I still have my first-ever Archie Comic book. It was a Double Digest, back when the front cover of a Double Digest boasted 256 pages of usually old, somewhat dated comics chronicling the exploits of Archie Andrews and his gang of compatriots, their lives a picture of simple innocence that both amused and mesmerized a tinier, single-digit-aged Lesley. The “Double Digest” title on it is in pink on a field of faded reddish-orange, and if you went to the box in my father’s house where my remaining “Archies” now reside, you would find this copy rippling and swollen, a book well-loved and reread and loved again indeed.
That first digest was probably bought for me by my father, from the impulse-buy racks lining the checkout queue at my local Publix supermarket, and it created a monster. There was a time where I was not seen without a book in my hand, and for several years, that book was usually an Archie Comics digest. I read at the dinner table, when my dad allowed it -- I read while brushing my teeth. I even tried to read in the shower sometimes, which explains the water damage on some of my old books, and that puffed and inflated appearance of my first Archie comic ever.
At the ripe age of 9 I felt more world-weary than the teenage residents of Riverdale, and yet their colorful adventures were irresistible even as they were predictable and repetitive.
Where other parents might have demonstrated concern over their child being so obsessed with a particular series of comics, my father never expressed any worry, never dismissed my Archie fixation, at most sharing a twinge of frustration when I refused to stop reading to eat, or on those magical days when I might find three or even FOUR new digests I did not yet have in the supermarket-checkout racks, and he would have to insist upon my selecting only one.
If this was a subtle effort at curtailing my Archie reading, it didn’t work, because I just reread my expansive collection over and over again.
I rarely bought individual issues; nerdy a kid as I was (and am) I didn’t have ready access to a proper comic shop in the sunny South Florida city of my childhood, and even when confronted with full-size comics in my local Waldenbooks, it seemed short-sighted to pay for a single issue with far fewer pages (if, admittedly, a more contemporary story) than to buy a digest compilation that offered a far greater value.
And so I was reading mostly 1970s stories in the 80s, and 80s stories in the 90s, always a bit behind the pop-cultural curve, such that my diaries in 1987 and 1988 are riddled with utterly unhip usages of “groovy” and “far out.” I longed for my life to be as simple and picturesque as life seemed in Riverdale, even trying to map my experiences onto the fictions I read.
When, during the sixth grade, a frozen yogurt shop opened in the strip mall near my house, I imagined it would become my very own Chock’lit Shoppe -- and for some time it was, being a place where two of my neighborhood friends and I would go after school to get waffle cones and sit at a table by the front windows. But it didn’t serve burgers, and the proprietor, instead of being a kindly middle-aged man, was a somewhat surly guy in his thirties who seemed perpetually annoyed at the threesome who would insist on sampling all the day’s yogurt flavors and then shattering the peacefulness of the TCBY with our loud and probably irritating conversation for hours, several afternoons a week.
Later, I remember having a strange moment in my teens in which I felt as though I was really seeing an Archie Comics digest for the first time -- I held it for a long while, baffled at how small it was, how inconsequential it seemed. These books had been such a ubiquitous part of my life for so long I had barely registered them as objects, so to suddenly recognize one as a small flimsy paperback of dubious literary merit was staggering.
I have periodically bought Archie Comics throughout adulthood, probably trying to revisit that innocence -- as a kid, even though I didn’t even know what it meant to be “pinned,” or what a varsity letter was, I was fascinated by a world with such simple rules and simple pleasures. To me as an adult, these teens are unfathomably chaste and inoffensive, their world impossibly optimistic and rosy, which is precisely what attracted me as a child.
But I’ve come to realize that it’s also true that I just like the comics. I like the characters, I like the cheesy humor, and it is probably entirely due to Archie Comics that I have such a developed and refined appreciation for puns. Not all fantasies have to be exciting.
Archie and the gang have evolved in many ways in recent years, the most dramatic being the addition of Kevin Keller, who was introduced in 2010 as a new permanent teen character and the first openly gay member of the Riverdale gang, a move that has been roundly praised. At the time of Keller’s introduction, Archie Comics co-CEO John Goldwater said, “The introduction of Kevin is just about keeping the world of Archie Comics current and inclusive. Archie's hometown of Riverdale has always been a safe world for everyone. It just makes sense to have an openly gay character in Archie comic books.”
If Archie and the gang seemed anachronistic even to a 9-year-old me in 1986 -- their “current” pop culture references always sounded like things your parents might say to try to sound hip -- it makes sense that the brand would have to come up with new ways to maintain relevance in an increasingly noise-filled world of entertainment options. The revived “Life With Archie” is another such foray into heavier issues.
I remember “Life With Archie” as a typical title from my own childhood, although it eventually ceased publication in 1991 -- until 2010, when it was brought back as a look into Archie’s hypothetical adult future. The first story had Archie marrying famously spoiled rich girl Veronica Lodge, a decision met with a truly bonkers volume of dismay from the Archie-loving public, at least in the nerd circles in which I travel. A subsequent story had Archie pledging his love to girl next door Betty Cooper. Other stories featured grown-up Kevin Keller confronting Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and eventually same-sex marriage as well, and an adult Cheryl Blossom -- the closest thing Archie Comics have ever had to a sexpot -- fighting breast cancer.
And as announced this week, the soapy “Life With Archie” will come to a literal end in July 2014 when Archie himself will die, sacrificing himself to save a friend, which as weird as it is to even consider Archie dying, seems like an apt way for him to go.
Don’t freak yet -- because “Life With Archie” is a collection of hypothetical futures (or alternate universes, in traditional comics-speak) Archie isn’t going to stay dead -- all of the current series will keep the likeable redhead and his many wacky shenanigans intact.
Some wackier than others. While folks like me will always have fond childhood memories of Archie and friends as existing in a bubble of perpetual innocence, pure and unchanging, Archie Comics themselves have been changing in some unexpected ways -- like recent horror title “Afterlife With Archie.” This series features not only a zombie invasion of Riverdale, but it takes the whole thing to a Walking Dead level of seriousness, just, y’know, with Archie killing his zombie dad and teenagers eating each other and even a totally bizarre conversation about possible incest between Jason and Cheryl Blossom, because I guess somebody at Archie has been reading a lot of George RR Martin or something.
If this wasn’t way out in left field enough for you, last month it was announced that Lena Dunham will be writing a four-part Archie story for publication in 2015, a situation that evolved when Dunham mentioned her longtime Archie love in a public Q & A panel last year. My initial personal response to this was a terse NO, but the more I think about it, the more curious I am to see how it actually shakes out.
In the end, all of these efforts are aimed at getting more folks to buy Archie Comics, and in my case they’ve worked -- I bought my first Archies in years when the Kevin Keller story began, and while I still can’t quite bring myself to buy any of the “Life With Archie” issues in stores (they are SO SOAPY, folks) I’ll admit I have read many of them digitally via the relative privacy of my iPad. Which is a funny echo of that period in my teens where I decided Archies were silly kid stuff and therefore I kept my continued reading of them a dark and shameful secret.
But I guess I’m out of the Archie Comics closet now. I still love these stories -- even the ridiculously dated and uncool ones -- in a totally unironic way. Are you an Archie fan? What do you think of all these updates and changes? Let’s hash it out nerd-style in comments.