There was a time when Archie Comics was famous for being rigidly conservative. Now it’s gaining a reputation for being the most experimental comics publisher in America.
Most of the company’s progressive efforts aren’t obvious to the casual observer. It has aggressively entered the digital comics market, for example, with its own app and other innovations. It’s quietly pursuing projects for its library of characters in television and movies, which won’t be obvious until they come to fruition.
Other efforts have already made a splash. For example, Archie Comics made national headlines in 2009 by exploring what would happen if Riverdale’s favorite redhead married (alternatively, in back-to-back stories) either Veronica and Betty (“Archie” No. 600-607). Written by movie producer Michael Uslan, the stories were so popular that both are being continued in “Life With Archie,” a magazine-format series created just for that purpose. Those stories are written and drawn by veterans of serious superhero books, so that “Life With Archie” is a good read for adults as well as Archie’s traditional market.
Another headline-buster was the advent in 2010 of Kevin Keller, Riverdale’s first openly gay character. Despite threats by some venues to stop selling Archie Comics, the publisher forged ahead. Eventually the furor died down and Keller is now one of the most popular members of the Archie gang — and the star of his own solo book.
And just this month Archie has released a trade paperback collecting a courageous story that somehow went under the radar in 2010. “Archie & Friends All Stars Vol. 8” ($9.95) reprints an interracial romance between Archie and Valerie, the black guitarist in Josie & the Pussycats.
So what else could Archie Comics do with their characters that would shock us? Well, how about kill them? Not all at once, of course. Instead, we’re watching the gang struggle to survive in that suddenly popular genre, the zombie apocalypse.
“Afterlife With Archie” — you have to give points for the pun — launched several months ago with a shocking story line. In the first issue, Jughead’s canine buddy Hot Dog was run over by a car. Desperate to bring his pal back to life, Juggie turns to Sabrina the Teenage Witch, who does her best to restore Hot Dog — with horrible results.
That’s right, Hot Dog returns as a zombie. And promptly bites Jughead. And all zombie fans know what comes next.
This all comes from a company that for years almost single-handedly kept alive the much-loathed Comics Code of America, which for decades reduced all American comics to an almost preschool level. In those days, Archie Comics was synonymous with static lack of change.
But today? When you invoke the old cartoon theme song “Everything’s Archie,” it will bring a smile or two. From romance to superhero to horror, everything really is Archie — and it’s darn good.