The search for common ground with a tween
Jonathan W. Gray has a Ph. D. in American Literature and teaches at John Jay College. He’s an expert on American Literature and culture after WWII, African American Literature, Comic Books, and Graphic Novels. His first book, Civil Rights in the White Literary Imagination, arrives in stores early next year. (You can read an academic article he wrote on Jay-Z and Lupe Fiasco or one on Kyle Baker’s graphic novel Nat Turner.) But mostly he’s a father to three amazing children (fast forward to 3:39 for a glimpse of the kiddies) and husband to an incredibly accomplished partner. Between planning the play dates, taking the kids to doctor appointments, doing school drop offs and pick ups, chaperoning school trips, and so much more, this Brooklyn dad often feels like he’s part event planner, part parent. But truth be told, he’s having a blast being the primary caregiver, exposing his kids to the varied cultures of NYC because cultural events often provide the narratives that enable us to make meaning of our lives.
My daughter is 11 years old. This means I am experiencing many things that I find exciting (preparing for middle school!) and terrifying (training bras!). But it also means that our tastes on pop culture have begun to diverge. We used to enjoy watching Backyardigans together, and she likes Alicia Keys and Florence and the Machine because I liked them first. But now she watches A.N.T. Farm and Cake Boss, and has embraced the music of Katy Perry and Carly Rae Jepson, all of which causes me to retreat to whatever book I am currently reading. I understand why she likes these things, and am fully cognizant that she won’t necessarily enjoy these things in four years (though she might! *shudder*) but there is less and less that we can share.
Except, thankfully, for comics.
I was delighted when my daughter’s summer reading list included American Born Chinese and the underappreciated Aya. But we initially bonded over Archie comics. I must confess that, having been raised on Chris Claremont’s X-Men and Frank Miller’s Daredevil, I never really paid Archie much attention. While I was aware of the world of Riverdale and Archie Andrews’ eternal dilemma over whether to date Betty or Veronica, I dismissed them in my adolescent ignorance as something for girls. My opinion began to change once I got into Love and Rockets and learned that the Hernandez brothers counted Archie comics as a major influence. Thinking about Maggie and Hopey as the post-modern version of Betty and Veronica, and Palomar as Riverdale mixed with magic realism allowed me to appreciate Archie even if I still didn’t actually, you know, read the comics.
My daughter began reading Archie around the same time that I first taught a course on comics and graphic novels at my college. I often bring her and her siblings to the comics shop with me (what? It’s called running errands!), and one day she latched onto a digest of Betty and Veronica. Thinking that this would allow me to introduce her to Love and Rockets at some later date, I happily purchased the book for her. I then discovered an interesting thing in the idyllic land of Riverdale: Archie comics frequently address real-world concerns. This began with a playful cover that featured Barack Obama and Sarah Palin sharing a milkshake at the Chok’lit Shoppe, but took a more pointed turn with the introduction of Kevin Keller, an openly gay character. Keller proved so popular he got his own comic, and he recently married a gay Iraq War veteran, a turn of events that was celebrated on the left and denounced on the right. My daughter mostly glossed over these developments, unaware of the fractiousness that surrounded them.
She was, however, acutely aware of the controversy at the heart of Archie Marries Veronica/ Archie Marries Betty. “Archie can’t get married!” she exclaimed when she saw the cover, and she devoured these issues while I read them surreptitiously. When we discussed the comics, my daughter, who identifies with the middle class Betty, reported that she liked the version where Betty comes out on top. I enjoyed the fact that, in both narratives, Archie makes career choices that support and empower his spouse’s desires, a particularly modern touch that resonates with our family.
When I returned from San Diego Comic-Con last month, I gave my daughter the first three issues of Archie Marries Valerie, another variation on this story wherein Archie weds the black guitarist from Josie and the Pussycats. “Cool!” my daughter exclaimed, eager to see how this would work itself out. “Thanks Dad.” She doesn’t realize that I should be thanking her.