This week, Archie Comics announced that its star character, musician, ladies man, goofus, and sometime superhero, is slated to die in an upcoming story. The death, in Life With Archie #36, is neatly timed to come on Archie Comics’ 75th anniversary.
Unlike the revolving door that governs mortality in superhero comics, in Archie Comics’ books, with the exception of the zombie apocalypse-themed Afterlife With Archie, death is rare and purposeful. LWA #36 will signal the end of multiple Riverdale storylines in favour of a DC/Marvel style shared universe.
Speaking with MTV News, CEO Jon Goldwater said that the event itself would be consistent with the company’s ethos and history, and would give all due honour to the character. “It’s very heroic, and it’s done to save somebody’s life. And that is what you would expect of Archie. It is extraordinarily spontaneous. It is not something that one sees coming, or at the issue begins you can feel it, because you can’t. It’s done with a sudden impact.”
The death doesn’t represent a darker turn for the Riverdale books. Although LWA #36 is sure to be serious fare, #37, Goldwater said, will see a return to Riverdale as usual—albeit with a consciousness of the characters’ shared loss. The issue will jump forward a year to look at the reactions of his friends, family, and many, many girlfriends. “[It is] going to be very uplifting, and it is going to feel very good about what Archie is, who he is, and what it’s all been about.” Life With Archie is set to end with #37 in favour of the other core Riverdale books, and Archie himself, is of course set to return. Although we don’t yet know when.
The Riverdale books have long had a loose sense of continuity. It’s obvious that not even Veronica Lodge herself can be on tour in Mumbai, interning at a fashion mag in Paris, and bickering in the mall with Betty. But over the past few years, the company has made great efforts to modernize the brand and, in their estimation, risks had to be taken and the nostalgia-driven un-time of Riverdale had to be unfrozen to stay relevant to LWA‘s adult, adolescent, and kid audiences. In 2010 they shook longtime Archie readers with duelling wedding stories—Archie would grow up and marry Veronica! Or was that Betty? (Maybe both?) And three years later, the company introduced Riverdale’s first gay character, Kevin Keller, and gave him his own book. (Even Kevin got in on the future-wedding action, marrying a fellow soldier he met at a VA hospital.) Other experiments included breaking with tradition by running covers outside the house style (they did manga covers, photo realistic covers, and punk covers), doing TV crossovers, and bringing on big names to write mini-series without oppressive editorial oversight.
A line was drawn between the Riverdale of then, and the Riverdale of now. The Riverdale of now was just as wholesome, but it was a contemporary, fairly progressive, and flexible kind of wholesome. The company today has a clear sense of purpose and identity.
Archie’s coming death (and rebirth) is more of this strategy. Archie won’t die in an accident or of old age. Rather, he will die saving the life of a friend. While I don’t expect the company to jettison Riverdale’s romcom roots, this seems like an opportunity to signal loud and clear that Archie stories are about friendship, as much as they are about romance. And like many kids books, they’re about character. It’s not happenstance that Archie’s main superhero alter-ego is Pureheart the Powerful, whose typical superpowers (flight, strength, etc., etc.) fade away when he entertains less than pure thoughts. The 90s reboot of the Super Teens concept was less interested in sexual purity, and more interested in pure spirit—justice, honour, friendship, and all that good stuff.
It’s also interesting to note that the team is effectively named after Betty (aka Superteen), whose powers are governed by her ponytail—don’t ask—not by pure feeling. She, along with Veronica (aka Miss. Vanity), are Archie’s equals, power-wise, and don’t seem to share his vulnerabilities. And Betty, to absolutely no one’s surprise, is just as effective a hero and leader as Archie is—oftentimes more so.
It’s also a confirmation of what many of us have been saying for years: Archie is the least interesting part of Archie comics. Although he never deliberately hurt Betty or Veronica (Pureheart the Powerful, you guys!), stringing them both along for 75 years doesn’t look good on him. Come on, Archie. Get it together. But Archie’s death, for however long it lasts, will allow other characters to take the spotlight, and for the Archie Comics staff writers and artists to rethink Riverdale: how will it stand without its cornerstone? Probably just fine.
Did you read Archie comics as a kid or teen? Think back to Pop’s Chok’lit Shoppe. Who’s sitting around the table? There’s Betty and Veronica, of course, along with jerkass Reggie and food maniac Jughead. There’s also Moose and Midge, Big Ethel and Dilton, Chuck and Nancy, and newer characters like part-time villain Cheryl Blossom and Kevin Keller, who all-Americaned Archie right out of business. And there’s more—trust me. Riverdale has a vast cast of characters, many of whom can, and do, carry their own book.
The death of Archie isn’t a publicity stunt, although it will net them plenty. It’s a way to honour the company’s history, while celebrating its present and its future.