidelines.

    Similarly, certain elements adopted in later developments of D&D, like getting rid of Vancian magic in 4th Edition, break too far from the established guidelines and therefore go too far beyond what is expected.

    Does that more clearly state my point?

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  19. Okay, sure. I can agree with that. At least, my feelings about Vancian magic as a fundamental aspect of D&D notwithstanding.

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  20. Martin wrote -
    The idea that the rules need to completely change to keep products selling is, I believe, a false premise. We'll never know because that's the way it's always been done, but instead of changing the rules every 5-10 years, there should be room for ways to stretch the basic rules - new classes, new races, spells, magic items, adventures, etc. It's a completely different business model, but it seems like (again, following the Archie Comics analogy) it could work.

    WotC kinda tried that with 3e, and (to an extent) TSR with 2e, and it lead places that were - less than optimal - to a lot of players and DMs (even those who like the two systems often acknowledge that the proliferation of base classes, prestige classes, and class kits in various editions often lead places that weren't great).

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  21. What I never understood was that Monopoly and other games of that ilk never changed. Sure, in the modern era you have tons of alternate versions, but if you still want to play the same game, you don't have to put up with crap like "your version of Monopoly isn't supported anymore." It's the same company that produces the two -- are we being shafted because we chose rpgs over more traditional games?

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  22. > It's the same company that produces the two -- are we being shafted because we chose rpgs over more traditional games?

    Not really, I think, since at worst it's still probably a price worth paying for people being able to exercise their imaginations more freely -- even if they /do/ feel obliged to play "follow the latest ruleset" for those RPGs where those changes are more frequent, due to gaming trends and/or marketing or technology-compliance reasons. (It's still a far cry from "only" shoving minis around the table or sitting back to watch an off-paper version of The Truman Show).

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  23. Well, Reg the Barbarian is wearing a shirt and trousers, so he's already leagues ahead of most Conan pastiches.

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  24. Steel, I see what you're saying, but it's not true. Monopoly's got some interesting history.

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  25. "... the possibility of a world where RPGs -- or indeed any kind of pop entertainment -- didn't warp and twist unrecognizably with the passing of the years so that children and parents (and even grandparents) could discuss them without having to explain an absurd level of changes and alterations to one another..."

    Agree, and this is the single biggest loss for RPGs over the long-term. You'd think an RPG's abstract ruleset would be even less subject to changing fashions or contexts than a narrative comic book. Why we can't have continuity on the level of Monopoly or Poker or Baseball I'll never understand.

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  26. The problem with the classic comic book heroes—and the Batman is a prime example—is that they should’ve been retired years ago. It’s long past time to move on. And I say that as a Batman fan. Forget “jumped the shark”...we’re way past that at this point, and it just makes me sad.

    I’d imagine I’d feel the same way about Archie if I tried to read it today.

    Games are, of course, a completely different matter. And as I actually look at D&D as more of a toy than a game, I see it as different even from Monopoly or Chess or Bridge.

    But... shrug ...we have the retro-clones. Many thanks to those who labored to make them a reality. They may not have the brand, but they have the spirit. It’s a setback, but I’ll dare to dream that in the long run this rebirth will survive.

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  27. D&D moved from counter culture to culturally irrelevant not by accident but as a deliberate means of closing off a form of intellectual activity that appealed originally to some of the most intelligent and well educated people in Western society. For that reason alone it had to suffer "Evidence of Revision".

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