Last week, the New York Times broke the news that Lena Dunham will be writing a four part story for Archie Comics, to be published in 2015.
If you haven’t been keeping an eye on Archie Comics, this might seem like a shocker. Dunham, in my wholesome kid’s comics?
But, in the last five years alone, Archie Comics has debuted and married off their first gay male character, Kevin Keller, hooked up Archie and Valerie, of the Pussycats fame (and married THEM off in a possible future where they have an adorable daughter), and launched the popular Afterlife With Archie zombie comic. Archie Gone Girls is not so surprising after all–with or without the writer’s typically suggestive sense of humour.
As a business, modern Archie has made smart move after smart move: they went digital when superhero comics publishers were still reluctant; they held onto their core adolescent audience while reaching out to teens and adults with digests, new art styles, and bold storylines; and, most importantly, they captured the nostalgia market without catering to it.
Contemporary Riverdale is not a town frozen in time. It’s changed and progressed (and moved past bellbottoms). That old Riverdale is, of course, still available in Digests (double and otherwise), where recent stories are published back to back with stories from the 40s, 50s, and more recent decades. But flip open a new Archie comic and you’ll find the Archies (duh, their garage band made good) on tour in India with the Pussycats, and Archie making time with Valerie, who’s black, and Amisha Mehta, instead of Betty and Veronica. Kevin Keller has his own comic–a queer-positive kid’s book absent any and all “very special” issues. And in 2011, he future-enlisted into the army and future-married a fellow soldier.
In Riverdale, Archie Comics is trying to present the best of America, and Archie’s America is as progressive as it is wholesome. (These comics are still so innocent, oh man.)
Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, Archie’s recently named creative director and author of Afterlife With Archie, brought Dunham aboard: “Everyone at Archie is thrilled [that] Lena’s coming aboard to write this story, and I can tell you, it’s going to be fantastic. Lena’s take on the Archie gang is funny and real and contemporary. It’s a stunning fit, and I know fans will be excited to read it. I am!” I don’t know if I am. No strike that. I’m not.
This is hardly the first time name recognition has been leveraged to sell comics: there’s Aguirre-Sacasa’s own book, as well as innumerable crossovers and adaptations. The Archie characters have met Kiss, the Punisher (yep), and the Glee gang (squad? posse? gaggle?). Cross promotion is something Archie does very well–and often. And as creative director, Aguirre-Sacasa has been tasked with continuing Archie’s efforts to modernize and expand through reinterpreting existing characters, both in comics and in other media. Essentially: be nostalgic and know your Archie history, but don’t be obnoxious about it.
But what makes this announcement notable is Dunham herself. Unlike Aguirre-Sacasa, she’s been dogged by controversy and criticism, both for Girls‘ nudity and sexuality, and for the overwhelming whiteness of its New York. In stark contrast to contemporary Riverdale, Girls‘ milieu is white white white, and almost wholly centered on upper middle class young adults.
While many have questioned whether her sensibility will work with or against the Archie grain (I’m not worried–some sincerity and a little tongue in cheek something something is all it takes), I’m more concerned about her demonstrated reluctance to submit to the forces of “political correctness.” Archie is, and has been throughout the duration of my reading its books, a politically correct publisher. It’s not without faults or missteps, and many of its older comics are pretty cringeworthy, but the publisher seems to be sincerely interested in marketing to the widest possible audience–which includes LGBTQ and people of colour.
The announcement will surely bring the publisher attention and sales, but is the book Archie’s Marvel Divas moment? Dunham is, of course, capable of writing well-rounded female characters. And no doubt she’s capable of writing Betty, Veronica, and the villainous Cheryl Blossom. But can she write Riverdale?
That never never town of infinite possibility and boundless ambition, where a girl can be a pop star, fashion designer, CEO, and engineer in the space of one digest, and then still get to the beach on time to fight with her best frenemy. That town where all roads lead to happiness, whether Archie marries Betty, Veronica, Valerie, stays single, or lives in endless bromance with Jughead. Think about that: these are the kind of kid’s books where frustration is temporary, working class Betty is as fabulous as heiress Veronica, and good things come to those who do good–even to those who do evil if they mend their ways. It’s a place without shame or censure, where geeks and cool kids never dish out worse than an eye roll.
Like Aguirre-Sacasa’s Afterlife, this mini will be set in a not-quite-Riverdale. That is as it should be–in Afterlife, Betty and Veronica are more Mean Girls than Double Digest. Jughead goes zombie and eats people. Reggie pulls a hit and run. It’s a dark and clever take on the Riverdalians (Riverdalites?), different enough to be exciting, but somehow familiar. “Roberto has pushed a lot of boundaries with Afterlife,” said publisher Jon Goldwater. “But the thread that runs through it is that all the characters are true to who they are. How they react is how you expect [them] to react in extreme and trying circumstances.”
While Dunham is a self-described superfan, her track record does not inspire confidence. And then there’s the marketing piece: four girls with very different hairstyles, chilling in a downmarket apartment. And oh shit, one of them is black! And one of them is a redhead! So diverse! Betty’s feet are turned in–she’s the awkward one. Valerie is too cool for school. Veronica is too chic for you (and you, and definitely you). Cheryl Blossom is staring off into the middle distance, mannequin smile permanently affixed (super glue?). It’s, well, Archie Gone Girls. An almost perfect translation. And hey, they decided on Valerie instead of Josie or Melody–that’s some commitment to Archie values. Alternate possibility: the less femme Midge, or gangly Ethel. But no, no.
Aguirre-Sacasa has taken Archie’s grand plan into horror territory, but the core values remain: goodness, equality, patience, and hard work. Call me the PC Police, but I have my doubts about Dunham’s ability to Girl Talk the women of Archie without tripping into that bad nostalgia. That turn back the clocks, one black girl in all of Riverdale, these ladies just want an Archie of their very own, nostalgia.
Archie Gone Girls: will it be the end of all things good? Maybe. (Probably.) Maybe I’m just a hater.