Riverdale: A History of Archie Comics

Riverdale, the hit CW series (and streamed internationally by Netflix), is filled to the brim with murder, sex, drug taking, a key plot line involving an attempted sexual assault, hints of incest, gangs and a serial murder targeting sinners in the town. It is as far from the beloved and innocent pages of Archie Comics as you can possibly get, and yet there’s Archie Andrews and his friends caught up in the middle of it all. Looking at the output of Archie Comics, one can seen that it is a company not afraid to throw in a little darkness every now and then.

First appearing in 1941, Archie and his group of friends, some of whom have spun-off into their own titles, most prominently Sabrina:The Teenage Witch and Josie and the Pussycats, have very seldom changed, with the look of the characters given a modern make over, with a more up to date feel, in 2015 with a relaunch of the flagship Archie title.

The company itself was founded in 1939, and went by the less catchy name of MLJ Comics. Founded by Maurice Coyne, Louis Silberkleit and John L Goldwater, the company initially focused on superhero comics, but come December 1941, everything changed with the publication of Issue no. 22 of Pep Comics, when Archie Andrews, Jughead Jones and Betty Cooper made their debuts.

Taking as a key inspiration the Andy Hardy movies which had made a star of Mickey Rooney, the character of Archie and his friends would become the flagship characters of the company. The character and his friends were created to be relatable and fun for younger readers, with the lead character exhibiting his red hair right from the off.  Come 1942, a new character would also be introduced, this time Veronica Lodge, and with it one of the most famous love triangle in pop culture and comic book history, with a variation of it being depicted in live action once Riverdale came to our screens.

The company and the many adventures of the residents of Riverdale have never went away, in fact the company has thrived and continued to do so ever since it debuted the characters, and changed from MLJ to Archie Comics. The only time the company ever put a foot wrong, it would seem, is went it tried to launch a chain of Archie Family Restaurant’s, in which only two were ever built.

Variations on themes and titles have appeared over the years, with horror themed titles published under Red Circle Comics, as well as stories with a strong Christian theme in the shape of a series of titles from Spire Christian Comics, who obtained a licence to depict Archie characters in stories from them, sometimes featuring the regular characters conversing with a Christ-like character on the beach. What they would think of Riverdale and its darker tones would be interesting.

The main title would continue for years to come, and in December 2014 would be given an acclaimed relaunch. Written by Mark Waid, famed writer behind the wonderful Superman: Birthright, a superb depiction of the famed origin tale of the Man of Steel, as well as a magnificent run on Daredevil which lightened the previously dark and somewhat grim take on the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen with a humorous, yet still sometimes angsty, run of tales, Archie became modern again, but still retained the innocent charm of his origins. It was just given a modern polish.

To read it after Riverdale (as this reviewer has done), it’s almost like being confronted with an alternative universe take on the television series, a series that has no doubt helped drum up sales and interest for the original books. Watching the series in light of the comics can almost make one wish for the more innocent, near-John Hughes level of comedy and drama going on within the live action equivalent, as opposed to the “Dawson’s Creek meets Twin Peaks” level of intense, and sometimes insane, drama going on within the television screen.

That isn’t to say one thing has an edge over the other. If anything, the comic books has a better handle on tone, at least in comparison to season two of the television series that has thrown so much against the wall that is somewhat went of the rails by the time it got to the last two episodes before the Christmas break.

Waid’s run feels like someone has taken the nuts and bolts of the best of the cinematic output of John Hughes and put it on to a comic panel, albeit with an even higher abundance of jokes and visual gags. Waid is a fantastic writer and has shown a wonderful ability to mix comedy and drama to superb effect in his depictions of superheroes such as Superman, Daredevil, as well as the Justice League, as seen when he contributed to JLA in the 2000’s. As someone who has managed to especially humanize the character of Superman, a character the many complain is hard to relate to, it’s easy to see why he is such a good fit for tale of teen angst and comedy in a small town and colourful setting.

In fact, the humour at times comes so fast that one almost has to go back and look once again at the panel in order to see something that was missed the first time because one was in too deep when it came to the dialogue. Good thing too, with much of the artwork from Fiona Staples, Annie Wu and Veronica Fish being eye-catching, colourful and retaining an innocent quality.

In bringing Archie to the screen, the series, under the eye of Robert Aguirre-Sacasa who is the Chief Creative Officer of Archie Comics itself, Riverdale has opted to strip back the more innocent qualities of the comic, make the humour less overt, and by opting to film the series in Vancouver, home of The X-Files and Supernatural, has made the series seem more darker, with a touch of gothic to it, not to mention having a similar sense of earthliness to its atmosphere, with effective use of grey skies and massive trees permeating parts of the town. Even Pop’s Chock’lit Shop is next to the train tracks, and has neon lighting, making it feel like the 80’s, not to mention Blake Neely’s synthesiser flavoured music score.

Sacasa, a major talent who contributed to the first (and best) season of Supergirl, has a superb track record of exploring the darker side of the Archie Comics universe, with spin-off titles such as Afterlife with Archie and his acclaimed take on Sabrina The Teenage Witch that opted to put horror and atmosphere above comedy and slapstick, a choice that will be carried over into the upcoming Netflix adaptation that Sacasa is also showrunning. The television equivalent could almost be seen as the dark side of the same coin. Many of the same tropes are present, such as the complicated romantic dynamics, although in the television show’s case Jughead is no longer asexual, and is in the middle of a romantic plot line with Betty that is proving to be more popular than any love triangle dynamic between Archie, Betty and Veronica.

The television series even throws in horror movie tropes and ideas; a serial killer is at work in the second season, while the lighting and set pieces can feel unbearably intense, with a key character death in the season two premiere being particularly bloody, not to mention a dream sequence in a later episode involving Josie having her throat cut being pretty graphic too.

Overall, Archie Comics has proven to be an incredibly experimental franchise of sorts. For a character and universe well known for a famous love triangle and colourful look, the fact that the company has thrown into the mix all manner of comedic, romantic and horror tales is very impressive, and with Riverdale opening the audience up even further, as well as the potential to expand even more with the forthcoming spin-off Sabrina, it’s an exciting time to discover the joy, light and dark, of Archie Comics.

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