Last year, when Archie finally married his high-school sweetheart, Veronica, after 68 years of dating, his comic sold a blockbuster 24 times the usual 2,500-odd copies per issue. A few months later, he married Veronica's blond rival, Betty, in another popular story line tracing a parallel imagined future. (Archie's no bigamist.) Happily ever after, right?
Alas, no. In fact, if the red-headed teen had known what his marriages would actually entail, he might have run screaming from both altars.
The original Archie made his debut in 1941 and has been known ever since for his all-American wholesomeness and his split passion for rich, glamorous Veronica and sporty girl next door Betty. His world has expanded a bit in the last year or so, thanks to efforts by a new management team to bring him into the 21st century. "We had to make Archie culturally relevant," Jon Goldwater, who took over as CEO of Archie Comics last year, told one reporter in September. "I sat down with all the writers, and all the creators, and all the artists, and said, 'Look guys—you're completely unshackled. Go do what you want to do. Make it as fun as it can be.' " In January, Archie passionately kissed a black character, Valerie, on the cover. In April, Riverdale High School welcomed its first openly gay student, Kevin Keller, an issue that was popular enough to become the first reprint in the comic's history. Other recent Archie issues got attention by spoofing Jersey Shore and Twilight. A late December release will depict President Obama and Sarah Palin sharing a milkshake at Pop Tate's soda shop. The sales and the splash are well-timed for a major Archie anthology due out from comics publisher IDW early next year. Executives at Archie Comics (he's an independent company) have even hinted that a Broadway musical and a movie are in the offing.
But as the Archie brand expands, a new monthly magazine series sold in major bookstore chains and Wal-Mart, Life With Archie: The Married Life, has been quietly ripping apart the fabric of life in Riverdale. The recession looms large and disease and infidelity intrude on longtime friendships and young marriages. Life With Archie is a spin-off published by Archie Comics, so it's not a rogue parody. But within just a few months, Riverdale has turned from a 20th-century middle-American paradise into a 21st-century middle-class hell. Is all this grit really necessary in a universe that has blissfully hummed along for decades without it?
On its glossy covers, Life With Archie features photos of teen celebrities like Justin Bieber, Miley Cyrus, and Taylor Swift. Inside are a handful of light features on topics like stars who love Archie comics. (Amanda Bynes owns "like 400" of them!) Next to the teen fare is markedly more adult content. The two parallel story lines, "Archie Loves Veronica" and "Archie Loves Betty," grimly expand on the initial much-publicized discrete set of comics that focused on the couples' proposals, weddings, and babies. The result is a truly bizarre artifact: a teen magazine with the soul of a Russian novel.
Both narratives are bleak almost from the outset. In "Archie Loves Veronica," Veronica's wealthy father has hired Archie to work at his international corporation, Lodge Industries. Work stress, and Archie's insecurity when Veronica is promoted above him, quickly drive the young couple apart. In one fight, Archie snaps at his wife, "Sure, I get it! Your husband and marriage aren't as important to you as your 'daddy.' " Veronica is left alone to cry in her dark office, gazing at a photo of the couple on their wedding day and wondering what went wrong.
Eventually Veronica turns for comfort to bad boy Reggie Mantle (who else?). He has also been hired by her father, and co-workers whisper behind their backs that she's cheating. One dark night, after a furtive drive with Reggie to the old amusement park, she almost does. "Ha! Look at us, Riverdale High's two 'Most Likely to Succeed' graduates," she says with a rueful smile, cuddling up to him. "Yeah, and not a clue between us," Reggie replies. Veronica pulls herself away just before they kiss, but a moment of self-discipline does not a marriage save. By the next issue, she and Archie are barely speaking. "We don't talk so much as bicker," Archie writes to a friend. "We've forgotten how to be nice to each other."