Archie never did settle on Betty or Veronica.
- Chasing Amy (1997)
Twenty years ago, four fictional comic book geeks sat around a table debating Archie’s purity. Chasing Amy’s infamous “Archie subtext” scene concluded with one of the main characters aggressively arguing that Archie is not gay for Jughead and, in fact, “is all about the pussy.” It was a bold claim, not because Archie is clearly straight, but because Archie is not clearly anything. Proving that Archie is all about any one thing is a fool’s errand, because the point of Archie Comics is their ambivalence. The characters, the town, the story vacillate from one panel to the next with only the faintest through line tying them all together. In Twelve-Cent Archie, the sole full-length analysis of the series, Bart Beaty explained, “The subtle shifts in characterization do not imply growth so much as they posit unique narrative realities that begin each time from scratch, the contradictions not a flaw in the system but rather the unique element that allows the apparatus to function at all.”
The world of Archie is so basic that it is little more than the sketch of a life: the titular seventeen-year-old redheaded high schooler lives in a small suburban town called Riverdale in which much of the intrigue revolves around whether he will date a rich bitch brunette named Veronica Lodge or a blonde do-gooder named Betty Cooper. The town’s location is not clear, neither is its population nor its chronology. Over the past seventy-six years, Riverdale and its citizens have thus resided in a sort of limbo, neither here nor there, neither now nor then. Archie is thus a fitting metaphor for the age its characters embody—adolescence, those years between childhood and adulthood meant to confer upon all of us the privilege to do nothing, without consequence. “Archie himself is the eternal adolescent who, in veering back and forth between the two main women in his life, represents youth as the freedom that exists precisely because it has not chosen,” wrote Ronald Glasberg in The Journal of Pop Culture. “America, as a youth culture, idealizes this moment which is eternally poised on the threshold of choice and would wish to extend this moment throughout the course of life.”
With Riverdale—the CW’s new moody televised take on Archie Comics—Archie goes from choosing nothing to choosing everything. The series’ first live-action adaptation in twenty-six years, a Pretty Little Liars-style noir airing this month, with the hottest Archie Andrews this side of Andrew Rannells in K.J. Apa, is a medley of teen soap, thriller, musical, comedy and drama. A present-day origin story, it presents a darker, steamier version of the gang—Archie sleeps with his teacher, Betty dresses as an S&M dom, Veronica is … nice—as they become embroiled in the mysterious murder of classmate Jason Blossom. As Archie and his entourage grapple with their town’s lost innocence, they simultaneously grapple with their own, all to the dreamy diegetic pop of Archie Universe girl band Josie and the Pussycats. But can the essence of Archie, can Archie itself, be preserved when the story, originally defined by indecision, settles on everything—dream, reality, fiction, fact, innocence, sin? As Veronica herself asks in the premiere of Riverdale: “Can’t we in this post-James Franco world be all things at once?” Can they?
Archie started out simple. He was born in December 1941, in the twenty-second issue of a comic called Pep, named for a potato-faced buck-toothed Howdy Doody-looking11Howdy Doody actually premiered on NBC six years later. take on Andy Hardy22Mickey Rooney’s alter ego in sixteen MGM romantic comedies about an all-American teen learning about life. who flirted with a Norman Rockwell-styled Betty Cooper. “America’s newest boy friend” was a mid-war reaction to comic book superheroes that had sprouted from the wings of Superman at the start of World War II. “His creation came out of a desire to tell stories featuring more ‘normal’ and ‘wholesome’ people that lived in this warm, idealized place and were light-hearted and entertaining during some pretty turbulent times,” says publisher Jon Goldwater, whose father, John, is credited with creating Archie.33After a lengthy court battle and settlement, cartoonist Bob Montana is considered “creator” of “the original characters’ likenesses.” The ginger teen didn’t conquer crime or display any powers, but there was enough of that going around already. As Charles Phillips wrote in Archie: His First 50 Years, “Archie’s initial surge in popularity came from soldiers overseas, who saw in the escapades of the youngsters from Riverdale a gloss on the innocent lives they believed they had left behind but also were fighting to preserve.”
Born on the back of the Great Depression, Archie was often defined by his empty pockets, less obvious, perhaps, was his missing agency. “He is a young man to whom things happen; he is not someone who makes things happen,” wrote Beaty in Twelve-Cent Archie, which defines the titular hero as “little more than a cipher—a blank space on which stories are written.” Archie has more often, more generously, been described as an everyman, though Jon Goldwater goes further to characterize him as the “best” man: “He can be funny and goofy, but at his core, he’s a good guy, a good friend and a leader.” And who he was leading was a four-strong suburban army: his two crushes, “best friends” (though they rarely acted like it) Betty and Veronica; his own best friend, a lazy gluttonous girl-hating outsider dubbed Jughead; and, less often, his richer, handsomer rival Reggie Mantle.
After making only six appearances in Pep, Archie got his own title in the winter of 1942, followed by Jughead in 1949. Betty and Veronica trailed behind a year later, their popularity surging past Juggie’s (and even Arch’s at one point), selling an average of more than 300,000 copies a month due to the young female fans who had eclipsed the soldiers.44In From Girls to Grrrlz: A History of Women’s Comics from Teens to Zines, comic historian Trina Robbins noted that Archie was the rare comic that served girls (until recently, the majority of its readers were tweens). Considering the importance of Betty and Veronica to the Archie narrative, Bart Beaty emphasizes that the love triangle defining these characters55In 2010, The U.S. Postal Service included Archie as one of five commemorative “Sunday Funnies” stamps. It featured DeCarlo’s take on one of the most celebrated covers of the comic ever: Montana’s “three on a soda”—which features Archie, Betty and Veronica sharing a pop. is a dollop of revisionist history. He insists that Veronica and Archie were a couple until the ‘70s, with Betty being little more than a wannabe homewrecker. The corruption of our memories results from Veronica’s own corruption by wealth, transforming her into a narcissist who routinely exploits Archie’s affections, while Betty, despite her somewhat pathological obsession with her neighbour, remains the more comforting alternative. “[Veronica’s] atypicality is both a function of class privilege in a fictional world in which class otherwise does not exist and an indictment of that privilege at a time when middle-class privilege was beginning to be naturalized for the first time,” wrote Beaty. “That Betty is more popular with readers than Veronica is a reflection of the shift from the unattainable-goddess version of American womanhood that was common to the popular culture of the Depression era to the all-American girl next door that supplanted it in the 1960s and 1970s.”
“Archie comics’ resolute stance against disruptions of the bucolic social order of suburbia created a space of pure nostalgia unmoored from both current events and history.”
Veronica had become the kind of sexy that not even her own creators approved of. The “sub-deb” made her first appearance in April 1942 (Pep #26), every curve caressed by every item of clothing (as opposed to Betty, whose more modest attire was substantially baggier), and, reintroduced in Archie #1, her dressing gown split almost right up to her hip. In 1954, The Comics Code Authority, established by The Comics Magazine Association of America (cofounded by John Goldwater), buttoned her up along with the rest of Riverdale in order to curb a surge in juvenile crime that was being blamed on comic books. According to the Times, publishers of ninety percent of America’s comics adopted the code, which “sharply limited depiction of violence, gore and sex.” Breaking the rules meant being dropped by the CMAA, which meant being dropped by sellers. The result, for Archie, was bold strokes of innocence with shades of titillation. “When I started working for Archie everything was mildly sexy,” cartoonist Dan DeCarlo, who joined the company around the ’60s and gave the characters their iconic chipmunk look, told Silver Bullet Comic Books. “Like if girls were falling down you would see their panties. Their panties came down to their knees though most of the time. But that was as risky as they got.” In The New Yorker last year, The Girls author Emma Cline argued that the comic’s “insistence on its own virtuousness, impossible to maintain” was such because of the actual people (predominantly men) who worked on Archie, betraying “the more meagre sides of our natures, the dumb and prurient and thoughtless parts, all sanctioned by the appearance of nostalgia and middle-class values.”
Over the past twenty years the CCA has disappeared (“Finally,” says Archie Comics’ chief creative officer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa), but it has left deep lines in the face of the Archie brand. In his interview with Silver Bullet, conducted in 2001 (the year he died), DeCarlo made it clear that he didn’t choose to skirt sociocultural issues—he was told to. “That was their policy then and that’s their policy now,” he said. “Never offend anybody.” This was particularly true of the syndicated Archie strips (launched by Bob Montana in 1946) which appeared in more than 600 newspapers and were therefore particularly cautious in order to remain lucrative. “Archie is a square, but in my opinion, squares are the backbone of the country,” John Goldwater told the Times in 1973. As a result, Riverdale was a box of homogeneity—conservative, patriarchal, white and middle to upper-middle class. Beaty discovered that only three black characters appeared in nearly 4,000 Archie stories from the 12-cent period (1961 to 1969), none of whom spoke or resided in town. Asian characters were not treated much better and only in the ‘70s did Black and Hispanic teens, Chuck Clayton and Frankie Valdez, respectively, move to Riverdale. Archie made only rare nods to pervasive sociopolitical issues of the time and even became the face of an anti-drinking campaign. As Beaty explained it, “In an era when youth culture was becoming increasingly synonymous with countercultural rebellion, Archie comics’ resolute stance against disruptions of the bucolic social order of suburbia created a space of pure nostalgia unmoored from both current events and history.”
Whitewashing worked for awhile. By the end of the ‘40s, Archie was the “tenth-best-selling printed commodity in the world,” according to His First 50 Years, and by the ‘60s half a million copies were being sold a month. Though comic book sales began to dwindle with the rise of television, Archie was comfortable liberally referencing every series from The Flintstones to The Man from U.N.C.L.E., its fame reaching its zenith in 1968 when CBS debuted The Archie Show.66Only seventeen half-hour episodes were produced, but the reruns, which aired until 1978, made it seem much longer. A Monkees-inspired animated adaptation of the comic, the series included a band called The Archies, known to this day for the 1969 single “Sugar Sugar,” a tune as empty as a Bazooka bubble. Regardless, it became the number one pop single of the year, the series cornered a 75 percent share of Saturday morning’s Nielsen audience, Archie Comics went public and merchandising exploded, all of which transformed Archie into the number one best selling comic of the time and a bona fide American phenomenon. For the next forty years Archie rode the wake of that wave, claiming a cushy spot next to the Tic Tacs on our local grocery store rack as it quietly receded into the background of public consciousness.
Archie was a square for half a century; it was a country often itself accused of being square that finally gave him his edge. Back in the ‘90s, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa moved to Montreal from the U.S. to complete a Master’s degree in English literature at McGill University. “While I was at McGill, I seemed to have a sense that Archie was really big in Canada,” he says. His sense was spot on. The numbers suggest Archie is almost as big in Canada as it is in America, at the very least Canada is Archie’s strongest international market, next to India, which, according to Goldwater, is due to the comic’s perennial presence over decades in these two countries. Archie has actually been a polyglot since the early ‘90s (he spoke seven languages then) but only recently started globetrotting in earnest. After becoming Archi Gomez in Mexico and South America and touching down in France, Italy, Greece, Scandinavia, South Korea and Indonesia, a more modest Archie arrived in the Middle East in 2006. In 2008, the Times reported the company had just that year published 10 million Archie-related comics in twelve languages. Two years later, Archie opened its first international office in New Delhi (with plans to introduce Indian characters exclusive to the country) and in January 2016 it was represented for the first time (by IDW Publishing) for international language rights.
But Canada was the place that really changed Archie. “Re-immersed” in Archie thanks to the country in which he found himself, Aguirre-Sacasa wrote a one-act play that combined his obsession for the accident-prone carrot top and his obsession for Leopold and Loeb. In it he imagined a world in which a gay Archie had graduated from Riverdale (which, according to Atlanta’s alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing, is a metaphor for the closet) and attended the University of Chicago at the same time as the infamously imperfect criminals.77Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb believed that their wealth and intelligence would enable them to commit the perfect crime. In May 1924, they murdered 14-year-old Robert Franks. Unfortunately, Leopold left his glasses at the scene. “It was very much an English literature student’s attempt at being shocking and provocative,” Aguirre-Sacasa says. “It was sort of a pastiche, but a loving pastiche.” Archie Comics didn’t think so. Archie’s Weird Fantasy was reportedly sent a “cease-and-desist order” the day before it was set to premiere at Dad’s Garage Theatre in Atlanta in 2003. The play’s title was promptly changed to Weird Comic Book Fantasy and the characters’ names disguised after the theatre’s artistic director was reportedly told, “if Archie was portrayed as being gay, that would dilute and tarnish his image.”
Of course, that was all before Jon Goldwater came along. Following his brother Richard’s death, Goldwater started running Archie Comics in 2009 with Nancy Silberkleit, the widow of Louis Silberkleit (who had co-founded MLJ Magazines before it became Archie Comic Publications, Inc.). At the time, Archie was a respected brand, but that’s pretty much it. “They were successful, they had their niche but they weren’t really part of the larger comics conversation,” says Albert Ching, managing editor of Comic Book Resources. Goldwater is more direct—he thought Archie had become irrelevant. “It was too safe,” he says. “The stories felt retro and stuck in time, like they were happening in the ‘50s. The characters felt muted and it just didn’t strike me as particularly interesting.” Writer and illustrator Dan Parent, who will have been at the company for three decades next June, acknowledges that Archie felt “very stuck in one place” from about 1995 to 2005. “But over the last decade or so,” he says, “we’ve ventured out of the chok’lit shoppe of the fifties and discovered the real world.”
The timing of Goldwater’s arrival was serendipitous. In October 2008, to celebrate the six-hundredth issue of Archie, Michael E. Uslan, a fan and comic-book historian, approached editor-in-chief Victor Gorelick about writing a “milestone story.” According to the Times, he was inspired by three things—the 1998 Gwyneth Paltrow film Sliding Doors, in which her character’s life follows two different trajectories, Robert Frost’s poem “Road Not Taken” and Joni Mitchell’s ballad “Both Sides Now”—to create a story in which Archie faces a fork in the road, each one leading to a wedding (one with Betty, one with Veronica, of course) which has “a butterfly effect” on the world around him.88According to the Times, India was so enthusiastic about this issue that Archie is now printed in five languages there. Life with Archie (revived in July 2010 from the original, longer, more dramatic Archie book, published from 1958 to 1991) happened to also affect Goldwater, who says, “it definitely provided me with enough cloud cover to start getting the rest of the company in order, and I made sure we maximized on its success.”
The way his father had been the creator of the original Archie, Goldwater was largely the creator of modern Archie. While Dan Parent was working on Veronica #202, he proposed a story in which Veronica crushes on a new character, Kevin Keller, without realizing he’s gay. Goldwater accepted the idea with open arms and the issue was released in September 2010, selling out to become the first single issue in Archie history to be reprinted (a subsequent spin-off mini-series won Parent the 2013 GLAAD Award for Outstanding Comic Book). Parent admits, however, that he felt pressure presenting the first gay male character in mainstream comics. “It’s something that you don’t want to mess up,” he writes via email. “I knew there would be some backlash, but if you run your life around what others think of you, then you’re going to get stuck. Knowing we were doing the right thing was all that mattered.”
“Now adults have reason to read Archie comics that didn’t before.”
Around the time Kevin Keller came along, Aguirre-Sacasa did too. After six years working in theatre and producing comics for Marvel, in 2009 he moved onto television. After rewriting the script for the beleaguered Broadway musical Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, in 2011 Aguirre-Sacasa became a producer and writer on Glee. He and Goldwater met at New York Comic Con where the enterprising writer immediately pitched a Glee-Archie crossover. Though the title only sold about 4500 copies, Aguirre-Sacasa’s next project for the company went huge. Afterlife with Archie, illustrated by Francesco Francavilla, dropped Archie and his friends in a zombie apocalypse in the middle of New York. Aguirre-Sacasa told Deadline that the idea came out of conversations with Goldwater, “asking questions like, ‘What if the Archie characters found themselves in a Stephen King novel like The Stand or a Sam Raimi movie like The Evil Dead? Could we pull that off, tonally?” They more than pulled it off. Released in 2013, the first issue of Afterlife sold 42,000 copies. “It was the novelty of it,” says Ching. “Seeing an Archie comic where these terrible things are happening but it’s still recognizable enough as the same characters.”
The zombies landed Aguirre-Sacasa the job of chief creative officer at Archie, which was itself a little otherworldly. Only ten years prior, the company had threatened to sue this very same man for besmirching their brand. After stuttering for a substantial amount of time in response to my query about the oddness of this series of events, Aguirre-Sacasa settles on the result being a “happy ending.” Goldwater chooses to dismiss the CCO’s treatment by the old guard, however, as a “factoid” from history. “Whatever issues happened with Roberto and his play happened long before I came to Archie, so I don’t see it as really relevant anymore,” he says. “What matters now, to me, is that Roberto is part of the Archie family. He’s an amazing writer and knows the characters as if they were his own family. I’ve never experienced that, aside from myself.” Aguirre-Sacasa explained to Goldwater that his 2003 play “came out of a love for the characters,” even if he perhaps wasn’t asked to. “Rather than vilify me for it,” he says, “he understood.”
The arrival of Aguirre-Sacasa meant a literal rebirth for Archie. In 2014, Life with Archie’s eponymous hero was killed off before the Archie series relaunched a year later. For Archie #1, the first installment under the “New Riverdale” awning, the company hired Mark Waid, whom Ching calls “one of the biggest superhero writers of this generation,” and Fiona Staples, one of its leading comic book artists. The new Archie wears a hoodie and a hip haircut, the panels are less rigidly structured than traditional comics, and readers’ ages and genders, though they still skew 45-55 in favour of females, cut across a wider range. “Now adults have reason to read Archie comics that didn’t before,” says Ching, who has increasingly covered the title over the past few years. He considers the New Riverdale makeover an improvement: “They kind of look like current contemporary comics of today versus looking like they were—I don’t want to say stuck in the past, but that’s true to some extent.”
In real life, Archie Andrews does not look like Mickey Rooney. Nor does he look like Howdy Doody. In real life, Archie Andrews is extremely attractive. His real name is K.J. Apa and he has a six pack and a Kiwi accent, which is probably why he has a slight lisp when he speaks with an American one on Riverdale. His hair is dyed auburn, not red, and he lacks freckles, but who cares with a face like that. And a body like that. Apa’s Archie runs shirtless. He is hot for teacher. Teacher is hot for him. He has sweaty sex in a car. Yet he somehow still maintains the essence of G-rated comic book Archie. He still has trouble lying and, despite being caught with his pants down numerous times, always seems to come out on top (so to speak). He can even pull off a bow tie. “On some level, one has to answer the fact that for seventy-five years of comic book history, these two beautiful girls are attracted to Archie,” Aguirre-Sacasa says. “We thought it would be nice to kind of catch Archie the summer after his big growth spurt so that he was kind of like a boy on the cusp of being a man.”
The characters in Riverdale don’t look or act much like the characters in the Archie comics, but they do channel the original books’ liminality, each of them caught in the midst of some sort of transformation. While Archie has returned from the summer a changed man—both physically and musically attuned—his neighbour Betty Cooper (Lili Reinhart) is newly thinned out and in the midst of pulling away from her Adderall-pushing mom in order to avoid turning out like her broken down sister. “It’s too pink, it doesn’t seem right anymore,” she says of her room, her life. Meanwhile, recent New York transplant Veronica Lodge (Camila Mendes), after some kind of “reckoning,” is attempting to become a self-actualized “better version” of her former self. And then there’s Jughead (Cole Sprouse), the most pervasive character in the series, who has in a sense become the personification of the town,99Now a lot less white: Josie and the Pussycats, Mr. Weatherbee and Coach Clayton are all black, while Dilton Doiley and Reggie are both Asian. floating through each scene, an impartial observer no longer defined by his relationship to Archie, food or girls. “Sardonic humor is just my way of relating to the world,” is all he will allow as he skulks through the halls by his lonesome, peering into windows, contemplating the gang as he writes “Riverdale’s answer to True Blood” in the wake of local jock Jason Blossom’s puzzling death.
Riverdale is the latest in a handful of attempts at a live-action Archie production1010The most recent being NBC’s Archie: To Riverdale and Back Again in 1990, which blew its potential as a pilot by landing fifty-first in the Nielsen ratings. and came out of a discussion between Goldwater and Aguirre-Sacasa, whose job description includes bringing Archie to life.1111In 2015, a Broadway musical was also announced, to be written by Adam McKay, and co-presented by Funny or Die. Aguirre-Sarcasa also mentioned a possible animated version of Afterlife with Archie. “I’ve always thought Archie was meant to be on TV,” Goldwater says, “that his story and the story of his friends was something that needed a longer, deeper runway.” The series was originally conceived as a John Hughes-style coming-of-age drama before producer Greg Berlanti suggested the murder plot. “When we talk about story on the show, we have two mantras,” Aguirre-Sacasa says. “The story has to work as an Archie story and the story has to work as a David Lynch Twin Peaks story.” Riverdale wears this reference on its Letterman sleeve, opening like Lynch’s soon-to-return series from 1990 with a Welcome to Riverdale sign and the tagline, “The town with Pep,” and even casting Twin Peaks alum Madchen Amick as Betty’s overbearing mother.
The man who wrote Archie’s Weird Fantasy as a “loving pastiche,” can’t resist a low-hanging reference. Aguirre-Sacasa names each Riverdale episode after famous noirs such as A Touch of Evil and Body Double, and even his cast, whose speech is peppered with literary and pop culture allusions, act as symbols of their past work, with Beverly Hills 90210’s Luke Perry—better known as Dylan McKay, who in the ’90s was famous for being caught in a love triangle with Kelly and Brenda—cast as the dad of a son in a similar situation.1212It was recently announced that Archie’s mother will be played by Molly Ringwald, another famous redhead in her own right and another actor associated with a famous love triangle (Andie, Duckie and Blane in Pretty in Pink). But the stacked references don’t quite manage to move past simply being a mash-up, not the way Veronica Mars’s darkness seeped beneath its pimpled skin, for instance. Here the Lynchian mood is tacked on as a sort of stylized adjunct to Riverdale’s real soul: Gossip Girl.
If the Archie comics were too simple, the show can be too much—its dialogue too pregnant with pop-savvy bon mots, its atmosphere too imbued with Blue Velvet, its storyline too tiered. Except the characters. The characters preserve the original comics’ ambiguity in the curves of their transformative arcs. As Archie, Betty, Veronica and Jughead struggle to determine who they are, Josie and the Pussycats, designed, according to Aguirre-Sacasa, as “kind of dream girls,” act more like their Pied Pipers. In light of recent real world events, the siren-like songstresses, so-named, Josie explains to Archie, “because we have to claw our way into the same rooms that you can just waltz into,” become unexpectedly revolutionary torchbearers, illuminating the way for the gang without actually making their choices for them:
Paintings on her skin, colours in her hair
Come around the corner make you stop and stare
But she don’t pay no mind, ‘cause she don’t really care
What you think about her, think about her
I don’t care what you want me to be,
‘Cause it ain’t for you, no it’s all for me