The Road to Riverdale: The Dark, Adventure-Packed World of Archie Comics
If you think "Riverdale" is the first time Archie has gotten weird, you are very mistaken.
Much hoopla has been made in the media thus far about how the CW’s Riverdale series is dark and foreboding. “Archie meets Twin Peaks” is the general spin on the series, and while that is definitely accurate it overlooks a very crucial fact: Riverdale has actually been a strange place for decades.
While the setting for idyllic tales of love triangles and endless milkshakes is still primarily a place of carefree innocence, there have been plenty of times when the rustic little hamlet of hamburgers has been home to knife fights, parallel universes, and, naturally, demonic teddy bears.
While Archie has you covered on the stories that inspired the new TV series in their Road to Riverdale trade, we thought we’d take a look back at some darker influences on the show taken directly from the company’s 75-year history.
Riverdale: A Haven of Sin?
The most notorious of all Archie publications were the bizarre off-brand religious-themed titles published by Spire Christian Comics (later released by Barbour Christian Comics) in which the Riverdale gang suddenly and without any explanation were all about God and Jesus and their groovy scene, man. With titles like Archie and Big Ethel, Archie’s Circus, Archie’s One Way, and Archie’s Festival, 19 of these evangelical comics were published between 1977 and 1982.
How did such a thing happen? It all comes down to Al Hartley, easily the most divisive writer/illustrator in Archie history due to his overtly cartoony style…and his personal beliefs invading his work. A long-time industry veteran, Hartley became a born again Christian in 1967…and eventually he began placing his religious views in Archie books. (Ahem).
Eventually he was instructed to keep his stories secular, but then after he was contacted by Christian publisher the Fleming H. Revell Company he struck upon the idea of outsourcing the Archie characters to star in comics that would be sold exclusively in religious bookstores. Archie founder John Goldwater agreed, and the weirdest period in the characters’ history was off and running.
Not to disparage anyone’s religious beliefs, but using these characters to try to preach was an iffy proposition at best. First and foremost is the fact that the infamously intolerant Chick Tracts already have the market cornered on trying to get people cool on Christ (with questionable results to say the least). But there’s also the strangeness that comes from the fact that a comic that is at its very core about fun and romance is suddenly tossing that all aside to denouce the core tenets of Archiedom in favor of a purer, more faith-based message. When these factors are taking into account that in the late-70s Archie wasn’t considered the cool comic it is now, the Spire/Barbour books actually damaged their brand by making the characters seem lame and preachy — an unholy stench that took years for the company to fully shake.
From a 2017 perspective however, these books are AMAZING. Take for example, Archie’s Sonshine, in which this miracle occurs:
Yes friends, in this story, Jesus is just a jean-shorted Son of God hanging on the beach (yes, he has a van) telling the youth of Riverdale how cool loving the Lord is — taking time out only to occasionally make prominent musicians whose alternative lifestyle was deeply offensive to the book’s core audience suddenly appear.
And let’s not forget the deeply offensive cultural appropriation. Yikes.
So what does any of this have to do with Riverdale? The answer can be found in the most popular (i.e. most unbelievable) of the Hartley Christian comics, Archie’s Date Book, which brings sex and violence into the lives of our wholesome heroes like never before.
Which of course leads to this conclusion:
Hopefully Betty won’t be watching Riverdaleas it’s probably not in line with her belief system.
Little Archie’s Malevolent World of Wonder
You may not realize it, but there’s a bad part of Riverdale inhabited by a gang of bikers known as the Southside Serpents. This may seem like something 100% created for TV, but its origins can be traced back to the 1950s, when the group of ruffians made their debut in the pages of Bob Bolling’s fantastic Little Archie comic.
Fractured innocence making its way in Archie pre-Riverdale? Yes, and it’s something that this book excelled at.
Little Archie is a true contradiction. On one hand it is an exploration of childhood wonder, a landscape that is populated by outer space Santa Clauses and clubhouse adventures where no whimiscal journey — be it with talking frogs or just school friends — is always within reach. But then there is the flipside to the book that conjures up primordial adolescent fears — violence, robberies, car crashes, home invasions. (When subsuequent artist/writer Dexter Taylor took over the title, its darker elements were toned down, and the book was never the same).
These crimes are all regular features in Bob Bolling’s run on Little Archie, making readers wonder how real-life events from Bolling’s own childhood like the abduction and murder of the Lindbergh baby flavored his work in the same way it did his contemporaries like Maurice Sendak. It was also a place of random meanness, something Little Archie was both the victim and perpetrator of.
What remains the most compelling feature about Bolling’s work here is how it showed that adventure stories could co-exist alongside of the typical Archie characterizations, a weirdly schizophrenic tone that Riverdale is quickly making its trademark.
1970s Archie: A Reflection of the Times
The 1970s were an era of uncertainty and tumult when the headlines shouted one bad story after another. (Anyone else experiencing deja vu right now?) Given the state of the country and how Archie comics have mirrored society at large since the very beginning, it was just a matter of time before real-life started impacting Riverdale. Thus stories about environmentalism, corruption and all manner of societal ills began appearing in the pages of the more issue-based comics like Life with Archie and Archie at Riverdale High.
Then something really interesting happened. Seeing the response that these gritty, more dramatic stories were getting, Archie decided to double down by having more melodramatic subject matter take center stage.
Soon, all bets were off, and Archie found themselves dipping their toes in creating everything from horror comics…
…to a multi-issue run on the company’s Betty and Me title that worked as a spoof of the era’s TV series Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman as well as soap operas and adventure comics in general.
Elsewhere in the Archieverse, even Josie and the Pussycats were getting a piece of the adventure action.
Sci-fi stories were not off limits either…
The legacy of these books is that that are examples of a time in which Archie was willing to shake up its established formula in an attempt to try something new. The ramifications of this experimental period are still being felt, and given Riverdale showrunner Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s deep knowledge of Archie lore, it will be a surprise if some elements from these books don’t turn up on TV at some point.
The First High-Profile Crossover
In 1994, Archie comics had a bit of fun at their own expense when Archie Meets the Punisher hit stores. Writer Batton Lash crafted a tale that respects both iconic characters while still finding time to point out some of their ridiculous qualities (a nice touch was pairing up Marvel artist John Buscema and Archie’s Stan Goldberg to handle illustration work for their respective characters).
This one-shot showed that Archie can be every bit as relevant as the buzz-worthy books Marvel and DC were coming out with. And while subsequent works like the introduction of openly gay character Kevin Keller, the oddball Life with Archie: The Married Life book (which covered everything from parallel universes to the highly publicized death of Archie), and the Afterlife with Archie comic get all the credit, the DNA for Archie’s current renaissance can be found right within the pages of this book.
It seems that while Riverdale the show is getting all the credit for making Archie weird, Riverdale the town has long been an incredibly strange place. And Archie fans wouldn’t have it any other way.