A Brief History Of The Archie Comics Renaissance
With New York Comic Con set to begin, we look at Archie, one of the most fascinating comics publishers in the world.
This article was first published in the Den of Geek NYCC Special Edition Magazine. You can find out about that issue and everything else in it by clicking here.
Perhaps not entirely unexpectedly, one of the most anticipated panels at this year’s New York Comic Con comes from Archie Comics. The company, currently celebrating the 75th anniversary of “America’s Typical Teenager” will shed new light on their upcoming production slate — both for their main line and their edgy Dark Circle Comics imprint.
In case you’ve been Rip Van Winkle-ing it for the better part of the past decade, the independently owned and operated company (which debuted the Archie character way back in December of 1941) has made major waves throughout the comic industry in the past decade thanks to a tireless effort to creatively invigorate their product line. This is due largely in part to the willingness of Archie president Mike Pellerito, CEO Jon Goldwater, Chief Creative Officer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, and Director of Publicity and Marketing/Dark Circle editor Alex Segura to leave no innovative stone unturned in an effort to figure out how to keep Riverdale’s teens relevant.
How did this current creative renaissance happen? To answer that question, we have to travel back to 2010 and meet a new kid in town named Kevin Keller.
Making his first appearance in Veronica #202, Kevin Keller is an all-American army brat who arrives in Riverdale and soon becomes the romantic focus of the town’s richest teen, Veronica Lodge. But when Kevin tells Jughead that he is gay, he becomes the first openly homosexual character in Archie comics history. He is instantly accepted by his classmates and in the ensuing Kevin Keller mini-series and its 15-issue follow up he deals with the typical teen concerns, only from a gay perspective. Audiences were immediately smitten with Keller, his debut appearance sold out — leading to Archie reprinting an issue for the first time in the company’s history.
The brilliance of what creator/writer/artist Dan Parent did with the character is make Kevin a figure of admiration and respect who is no different than the rest of the Archie core cast. Keller’s sexuality is just accepted at every level, making him a gay role model (he served as GLAAD’s Spirit Day ambassador in 2013) and illustrates the Archie company credo that Riverdale is a place for everybody.
Later that same year, Life with Archie: The Married Life debuted. This magazine-sized comic (which initially featured teen-baiting filler articles on topics like Justin Beiber that were dropped after a few issues) chronicled two possible Archie futures: One in which he married Betty, and the other in which he settled down with Veronica. Inspired by Michael Uslan’s popular “Archie Marries” storyline from earlier in the year, the series realized pretty quickly that kids weren’t so much reading the title as former Archie fans who were now adults. As such, the Teen Beat-esque features of the comic were removed and the storylines under the leadership of main writer Paul Kupperberg slowly transformed from a weird, vaguely sci-fi story about parallel universes into a ripped from the headlines epic that was sprinkled with liberal doses of fan service (including bringing back the obscure Little Archie character Ambrose Pipps and giving Jughead’s kid sister Jellybean her own storyline).
It was also within the pages of Life with Archie: The Married Life that Kevin Keller met Clay Walker, the physical therapist that was assigned to assist him in his recovery following his injury in the Iraq War. Keller and Clay soon fell in love, and the interracial couple wed in the comic’s 16th issue — much to the dismay of the One Million Moms conservative group, who threatened to boycott Toys ‘R’ Us because the store carried the issue. Ultimately, their protest was a failure and the issue was a sell-out. Love wins, especially in Riverdale.
While Archie was enjoying these successes, they unleashed the first of their recent high-profile crossovers upon an unsuspecting public in the form of Archie Meets Kiss (laying the groundwork for subsequent crossovers like Archie Meets Glee, this year’s Archie vs. Predator and Archie vs. Sharknado and, most intriguingly, the upcoming Archie Meets Ramones). Written by Alex Segura with art by Dan Parent, the four-part mini-series chronicled how Archie and his friends enlist the help of the veteran rock band after one of Sabrina’s spells transformed the residents of Riverdale into mindless monsters.
Horror and Archie, huh? Hmm, what an interesting idea. Why that’s so crazy it just might work!
Inspired by an alternate Life with Archie cover by Francesco Francavilla, Afterlife with Archie was the biggest risk in company history — and that’s saying a lot given the existence of the weird Al Hartley-created Archie comics that were created specifically for Christian book stores in the 1970s and ’80s. Adult-oriented and unrelentingly bleak, the ongoing zombie comic from artists Francavilla and writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa chronicles life in a Riverdale where Jughead is undead, Sabrina the Teenage Witch is forcibly married to Cthulhu, and Jason and Cheryl Blossom are involved in some serious Flowers in the Attic shenanigans.
The wonder of the book is that it manipulates the audience’s familiarity with the characters to heighten the terror. Seemingly no one is safe, and even the deaths of secondary, seemingly unimportant peripheral characters like Archie’s dog Vegas feel like real gut punches. While it originally began as a zombie comic (and continues to regularly best The Walking Dead in terms of engaging storylines), its dabbling in other supernatural genres made the Archie higher-ups realize that they could paint more than one picture on the horror canvas. And so Chilling Adventures of Sabrina was born.
Having drawn inspiration from the short-lived 1970s Archie anthology series Chilling Adventures in Sorcery (the initial issues of which originally were “hosted” by Sabrina), the new series debuted in late 2014 with art by Robert Hack and words from Aguirre-Sacasa. After a lengthy delay Chilling Adventures of Sabrina returned with its second issue this past April. The book’s return coincided with the official debut of the Archie Horror imprint, one that promises such Riverdale madness as the return of Vampironica in the future. The upcoming Archie TV series, Riverdale, also written by Aguirre-Sacasa, is rumored to contain horror elements, as well.
In a decidely more serious take on death, Archie himself met his end in the 36th issue of Life with Archie: The Married Lifethat was released in the summer of 2014. Ever the selfless friend, Archie leapt in front of a bullet meant for Kevin Keller, who became a Senator whose policies on gun control made him the target of a right wing extremist. The issue resulted in huge headlines, bigger sales, and plenty of mourning fans, indicating to the world at large that Archie was by no means strictly a laughing matter.
This demand to be taken seriously extended beyond the main Archieverse. The 2015 creation of Dark Circle Comics features a lineup of imperfect heroes and anti-heroes from Archie’s storied superhero past like The Fox, The Black Hood, The Shield, and the upcoming The Hangman and The Web each taking readers into their own often-tortured worlds with the help of A-list talent like Dean Haspiel, Mark Waid, and Duane Swierczynski, amongst others.
With 75 years already under their belt, Archie is managing to keep things fresh by hitting that sweet spot between keeping longtime fans happy with their ubiquitous digests and various reprint paperbacks and bringing in new readers by enlisting the help of major comic industry talent. The current Archie reboot (which ditched the company’s familiar house style in favor of more realistic depictions of everyone’s favorite teenagers) by Mark Waid and Fiona Staples immediately garnered critical acclaim when it debuted earlier this year by having the Riverdale High gang seem very much tuned in to 2015 attitudes and still manage to maintain their trademark innocence and humor. Likewise, Chip Zdarsky’s new take on comicdom’s most-beloved non-conformist in his new Jughead book, and the upcoming relaunches of Kevin Keller and Betty and Veronica will further help bring these characters into the 21st century.
Archie is a company whose longevity has not resulted in creative stagnation. As the past few years have illustrated, no reasonable storyline or idea featuring the characters will be refused either. Along with the upcoming Riverdale series on the CW (which promises to have a weird tone), there is also an Archie musical in the works featuring a book from Anchorman director and Saturday Night Live veteran Adam McKay. These projects will be non-traditional takes on the Archie characters that will emphasize how malleable these icons. They may be adjusting to the times, but at their heart all of these efforts will withhold the core, well, Archieness that is so beloved.
So after all of this, what can the Archie creative team do next? The answer is simply whatever they want. Clearly the’ve proved that they are willing to take risks and try new things. Like the old cartoon theme says, everything’s Archie. And fortunately that won’t be changing anytime soon.
Chris Cummins is a writer and Archie Comics historian who recently contributed introductions to the books Archie’s Favorite Comics from the Vault and Archie’s Favorite High School Comics. You can follow him on Twitter @bionicbigfoot