Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Life with Archie

The Archie Rack at Hi De Ho Comics

If you have read comic books at any time in your life, you no doubt are familiar with the Life with Archie series.  Archie first appeared in comic books as a genial everyman high school student in 1941, inspired, acccording to historical reports, by the character Andy Rooney played in popular movies of the 1930s.  If Archie were a real person, by my calculation, he'd be facing his 90th birthday about now.  But still he is with us.

Hi De Ho Comics, a fun store near my place in Santa Monica, carries a broad range of Archie titles.  One of the owners, Bob Hennessy, was kind enough to update me recently on Archie past and present.

Archie's world is Riverdale, a friendly town with a soda parlor where red-headed Archie hung out with his friends, Jughead and Reggie, and where he was torn between his affections for Betty, a girl-next-door type, and Veronica, a more sophisticated lovely.

Several spinoffs were tried -- a couple TV shows, a band called the Archies -- in the early years.   Nothing lasted except the comic books themselves, which retained their popularity.

Long after pizza parlors replaced ice cream establishments as teenage gathering spots, Archie and his gang continued to meet after school at the Chocklit Shoppe, a little piece of American folklore that its readers found moving even as the comics industry increasingly became the province of superheroes expressing their honor by violently taking down bad guys.

Archie remained a touchstone for generations of loyal readers who met him as children, and in a rarity for comics, the series maintained crossover appeal to girls as well as boys that has been cultivated with Betty and Veronica titles and other female characters' centrality to the larger Archie cast.

Since the new millenium, Archie's creators have struck out in several new directions, some promising, to extend the franchise.

The first move was to let Archie grow up, and in two different stories.  In one, AMV, Archie marries Veronica and becomes a successful businessman; in the other, AMB, Archie marries Betty and the two become teachers.

Through both stories, Archie stays in character, and Riverdale remains the idyllic town of earlier imagination.

Last year, in another nod to current themes, a brand new comic series, Afterlife with Archie, was released.  These stories, aimed at teenagers and older readers, bring the Zombie Apocalypse to Riverdale, drawing Archie and his friends into the resulting conflicts.  This audacious and unexpected series quickly found an audience, and each new title has sold out at comic book stores.

And last month, a double sized commemorative issue of Life with Archie was published.  In it, the original Archie, grown up and still in Riverdale, dies a noble death, stepping in front of a gunman who has set out to kill a popular gay politician.   Unlike the superheroes of more recent popularity, Archie died with neither a sword nor a rocket launcher in his hand. He died as he lived.

While the Archie death story was much touted in the media, comic aficionados have gave it a lukewarm reception, largely seeing its writing and particulars as thin gruel, not up to the high standards of earlier efforts.

No matter; when you try new things, not every effort will be a home run.   The important thing is to keep at it.

In any event, dead or alive, Archie's nimble creative team seems to be planning to keep the original nice-guy comic hero before our eyes for many years to come.

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