Bizarro Back Issues: Archie And Betty And Their Hillbilly River Adventure (1978)
Over the past few years, Archie Comics has been taking a shot at telling a few more serious stories. Life With Archie in particular, in which Archie's alternate future marriages are detailed, has dealt with a lot of serious stuff, including Cheryl Blossom moving back to Riverdale after a failed stint in Hollywood so that she could be closer to her family while she underwent treatment for cancer. It's pretty grim.
But it's not the first time Archie's gone for a more dramatic style. Back in the '70s, they were all over the map with that stuff, including the time that Archie and Betty went canoeing, nearly drowned and almost got murdered by hillbillies.Even though it has its origins in 1978's Life With Archie #196, "Ride the Raging River" is reprinted in this month's World of Archie Double Digest #18, and you have no idea how happy that makes me. I love these stories, and the originals are actually pretty hard to track down. It's not entirely unexpected, considering that the current digests are full long-neglected second-stringers like Ginger, who's essentially a gender-swapped Archie, or that mind-boggling stretch of stories where the gang got into forensic investigation as the "Teen Scene Investigators."
The Archie Melodramas, though, are far and away my favorite. Looking back, they seem like these strange little artifacts of their time, but for about five years, they were popular enough that Archie was devoting two monthly titles -- the other being Archie at Riverdale High -- to over the top teen drama, with stories of ne'er-do-well bikers, burning buildings, and the occasional rampaging bear. My personal favorite is the one where Veronica is taken hostage by a switchblade-swingin' robber, if only for the opening caption: Light flashes off a razor's edge as the surgical steel waves slowly back and forth like the sinister head of a deadly cobra! Archie and Mr. Lodge freeze in their tracks! Veronica stiffens in fear! Everyone has something to lose in this chilling stalemate!
"Ride the Raging River" definitely gives it a run for its money, though. Check out this opening:
It's not often that an Archie story opens by invoking the sound of "a thousand blood hungry animals," but I think we can all agree that they'd be a lot better if they did. If nothing else, it's a nice description of Veronica Lodge whenever she gets stood up.
Despite that over-the-top opening, however, the story actually begins like a pretty typical Archie yarn: He wants to go canoeing, but Veronica thinks his boat's too shabby and it's too much work anyway, so he ends up going with the eternal second choice that is Betty Cooper. Jughead drops them off a ways up the river, and after Archie's creepily cheery assertion that the peace and quiet of the water is "like being the last two people on earth," they're off.
By page three, though, they hit the rapids, and are thus confronted with "certain death."
For those of you keeping score at home, it was right around the time that Archie decided that his last words to Betty should be an apology for getting them both killed that I knew this was going to be a good one.
As the canoe capsizes, Betty gets thrown against the rocks with a pretty wicked "crack," and then she drowns.
It's kind of a weird way to end a story, even in the '70s, but I guess that's why we call 'em Bizarro Back Issues. Join us next time, when Bob Haney and Ramona Fradon send Metamorpho south of the border to face off with Cha-Cha-Chavez!
Okay, okay, Betty doesn't really die. Instead, she's washed up on the riverbank unconscious, and meets up with a fate that's arguably worse than death:
She's discovered by gun-toting hillbillies.
Now, it's at this point -- yes, this point -- that I start to doubt the realism of this story. It's not exactly a secret that Riverdale is loosely based on Archie creator Bob Montana's hometown of Haverhill, Massachusetts, and if that's the case, then Clem and Zeke here seem a little bit out of place, geographically speaking. Admittedly, the Appalachian Mountains do go all the way up through New England, but I'm not sure that the Berkshires are really populated with moonshine runners watching out for the revenuer. I could be wrong on that.
Instead, given the accents on display, I'm choosing to believe that Archie and Betty somehow canoed all the way down to the Deep South for this story. You may ask how they crossed several hundred miles in the span of a few panels, but I think the story speaks for itself: those were some serious rapids.
Either way, Betty has been conked on the head, and since she's a character in a comic book, that of course means that she has come down with a sudden bout of amnesia. Thus, Clem and Zeke are up to no good, and here's where things get downright creepy:
I have a theory about this: In order to get around the obvious Comics Code violating implications of Clem and Zeke leading beautiful young Betty back to their Holler, the creators decided that they'd go ahead and have them talk about how they were going to make her their new "sister." Unfortunately, they didn't quite realize that since they were dealing with a pair of stereotypical hillbillies, that just made those exact same implications a whole lot worse.
Archie, meanwhile, has washed ashore and is currently in the throes of depression, sobbing because he just got (one of) the love(s) of his life killed. Fortunately, he overhears Clem, Zeke and their amnesiac "sister" tromping through the woods, and decides that there's only one course of action:
Rigging up the same traps that Arnold Schwarzenegger would use ten years later to fight the Predator.
Seriously, I would've given just about anything for the next page of this story to be Archie, covered in mud, holding up a torch and shouting "DO IT! KILL ME NOW!" But alas, it was not to be. Instead, Archie snaps the tree back against Zeke, and while Clem is distracted, he grabs Betty and they make for the
chopper canoe. It's a pretty risky gambit, but it pays off, as the creators suddenly decide to completely forget that Zeke's been carrying around a shotgun for the past six pages:
Thus, we all learn a valuable lesson: Never, ever go out into nature. Nature is awful, and will probably kill you or deliver you unto barefoot moonshiners who want you to "join their family," and that is just terrifying. And perhaps more importantly, Veronica was right.