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The evolution of Archie Comics: updating the Riverdale gang for the 21st century

How diversification and experimentation became the new driving forces of the 75-year-old comics property.

Promotional artwork for the upcoming CW series Riverdale.
Promotional artwork for the upcoming CW series Riverdale.
Veronica Fish

The reputation of Archie Comics is built on an idealized American city frozen in time. Inspired by MGM’s Andy Hardy films of the 1930s, Riverdale — the home of Archie Andrews, Betty Cooper, Veronica Lodge, and the rest of the Archie gang — is a place where soda shops are still the preferred teen hangout spots and adolescent love triangles never end because the characters never age.

Archie himself debuted in December 1941, in Pep Comics No. 22. But it was the visual aesthetic first established by artist Dan DeCarlo in the late 1950s that ultimately defined the look of Archie Comics for the next half a century. While certain elements like fashion and technology changed to reflect modern trends, the general appearance and content of the Archie series remained a throwback to a more innocent, naive past.

The publisher was tethered to a cartoony, simplistic art style, and the safety of the visuals was reflected in the stories, which rarely took risks and consistently returned to well-trodden narrative territory: Archie stuck in his love triangle, Betty and Veronica vying for Archie’s affection, Jughead avoiding romance in favor of gastronomic satisfaction. But with sales diminishing through the ’80s, ’90s, and ’00s, Riverdale and its inhabitants needed to evolve if the company was going to flourish — or even just survive — in the 21st century.

That evolution has been gradually occurring since Jon Goldwater stepped into the role of Archie Comics CEO and publisher in 2009. He’s taken editorial risks that have creatively and commercially reinvigorated the Archie line by improving representation in Riverdale, encouraging unconventional approaches to Archie concepts, and bringing in new creators to completely overhaul the publisher’s core titles.

And it’s worked: 75 years after the character’s introduction, Archie is getting a big push into the mainstream spotlight as The CW launches Riverdale, a new TV show offering a Twin Peaks-inspired take on the classic comic series. Under Goldwater’s watch, diversification and experimentation have become the new driving forces of Archie Comics. But the changes have come in waves rather one aggressive push.

2009: A new Goldwater flows through Riverdale

When Jon Goldwater became Archie Comics’ CEO and publisher in 2009, the company was still dominated by the rudimentary, inoffensive stories and visuals first published by his father, John L. Goldwater, and Goldwater’s co-founder, Louis H. Silberkleit, in the 1940s.

Goldwater and Silberkleit’s eldest sons, Richard and Michael, took over the company as co-CEOs when their fathers retired in 1983, and they were both firmly dedicated to preserving the classic Archie image. When Archie Comics filed a trademark lawsuit against Warner Music Group in 2005 for its promotion and release of a new album by Australian pop-rock duo the Veronicas, Michael I. Silberkleit told the New York Times: ''The importance is the image of Archie, which everybody knows is good, clean, wholesome stuff. Without that image, we're nothing.''

Jon Goldwater poses for a photo with KJ Apa and Cole Sprouce at San Diego Comic Con.
Jon Goldwater (center) with K.J. Apa and Cole Sprouse, who play Archie Andrews and Jughead Jones in the upcoming CW series Riverdale, at San Diego Comic-Con 2016.
@ArchieComics Twitter

Both of Archie’s co-CEOs passed away from cancer within a year of each other, and in 2009, Richard Goldwater’s half-brother Jon gave up his career as a music executive to keep Archie in the family. He recognized that the traditional Archie style, while still charming, had become stale over time, and the company had lost relevance in the 21st-century comic book marketplace.

But he also saw the long reach of the Archie brand: The distribution of Archie Comics digests in grocery stores had kept the general public aware of Archie, and while the publisher didn’t sell nearly as many books as competitors like Marvel and DC, that exposure made Archie Comics an American institution. People who didn’t read comics knew who Archie was, and with the rise of comics and graphic novels in pop culture, Goldwater dedicated himself to revitalizing Archie Comics for a contemporary audience.

2010 to 2014: Archie Comics moves forward while keeping an eye on the past

One of Goldwater's earliest successes was the creation of the Archie Comics app in 2010, making it easy to find digital copies of Archie back issues and new releases. The next year, the company would become the first major American comics publisher to offer new digital issues on the same release date as the printed copies, and the app modernized the company's distribution model as the content on the page gradually began to evolve.

Goldwater started this evolution by experimenting within the traditional Archie style, a wise decision that tested the waters for change without alienating the publisher’s existing fan base.

September 1, 2010, was a huge day in Archie Comics history: Veronica No. 202 introduced Riverdale’s first openly gay character, Kevin Keller, and Life With Archie No. 1 debuted, sending Archie into adulthood for an ambitious new series that spotlighted his marriages to Betty and Veronica in two separate timelines. Goldwater showed his commitment to diversifying Riverdale with Kevin, who would go on to star in his own comic series, and Life With Archie ultimately proved a successful creative experiment that revealed the value of embracing more mature subject matter.

“Mature subject matter” is often code for “more explicit sex and violence,” but this wasn’t the case in Life With Archie. Writer Paul Kupperberg had Archie and the rest of the Riverdale gang dealing with real adult problems like financial hardship and the difficulty of sustaining long-term relationships. The book wasn’t afraid to get political, either, as it tackled the then-recent financial recession, same-sex marriage, and gun control.

The changes weren’t universally embraced within Archie Comics. Goldwater technically shares the CEO and publisher role with Michael I. Silberkleit’s widow, Nancy Silberkleit, though she’s been effectively forced out of the company in recent years after multiple lawsuits and countersuits concerning her abusive behavior toward employees. Like her late husband, Silberkleit is a staunch supporter of the increasingly antiquated classic Archie image, and she allegedly disapproved of these initial attempts to modernize.

But Goldwater and Kupperberg pressed on, and, staying true to form, the series ended in 2014 with Archie giving his life to stop an assassination attempt on Kevin, who was now a senator.

Panels from Life With Archie #36
The assassination attempt on Sen. Kevin Keller in Life With Archie No. 36 was a turning point for Archie Comics.
Archie Comics

Life With Archie No. 36 is one of the great single issues in recent comics history, a tearjerker that brilliantly uses the history of Archie Comics to bring heartbreaking gravitas to the death of the company’s flagship character. The issue sold exceptionally well — it was in the top 30 best-selling comics of its release month, selling nearly 30 times as many copies as the preceding issue. Additionally, just like the introduction of Kevin, the death of Archie garnered significant attention from the mainstream press.

2013 to 2014: Archie Comics leaves kids behind when the zombie apocalypse hits

Nearly a year before adult Archie’s sacrifice, in 2013, Archie Comics had launched Afterlife With Archie, a horror title that would change the course of the company’s future.

Afterlife With Archie is the first Archie Comics series that’s not appropriate for all ages. Written by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa with haunting chiaroscuro artwork from Francesco Francavilla, the book details the grisly fates of Riverdale’s citizens when Sabrina Spellman, the teenage witch, accidentally unleashes a supernatural zombie contagion. She casts a spell to revive the dead dog of Archie’s best friend, Jughead Jones, but it backfires — and Jughead is the first citizen of Riverdale to join the ranks of the undead, his hunger for burgers replaced by a craving for human flesh.

And that’s just the book’s starting point, which has gone to some very dark places in the 10 issues released thus far. Archie kills his undead father, Sabrina gets married to Cthulhu, and Cheryl Blossom takes a machete to her twin brother, just to name a few of the series’ terrifying plot developments.

All of this is antithetical to the Archie tradition of kid-friendly comic hijinks, but Afterlife With Archie isn’t just giving Riverdale a superficial horror makeover. The creative team is using these genre elements to explore the world of Archie Comics from a new angle, and this fresh context brings out different aspects of the character relationships while upending expectations of what an Archie story should look like.

Afterlife With Archie quickly became another major success for the publisher, inspiring Goldwater to continue down this dark path with a new Sabrina series. Launched in 2014 and written by Aguirre-Sacasa with evocatively retro art by Robert Hack, The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina takes narrative and visual cues from the horror stories of EC Comics, telling a grisly tale of the teenage witch’s coming-of-age in the ’50s.

Despite considerable delays in their publishing schedules, both Afterlife With Archie and The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina are two of Archie Comics’ best-selling titles. And their early success pointed to a larger market interested in darker Archie properties, a market that appreciated and wanted new perspectives.

Meanwhile, the 2014 announcement of a new Riverdale TV series by Aguirre-Sacasa and executive producer Greg Berlanti (Arrow, The Flash, Supergirl) brought even more attention to Archie Comics, and with the publisher’s profile steadily rising, Goldwater directed his attention to giving the main Archie titles a major creative overhaul.

2014 to 2016: Fresh creative voices usher in a new Riverdale for modern times

Relaunches are trendy in comics right now, with both Marvel and DC ending series so that they can come back with new first issues that ideally make the books more accessible to new readers. (Marvel is currently in the midst of its latest Marvel Now! relaunch, and DC recently wrapped up its big DC Rebirth publishing initiative, giving flagship characters like Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman new creative teams with new first issues.) Archie Comics doesn’t have the intimidating, convoluted continuity of those superhero publishers, but a relaunch is just what it needed to show readers that it was committed to change across the board.

The main Archie series had run for more than 650 issues when Archie Comics announced in December 2014 that it would be canceled and replaced by a new Archie title with the A-list creative team of writer Mark Waid (Daredevil, Kingdom Come) and artist Fiona Staples. Waid’s work at Marvel and DC Comics over the past 25 years has earned him a huge fan base, and while Staples doesn’t have as much experience as Waid, her wildly imaginative work on Image Comics’ Saga has made her one of the most popular, exciting artists in the industry.

Archie Andrews, nascent guitar god, in a splash page by Fiona Staples, from the rebooted Archie No. 1.
Archie Comics

The new Archie No. 1 debuted in July 2015, and while Waid’s story didn’t stray too far from Archie Comics conventions, Staples’s visuals gave Riverdale the modern makeover it so desperately needed. Her slick digital art was a far cry from the classic Archie style, but it still captured the playful spirit of these characters and their world.

Following the Archie news, Archie Comics announced new Jughead, Betty & Veronica, and Life With Kevin series by launching a $350,000 Kickstarter to crowdfund them. These books featured intriguing creative teams, but a major publisher asking its readers to fund its books received an overwhelmingly negative reaction from the comics community, resulting in the cancellation of the Kickstarter after five days. These titles would still see publication, but not on the schedule proposed by the crowdfunding campaign.

Archie was a strong start to the relaunch, but Jughead has cemented itself as the crown jewel of Archie’s line since it debuted in October 2015. Launched by writer Chip Zdarsky and artist Erica Henderson, the series is a silly, effervescent take on Archie’s BFF, and Jughead hasn’t lost any of its goofy appeal with its more recently installed creative team of writer Ryan North and artist Derek Charm.

Meanwhile, Adam Hughes’s Betty & Veronica isn’t as effective on a creative level — the choice to hire an artist best known for his sexualized depictions of female characters to handle the story of Archie’s competing love interests is an unfortunately regressive one — but its first issue sold a huge number of copies when it debuted in July.

The sales figures for Dan Parent and J. Bone’s digital-only Life With Kevin aren’t available, but it’s nice to see Archie Comics remain committed to pushing the openly gay Kevin as a major figure. Life With Kevin is the most traditional of the new Archie titles, and detailing Kevin’s adulthood through that classic Archie lens normalizes the gay experience. There’s nothing “other” about Kevin’s sexual orientation, and having him be the main tether to the old Archie style makes a bold statement about queer inclusion at Archie Comics.

September 2016 saw the debut of a new Josie And The Pussycats series by co-writers Marguerite Bennett and Cameron DeOrdio and artist Audrey Mok, and it’s not a surprise that having a woman writer results in more nuanced female characters than in Betty & Veronica. The first issues of Josie and the Pussycats are laugh-out-loud funny and extremely stylish, delivering a compelling new start for the feline-themed rock trio.

Archie ended its 2016 with the December debut of Reggie And Me from veteran Archie Comics writer Tom DeFalco and artist Sandy Jarrell. The series explores the life of Riverdale’s jerkiest jock, Reggie Mantle, through the eyes of his dachshund, Vader, one of the only creatures that looks at Reggie with admiration and love. DeFalco’s experience with this world gives Reggie and Me more of a classic Archie feel, and the story successfully fleshes out Reggie’s character to help readers understand how he became Riverdale’s resident bully.

All told, Archie Comics is stronger creatively and commercially than it has been in years, and it has a healthy lineup of titles available for any new readers who want to learn more about Archie’s world once The CW’s Riverdale debuts. And the publisher is making that transition from TV to comics easier with the January 31 release of Road to Riverdale, a collection containing the first issues of the new Archie, Jughead, Betty and Veronica, Josie and the Pussycats, and Reggie & Me books.

2017: With the jump to television, Archie Comics’ future looks bright

All of the characters in the aforementioned new Archie books will play a role in Riverdale, but the tone of that series is more in line with Archie’s horror titles than anything else. Twin Peaks has been cited by Aguirre-Sacasa as a major influence on the TV show, and the first Riverdale episodes offer a much darker, sexier version of Archie’s world.

Stylistic and narrative elements of more recent teen mystery TV series like Veronica Mars and Pretty Little Liars are also part of the Riverdale formula: The neo-noir aesthetic of Veronica Mars heavily informs Riverdale’s visuals, and like both Veronica Mars and Pretty Little Liars, much of Riverdale’s plot involves how the tragic death of a classmate shakes up the lives and relationships of the city’s teen community.

K.J. Apa plays the lead role of redheaded teen heartthrob Archie Andrews, while former teen heartthrob Luke Perry steps into a mentorship role as Archie’s father. Lili Reinhart is Betty Cooper, and Camila Mendes is Veronica Lodge, who is now Latina. This shift for Veronica is part of Riverdale’s attempt to bring more racial diversity to Archie’s world: Reggie Mantle is played by Asian-American Ross Butler, rocker chick Josie McCoy is played by black actress Ashleigh Murray, and Apa himself is half-Polynesian.

Madelaine Petsch’s Cheryl Blossom steps into the main antagonistic role as the mean girl barely mourning the death of her brother, Jason, and the series unites Betty and Veronica against Cheryl rather than having them immediately fight over Archie. The essential Riverdale love triangle is still in play, and the girls’ affection for Archie creates tension at the start of their friendship, but taking the time to build a positive personal connection between Betty and Veronica makes their romantic conflict with Archie more complicated and compelling.

Given the success of The CW’s other Greg Berlanti-produced shows based on comic book properties, it’s likely that Riverdale will make a big splash at the network, especially with its dramatic twist on the general Archie concept. It’s definitely something different, and all the changes that Jon Goldwater has pushed at Archie Comics over the last several years have been building to Riverdale’s debut on January 26.

The comics community has already seen how Archie Comics has evolved, but Riverdale will expose the new Archie brand to a significantly larger audience. Hopefully it will also lead more people to the inventive work being done on the page, which embraces new creative perspectives and a wider variety of stylistic influences to showcase the unrealized potential of this 75-year-old comic book institution.

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