The comic-book hero has often been on the wrong side of history. But he leaves his fans in the most culturally resonant way imaginable: by taking a bullet for Riverdale’s first gay character.
Archie Andrews died today—one version of him, anyway. In the spin-off series Life With Archie, Riverdale’s redheaded do-gooder takes a bullet for his friend Kevin Keller, who was recently elected to the Senate. In the wake of a mass shooting at a shopping mall near Riverdale targeting gay employees, Kevin, who is gay (and who won office on a pro-gun-control platform after his husband was injured while intervening in an armed robbery), returns to town for a fund-raiser for the mall victims. When the assailant, still at large, shows up at the fund-raiser to ambush Kevin, Archie heroically lunges for the killer and is gunned down.
As you might have guessed, Life With Archie is not for kids. Like Sliding Doors and Lionel Shriver’s The Post-Birthday World, it presents two futures for the comic-book character, one in which he marries Betty and one in which he marries Veronica. Both futures basically suck. In the issues I’ve read, teacher Miss Grundy dies after finally finding love with Principal Weatherbee, side character Cheryl Blossom battles aggressive breast cancer, and financial worries, marital difficulties, and general depression abound. As a child, I was an ardent Archie fan, and I once inadvertently bought a stack of Christian Archies from a used comics store (Archie Comic Publications licensed its characters to an evangelical Christian publisher in the early 1970s). I was baffled to see Archie and Betty convince a pair of Riverdale High druggies to get clean by praying with them. (Betty: “Arch, we’ve got to help them see that when God fills your life, you don’t need anything else!”) That confusion, however, pales next to the existential trauma that I imagine would be visited upon a child who accidentally wound up reading these unbearably bleak Archies.
Given how dark the spin-off is, it’s not terribly surprising that Archie meets a violent end. What’s just as noteworthy is that his death takes place in a story that explicitly supports gay rights and gun control. My childhood love of all things Archie inspired me to write my undergraduate thesis on the comics (“Manufacturing Archie: The Creation of a Cultural Myth”—yes, I was an American studies major), and my exhaustive research back in the early 1990s makes clear that Archie comics haven’t always landed on the right side of history.
Archie made his debut in 1941, and “America’s typical teenager” quickly became a hit. By the start of the 1950s, graphic crime and horror comic books were also growing in popularity. In 1954, after a Senate investigation into the links between juvenile delinquency and these violent books, John Goldwater, the co-president and co-founder of Archie Comic Publications, helped spearhead the creation of an industry-wide self-censorship code to head off government regulation. Comic-book fans will recall the Comics Code Authority seal of approval gracing the covers of all titles until it was finally abandoned in this century. Some of the Code’s many stipulations: “Policemen, judges, government officials, and respected institutions shall never be presented in such a way as to create disrespect for established authority,” “divorce shall not be treated humorously nor represented as desirable,” and “the treatment of love-romance stories shall emphasize the value of the home and the sanctity of marriage.” Over the decades, Archie comics, aggressively wholesome, had no trouble remaining in compliance.
The comics, of course, have always centered on the love triangle between Archie, Betty, and Veronica, a setup that often saw the two females, purportedly best friends, competing viciously for Archie’s affections. Over the decades, Riverdale reflected changes in fashion and fads but adapted less easily to political and social change, and the discomfort was particularly glaring during the 1960s and 1970s. Other than a few sneering references to hippies, Archie comics effectively ignored the counterculture. The 1970s saw the introduction of two African-American characters, Chuck Clayton and Nancy Woods, into all-white Riverdale, but they were safely paired off to banish any possibility of interracial dating. Interestingly, however, the comics explicitly took on the women’s liberation movement.
In a story from 1972, Principal Weatherbee is horrified to discover that a beautiful new teacher, the suggestively named Miss Boing, is organizing a woman’s liberation meeting after school. He and the male faculty members resolve to break up the meeting, but they soon discover that they have misinterpreted Miss Boing’s intentions. They arrive to hear her giving this speech: “Ladies, I’m so pleased you agree with me about women’s lib. If we try to be the same as men, we’ll take a lot of the fun out of life. I enjoy having men open doors for me. And I want my husband to be straight and strong so I can lean on him. For my part, I want to be as pretty and as feminine as possible. Therefore, we vote not to join the women’s lib movement.”
“Those women don’t want to be treated as equals—they want to be treated as ladies!” Mr. Weatherbee exults.
In another story from the period, Archie and Reggie inform Veronica that they’re holding a race to see which one of them gets to be her date to that night’s school dance. “Some nerve!” Veronica huffs. “Putting me up as a prize in your stupid race!” Later, walking with Betty, she says, “We girls have got to stand up for our rights! Demand respect! Each of these little battles is a step forward! We’re getting there, girl! Why, look where we are already!” As they reach the school and see Archie and Reggie entering the dance with two other girls on their arms, Betty glumly replies, “On the outside looking in?”
Things were just as retrograde in the ’80s. In 1981, Archie’s friends and family panic when his mother decides to look for a part-time job (despite her assurances that she will still cook and do the housework). “There goes our happy home,” Archie says. “It’s a sad day for the Andrews family,” his father agrees. Best friend Jughead tells Archie he won’t be coming around much anymore because “a house without a mother is a depressing place.” All are relieved when Mrs. Andrews finds telemarketing work she can do from home. In a story the following year, the science teacher praises Betty for helping him clean the lab by telling her she’ll “make some man a nice wife.”
Change has come rapidly to Archie since Jon Goldwater, son of John Goldwater, took over as co-CEO in 2009 following the death of his half-brother. The third Goldwater to helm the company was determined to revive flagging sales by updating the brand; his innovations have included bringing interracial relationships to Riverdale, lining up Lena Dunham to create her own Archie miniseries, and starting a zombie apocalypse spin-off called Afterlife With Archie. He earned the most headlines with the 2010 introduction of Kevin Keller, the first gay character in Archie comics. Upon Kevin’s debut, Goldwater told me, “Riverdale is accepting of everybody and we hope the world is accepting of everybody.”
This week, announcing Archie’s demise in a statement I found genuinely moving, Goldwater said, “He could have saved Betty. He could have saved Veronica. We get that, but metaphorically, by saving Kevin, a new Riverdale is born.” It might just be that the narrative arc of the Archie universe is long but bends toward justice.
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