Killing Archie the latest bold move in reinvention of comic franchise

     These images provided by Archie Comics show Archie in his final moments of life in a scene from the comic book,

    These images provided by Archie Comics show Archie in his final moments of life in a scene from the comic book, "Life with Archie," issue 36, our today. Archie Andrews will die taking a bullet for his best friend, Kevin Keller, Archie Comics' first openly gay character. (AP Photo/Archie Comics)

    Comic book character Archie Andrews died today. How did we get there? The answer has to do with a comic company willing to rewrite their rules to illustrate how they will do anything to creatively revitalize their brand.

    Archie Andrews died today. Those words seem strange to type, because if there was one comic book character who seemed immune to death in a publicity stunt, it was Riverdale’s favorite son. Yet there he is, being gunned down on page 45 of the just-released 36th issue of Life with Archie. How did we get there? The answer has to do with a comic company willing to rewrite their rules to illustrate how they will do anything to creatively revitalize their brand.

    The character of Archie was first introduced in Pep #22 back in December of 1941. Published by MLJ Comics, the title was an inoffensive and utterly forgettable kids comic until Bob Montana brought Archie to its pages. The move was an unexpected hit.

    Soon Archie and his pals and gals took over the pages of MLJ’s titles … and MLJ renamed themselves after their new star. The stories of goofy teenage life were a much-needed escape for a country dealing with World War II. As the years went by, Archie’s popularity grew, arguably reaching its peak in 1969 with the cartoon “The Archie Show” and The Archies’ “Sugar Sugar” — a bubblegum pop sensation that hit the top of the charts.

    Although still popular thanks to the ubiquitous digests of collected comic stories that could be found in supermarkets everywhere, Archie hit a bit of a lull in the 1970s and ’80s. By this point, audiences had grown familiar with the eternal love triangle between Archie, Betty and Veronica, as well as Jughead’s rampant eating. The format was as reliable as it was stale. Complicating matters, during this time the company agreed to let born-again Archie writer Al Hartley utilize the characters in a string of evangelical comics printed by Spire Christian Comics. A step above the infamous Chick tracts, these strange offerings helped confuse Archie’s identity in the industry.

    Yet Archie kept plugging along until something unexpected happened in 2010. Veteran writer/illustrator Dan Parent decided that Riverdale should be more representative of the real world, and as such, Kevin Keller was introduced. The first openly gay character in Archie history, he was immediately embraced by readers. This move was such a success that it kicked down Archie‘s creative walls. The soap operatic Life with Archie soon followed. A monthly magazine, it chronicled the adventures of a grown-up Archie in two separate life paths — one in which he married Betty and the other in which he wed Veronica. This in turn inspired Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and Francesco Francavilla’s superb Afterlife with Archie, an adult-oriented zombie comic that is easily the most involving thing the company has ever released.

    Throughout the course of its run, Life with Archie has transformed itself from a fun romp with science fiction elements to a gritty and realistic drama. The fact that it has done so in an organic manner is down to the seemingly unlimited skills of writer Paul Kupperberg. In the pages of the book, Kupperberg has given souls to these previously one-dimensional characters. Since the book attempts to be a mirror to our society, it was inevitable that LGBT issues and gun violence would enter its pages. And so when Archie dies, he does so taking a bullet fired by a stalker who is against Kevin Keller’s Senate run. The violence is handled in a jarring and realistic way, and at no point do the characters break the fourth-wall and give lectures on equality or gun control.

    Politics aside, this comic is as valid a commentary on social issues as The Amazing Spider-Man‘s infamous 1971 drug stories were. While supporters and detractors of what this book was trying to accomplish will no doubt rage against each other in comments sections of the many articles that have appeared this week on the death of Archie, what needs to not get lost in this discourse is how Archie — a company that was traditionally safe to a fault — has reinvented itself in order to tell stories that are more relevant to readers’ lives.

    Archie still lives as an eternal teen in the pages of the ongoing digests and other mainstream continuity releases, as he likely will for decades to come. But for the company to take such creative risks as killing off the Life with Archie franchise, it makes me eager to see what creative and forward-thinking experiments they’ll attempt next. It’s fascinating to see this evolution as a lifelong Archie fan, and as a fan of the comics medium in general, what Archie is doing feels nothing short of revolutionary.

    Chris Cummins is a writer/editor and Archie comics historian whose work regularly appears at Geekadelphia, Den of Geek and Topless Robot. You can follow him on Twitter @bionicbigfoot.

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