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."
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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