Archie comics cartoonist Tom Moore passed away on the 20th of July. He was 86. As one of the comic series’ earliest collaborators, Moore’s impact on the iconic comic book was immeasurable. With the onset of a new era in the comic’s history, let’s take a look at what Archie has meant to his readers.
I was probably 12 years old when I read my first Archie comic. Every summer, I would be dispatched to Kolkata for my summer vacations, and my grandmother — fed up of trying to entertain me — one day decided to hand me my aunt’s precious bound copies of late ’70s and early ’80s editions of Archie digests.
They weren’t my first comics. Like most others in my generation, I had begun reading Tintin first. There were also the Asterix comics. But while many of the latter’s themes and puns flew well above this pre-teen boy’s head, tales of the bumbling teenager, Archie, didn’t. His ever-hungry friend Jughead and pretty girls Betty and Veronica, often decked out in fairly skimpy two-piece swimsuits, were just what a young boy needed for instant gratification.
Back home in Delhi, the comic lending libraries would have stacks of Archies that I would borrow every week. And while many of my peers grew out of Archie comics, I somehow steadfastly kept reading them. I don’t think I got obsessed; but I discovered there were others who loved them too — like my father. He began reading these comics on routine Delhi-Mumbai flights after discovering that a Double Digest would last him for that duration. Plus, they were readily available at most airport bookstores, which — if you flew a lot in the late ’90s — were very badly stocked.
Over the years, I stocked up on hundreds of digests, but after some time Archie became repetitive. The same old stories, and the perennially-seventeen-year-old Betty and Veronica in swimsuits felt like a strange form of perversion as one grew older. Not that watching MTV shows was any better, but Archie comics felt childish. Still, I was never embarrassed of my Archie comics, and I have to admit, they made for far better bathroom reading than the newspaper in the morning. But, while Marvel and DC Comics made huge strides in the world of cinema, the New York-based Archie comics seemed to be left behind.
It wasn’t as if Archie had not innovated over the years. Spin-off series such as Archie 3000, Jughead’s Diner and The New Archie’s had come and gone. But some of them, with their funky art and strangely implausible storylines, did not really take off. Possibly the only series that enjoyed a modicum of success was the TV spin-off Archie’s Weird Mysteries, which aired around the time when paranormal themes were quite normal in American television and movies.
The last I heard was that by the 75th anniversary of the all-American teenager, the eponymous publishing house that brought out Archie Comics was in a spot of bother. This was despite the brand indulging in American multi-culturalism. There was an Indian boy, Raj Patel, an obsessive film-maker, who joined the cast; and the entire cast even made a two-part story arc visit to Bollywood. There was also Kevin Keller, a gay character who eventually got his own series. More Hispanic and Asian characters came on, and the art became more anime inspired as the comics seemed desperate to attract new, younger readers.
Instead, the move seemed to irritate older, loyal readers such as myself. The ever-increasing cast confused some of us, and the differences between the politically correct Archie of the 2010’s and the Archie of the ’70s and ’80s grew. Still, it was interesting to see how the comic, which at its core was about the adventures of a gang of high-school students, evolved with the times.
About five years ago, the brand seemed to realize this, and they finally married Archie off, first to Veronica and then to Betty. Of course it was all a ‘dream sequence’ and the plot line, which was expanded into an ‘adult’ Life With Archie, was tenuous at best. This crazy experiment ended with Archie being ‘killed’ in ‘Life with Archie’ #36, which I bought on my iPhone Archie app (yep, there is an application for that). I was mildly disappointed, in the way one would be when served watery beer at a microbrewery.
Yet, Archie comics were to also provide my biggest surprise of the recent past. In the midst of going through Bill Willingham’s brilliant Fables series, I started reading up on the ‘Afterlife With Archie’ series created by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and brilliantly drawn by Francesco Francavilla. There are graphic novel series that one recommends, and there are others that one would ask you to pass on. But Aguirre-Sacasa has created an amazingly readable series, where Riverdale is struck by a zombie apocalypse.
If you grew up reading Archie comics, this is a series you should pick up, whether you like graphic novels or not. This is Archie like you have never imagined. Zombies — what more can one say? This series plugs into the current American fascination with the undead, while also addressing interesting topics such as infidelity, lesbianism and incest.
If there is one complaint against Afterlife With Archie and its spin-off series, ‘Chilling Adventures Of Sabrina’, it’s that the series is terribly infrequent, even at the best of times. But now up to issue #8, it might be a good idea for those of you who have read this to pick up the first collected edition, or a couple of issues on the Archie Comics smartphone app.As Archie turns 80 years old, he might be undergoing his biggest change yet as he gets reimagined as a millennial. The once caricature-ish look of the characters — Jughead’s pointy nose, for instance — has been modernised.
Yet, while Afterlife With Archie has quite clearly worked, I have a sense of trepidation about the new-look Archie. There is a lovely sense of Americana that one enjoys when reading old Archie comics, and the company is tapping into that market with several ‘From the Vault’ collected editions on their app.
One wonders if the new look will work. Archie himself has evolved from a time where people entertained themselves on radios, to an age of smartphones. Initial impressions of the look seem all right, but until I read a couple of issues, in physical form, it might be too soon to judge. At a time when I’m reading the utterly brilliant Sex Criminals by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky as well as enjoying the Afterlife With Archie series, I’m not sure I will be convinced. But if a zombie series starring Archie and an undead Jughead could hook me, well, one never knows.