By now, if you’re a comics fan at all, you’ve probably heard the buzz about The CW’s Riverdale, a teen mystery-drama based on that staple of the American supermarket counter, Archie. Archie occupies a strange spot in the comic fan’s world: despite being hugely successful and employing all sorts of talented writers and artists, there remains a prejudice that Archie comics aren’t real comics. Maybe it’s the digest size, maybe it’s the kid-friendly jokes, or maybe it’s just bitter memories of dentists’ waiting rooms. Whatever it is, it took a lot longer than you’d expect for America’s favorite teen to find a place of respect among comic critics. A 2015 reboot under comics industry veteran Mark Waid and Saga artist Fiona Staples raised critical eyebrows and made reading Archie mainstream — and now there’s this show.
On its surface, there’s nothing that strange about Riverdale. A mysterious death sends shockwaves through a small town inhabited by suspiciously mature high-school students who break up and make up, plus some plots about, I don’t know, land values or something. Premise-wise, that’s no weirder than Veronica Mars.
Well, I mean, except …
Except Archie Andrews is banging Mrs Grundy. Not, like, the old Mrs Grundy from the comics but a young, hot, Mrs Grundy (or is she?). And the Blossoms’ relationship is incestuous, and Reggie is on steroids and Dilton Doiley, let me repeat that, Dilton I am not making this up Doiley, is a gun-toting survivalist.
This jarring contrast is actually what really makes Riverdale stand out. Archie, Betty and Veronica are such icons of American wholesomeness that putting them into a story full of murder and drugs and sexting results in a bizarre cognitive dissonance that’s mildly enjoyable. Which is good news, because that’s pretty much what Riverdale has going for it — the Archie relationship turns what would otherwise be a perfectly ordinary teen drama into something outlandishly compelling. I have no idea what British viewers make of it.
The idea of contrasting wholesome Archie with unwholesome acts is hardly a new one — Archie is such an icon of a particular view of the post-war American Dream that he invites the comparison. Let’s take a look at a few of the other dark takes on Archie that have happened over the years.
First off, we’ve got a really odd piece of nostalgia, 1990’s Archie: Return to Riverdale, also sometimes called To Riverdale and Back Again.
Basically, it’s a story about versions of the characters in their 30s coming back to the old town for a moment of nostalgic whatever — although it’s hard to make that make sense, since the idyllic Riverdale they grew up in looks like 1960, not 1975. It’s not really “dark” except by comparison with the comics, but it does have a little more sexual content, presumably to indicate that the characters have, y’know, grown up. More interesting as a weird look at what the nostalgia of the late 80s looked like than as a story in its own right.
But Archie Comics themselves got in on the act in 2013 when they published Afterlife with Archie. Written by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa (who also writes Riverdale), with art by Francisco Francavilla, Afterlife with Archie is a zombie apocalypse story in which Sabrina the Teenage Witch uses the Necronomicon to bring back Jughead’s dog, sparking a plague of zombies that overruns the town.
But it’s not one of those whimsical stories in which humorous characters wind up in a serious situation — that’d be Archie vs Predator. It’s a genuinely grim story filled with blood, death and violence. And, like the TV show, it trades on the weird mismatch between its wholesome characters and its gruesome subject.
Finally, we come to my favourite of the bunch: Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’ Criminal: The Last of the Innocent.
This entry in the ongoing series of loosely-related crime stories tells the story of Riley Richards, a guy who grew up in a small town, married a beautiful rich girl and feels increasingly trapped and frustrated in his life. When he returns home to visit his ill father, he finds himself flashing back to his youth, thinking about the good old days. But Riley’s frustrations are more than the usual middle-aged grievance, and they’ll put him on the road to a bloody conclusion.
So far, so much the noir crime drama you expect from Criminal. The Archie thing about this story comes in Riley’s flashbacks. Every character is clearly based on an Archie character, right down to Mrs Grundy and Principal Weatherbee. But the world of Riley’s memories isn’t as squeaky-clean as you’d expect from Archie Andrews.
The Last of the Innocent uses this contrast very effectively, partly because it isn’t specifically grounded in Archie trivia — it’s just using it as a signifier for a familiar idyllic view of American youth. So you get the saddening revelation that your wholesome childhood was really full of sex, petty rivalry, drug abuse and icepick murders without the specifically ridiculous elements (like “Kevin and Moose went down to the river to have furtive sex, but then they found Jason Blossom’s corpse”).
And ultimately, that’s why Archie and his various pals and gals will continue to be the ideal fodder for people who have something to say about being a teenager. It’s just … a little weird that the most prominent of these dark inversions of Archie at the moment is, y’know, just actual Archie.