Archie Comics: Finally, some respect?

Archie is finally growing up!!Erika D. Peterman — Special to CNN, Source:

They’re as much a part of Americana as Spider-Man, but Archie and his pals don’t always get the respect they deserve.

Think about it: Betty, Veronica, Jughead and Reggie are instantly recognizable characters and archetypes, and I’d wager that most people who grew up reading comics, even casually, cracked open an “Archie’s Digest” along the way.

Some of us never left Archie behind, at least not permanently. While our fellow fangirls and boys might not consider Riverdale to be as relevant as Gotham or Asgard, we know what a special place it still occupies in comics, to say nothing of our personal geek origin stories. Nostalgia is a factor, but there are other reasons why Archie still matters after 70 years.

For example:

Riverdale has modernized

In case you hadn’t noticed, Archie’s hometown has made some big headlines recently. Last year, Archie Comics introduced its first gay character, military kid Kevin Keller, and he was such a big hit that the publisher gave him a miniseries. He’ll star in his own ongoing title next year, and in the more mature-leaning “Life with Archie” series, an older version of Kevin will get married in January. That’s not just big news for Riverdale but for mainstream comics in general.

“That’s something that we wouldn’t have been able to do 10 or 15 years ago,” said longtime Archie Comics writer and artist Dan Parent, who created Kevin’s character and writes the miniseries. “To keep growing as a company, we did need more diversity and we did need to shake things up a bit.”

Parent has broached the character’s sexual orientation in matter-of-fact and humorous ways. That’s not to say that the stories don’t address some of the hardships gay teens face growing up. In one issue, Kevin comforts a younger gay student who is the target of aggressive, constant bullying.

But the character is very much a typical Archie-style teen. When Kevin’s new comic launches in February, he’ll reach a coming-of-age milestone: His first date.

“We thought that was a good way to start (the series),” Parent said. “You are going to see throughout the year Kevin entering the dating world and having the same issues that Archie has.”

Speaking of Archie’s love life, his relationship last year with Josie and the Pussycats member Valerie, who is African-American, was another turning point as the first interracial romance in Archie Comics history.

“It was something I wish we’d done maybe 10 or 20 years ago, but it’s better late than never,” said Parent, who wrote that storyline. “We didn’t want to do it just because she was African-American; we wanted the story to be good. It’s the same with Kevin, too. It’s really important to make it seem genuine.”

Archie is a gateway comic

Archie comics have long been the entry point for people like me who got hooked on the medium early. After conducting a small survey of female comic book readers, writer and artist Hope Larson found that most respondents started out by reading Archie and newspaper strips. In an interview with Comic Book Resources, she offered some advice for comic book publishers seeking to attract more female readers. Suggestion #4: Look to Archie.

“Girls still read Archie because it’s accessible and because their parents probably read Archie when they were growing up, too,” Larson told CBR.

Parent hears similar stories from older comic book readers, male and female, who owe their hobby at least in part to those first Archie books.

“Archie comics were my first comics, too,” he said. “Archie is the gateway that gets you into Marvel, DC, and others.”

In this post-spinner rack era, comics aren’t nearly as easy to find as they used to be, especially for children. Archie is the exception. You can still grab a digest in almost any grocery store checkout line.

Archie is influential

That comic book you’re reading may very well have a touch of Archie in it.

Though they were uncredited in the early days, the artists who gave life to tales from Riverdale are considered among some of the industry’s most influential illustrators. Samm Schwartz, Harry Lucey, Bob Montana and Bob Bolling left their mark on comics, but most well known is the late Dan DeCarlo, an accomplished pin-up artist who created the classic Archie house style that everyone recognizes today.

DeCarlo also brought a signature va-va-voom quality to his illustrations of young women. A guy friend told me that when he was a tween in the 1970s, he and his friends spent a substantial amount of time debating Betty vs. Veronica.

“Dan DeCarlo inspired many people across the board. His name comes up a lot,” said Parent, who cites the artist as a major influence. “I remember being in awe over the way he drew girls when I was a kid.”

“Dan DeCarlo inspired many people across the board. His name comes up a lot,” said Parent, who cites the artist as a major influence. “I remember being in awe over the way he drew girls when I was a kid.”

It’s not just for little kids anymore…

Archie has always traded in lighthearted laughs and hijinks, which is why the heavily dramatic “Life with Archie” made such a splash when it launched in 2010.

The comic chronicles two alternate realities in which Archie is married to either Betty or Veronica, and the storylines have been surprisingly serious. Shady business dealings, failed dreams, troubled marriages and even death — beloved teacher Miss Grundy died of cancer — are all part of the mix. Even if you have just basic knowledge of the characters, it’s fascinating stuff.

“If you like night time soaps, that’s really up your alley,” Parent said.

… But it is a connection to childhood

No matter how much it changes to reflect the times, Archie endures largely because of what remains the same.

There’s no complicated continuity to deal with, no esoteric knowledge or minimum age requirement. A kid can read an Archie book and get it immediately. A nostalgic adult can do the same and pick up right where they left off. If we learned anything from “High School Musical,” it’s that children will always be interested in squeaky-clean stories about adolescence.

A year ago, I transferred the last of my old Archie comics from my mother’s house to mine, and my daughter, now 7, homed in on them instantly. She dug out one book after another, read them all, and then asked if she could have more. It’s safe to say that my Archie collection belongs to her now. But every now and then, I borrow one from her bookshelf and take a happy, 15-minute trip back in time.

“I equate Archie to comfort food. It makes you feel really good,” Parent said. “We sell a lot of digest books in the supermarket. Adults have hectic lives and they’re running around, but they see an Archie book and they think, ‘I can escape. It’s my childhood.’”

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