Archie's marriage to Betty seems better, but imperfect. The young couple leaves Riverdale for New York City when Betty gets a job at "Sacks 6th Avenue." Archie, however, can't find steady work and winds up playing his guitar at a series of ever-seedier dive bars to a dwindling audience. "New York's not like Riverdale, Betty," he tells her after a gig at Fluky's Last Stop Airport Cafe. "There's ten thousand guys just like me roaming the streets, our heads filled with our small-town successes." Betty, meanwhile, takes a 10 percent pay cut and frets over how to tell her struggling husband that life is about to get even harder. As the introduction to Part 3 puts it, "Life has taken Archie and Betty down an unexpected road, full of failure and disappointment."
It's all PG, but character traits and plot tropes played for laughs in the old comics become pathologies or serious misfortunes in the new. Moose, Riverdale's blond hulk of a football star, is forced to confront his temper when his girlfriend, Midge, breaks up with him. "I realized your anger issues had scared me in a way," she tells him. "Moosie ... I want out." In the Betty story line, Reggie takes a series of humiliating low-paying jobs, from selling used cars to working the counter at a breakfast chain called "Dunk-a-Muffin." Jughead wants to buy the local hamburger joint from its aging owner but can't come up with the cash. He eventually pins his hopes on a stimulus-package loan for small businesses. Meanwhile, Miss Grundy, the gray-haired schoolteacher, contracts a terminal disease and declines further treatment.
This is a far cry from Archie's earlier history of dabbling in contemporary trends: In the '50s the gang dressed as beatniks, the '60s spy craze spawned "The Man From R.I.V.E.R.D.A.L.E.," and in the '70s they caught disco fever. (A small but fascinating exhibit at New York's Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art last year surveyed many of these fads.) Archie's writers have never aimed for true novelty or gravity—in fact, repetitive fustiness is part of the comic's appeal. So for longtime readers, these new story lines are tough. In the process of stretching themselves and their brand, Archie's handlers may inadvertently sacrifice their red-headed prince.
It's true that throughout it all, reassuringly, Archie retains his earnest do-gooder heart: Even at his lowest points, he loves both Betty and Veronica, and he works to make them happy, maintain his long friendships, and preserve his beloved Riverdale. But Archie has also become a genuinely sad, struggling figure. When a known deadbeat like Homer Simpson loses his job, we're ready for the punch line. But it's jarring to see an icon of '50s wholesomeness plunge so suddenly. Just as no one wants to see Ward Cleaver drunkenly shove June in front of the Beav, it's disturbing to see Archie slumped over the bar at an all-night diner lamenting his inability to provide for his wife.
A key difference between Life With Archie and the usual Archie comics is that the originals' plots have essentially been one-offs. The implied "reset" button at the end of every comic has kept life in Riverdale refreshingly low key. Archie never really had to choose between Betty and Veronica, and so he never had to face the consequences of any of his choices. Because Life With Archie by contrast is truly serialized, life goes on chronologically without that reset button. That raises the stakes of every plot twist; when Archie rejects Veronica, her feelings actually stay hurt. The depressing implication is that there's very little funny or fun about adulthood.
For relief from all this heaviness, the disoriented reader can take solace in the regular Archie comics, which plug along depicting our hero as the same cheery all-American high-school kid he's always been. There's an odd disjuncture in flipping back and forth between the two worlds, but it also makes the younger Archie seem both comforting and fresh. Oblivious to the moral and financial perils he'll face in only a few short years, the biggest problem he faces is his habit of scheduling a date with both girls on one night. Enjoy it while you can, buddy.
Click here to read a slide-show essay on the evolution of Archie. Like DoubleX on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.
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