There’s a great and pretty well-known interview with Paul Giamatti where he explains why he often plays secondary characters, unusual personalities who are off on the fringe – Giamatti describes being mystified by umpires at baseball games. ‘Who cares about the umpires? I thought, there’s gotta be a whole world that the umpires live in – and there is. It’s a whole complex, weird thing unto itself. They have to rub the ball with a weird mud to get the shine off of it: the minutiae of the umpire’s life seemed really fascinating.’ Like many comics readers, I often find my favourite characters being the ones without marquee status – the Blue Marvels, the Metamorphos, the Moose Masons. INSTANT GENIUS is a story focusing on Dilton and Moose, two of my favourite Archie characters, and it really explores the place they fill in their world, how their unique points of view and insecurities are often lost in the dramatic on-goings of more central characters like Betty, Veronica or Archie, how these characters are all stars in their own stories…basically, “It’s a whole complex, weird thing unto itself.”
The story begins with Moose carrying a large stack of academic text books from the library. Midge is shocked to discover that the slow-witted jock has cancelled their date to spend the evening studying, in an effort to widen his intellect and become more like his pal and hero, Dilton. “My buddy Dilton said you have to make certain sacrifices on the road to knowledge!” Midge storms off to find Dilton, only to discover he wasn’t at all aware about Moose’s decision, but he certainly isn’t against it. “There’s nothing wrong with reading! Everybody should read and be informed!” But Midge pleads with the boy genius, and the two trek off to Moose’s home.
Dilton and Moose’s friendship is fascinating. I think a lot of people would use it to underline the juvenile aspects of the Archie universe; a happy-go-lucky all-American Pleasantville where the school jock is best friends with the brain. But I see it differently – Dilton and Moose are as complex and multifarious a pair as any you’re likely to find in the real world. I think the two have a deep, subconscious understanding that there’s no one else in the world for them but each other. I don’t think Moose would fit in with the kind of muscle-headed fratboys you see on your average high-school football team – he’s got too much heart, he’s too senstive – he even has a steady girlfriend that he actually loves and couldn’t live without. Dilton is too work-obsessed, too humourless and elitist to have a large social circle, especially in Riverdale. They both need each other, and they both compliment each other – and it isn’t even the stereotypical protector/mentor relationship. Dilton has stood up for Moose before, attacking Reggie for mocking the big lug. I like that the two are symbiotic, that they need each other – and the tail end of this story really asks ‘why’?
What do we look for in a friend? It’s such a complicated question – everybody has friends that are obvious, that share similar interests and views. But I think just as many of us have a Moose to our Dilton, somebody who couldn’t be more different from everything we value. Do we connect with them because we have a human need to see that we’re not right all the time, that it is possible to live a successful life by doing the complete opposite of what we are doing? Do we enjoy seeing our weaknesses right up there in front of us, summoned into existence like a Bizarro approximation? Or is it similar to what we love about escapism – pretending what our life would be like if we were somehow different?
I think it’s all of these things, and so does ‘INSTANT GENIUS’ – “I’m just stupid I guess!” Moose decides after finding his reading material too difficult. “What’s wrong with me, Dilton? How come I can’t be like you?” Maybe Moose needs Dilton to remind him of his own shortcomings. Dilton seems to live vicariously through Moose – he begins cheerfully reminding him about all of the things that makes him great, but winds up dejected, remembering everything he lacks.
In the end, the two remind each other what they both love about themselves, why being honest with yourself is all you can really do, and why they need each other to remember that. I think Dilton gains a lot from his discussions with Moose – it may seem like he’s teaching him, but I’m not so sure. They both get a lot from the discussion – Dilton’s lecturing isn’t strictly a monologue. “Be not anxious of what you have, but what you are? Is that right, little buddy?” The two end up reminded about what they like about themselves and each other – they wind up a little stronger, and a little more secure, and I think that’s kind of the whole reason to have friends. INSTANT GENIUS looks at why we have friends, why we’re sometimes attracted to people so different from us, and the only way to find solace amidst painful feelings of insecurity and self-hatred – through discussion, being honest and true to yourself, and living life in the way that makes sense to you. Dilton and Moose are more than just a weirdly matched odd couple – it’s a real, complex relationship that will remind you why you haven’t given up in this difficult, hurtful world.
INSTANT GENIUS is written by George Gladir and penciled by Bill Vigoda, and currently available in ARCHIE & FRIENDS DOUBLE DIGEST #25.