Editor’s Note: Welcome to the first of what will (hopefully) be a new series here on The Middle Spaces, where scholars, aca-fans, and other writers re-visit a single comic book issue (or story) that once held some kind of meaning for them by contextualizing it historically and/or culturally, saying something about what it meant to them at the time and then re-examining it through a more current and rigorous lens. In the future, it may be opened up to include a single TV show episode, single scene from a film, or a single popular song – but for now we’re sticking to comics. If you are interested in pitching something, check out our Submit page (we pay!).
I do not recall what brought Richie Rich & Casper #31 (Harvey Comics – November 1979) back to mind, leading me to add it to my back issue hunt lists. It may have never left my mind at all. But as a kid—in my pre-“superheroes only” days—this was one of my very favorite comics, one I read countless times, until the cover was falling off the staples and the pages were tattered. Re-acquiring it required browsing comic websites until the familiar cover appeared as I could not recall the specific issue number, but as soon as I did get my hands on it and re-read it, I knew I’d have to write about it. Or try… As much as I have written below, I feel like I have something to say about every panel, so this all feels incomplete.
Opening the replacement copy forty years on was arresting because on the very first page—where in most comics I’d expect to see an opening splash of some sort—there was an advertisement for NBC Saturday Morning cartoons. I remember these cartoons well, including a Casper cartoon: Casper and the Angels in which the friendly ghost inexplicably teams up with cops named Mini and Maxi in a Jetsons-like future. I bring up the ad because its placement suggests to me that the cartoon and advertisement deal with NBC was actually more important than the contents of the comic book itself. Before we even know anything about the story, the paratext is calling on readers to springboard from this manifestation of Harvey’s franchise to another. And the comic as a whole is full of similar bright and colorful house ads directing readers to a variety of other Harvey titles and properties.
Harvey Comics are a great example of transmedia adaptations of comics and other properties into comics. Casper the Friendly Ghost has his origins in a series of Famous Studios theatrical animated shorts (55 of them!) that ran from 1945 to 1959, and in 1952 he was licensed to Harvey to continue his adventures in comics. They then purchased the character outright in ‘59. Later, the theatrical shorts would be cut for television, and in the 1960s new original Casper cartoons for TV would be produced parallel to the dozens of titles Harvey published featuring the incredibly popular character. There’d be Casper cartoons in every decade following and of course, the 1995 live action film with Cristina Ricci and the straight-to-video sequels.
Honestly, I loved Casper as a kid and never thought of him as a morbid choice for a kid’s cartoon until I read the reprint of a parody called “Kaspar the Dead Baby” from issue #8 of Marvel’s MAD magazine knock-off Crazy (December 1974). It is a very mean-spirited and violent flashback to the young ghost’s murder by his abusive and alcoholic dad who only married Kasper’s mother for her inheritance. In the end, Windy (i.e. Casper’s buddy, Wendy the Good Witch) and Kasper scare the father into driving off a cliff but then drag his burning body from the wreckage to torture him more before he dies. Marie Severin did the art, doing a good job modelling (albeit in black and white) the house style that Harvey used (and that no one is credited for in Harvey comics of that era), but while Marv Wolfman’s story gets some points for general irreverence regarding a beloved figure, it is so over-the-top that it just comes off as nasty rather than funny or illuminating. Here’s the thing, however, re-reading Richie Rich & Casper #31, the storyworld of these comics is already so rich with queered tensions and dream-logic that such nastiness doesn’t seem necessary to explore the “adult” subtexts.
But before jumping into the issue itself, we need to briefly examine Richie Rich, the Poor Little Rich Boy.
The structure of the typical Casper story was established by the theatrical shorts. Tired of the (after)life expected of a ghost, scaring people and being mean, Casper spends his time trying to find friends but always unintentionally scaring them off, much to his chagrin. By episode’s end, however, he usually finds some cute little creature that accepts his friendship once the ghost proves his amiable intent. Richie Rich, on the other hand, was a 1953 Harvey creation (first appearing in Little Dot #1), that was eventually adapted to other media, and whose popularity would eventually support over 50(!) different Richie Rich titles. Richie is depicted as kind, curious, and generous—his attitude belying the stereotypes of the wealthy—with an emphasis on the isolating consequences of such wealth. Depending on the title, he has different kinds of adventures—but Richie has a similar, if not quite as desperate, longing for friendship as Casper, while dealing with various dangers and shenanigans that his family’s wealth makes available to him (or a target of). Like Casper, Richie Rich is another example of a character with a long and recurring transmedial history, going from comic books to TV cartoons to live action movies and so on.
I guess it should be no surprise that Richie Rich comics never really explore the pernicious nature of such extreme wealth or those who must be inevitably exploited to allow the Rich family to retain it. And the specific issue I am writing about here is not an exception. Nevertheless, I think there are ways to read it that bring the dangers of capitalism to the surface and that make the story’s dream-logic part of deconstructing market ideologies while queering the relationship between our two protagonists by mashing together the capitalist ideological framework that goes unquestioned in story (and frequently real life) with a nightmarish version of a barter economy in the figure of a dark equivalent of Richie Rich, Trader Tim.
After the opening ad and then another full-page ad for the Cub Scouts featuring Casper, Richie Rich & Casper #31 is broken into four chapters, each piling on absurdities that resist easy re-telling here, to build a narrative that can only be called “dream-like.” In fact, this is so much the case, that part of the ongoing conceit of this crossover series is that Richie Rich is convinced (or more accurately, repeatedly convinces himself) that all his adventures with Casper in the Enchanted Forest are dreams of some kind. In the opening chapter, “What You’ve Always Wanted,” Richie and his butler Cadbury are on the Rich estate when they are approached by a young peddler with a “junk wagon” who calls himself “Trader Tim.” Tim is the dark counterpart to Richie, with shaggy black hair, a light blue turtleneck, and thick arched eyebrows that give him both a sinister and “ethnic” look, especially compared to blonde and baby-cheeked Richie in his red bow tie and black suit jacket. Rather than a boy who has everything, Tim is depicted as a conniving trader with hypnotic swirly eyes who offers up trades for faulty merchandise that the person trading with him would not normally want. Nevertheless, the deals are snapped up happily by those he solicits.
Cadbury trades his bow tie for a broad gaudy tie emblazoned with a “C” and reminiscent of the wide kipper ties popular in the 1960s and into the 70s. Richie is convinced to give up the tuxedo jacket he is always wearing for a yellow novelty t-shirt emblazoned with big lips and “Kiss Me.” As the two characters realize they may have been hypnotized, Trader Tim disappears into thin air and the comic narrative moves into a dream-space more explicitly.
Trader Tim appears in the Enchanted Forest where Casper and Wendy are having a picnic (do ghosts eat?) and the former has just used a wishbone to wish he “could see Richie’s fancy little jacket.” Since Tim is now wearing the jacket, he appears with it. And he immediately gets to trading, getting the actual wish-granting wishbone in return for a faulty slingshot and then trading a malfunctioning vacuum cleaner to get Wendy’s flying broom. This is followed by a careless brag by Tim “wishing” Wendy and Casper could see the t-shirt he’d traded for Richie’s jacket, which makes the kid billionaire appear.
Despite the disruption of Trader Tim’s appearance, Casper’s desire to see Richie is still fulfilled. The italic lettering of Casper’s wish to see “Richie’s fancy little jacket” is a common facet of comic lettering, emphasizing certain words and ideas and adding tone to the dialog. Here I can’t but wonder what the italics might suggest. Sure, they emphasize the appearance of the jacket upon Trader Tim, but Casper’s italicized words are spoken before he notices Tim’s appearance. This suggests to me that how Richie dresses is important to Casper and indicates his affection for the little rich boy and his appreciation of Richie’s visual appeal and attractiveness of style. It is not beyond reasoning to imagine Casper’s crush on the living boy.
It strikes me as important that the Enchanted Forest is a dreamspace or at least that Richie treats it as one. Richie sees his visits to Casper and Wendy the Good Witch as part of an extended dream he has been having—a kind of serial dream. This belief is alternately funny and frustrating to his two friends, but the joke for the reader is clear; we are to accept Casper’s reality (for clearly, he has other adventures existing without Richie’s presence or knowledge in his other titles), and Richie is being foolish in his assumption. This belief however allows Richie the freedom to explore the queer ghost world of Casper and his friends without consequences to his “real” life.
In fact, the very first thing Richie says when he sees the ghost and witch is an expression of relief that it is “only a dream,” meaning he can safely discount the earlier events even though they happened during waking life. This relief and enthusiasm make sense given that Richie Rich’s life is a mausoleum of wonder. Yes, nearly anything imaginable (and much that is unimaginable) is available to the rich kid and his family, but that wonder is purchased at the cost of a life outside of wealth. The wonder he experiences in this enchanted dream-world of ghosts, witches, elves, and demons, is categorically distinct from the world built on the notion of surplus value.
Casper’s relationship to death and Richie’s desire to be a part of the fantasy world Casper occupies suggests to me that the latter’s desire for escape from a commodified existence manifests as the death-urge, wondering like Hamlet, “what dreams may come?” Casper represents a potentially better future for the “poor little rich kid.”
Bear with me for a second: Many folks are familiar with Lisa and Bart Simpson’s theory regarding the relationship of Richie Rich to Casper. The Simpsons episode, “Three Men and a Comic” (1991) features Bart speculating that since Richie Rich and Casper kind of look alike, it might be possible that Casper is actually Richie’s ghost. When Bart wonders aloud how Richie died, Lisa responds “Perhaps he realized how hollow the pursuit of money really is and took his own life.”
Of course, the easy response to that theory is that since Casper and Richie Rich frequently team-up (including the 45 issues of this series) they cannot be the same person. I am not as willing to abandon the usefulness of the idea, however. Richie Rich and Casper provides a bizarre and complex framework for thinking about how Freudian notions of Eros (the sex and life drive) and Thanatos (the death drive) are not opposed forces but operate together in synergistic ways that instead of cancelling each other out, build up the foundation of absurdity that guides conceptions of human social and psychological life.
Yes. I am claiming that Richie Rich and Casper comics present an example of what I have termed, “Autonecrohomoeroticism.” Richie Rich has a strong queer desire for his own ghost-self. This claim may seem absurd, but it is not any more absurd than this comic’s narrative and obsession with desire. Let me break the word down for your convenience auto (self) – necro (death) – homo (same) – erotic (arousing desire).
I want to pause here and say I am struck by the similarity in shape of the unbroken wishing bone and the faulty slingshot (which is eventually temporarily repaired by an angry elf—did I mention this comic is absurd?). I can’t help but wonder about the resonance between their shapes and functions: violence versus wish fulfillment. I am not sure what it means, if anything, but they bring to mind the tensions between the ostensibly “real world” that Richie comes from and the dream world of the Enchanted Forest.
And yes, I understand that Richie Rich’s world is a fantasy as well. I only mean “real” from the perspective of juxtaposing his world with Casper’s and Richie’s view of his enchanted adventures.
One way the freedom of the dream-world manifests is through the concept of a “scare” as it exists in Casper’s world. It seems that in the Enchanted Forest the “scare” itself is the thing to be frightened of. The experience of fear is the potential trauma, but any actual physical harm is out of the bounds of the story world. Thus, for example, Casper’s colleagues, the mean-spirited Ghostly Trio are not scary because they are the undead spectres of men who died violent deaths they want to jealously revisit on the living. Instead, their ability to scare is tied to their ability to “boo.” So later, when they trade those boos for birdcall whistles, they lose any power to hold Tim accountable and to be scary. Later, when a fierce gaggle of demons are released from Wendy’s vacuum (where they had been sucked up earlier), their very presence threatens to tear down “The Castle of Strange Things” by “scaring it to pieces.” And while, that collapse might be a physical consequence of the demons’ powerful ability to “scare,” this paradigm avoids any actual depiction of or reference to actual violence.
The “scare” is the harm itself. A fascinating translation of the minds of children, who avoid scary figures without always knowing what real potential harm that figure represents. In a fantasy where the scare exists without a threat behind it, possibilities are wide open. The demons may destroy the castle and with it Trader Tim’s stock, but fascinatingly, the most prominent representation of a “scare” is a lavender female-presenting demon with long eyelashes and exaggerated lips chasing King Lonely lustily.
King Lonely is the ruler of the Castle of Strange Things but manages to avoid Trader Tim’s persuasive power with a little help from Richie who counsels the monarch to cover his ears. Despite his castle being destroyed, King Lonely gives in to the demoness’s desire and we last see him amid the ruins, announcing he has changed his name to “King Happy” now that a “Lady Demon loves me.” Up to this point, the appearance of the horny demon seemed like the storyworld’s reliance on the latency of child sexuality to present the possibility of that sexuality as something to be scared of. At the same time, the sense of mystery that exists at latency’s bounds, adds to the frisson of Richie and Casper’s relationship, capturing the complex and interlaced strands of peril and pleasure that come along with growing up and coming to learn about the contexts of our desires (or lack thereof).
And this comic book is rife with sexual energy—some of it weird, all of it feeling queer. If Richie Rich does seek to escape his life of wealth, then his desire for adventures with Casper and company represents a different kind of death—not the stifling isolating mausoleum of a mansion but the pleasures of a dream-world, where everything is possible, and consequences are mitigated to avoid profound pain or ongoing suffering so that all that remains is the adventure of pursuing desires.
And this pursuit is something Richie follows up on, after fixing some of the objects the inhabitants of the Enchanted Forest got by trading with Tim, he asks aloud, “If I’m dreaming why do I have to be so scientific and realistic?” and then wishes he could fly “like the rest of the dream creatures.” Wendy’s Aunt Zelma the witch responds to this by giving him a kiss on the head to grant his wish as a thank you for fixing her new electric frying pan (she traded her cauldron for it) but also because, as she explains, “I love kissing him!” When Richie says, “I feel funny!” as he begins to rise into the air, the “funny feeling” of the non-normative experiences he is having clearly give him unabashed delight! Though he is eventually a little abashed because Zelma isn’t the only one who loves kissing him. When the spell expires, Richie goes tumbling into the sea, where a bunch of frisky literate fish take his t-shirt as permission to start kissing him because he is “cute.” They end up pursuing him to a cave where he climbs out of the water to escape, peeling off his wet t-shirt in the process. This is how he arrives at the Castle of Strange Things, not that the order of events matters too much. What matters to me is Richie’s desire for freedom and his uncertainty when it comes to others’ desire to kiss him, objecting to the lack of consent. Casper never offers a smooch, so we can’t know how the kid would react to that but my guess is some variation on “I feel funny!”
In the end, Trader Tim wishes he were back meeting Richie Rich for the first time in order to get a chance to do it all over and not lose everything—his truck with all his accumulated loot (except for the wishbone) was crushed under the collapsing castle. (To ask, “Why couldn’t he simply wish for all his stuff back?” would be a failure to accept the dream-logic of the whole adventure.) And so, we are back to the beginning, but this time as Trader Tim goes to trade for Cadbury’s tie, Richie’s father arrives to intervene. When Richie tries to warn his father about Trader Tim’s power to “trade the spots off a leopard,” explaining that he knows this because of a strange dream he had, Mr. Rich scoffs. It turns out being an uber-rich capitalist comes with its own powers because not only does Mr. Rich decline Tim’s swirly eyed request to trade businesses, he makes a counteroffer trading Tim’s “willingness to learn and work” for a job in Rich’s office, but only after Tim finishes his education. Tim sputters but takes the deal, claiming, “I’ve always wanted to finish my education and then work for a man like you!”
Casper and Wendy surveil this scene using the latter’s crystal ball, amazed at Mr. Rich’s negotiating ability. As Casper comments, “You don’t become the richest man in the world without being a demon trader yourself!” Capitalist ideology is a nightmare that the queer dreamspace of Casper’s world cannot compete with. In fact, Wendy expresses sincere anger and offense at her world being dismissed as a “dream” (in a panel of perfect cartooning). And though she never says it, from her perspective Richie’s world is no less dream-like, selling the illusion that capitalism is the only choice for organizing society. But as Ursula K. LeGuin once quipped, “[capitalism’s] power seems inescapable — but then, so did the divine right of kings…” The inclusion of chests full of “purple gold” in the Castle of Strange Things reinforces the imagined nature of capital. This fascinated me as a kid as I was the type to spend time contemplating the constructed and arbitrary nature of value and was tickled by the idea that something could have all the qualities of gold except the color and wondering if it’d still be as valuable as the yellow stuff.
I have spent a lot of time examining the queer tensions notable in the relationship of Richie Rich and the freedom of his dream world, but I think there is also an interesting, if not fully coherent, critique of capitalism in this comic, too. From the “purple gold” that disrupts the notion of precious metals and the historical basis for economic systems to Tim’s insistence that “I don’t sell anything! I just swap!” the story, while far from echoing Das Kapital, nevertheless raises questions about the fairness of economic exchange and places Mr. Rich in the same category as the child huckster trading things you don’t really want and definitely don’t need to fulfill manufactured desire that moves us away from freedom.
What Richie Rich can access in Casper’s world is the experience of the taboo and the unsettling pleasures of reaching beyond the consensus of how to understand the world. When in the penultimate panel he finds a purple gold coin in his pocket, he is on the verge of accepting the possibilities he’s dismissed as dreams. And to my mind, that—in addition to the delightful uncredited art—is what makes this a comic worth returning to.