When you think of Archie comics, chances are that the words “fundamentalist Christian” don’t come to mind. But in the late 1970s and early 1980s, a Christian cartoonist named Al Hartley created a spinoff Archie series, teaching kids the Good News in comic book form. These books look like their secular counterparts, but characters talk about God and refer to the Bible in every story. The plots are morality tales where virtue is rewarded but vice leads to downfall. Since teens are the target audience, characters often deal with issues like insecurity and personal identity. “Archie and Big Ethel”[3421] centers on these themes.

Published in 1982, this comic book includes 2 main stories and a letters section. The stories preach about God and Jesus, and the inside back page is even more direct. It describes “God’s plan” for the reader and how to accept Jesus into one’s heart. Along with photos of Al the cartoonist, this page has a prayer to become born again and a suggestion to read the Bible daily. It’s the comic book version of an altar call.
The book’s characters come from mainstream Archie stories: Big Ethel, Betty, Veronica, Jughead, Reggie and Archie. Big Ethel is tall and gawky and has a crush on Archie who’s equally bumbling. Aware of his disinterest, Big Ethel asks Veronica for a makeover. Ethel ends up looking gorgeous but all her makeup runs off when she sneezes. This begins a fantasy sequence in which she turns into a glamorous celebrity. She imagines fame, fortune and wild success. But deep down she is unfulfilled. The answer comes when movie star Ethel turns to the Bible, wondering, “Will this show me the truth about life?” Through prayer, she realizes that she wants to be herself again. The story ends with the real Ethel smiling happily.

Now, here are some questions: where exactly does the Bible encourage self-acceptance? Why does Big Ethel lack healthy boundaries, even giving Archie her diary to read? Could therapy help her as much as the Bible? After Archie’s Jeep crashes into a tree, how does its front end magically heal?

Moving on, the next section is called “Big Ethel Reads Her Mail!” Some letter writers seem unaware that Big Ethel’s a fictional character. One tells her, “My father is a dentist and he says your teeth can be fixed!” Another writes, “I pray for you every day!” Prayer isn’t their only spiritual topic. Readers also gush about God and the Bible: “I get up 20 minutes early to read the Bible every day!” “God has a cure for every hurt we can think of!” “God made me and He doesn’t make mistakes!” The relentless zeal gets tiring; let’s hope it eases up in the next story.  

Big Ethel joins the basketball team. The boys are skeptical at first, but she’s a natural and soon becomes the star player. Despite her success, Ethel admits that she’s still self-conscious about her looks. This leads to the final segment which involves Dilton, another school misfit. Short and bookish, Dilton felt bad about himself until (you guessed it) he found God. At a Bible study group, he “learned about God’s love and His truth.” The story concludes with the message that tall or short, pretty or homely, all people are equal in God’s eyes.

Looking it over, I find hidden assumptions throughout the book. First, Al Hartley presumes that the reader already believes in God. Ethel and Dilton talk about the Christian God as if His existence goes without saying. Second, the Bible’s authority is unquestioned. As the saying goes, Al is preaching to the choir. It makes me wonder who comprises the target audience. It seems like the audience isn’t Christian because Al wants to convert them. But at the same time, he assumes they already believe not only in God but in the Bible’s wisdom. Is that true of secular readers? Also, the Bible is one of many holy books in world religions. Why are all the others ignored? What makes the Bible special? Why should we trust it over other scriptures or none at all? No answers are given.

Basically, “Archie and Big Ethel” aims to save souls first and entertain second. But it assumes what it sets out to show: that the Christian God exists, that He is revealed through the Bible and wants a personal relationship with each of us. Al makes these claims with great emphasis. But without backing them up, he expects readers to base a major life decision on a comic book. It’s just not enough.