The art of being Archie
Archie is immortal. Ever since 1941, Archie has been never-changing, an excellent exemplar of essential Americana, a fascinating favorite of foibles that come with being the ultimate everyman teenager. For a very long time, Archie was beloved precisely because he—and everything else around him—stays exactly the same. But Archie has recently been the subject of an extraordinary evolution in different forms. In the last five years, Archie has grown up, died, changed his look and leapt from the comic page to the television screen. More than seven decades since he was created, Archie has never been more vibrant or resilient.
It is stunning to think about how old the character is. Archibald “Archie” Andrews made his comic book debut as a comedic backup feature to the previously superhero-centric “Pep Comics” # 22 in December 1941, the creation of Vic Bloom, John L. Goldwater and Bob Montana. Archie would take over that title and spin off his own, “Archie Comics” # 1, later shortened to simply “Archie.” In a show of that character’s popularity, the publishing company, then known as MLJ Comics, changed its name to Archie Comic Publications, Inc., the name it still holds today.
In these early issues, the basics of the character Archie were established. The redhead teenager is good-hearted but hopelessly clumsy as a student at Riverdale High. His best friend is the hamburger-loving, crown-beanie-wearing Forsythe “Jughead” Jones III. Archie drives a beat-up red jalopy and is constantly out of cash.
It’s Archie’s love life that really puts the character over. Despite his frailties, Archie is the object of a tug-of-war between two girls, who happen to be best friends. Spoiled, raven-haired rich girl Veronica Lodge is constantly battling over Archie’s affections with blonde girl-next-door Betty Cooper. Thus, the most important love triangle in comic books—and perhaps in pop culture—was born.
This is central to what makes Archie Archie. Readers chose to be part of Team Betty or Team Veronica before “teams” were a thing. This dichotomy was one of the most striking qualities of what otherwise are lightweight humorous high jinks. Which girl you chose spoke volumes about your own preferences. Do you consider yourself a “Veronica,” or a “Betty”? Historically Veronica has been a more mean-spirited, meticulous planner working to keep Archie, Betty has been more of a tomboyish put-upon victim. This has been balanced out in more recent portrayals. And Archie, being Archie, can’t make up his mind. What teenager has never been conflicted over two crushes, especially when they are polar opposites?
Riverdale, like Archie, stays the same. Archie’s supporting cast has grown through the years to include his rival Reggie Mantle, the smart guy Dilton, the jock Moose, Moose’s girl Midge, the Jughead-obsessed Ethel, the grumpy teacher Miss Grundy, the distressed principal Mr. Weatherbee, Veronica’s dad Hiram Lodge, their loyal butler Smithers, the Pop Tate’s Chock’lit Shoppe proprietor Pop (duh), Jughead’s dog Hotdog, the teenage witch Sabrina (and her talking cat Salem) and the members of the band Josie and the Pussycats. There were some notable changes here and there, including the introduction of the series’ first African-American character, Chuck Clayton, and the comic’s first gay character, Kevin Keller.
Archie’s look has remained mostly the same through the years, with noteworthy contributions by Montana and Harry Lucey. The definitive Archie look is most likely the ultimate product of Dan DeCarlo. This look can still be seen in Archie Comics’ Classic Archie line.
Teenagers around the world saw themselves in the Riverdale characters. While the stories first appeared in the “Archie” title and its various spin-offs, the vast majority of readers discovered and kept reading about these characters in the form of thick comic digests, which remains hugely popular today.
There have been various attempts to shift Archie to different forms of media through the years, first on radio in 1943. The natural jump was to animation, with “The Archie Show” in 1968 and its successors, all the way to 2000’s “Archie’s Weird Mysteries.” There have been two other animated spin-off series, “Josie and the Pussycats” (along with its outer space sequel) and “Sabrina the Teenage Witch” (three series, from 1970 to 2013). In a moment of meta-fiction, the fictional band The Archies (composed of Archie, Jughead, Betty, Veronica and Reggie) had an actual No. 1 hit song in “Sugar, Sugar” (yes, that “Sugar, Sugar,” followed by “honey, honey”) back in 1969. That earworm of a song has since between remade by the likes of Bob Marley (yeah, mon!) and Wilson Pickett.
In the comics, Archie went through ill-fated attempts to revamp his look. Readers didn’t seem interested in changing Archie’s look or his context.
In 2010, Archie Comics went in an unusual direction with a series called “Life with Archie,” which saw Archie actually grow up, including a pot-stirring set of arcs that had Archie marrying Veronica and then Betty (they turned out to be dreams), with Archie Comics killing off the adult Archie in 2014 (seriously, this happened).
Archie has seen other versions, including the cute “Little Archie.” But the most outrageous reimaging has to be the horror-themed “Afterlife with Archie” series from writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, where Riverdale is caught up in a zombie plague and Archie must lead the survivors to safety. Today, the “Afterlife” title leads the Archie Horror subline, which includes a rebooted Sabrina and a series where Jughead is a werewolf with Betty the wolf-slayer.
Readers clearly responded to the risk-taking behavior of Aguirre-Sacasa. The company would hire Aguirre-Sacasa to lead the entire Archie line as its chief creative officer. In 2015, the seminal “Archie” series started over with a new number one issue after over 600 issues. This new critically acclaimed and commercially successful series featured a complete update of Archie and Riverdale. The series’ artistic team—writer Mark Waid and artist Fiona Staples—gave Archie a new kind of cool while retaining the classic elements of Archie being clumsy, Veronica and Betty fighting over Archie, and Jughead still eating burgers. But they also crafted finely honed story angles for these characters. Staples has since left the title but has been followed to positive reaction by a group that included Veronica Fish and Peter Woods. This is the best comic book incarnation Archie has ever had and its continued publication speaks to how the audience has grown more sophisticated. Read this title. It’s smart and funny.
But Archie exists in more than one form, even in the comic books. The Waid “Archie” title is the current accepted Archie continuity, but the Classic Archie line—anthology titles featuring DeCarlo-Montana-Lucey style adventures continue to thrive next to the main line—dubbed the Riverdale line—which has also seen expansion with “Jughead” (by Chip Zdarsky!) “Betty and Veronica” (by Adam Hughes!) and “The Archies.”
The final frontier for Archie is live-action. While “Sabrina The Teenage Witch” had a very popular live-action series as well as several feature films (with Melissa Joan Hart as the iconic Sabrina), “Josie and the Pussycats” had a considerably less popular live-action film (sorry, Rachel Leigh Cook). Archie has had less success on this front, with only a much-maligned 1990 TV movie “Archie: Return to Riverdale” which went in the Archie-all-grown-up direction (Lauren Holly was Betty in it).
But all that changed in 2017, when the CW introduced “Riverdale,” a dark, contemporary take on the Archie mythology adapted by Aguirre-Sacasa and developed by “Arrow” producer Greg Berlanti. If there’s one word that describes this version of the Archie story, it’s “different.”
“Riverdale” is fascinating in how it skews towards and diverges from what readers understand to be the Archie universe. Set in the present, “Riverdale” features an Archie (Kiwi actor KJ Apa) who has some qualities of classic Archie (redhead, likes music, kindhearted) but is also a repudiation of that character. He does wear the vintage “R” letterman jacket. But instead of sweet and funny, this Archie is brooding and angsty. Nicknamed “Archie with abs” by fans, Apa’s Archie is a very athletic quarterback for the football team (thus killing one of the definitive Archie qualities: almost supernatural clumsiness). Formerly the very definition of the lovable loser, this Archie is almost perfect. He is also caught up in a covert sexual relationship with Riverdale High’s music teacher, a much, much younger take on Miss Grundy. All he wants is to be a singer-songwriter.
He is best friends with Betty (intense Lili Reinhart) who secretly has the hots for him. This Betty, effervescent and intelligent, pops pills to keep herself together. Mixing things up is the arrival of Veronica Lodge (gorgeous Camila Mendes), the daughter of the disgraced businessman Hiram Lodge. Betty and Veronica both like Archie, but they do not compete for him. This lack of competition for Archie (admittedly kinda indifferent to them because of Grundy) kills yet another classic element in Archie mythos: the Archie-Betty-Veronica love triangle. These two are really friends with an authenticity the franchise has never seen. This show’s version of Jughead is a snarky outsider (excellent Cole Sprouse) who used to be friends with Archie who narrates the show dripping with irony. Madelaine Petsch’s Cheryl Blossom is all the right kinds of crazy.
Perhaps it would be more prudent to point out that various outlets have described this addictive show as “The OC” meets “Twin Peaks,” wrapped in the skin of the classic Riverdale. The outlandish comedy of the original is nowhere to be found. This “Riverdale” is, after all, primarily a murder mystery (who killed Jason Blossom?) and an unraveling of long-festering secrets among the older Riverdale residents. By the time Betty is snogging Jughead (yes, that happens here), it’s clear this is not your parents’ Archie.
But that’s not a bad thing. While a wildly unfaithful take on the Riverdale pantheon, “Riverdale” is a gripping, complex series that, on its own, is original and striking, but taken as an Archie property, is totally shocking. This then, is our Archie for our times, controversial and provocative but also self-aware—and needing just a bit more of a sense of humor. It’s exactly what Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa wanted.
It’s also a show made for binge-watching (it’s also a Netflix show). The killer of Jason Blossom may have been revealed last season (no spoilers here; watch it to find out), but the dirty laundry and shocking revelations found at the end of season one promise to spill over in “Riverdale” season 2, which premiered on the CW this past week. The gut-wrenching event at the end of the first season’s finale episode kicks off season 2’s first episode. The characters gather in the hospital, unsure whether the patient will survive; this is not a scene you would find in Classic Archie.
This is the new Archie and indicates where the property will be heading. The Classic Archie line remains lucrative but feels like an oddity next to the Riverdale line’s cutting-edge output. The “Archie” title remains the best Archie out there right now.
In a moment that brings the Archie franchise full-circle, “Riverdale” now has its own monthly comic book (yes, a comic book based on a TV show based on a comic book) snugly in the aforementioned Riverdale subline. This cements “Riverdale” as the mainstream face of the franchise. After so many years of stasis, Archie is now evolving in a massive way to reflect the era it exists in. This sharp, soapy Archie story may be almost unrecognizable from its revered source material, but that’s all right. He has changed. It is proof that Archie really is immortal.
New episodes of “Riverdale” season 2 are available for streaming on Netflix every week.
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