Archie Andrews: 1941-2014
Reading the final pages of Life with Archie #36, it’s almost impossible to believe that less than a decade ago Archie had the reputation of being only slightly hipper than Harvey Comics. But as they are for us all, these are strange times for Riverdale, and so now we are all thrust into a world where even a nostalgic corner of America isn’t immune to societal woes.
Throughout the decades, Archie comics have always been a mirror to our culture. Usually this meant that Archie, Jughead, Betty, Veronica and the gang would take part in the latest fads–from forming a bubblegum pop band to getting immersed in CB radio culture. But with the arrival of gay character Kevin Keller back in 2010, Archie successfully integrated real world issues for the first time in a way that didn’t seem forced or ham-fisted.
This paved the way for the company to take bigger risks, be it the soap operatics of Life with Archie or the deliciously bleak horror of Afterlife with Archie. They were no longer interested in coasting on safe nostalgia and supermarket impulse buys, the people behind Archie were determined to make important books that tackled controversial issues head on. Playing it safe be damned, Archie Comics has things to say…and they demand to be heard.
Given the media attention that this penultimate issue of Life with Archie is getting, they have gotten their wish. At this point, it isn’t much of a spoiler to announce that Archie does, in fact, meet his maker at the end of this double-sized issue’s pages. But what is unexpectedly moving is the events that lead him to his demise. After a lengthy intro that covers the complete history of Life with Archie to date, readers are treated to a simple story of a comic book icon looking back on the people and town that he loves so.
The basic premise of the comic is that each issue chronicles one story where Archie married Betty and another in which he married Veronica. Writer Paul Kupperberg cleverly jettisons that storytelling device here as Archie is fated to die in both timelines. Over the course of 55 heart-wrenching pages, we see Archie reflecting on his childhood love for Betty and Veronica and how his ultimate choosing one over the other taught him what it meant to be a man. In a lengthy (and somewhat sadistic) sequence in which Archie imagines the future that he will never have, the face of his chosen wife is never shown. It is a gentle touch that sidesteps this issue’s atypical format while further illustrating the series’ basic conceit that whomever Archie winds up will be loved beyond imagination.
As Archie concludes his walk down Memory Lane — a literal one given the fact that the street has been a magical plot device throughout the series — the clouds start gathering overhead. It seems that there has been a mass shooting targetting members of the LGBT community outside of Riverdale recently. The gunman is still on the loose, and it is feared that openly gay Senate candidate Kevin Keller has a target on his back….
Spoilers proceed from here on in.
After a fundraiser for Keller goes off without a hitch, Archie’s friends and loved ones gather at their old watering hole, the Choklit Shoppe. It is here that Archie takes a bullet to save the life of his friend. When the moment arrives, it still feels like a shock. Artists Pat and Tim Kennedy end the story with two splash pages full of imagery more disturbing than anything yet seen in Afterlife with Archie. In the first, a blood-drenched Archie Andrews is seen lying lifeless, surrounded by his loved ones. The second and probably more haunting image is that of an ice-cream soda knocked over, a subtle reminder that the end of Archie represents the end of innocence. Something that can never be undone.
Except of course, that Archie is still alive and well in the main continuity.
The brilliance of these final pages is how they crescendo with tension and sadness, leaving readers with the bleak realization that something tragic and senseless has happened. Dealing with LGBT and gun control issues in a comic is a powder keg of controversy, one that this installment has no doubt ignited. But at no point in the book does Kupperberg feel the need to grandstand and shove his views on the issues down the throats of readers. They are a part of the story to be sure, but they aren’t the story. The focus, as always with Archie is on the characters, and how their bonds can’t be broken. Apparently even by death.