Nerd Processor

The Paradox of Jughead’s Hat

The strange reason Riverdale star Cole Sprouse wears a cap from a bygone era

Image: © The CW

IfIf you’re a fan of Archie Comics, you know Jughead Jones: Lanky, laconic, and obsessed with eating. If you’re a fan of Archie’s TV adaptation Riverdale, you know that Jughead, too: brooding, a gang leader, and the show’s theatrical narrator. The two bear little in common but their name; their deep, abiding friendship with Archie; and, most important, a strange hat they never take off — a hat that represents one of comics’ most bizarre dilemmas.

In case you’ve never read the comics or seen the show, Jughead wears a strange, crown-like hat. He’s been sporting the hat ever since the character debuted along with Archie in 1941’s Pep Comics #22. It is — rather, it was — called a “whoopee cap,” a fedora with the brim removed and triangles cut into the bottom edge, which was folded up to create a vaguely crown-like appearance. (There’s a wonderful history of it here if you want to know more.) After the 1950s, the fad faded away, but Jughead kept his cap on.

The longer Jughead wore the hat, the more impossible it became for him to take it off.

The publishers of Archie Comics could have given Jughead new headgear at some point in the 1960s or ’70s, but for whatever reason, they didn’t. And then something strange happened. The longer Jughead wore the hat, the more impossible it became for him to take it off. As the whoopee cap completely faded from memory, it morphed into something more closely resembling an actual crown — no less bizarre and no less irrelevant — but it never left his head.

Here’s how closely linked Jughead and his weird hat became: In 2015, when Archie Comics went through its massive, first-ever reboot — when the characters were finally modernized, the stories serialized, and the classic Archie art style abandoned after 74 years — Jughead kept the hat. More astoundingly, when Jughead made the leap to TV in Riverdale, actor Cole Sprouse sported a more beanie-esque version and has worn it nearly every minute he’s been on screen in the show, just like Jughead has in nearly every comic panel he’s graced.

I’d bet most of Riverdale’s viewers have never seen an Archie comic in their lives, so they wouldn’t need the hat to recognize the character. They sure as hell don’t know what the hat is supposed to be. But Sprouse is still almost never shown without it. Any modernization of the character — especially a TV adaptation trying to reach a broader audience — should necessitate that he lose an 80-year-old fashion fad, or at least replace it with a hat people actually wear. But no. (Guys, in the early 1990s, Jughead briefly transformed into a hip skateboarder complete with a mini-mohawk… and he still wore the hat.)

Jughead’s hat is iconic in the most literal sense of the word — it has become essential, not only to Jughead’s wardrobe, but to the character himself. Actually, I suspect Jughead’s hat is more recognizably Jughead, because it is so unique to the character, than the character drawn without the hat. After all, he’s been the only person on earth wearing a whoopee cap for the past half-century or so. Think about this: In 2018, Riverdale’s intended teenage audience is watching a teenage character who wears a hat that practically ceased to exist 60 years ago. These are kids whose parents were born after whoopee caps were gone. That’s bananas.

The Paradox of Jughead’s Hat, as I call it, is a fascinating problem for many characters, especially those created in the Golden Age of comics, aka the 1930s and ’40s. If there was any forethought in these character designs, it was based on what looked most exciting for the young audience that devoured comics. As the ’40s became the ’50s, kids were still the prime audience, and they weren’t worried about fashion or hats; they just wanted to see their favorite heroes save the day, or their favorite nonheroes, like Archie and Jughead, pull some hijinks.

But now, twentysomethings, thirtysomethings, and even fortysomethings make up the primary audience of comic books, and they demand a certain level of sophistication in their stories about teenage drama and people who fly and beat up criminals. It’s why we’ve gotten this wonderful glut of comic stories over the past few decades. It’s why there’s more diversity in comics and comic characters, which is unequivocally a great thing. And it’s why audiences can’t seem to grow out of reading comics. All of this is just as true of character designs and art, and there are some truly beautiful comics available for purchase this very minute.

Let us briefly return to Superman’s underpants.

It seems obvious that this older, more discerning audience would necessitate changes among the most vintage of these characters in particular. Why does Superman wear red underpants over his tights, anyway? Why does Wonder Woman dress up in such U.S.-centric patriotic garb if she’s an Amazon from Greek mythology? And what could possibly be more antiquated than Jughead’s hat? These are all valid questions, but the answers are irrelevant. Because the designs of these characters didn’t change for so long and have become entrenched so solidly into popular culture, they have essentially fossilized. They are immutable; attempts to change them fail because when they are changed it somehow looks wrong.

Let us briefly return to Superman’s underpants. (I honestly don’t think that’s the first time I’ve typed that sentence.) When the DC Comics universe had its “New 52” reboot in 2011, the red briefs Superman had worn over his tights did not survive, nor did they make an appearance in the Man of Steel movie. They were a relic of a bygone age, originally drawn in 1939 because Superman artist Joe Shuster modeled his super-strong hero after circus strongmen, who wore them to accentuate their physiques. Like whoopee caps, circus strongmen with visible underwear don’t seem to be around much anymore.

It was the most natural decision in the world to ditch the underpants, but without them, Superman looked weirdly off, almost as if he was somehow more naked without them over his tights. His red underpants had become as intrinsic to his look as his S symbol, and DC Comics finally returned them to the Man of Steel earlier this year. The red underpants don’t make any more sense now than they did in 2011, but that’s what Superman wears. The reason he put them on in the first place is irrelevant. Just like Jughead and his glorious, ridiculous, impossible hat.

Taking off a hat may seem like the most superficial decision, but consider what Riverdale has changed from its source material: The good-hearted, love-struck Archie of the comics has joined the mob, started a violent vigilante group, and been charged with murder. Prototypical girl-next-door Betty has hidden a dead body, unrelated to the fact that her dad turned out to be a serial killer. Rich snob Veronica is now the most caring friend on the show… and her dad is a mafia honcho. And Jughead? Well, he’s a budding investigative journalist who’s a gang leader who literally cut a tattoo off a former member’s skin. He flayed her.

But he did it while wearing the hat.

Riverdale is violently — quite literally — different from its source material and a guilty pleasure I barely feel guilty about. But what makes the bonkers changes possible is what Riverdale doesn’t change from the comics: Archie is torn between his feelings for Veronica and Betty; Veronica’s father, Hiram, loathes Archie; Josie and the Pussycats occasionally belt out a tune; and the main four teens, in what is ostensibly 2018, still spend their time at a diner straight out of the ’50s.

And last but certainly not least, Jughead and the crown-shaped hat he wears, has always worn, and will always wear. The hat that is his and his alone, in comics and on TV, now and forever. Who knew a paradox could be such a fashion statement?

Riverdale is a delightfully dark, funhouse mirror of the original comics, but even the most twisted mirror can only reflect what it’s been shown.

This isn’t just Jughead’s problem. It’s something that faces many long-running characters, most often from comics. Certain design choices become so inextricably linked with the character that they simply cannot be taken away without that character looking… wrong. Try to imagine Superman without the S emblem on his chest, or Batman without his pointy ears, and how bizarre that would seem. When these design choices are informed by the sensibilities of the time they were created, things get awkward. The “A” on the forehead of Captain America’s mask surely looked far less ridiculous when he was first drawn in 1941 than his many live-action Marvel movies, but it had to be included.

My favorite non-Jughead example is Superman’s underpants. Of course, people are still wearing underpants, so there’s some modern context for them, but there’s no contextualizing Jughead’s headwear. It remains a catch-22, something the character should not be wearing, practically cannot be wearing, and yet can’t do without, no matter how much time passes, no matter how confusing it might be to people, no matter the circumstance. Jughead and whoever portrays him are cursed to eternally wear a hat that no longer exists.

But maybe it’s a blessing, too, since the hat is his and his alone, now and forever more. When Riverdale gets inevitably rebooted in 2035, Jughead will still be wearing it — because if he doesn’t, he won’t really be Jughead. This may not be so amazing it’s worth shouting “Whoopee!” over, but it is nice to know that in this era of remakes, reboots, and resets, a few things will always be the same.

The former editor of io9.com, Rob Bricken has been a professional nerd since 2001. He also often cries at children's cartoons.

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