PZ Myers encounters Spire Christian Comics and is predictably — and appropriately — horrified by Al Hartley’s aggressively preachy and condescending take on the Archie Comics.
I had most of those Spire comics when I was a kid, and Myers is right that Hartley’s take on Archie and Riverdale seems like the work of a “demented fundamentalist.” He links to a post by Josh Dobbin exploring some of Hartley’s other overt proselytizing in the pages of the non-Spire Archie comics. They show a Jack-Chick-ish tendency to despise the very people that his evangelism is supposedly trying to reach, with contemptuous, condescending portrayals of the “unsaved” as arrogant fools.
Dobbin also provides a bit of context I never knew before: “Christian cartoonist” Al Hartley was also the son of Rep. Fred Allen Hartley Jr., the New Jersey Republican best remembered as a sponsor of the anti-labor Taft-Hartley Act. Both Hartleys’ politics, in other words, were somewhere to the right of those of Hiram Lodge (Veronica’s father, the “richest man in Riverdale”).
The strangest thing about Hartley’s drawing for Spire Christian Comics was the way he maintained the exaggerated perkiness of Betty and Veronica, making all women look like dancers from Madonna’s Blonde Ambition tour. He even did this when drawing Johnny Cash’s mother and Corrie ten Boom.
Those were two of the better Spire titles. “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash” is pretty cool because, of course, it’s about Johnny Cash. And “The Hiding Place” is the story of the ten Boom family’s efforts rescuing Jews from the Nazis in occupied Amsterdam. Even Al Hartley couldn’t ruin stories like those.
In very broad strokes, “The Gospel Blimp” tells the story of a group of Christians in a small town who, inspired by the sight of the Good Year blimp, decide to get an airship of their own to reach their unsaved neighbors with the good news of salvation.
The project becomes ever-more showy, obnoxious and ineffectual — they drop thousands of gospel tracts from the air and broadcast Bible verses in multiple languages over too-loud speakers. The clumsy and off-putting bungling of the blimp “ministry” is contrasted throughout the story with the clueless characters’ repeated failures to reach out to the “sinful” neighbors on a more human level.
The essence of the story, in other words, is a critique of the very same self-absorbed, condescending pseudo-evangelism that characterizes nearly every other Spire Christian Comic drawn by Hartley.
“Satire,” Jonathan Swift wrote, “is a sort of glass wherein beholders do generally discover everybody’s face but their own.” A shrewd observation, but also a humbling one — a cautionary reminder not to laugh too loudly at Hartley’s inability to discover his own face peering back at him from the broad satire of “The Gospel Blimp,” because there will likely come a time for each of us when we fail to recognize our own faces in satire’s smirking glass.
It is possible, though, to take precautions against falling into the trap Hartley has fallen into here. As a guard against clueless projection, for example, we can try to cultivate a habit of considering how any criticism we offer might also apply to ourselves. And more generally, as a guard against becoming the sort of foolish Malvolio that Al Hartley comes across as in his comics, we can try to cultivate the habit of not being self-absorbed, self-centered, pompous jackwagons.
Anyway, WFMU’s Beware of the Blog has .pdfs of “The Gospel Blimp,” “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash” and a couple of other Spire titles. Enjoy.