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Archie Comics gains reputation for experimental storylines

By Andrew A. Smith
McClatchy-Tribune News Service

There was a time when Archie Comics was famous for being rigidly conservative. Now it’s gaining a reputation for being the most experimental comics publisher in America.

Most of the company’s progressive efforts aren’t obvious to the casual observer. It has aggressively entered the digital market, for example, with its own app and other innovations. It’s quietly pursuing projects for its library of characters in television and movies.

Other efforts have already made a splash. Archie Comics made national headlines in 2009 exploring what would happen if Riverdale’s favorite redhead married (alternatively, in back-to-back stories) either Veronica or Betty (Archie No. 600-607). Written by movie producer Michael Uslan, the stories were so popular that both are being continued in Life with Archie, a magazine-format series created just for that purpose. Those stories are written and drawn by veterans of serious superhero books, so that Life with Archie is a good read for adults as well as Archie’s traditional market.

Another headline-buster was the arrival in 2010 of Kevin Keller, Riverdale’s first openly gay character. Despite threats by some venues to stop selling Archie Comics, the publisher forged ahead. Keller is now one of the most popular members of the Archie gang — and the star of his own solo book.

Archie has now released a trade paperback collecting a courageous story that somehow went under the radar in 2010. Archie & Friends All Stars Vol. 8 ($9.95) reprints an interracial romance between Archie and Valerie, the African-American guitarist in Josie & The Pussycats.

At the time it was presented as part of Archie’s ongoing story, with the romance unable to continue because the high schoolers lived in different towns. But a 2012 sequel explored the idea of Archie and Valerie getting married.

Perhaps the lack of attention the Archie-Valerie romance stirred up is a good sign. In the early days of comics, publishers were urged by Southern distributors to keep African-Americans off the covers. Even as late as 1966, when Marvel Comics introduced the Black Panther, creators Stan Lee and Jack Kirby decided to give the character a full face mask so his ethnicity wasn’t immediately obvious.

Contrast that to today, when America’s most famous white teenager can smooch it up with a black girl on the cover of Archie. The interracial aspect of it didn’t even occur to me at the time — instead, I was wondering just what this Archie kid has got going that Betty, Veronica and Valerie all find him irresistible.

So what else could Archie Comics do with their characters that would shock us? Well, how about kill them?

Not all at once of course. Instead, we’re watching the gang struggle to survive in that suddenly popular genre, the zombie apocalypse!

Afterlife with Archie — you have to give points for the pun — launched several months ago. In the first issue, Jughead’s canine buddy Hot Dog was run over by a car. Desperate to bring his pal back to life, Juggie turns to Sabrina the Teenage Witch, who does her best to restore Hot Dog — with horrible results.

That’s right, Hot Dog returns as a zombie. And promptly bites Jughead. All zombie fans know what comes next.

By issue No. 4, Jughead had half-eaten another major character and infected half the town — including some long-running characters. Archie and the remaining regulars took refuge in Lodge Mansion, with its many high-tech defenses. But the infection had already found its way inside …

Being creeped out can be fun, even if — maybe especially if — the people being threatened in the horror story are characters you’ve been invested in since middle school. And, once again, Archie Comics has turned to superhero veterans to craft a story attractive to adult readers.

All this from a company that for many years almost single-handedly kept alive the much-loathed Comics Code of America, which for decades reduced all American comics to an almost pre-school level. In those days, Archie Comics was synonymous with static lack of change.

But today? When you invoke the old cartoon theme song Everything’s Archie, it will bring a smile or two. Everything really is Archie — and it’s darn good.


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