If you have a teenager nearby, and they have access to Netflix, they’ll probably be watching the new series of Riverdale this week.
Season two has just started on the streaming TV service, and to the untrained British adult eye it’s another entry in the genre of slickly-made, slightly dark teen dramas in the vein of 13 Reasons Why or Pretty Little Liars, with a dash of small-town mystery a la Twin Peaks.
In the States, however, the adventures of Archie, Jughead, Reggie, Betty and Veronica are as American – and recognisable – as apple pie, Mickey Mouse and Superman… and have been since the 1940s.
For seven decades the Archie gang has featured in a wealth of monthly comics detailing the capers of the eternal teenagers, forever on an everlasting Spring Break, falling in and out of love, and generally having an all-American good time in their fictional town of Riverdale.
But Riverdale the TV series is the culmination of a reinvention of the Archie brand that’s been underway since the late 2000s and which has seen the characters embrace the 21st Century and find themselves in all manner of situations, facing death, contemporary social issues… and zombies. But more of that later.
In 1939, three men – Maurice Coyne, Louis Silberkleit, and John L Goldwater – founded MLJ Magazines, primarily to publish superhero comics, including The Shield, a star-spangled avenger who pre-dated Joe Simon and Jack Kirby’s Captain America by a little over a year. But Goldwater in particular was keen to put something out there that featured normal, non-super-powered characters, and in 1941, in the 22nd issue of their anthology title Pep Comics, they debuted the adventures of Archie Andrews and his best pal Jughead Jones, written by Vic Bloom with art by Bob Montana.
It proved massively popular, and within a couple of years the company changed its name to Archie Comics, with the Riverdale gang being their flagship characters.
And so the path was set for an American icon to join the ranks of American pop culture royalty. The Archie characters were a family, and the company was a family concern too.
In the 1980s, Silberkleit’s son Michael and Goldwater’s son Richard took over the running of the company. The Archie titles had been embedded in the American psyche for decades, and would continue to be so.
Archie and his pals never grew up, never grew old, never changed. They inhabited a nostalgic America that never really was, untroubled by the events of the real world. Until 2009.
Richard Goldwater died in 2007 and his half-brother Jon Goldwater, also son of the original founder, took over as CEO. And began to make big changes.
“Archie was frozen in time when I took over the company. That’s just the reality,” says Jon Goldwater. “It was on its way to becoming a nostalgia brand. When I came in, my mandate was clear and simple – make Riverdale feel like it was a city set in the present. Make it diverse. Bring in new characters. Take risks. Be funny, be vibrant, be of-the-moment and don’t be afraid, like you point out, to tackle the real world head on.”
In the intervening years, Goldwater has overseen an injection of reality into the main titles. There are gay characters. Disabled characters. There have been stories looking at possible realities for the characters – one where they face down a zombie apocalypse alongside label-mate Sabrina the teen witch (a popular 90s TV show well remembered in the UK, even if its comic-book origins were not well known), one where Archie marries Betty, one where he marries Veronica – and even one where the iconic redhead himself dies, saving his friend Kevin Keller – in this storyline a US senator – from an assassination attempt.
Goldwater says, “Archie isn’t a retro brand anymore and Riverdale [the TV series] is the clearest, loudest example of that. It’s been a long road, and it’s really due to our commitment to never settle for the easy story – to always strive to tell the best stories, by the best talent and always staying true to the characters.
“You can have Archie fighting zombies, getting married, dying, travelling through time, meeting Kiss or the Ramones – you name it – and as long as he’s true and behaves the way his fans know he will be have, as long as he’s true to himself, then it works.
“Archie is as malleable and flexible as characters like Batman or Superman. But he’s even better because you can relate to him. He’s like one of us. He’s the best of us, really.”
Alex Segura holds a major role in the Archie empire, as boss of publicity and marketing but also as editor of a recent revamp of the superhero characters, and as a writer of several Archie comics himself, including the recent The Archies, about the gang’s adventures in pop music.
Despite the massive amount of work put into repositioning Archie and co as a relevant brand for 2017, the basic principles on which the comics were originally founded are still important. “To me, the best Archie stories are about friendship,” says Segura.
“In the Death of Archie, he died saving the life of his friend Kevin Keller. In Afterlife With Archie [the zombie apocalypse series], we see Archie as a leader, organising his closest pals to survive. The best Archie stories play off that in some way – some funny, some dramatic, some action-heavy, but at the core, it’s always about Archie and his friends, and why they’re important to him – and vice versa. Something Jon Goldwater always says, which I think is very true is ‘if the story is good, people will find it.’ Do good work. Take risks. Be daring but also honour the past.
“Fans can suss out a gimmick, but they love when change is organic, meaningful and engaging. I think Jon’s vision for Archie has always been about telling great stories and making sure readers see that Archie isn’t some relic from the 50s but a living, breathing character.”
It’s difficult to impress upon British audiences just how important Archie is in the States. Goldwater says, “Archie – and his friends, Betty and Veronica, Jughead, Reggie and more – are an intrinsic part of American culture. They embody America. That said, they reflect things people can relate to around the world. Archie Comics have always been about friendship, heart, humour and being the best person you can be, and it’s why Archie resonates globally.”
The Archie comics have perhaps covered ground for American readers that’s been traditionally absent in the UK. Over here most comics readers started with children’s comics such as Beano, Dandy, long-gone titles like Whizzer and Chips and Krazy. Then, when they hit their pre-teen years, they either graduated to the superhero fare of Marvel and DC, or home-grown science fiction comics such as 2000AD, or stopped reading comics altogether.
There has been no real British tradition of a teen-focused non-fantastical comic book. The TV series Riverdale, broadcast in the us on the CW channel, is both bringing in new readers who have never engaged with – or heard of – the Archie comics before, and bringing back readers who might have left the comics behind long ago. “It’s engaged a whole new audience for us, and we’re really excited by this,”says Goldwater.
“People are so hungry for material featuring these characters, and these fans are dedicated, so they want the source material. They want to explore the DNA of the show. So, what we’re finding is, people are getting so hyped by the show, that they’re going to the comics to get more and then getting hooked! It’s amazing.”
Testament to the resurgence in popularity was the packed panel at last weekend’s New York Comic Con. “You should have seen it,” enthuses Goldwater. “We had 400 people there, hundreds more turned away, all clamouring for info on Archie and Riverdale. Young. Excited. Engaged. It was marvellous. That’s the future of the company right there, and a lot of them are coming from the show, or from connecting with their older siblings or parents who point them to the comics.”
Announced at the New York Comic Con was the news that Sabrina the Teen Witch is to get a Riverdale-style TV makeover, based on the dark horror comic re-imagining of the character from recent stories… and which is likely to expand the Archie brand even more.
Goldwater says, “We wouldn’t be anywhere in terms of TV if we didn’t have the content. If I hadn’t decided to reinvent Archie, as a company and brand, we’d be stuck in purgatory. If we hadn’t taken risks or pushed the characters and concepts.”
But for all the new directions these iconic characters are taking, one of the founding tenets of the Archie line from 1941 still remains, according to writer Segura.
“Some stories call for humour – Archie crashes into a tree in The Archies #1, for example – and others require a more deft, dramatic touch. It’s about knowing when to do what. People probably thought the idea of a zombie/horror Archie comic was insane – they even dismissed it. But they couldn’t argue once the comic arrived because it was excellent. So it’s about creating entertainment that showcases these great characters, whether it’s physical laughs or tugging on your heartstrings.”