comic books

Archie comics get a newer, darker look to connect to today’s readers

The boys and girls at Riverdale High are no longer the innocent romantics of another era.

In a little American town called Riverdale, there lived a redheaded teenager. He bounced between the halls of his high school, his home and the refuge offered by a malt shop. Last year, he died, taking a bullet for his friend outside that very shop.  It was, his publisher said, “an amazing moment – the most important comic [the] company [had] ever published.”

And then he came back to life at San Diego Comic Con 2015.

The adventures of Archie Andrews and his gang of friends have been the subject of the eponymous comics for 74 years. After ending its run in July 2014, the owners of the franchise, Archie Comics, announced in December that they would be rebooting the series entirely.

Pro writers to redo Archie

They brought on board two of the most respected names in American comics right now: Mark Waid, the writer of an acclaimed run of Marvel’s Daredevil, and Fiona Staples, most well known as the illustrator of Brian Vaughn’s critically adored Saga series.

The decision to appoint Waid and Staples may have surprised people. Archie has always been associated with a certain kind of lightness and innocence, the embodiment of a rebellious teenage spirit that nonetheless stays within its suburban limits. Archie, Betty, Veronica, Jughead, even the unlucky-in-love and supposedly low Reggie are, for all their other faults, surprisingly innocent characters.

For all the romantic tennis balling that happens among its characters, things rarely descend to the sort of skullduggery and scandals that now routinely dog teen dramas like OC and Gossip Girl. Archie’s friends harboured teenage hormones and they wanted to get out of school; but for Veronica and Betty’s clashes over Archie, at the end of the day, everyone remained good friends, repairing to Pop Tate’s for a celebratory milkshake.

“Do no harm”

In an interview with IGN Comics, Waid stated his first “self-edict” when given the Archie project was to “do no harm”. “It would be supremely arrogant of me,” he said, “to saunter in without regard for the fact that there are reasons that Archie and his pals have been a rock-solid part of American pop culture for 75 years.”

That said, Waid and Staples seem to have made an effort to modernise Archie. Oh, don’t worry – the core of the comic remains the same, and it stars the same characters: Archie, Betty, Jughead, Reggie, Dilton and Principal Weatherbee show up in the first issue.

But Waid has mentioned that readers might be surprised to see “how diverse” Riverdale High can be. For instance, Kevin, the first character in the series to identify himself as part of the LGBTQ community, will have an important role. The first issue seems to follow through on this promise.

Beginning with a break-up

The new series opens on a sad note. Archie and Betty, the “power couple” who have been together since kindergarten, have allegedly broken up following a mysterious lipstick incident. None of their friends knows what went wrong, and neither of the couple is willing to talk about it.

Speculation and gossip rages through Riverdale High, and Archie’s friends – among whom Kevin is prominent – decide to get the couple back together, for their own good. Amidst this, there are rumours of the impending arrival of the Lodge millionaires and their daughter – Veronica, no doubt.

The tone of the new comic is undoubtedly darker. Gone are the poppy, bright colours of the old Archie. The teenager we meet in Staples’s pages is leaner, plays a mean guitar and has the kind of gorgeous finger comb that a One Direction member would envy.

Archie is more obviously attractive, and, as one writer put it, you might “actually believe [he] could have two girls mooning over him simultaneously”. “I guess they’re trying to keep up with the crowd,’ said Pooja Vijay, a long-time reader of the comics and an ardent fan. “But I’d prefer the more retro look, obviously, because I grew up with it.”

Most reviews, however, have thus far been positive, though many expressed shock at the major visual changes. “You won’t believe this is an Archie comic!”; “Forget all you knew about Archie”; “Archie comes to the 21st century”: these are some of the responses it has generated.

Something old, something new

Together, Waid and Staples have built – or rebuilt – something that seeks to entice its original readers with hints of nostalgia, as well as pull in a newer, younger crowd. Respecting the source material is the dictum Waid claims to have followed, echoing the declarations of fellow franchise rebooters (a new professional designation, surely), Colin Trevorrow and J.J. Abrams.

Trevorrow’s Jurassic World, built literally on the ground of Spielberg’s classic Jurassic Park, has broken box office records. Despite valid criticism of its sexual politics, it has achieved remarkable success because it utilises a brilliant combination of ‘bigger, scarier, toothier’ dinosaurs (and their CGI)  and Easter eggs or nostalgia-inducing elements that hark back to the first film.

This potent mixture has catapulted the reboot to the top of the charts worldwide, and opened the doors for more movies to follow. So if Archie manages to distil this into its pages, then there will certainly be joy all around – for old readers and new.

In his note at the end of the first issue, Waid admits “we … had a blast cooking it up’.  He talks about how, at its core, Archie’s is a timeless story – of growing up, of dealing with friends and family, of falling in and out of relationships. The more dated references to malt shops might be gone, and characters might sport cellphones, but Archie is still torn between his two great loves, Reggie is still a sleaze and Jughead the seemingly apathetic jester figure (complete with the crown) who knows, and cares, more than he lets on.

Maybe, in their new form, they will connect to a younger crowd that is going through the same things, and appeal to an older one’s sense of nostalgia and desire to see old favourites in a new light. To paraphrase something Archie himself says – who knows what’s coming? Only more issues will tell.

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