In 1979 I was twelve years old and in the midst of a preteen conundrum.
America was in the midst of a Golden Age of Science Fiction. Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind had crushed box office records a couple of years earlier and had inspired countless imitators. Broadcast television was filled with science fiction and fantasy shows, although admittedly most were pretty terrible — not that that mattered in the least to a sixth grader.
In May of that year, a dark, stylish film called Alien appeared in theaters. The critics buzzed about it. They debated as to whether it was science fiction film or a gothic horror film set in outer space. They reveled that the characters were essentially blue collar miners ultimately led in their fight for survival by a young woman, played by the then unknown Sigourney Weaver. They were mesmerized by the pugnacious alien, a bio-mechanical nightmare so different from the weird but mostly agreeable creatures offered up by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg.
I knew I had to see it. Yet a single obstacle lay in my way: my mother.
A surprisingly efficient gatekeeper when it came to television and movies, my mom allowed me and my sister only 3 and a half hours of TV per week and we were required to use color-coded pens to circle our selections in TV Guide to prevent any cheating. As for films, it was G and PG ratings only. Alien’s hard R and its provocative tagline — In Space, No One Can Hear You Scream — had sealed its fate long before I had ever asked to go.
Now let me just add that my mother was absolutely correct in denying me access to Alien. As a parent, her instincts were spot on but my juvenile brain and sense of indignation were not quelled by a logic I did not see at the time.
Later that summer however, my father offered to take me, a suggestion which was undoubtedly motivated by his complete ignorance about the film and a lingering desire to stick it to my mom who had divorced him a few years earlier. But I was not the type of kid who routinely lied to or disobeyed my parents, so I declined and we enjoyed a double feature of The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker instead. It wasn’t a decision I regretted. After all, James Bond had a super cool Lotus Esprit S1 which turned into a submarine IRL and fired missiles! But it did mean that I would have to wait a few more years to see Alien.
If there was any light at the end of the tunnel, it was through books. My mother, a school librarian, had no problem with frequent trips to libraries and book stores. As it happened, Waldenbooks carried the illustrated Alien Movie Novel so over the summer I literally READ the film I was never allowed to see. This had to be done in covert intervals of course, as purchasing the book with all its gruesome, chest-bursting, head-smashing color photos was also verboten.
Decades passed and I hadn’t thought about that book until I stumbled upon a used copy of it in a comic book store two weeks ago. There was an immediate rush of nostalgia, warm memories of being a kid and getting away with something. Granted, reading the Alien Movie Novel wasn’t quite as scandalous as flipping through a dirty magazine, but for a boy who loved horror films born into a family that loathed them, it felt like a naughty victory.
Now, 38 years later, the book sits on my shelf next to my Alien Blu-ray, a quiet reminder of when life was defined by the simple problems of childhood.
I’ll admit. I’m kind of obsessed with Riverdale, The CW’s neo-noir crime drama starring K.J. Apa, Lili Reinhart, Cole Sprouse and Camila Mendes. If the name and characters seem familiar to you, but you just can’t place them, that’s because the show’s a dark adaptation of the Archie comic books.
Yes, those comic books and yes, I mean dark.
If you remember Archie, Jughead, Veronica and Betty as thin teen stereotypes concerned only with who to take to the homecoming dance, your illusions are about to be shattered. Take that all-America trope and shove it through the lens of David Lynch; or think about movies like Heathers or River’s Edge; and you’ll be in Riverdale’s neighborhood.
By any standard, it’s a pretty remarkable transformation.
Honestly, I was never a fan of the Archie comics, finding them a little too white bread for my tastes. Granted, Archie was created just prior to World War II when wholesome, nostalgic depictions of young adults were in vogue. Mickey Rooney, Julie Garland, Shirley Temple and Jackie Cooper dominated the box office and Archie was a deliberate attempt to replicate their success by offering a serialized character who was “normal” (i.e. didn’t have super powers). The downside of normalcy was storylines that strayed into the mundane. Major themes included the female characters (Betty and Veronica) vying for Archie’s attention, rivalries with other students, homework problems and difficulties relating to parents. All of these things are common challenges for adolescents regardless of the era, but Archie was inclined to present them in a highly sanitized, and increasingly unrealistic, manner.
By the 1960s, this trend reached its zenith. Archie had become a superhero called Captain Pureheart (yes, really) whose main power was being a really swell guy. By the following decade, he’d been coopted by conservative Christians and spent much of his time espousing the virtues of Jesus Christ and encouraging prayer in schools.
None of these later comics, nor the related animated shows, were particularly successful. Many didn’t last more than one edition (or season), and it was clear Archie needed to be modernized if he was going to appeal to increasingly sophisticated, worldly young adults.
And the competition was fierce.
By the start of the twenty-first century, comic books had become something very different from what they’d been in decades past. Zombies chewed their way through humanity in the stark, black and white artwork of The Walking Dead (2003). Japanese manga was on the rise, exposing American readers to unapologetically adult themes including frank depictions of sexuality. Even mainstream publishers like Marvel Comics were shifting long establish paradigms, with one of the best examples being 2006’s Civil War. Yet despite these industrywide changes, the Archie brand was slow to adapt.
In fact, the Archie comics really didn’t push boundaries until the century’s second decade. One of the most notable changes was in the art. The cartoony feel used since the 1940s was replaced by something more stylized and storylines became more inclusive. Real-life themes such as gun control, divorce and death were introduced. By 2010, an openly gay character named Kevin Keller was established and the following year made history as the first male LGBT character to have a solo comic book storyline. In 2012, the comics even went so far as to kill off Archie when he takes a bullet intended for Kevin.
But as you know, nothing that dies in comic books can stay dead forever. (Just ask Superman.)
By 2014, Archie was relaunched and rebranded to appeal to millennials under the New Riverdale banner. With writer Mark Waid (Daredevil) and artist Fiona Staples (Saga) leading the way, the concept was to keep Riverdale as a “whitebread community” on the surface, but give it a seamier underbelly. Ultimately, this transformation fed into The CW television series which began with the revelation that underage Archie’s having an affair with the high school’s music teacher, which has caused a schism between he and long-time friend Jughead Jones and possibly caused him to witness the murder of a classmate named Jason Blossom.
How’s that for shifting a paradigm?
With the season two trailer dropping yesterday (see below), now’s a good time for you to check out the series if you haven’t done so already. The show can be streamed on The CW website, Netflix, YouTube and a variety of other places.
Enjoy the ride.
It’s unusual that I write one blog and then have to write another on the same topic so soon, but sometimes things happen quickly and without warning.
On September 1, I posted a blog entitled The Monster Is Not The Most Terrifying Thing About Stranger Things. Ostensibly about the hit Netflix horror series which takes place in 1983, the blog detailed how the disappearance of one of the main characters reminded me of the real disappearances of children from that era. I wrote about several cases, but the one which impacted me the most was the 1989 abduction of Jacob Wetterling. I won’t repeat the content of the original blog other than to share the last line I wrote about Jacob:
“To this day, his fate remains unknown…”
Forty-eight hours later, everything changed quickly and without warning. Danny James Heinrich, the only person on Earth who for three decades actually knew the boy’s fate, confessed to abducting, molesting and then murdering Jacob. His confession lead authorities to where Jacob's remains were buried in a rural field in central Minnesota.
For 27 years, Jacob’s memory has haunted his family, friends, the people of Minnesota, and the American public. It haunted me as well. My recollections of obsessively watching the news for updates on his case during the Fall of 1989 are as clear and impactful as the destruction of the space shuttle Challenger and the fall of the Twin Towers.
As more details emerged, my mind reeled and my heart broke all over again. We now know that Jacob met his end shortly after being snatched by Heinrich, his body hastily buried on the edge of a cow pasture about 30 miles from his family’s home. Even more unbelievable is that Heinrich was a person of interest to the police as far back as 1990. But as with many missing person cases, the devil was in the details. Authorities were confounded by a lack of physical leads despite a massive search effort and Heinrich never flinched in maintaining his innocence. If he hadn’t been anxious for a plea bargain on child pornography charges and thus more cooperative with investigators, the Wetterling family might’ve never known what had happened to their son.
One would like to believe that Heinrich’s revelation, as horrific as it was, brought the Wetterling family some closure. One would like to believe that with knowledge came metamorphosis, that pain softened and some greater meaning was pulled from such senseless brutality. But when I put myself in the Wetterling’s shoes, having also raised sons, it’s difficult to imagine how you could ever find peace after such trauma.
Still, what’s touched me, amazed me and gratified me is how Jacob’s friends and family have been so consistently empathetic and decent throughout this ordeal. Patty Wetterling, the grieving mother who went on to be a national advocate for child safety, asked people to remember her son by celebrating life. People listened and responded. Athletic teams from high schoolers to the Cleveland Indians are honoring Jacob by wearing his hockey jersey number — 11 — on their uniforms. The hashtags #JacobsHopeLives and #11forJacob are flooding social media. Events, fundraisers and public memorials are being staged. Doubtless even more expressions of compassion and solidarity with emerge in the day’s ahead.
As for me, I’ve come to a few revelations about how Jacob’s case affected my life. Two months after his disappearance, I graduated from the University of Arizona and started volunteering at a local children’s shelter. A decade later I became a foster parent to five boys, ultimately adopting my sons Cooper and Myles. In fact, I’ve spent the better part of my adult life working with and advocating for abused and neglected children and all of it can be traced back to Jacob Wetterling.
My sons grew up — a privilege Jacob never got — but caring about the welfare of children shouldn’t end just because your kids are no longer kids. Or because you don’t have kids. Or because you think these things will never happen to your kids. If Jacob Wetterling has anything to teach us all these years later, it’s that we must be kind, we must be fair and we must be vigilant.
The Wetterling family has asked that people display the number 11 in honor of Jacob's memory. There are a few of these 11 For Jacob graphics already circulating on the internet, but since I don't know who they belong to I created my own. Anyone is allowed to use these graphics for the purpose of honoring Jacob's memory. They may not be used for any commericial purposes. If you have questions, feel free to email me. Thanks.