Life With Archie #36
Paul Kupperberg (W), Pat Kennedy, Tim Kennedy, Jim Amash (A)
Life With Archie # 36 opens slow, with the eponymous everyteen hero, Archie Andrews, looking back on his life and adventures in Riverdale. Life With Archie is not the Double Digests you might remember, it’s an adventure book, heavy on slice of life, that examines future possibilities for the familiar Riverdale crew. It’s in Life With Archie that the best-selling Archie Marries Betty and Archie Marries Veronica timelines played out. It’s in also in Life With Archie that, for the past few issues, a Crisis In Infinite Riverdales kind of story has been playing out. A time-travelling science villain has been mucking things up, hopping between AMB, AMV, and other possible futures, and foiling his dastardly plans resulted in all of those futures being merged. So in Life With Archie #36, we don’t know quite what future we’re in, it’s not one of the futures that we’ve explored over the course of the book, but it is an instantly recognizable one. That’s the trick of “New Archie,” to make radical changes to their status-quo brand, but make them seem already naturalized; a nostalgia in the making.
Issue #36 sees Archie jogging through Riverdale’s central park and downtown, remembering the start of friendships and love affairs, mentors he’s had over the years, fantasies he’d entertained and then dismissed with maturity (Archie as a rockstar! Archie as a world-travelling CEO!). It has a kind of pastoral tone, a paean to American community life, not so much small town — could Riverdale contain so much and truly be a small town? It must be a large town or small city, perhaps a satellite town, at the very least — as any of a thousand tightly-knit communities, held together by core values of cooperation, public service, family, and diversity. It’s a plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose retrospective: Riverdale is still the same old Riverdale, for Archie, but it’s manifestly not for readers not swept away with him. Much has changed over the years, evinced best by the plot of the issue, such as it is: Archie and company are attending a fundraiser for Senator Elect Kevin Keller that night. It’s a celebration of a hometown boy made good, Riverdale’s favourite gay, American hero. Kevin, in case you’d missed the press releases, is a veteran who was honourably discharged after an injury, who married Clay, his physiotherapist, and then went on to run for public office. Now he’s a Senator, and trouble is brewing even as Archie and friends gear up to celebrate their boy. Someone wants Kevin dead.
As Chris Sims says, what’s interesting about Life With Archie and with the series’ climax in #36 isn’t so much the stories themselves — though they are interesting, and I’ll get to why in a sec — but the divergent structure and how character is dealt with in each. In every universe, be it AMB, AMV, Double Digest Archie, or Afterlife With Archie, Archie is the same. And so is Betty, and Veronica, and Riverdale. Jobs may differ, marriages might end and begin, the town might welcome new industry, new buildings, and new residents, but there’s a kernel to it that stays the same.
If Archie was any less of a good person, we’d all hate him, but at the end of the day, he’ll jump in front of a gun and take a bullet for his friends, and this issue makes that idea literal. It’s a consistency across all timelines, across all versions of Archie, whether they’re the alternate futures of Life With Archie, the beleaguered zombie fighter of Afterlife With Archie, or that regular milkshake-loving teenager who’s going to keep having those teenage hijinks forever.
And rather than close off the possibilities that Life With Archie has exposed, Archie’s death at the end of the issue (spoiler alert?) only opens more, while reaffirming that the innate goodness of Archie and of Riverdale, cannot be diminished. We don’t know by the conclusion of the issue which universe won out — did Archie marry Betty, or did he marry Veronica, or gasp, someone else? There’s much we don’t know about the rest of the Riverdale gang, the details of their lives, but we do know who they are and we do know that they will deal with their friend’s death with character and grace. The Life With Archie experiment will end next month with a kind of memorial issue, but what will Archie Comics do next?
I won’t speak much about the details of the issue, you’re probably familiar with the tricks of Archie Comics storytelling and they don’t need further exploration here, but I’ll tell you this: it’s a Chocklit Shop staff member who tries to gun down Kevin, and while his reasons aren’t made explicit, they should be clear to even young readers. Kevin, he thinks, has become rather high and mighty, flaunting his lifestyle and success and plans to change the state (and the country — presidential ambitions are floated) for the better. After pushing his husband out of the way and shielding Betty and Veronica, Kevin is left open to the shooter. Seeing this, Archie does the only thing you could expect from him — he puts his body in the way of the bullet, is shot, and dies. Betty and Veronica clutch his body and cry — remember, we still don’t know which one he married — and other Riverdalians hold each other while the FBI arrests the shooter.
Death does not come often in Riverdale and never violent death. It’s more common for characters to fade away from the pages without explanation, often being reinvented later on, like Cheryl Blossom, the cherry bomb villain who was too racy for 80s Archie, but fit right into the 90s and 00s comics. (Like any serial comic publisher, Archie relentlessly mines its history.) Archie will of course live on in various other incarnations — the publisher still puts out those variety show Double Digests, a mix of old and new stories, sometimes themed, sometimes not, as well as myriad crossovers and gimmick books. His most press-worthy incarnation though, now becomes Afterlife With Archie, the zombie apocalypse story that Roberto Aguirre-Sacaso (W) and Francesco Francovilla (A) decamped from Marvel-DC superhero complex from, to work on. Archie has now died in Life With Archie as a hero of peaceful resistance — hippy Archie lives on! — and he’ll continue on as a hero in Afterlife With Archie, where he remains true to those values — he abhors violence, the anti-social pettiness of the Hiram Lodge’s and Reggie Mantles of the world. He leaves the combined world of Life With Archie in good hands too. Kevin, of course, is a particular kind of American political hero, but it’s hinted Veronica has ambitions to at the very least be Vice President (and then… the world!). Whether they were going to the beach, touring the world as The Archies, or trying to pass a math test, Archie has always been the de facto leader of the group. And now, well, who knows? Archie Comics has opened things up for a multitude of possibilities. (Personally I’m pulling for Super Teen Betty.)
So, what’s interesting about these Archie stories other than the press stunts? It’s simply that they aren’t press stunts — they’re the new status quo. Life With Archie concludes with these messages: it doesn’t matter how the A/B/V love triangle is resolved, so long as they stay true to themselves and to their friendship; it doesn’t matter that Riverdale, and the world, are constantly changing either, so long as you hold fast to what matters: family, friendship, loyalty, generosity of spirit, and openness to adventure. If you want to get heavy-handed about Life With Archie #36, you could read it as the embodiment of nostalgia, Archie Andrews, sacrificing himself for hero of the future, Kevin Keller, but it’s not quite that. Kevin too is a figure of nostalgia-in-the-making: nostalgia-of-now. They’re both highly sentimental figures and for all the company’s dramatic moves, it remains true to its own core vision of an ideal town in an ideal world. The death of Archie is neither a sea change in terms of vision, but neither is it a stunt. Not the way we’re used to thinking of comic book stunts and events. Like Chris says (yep, back to him) Archie Comics has been employing the event-tropes of superhero comics weddings! crossovers! deaths! for a few years now, in ways that seem fresh and exciting, strange as it is to call anything to do with Archie exciting, I know. This isn’t a sales boost “sea change,” it’s an evolution. One that the company is embracing without fear. Archie Andrews is as iconic in his way as is Superman or Captain America. Like them, he’s died in one particular universe, for something that matters in every universe. Superman died in service to others, Captain America to truth and justice, Archie to love.