Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Ask Erik: Episode 70

To Erik: What do you think of Archie Andrews being killed off?

Immediate clarification:  See, they didn't actually kill off Archie.  There's a separate book titled Life With Archie that- ...okay, look, this is going to take a while.  Start reading below.

Okay, let's start at the beginning.

A few years ago, a story gimmick was introduced in the Archie universe called "Memory Lane."  Archie, Jughead, and maybe some of the others would occasionally walk down it and wind up talking to versions of themselves from the 40's and 50's.  It was a cute story gimmick, but I doubt they had any idea it would be used for any big stories later on.

However, for issue 600 of Archie's book, he took a stroll up memory lane and wound up coming to a fork in the road.  Archie's book then started to tell two stories, one where he winds up marrying Veronica, and the other where he winds up marrying Betty.  The two stories are extremely interesting because they're a HUGE genre change for the Archie series as a whole, since instead of "oh no, Archie's in detention and he can't take either girl to the sock hop!" instead now it's "oh no, Archie's trying to find work but can't and won't be able to afford rent!"

In other words, there's significantly fewer "hyuk hyuk" moments.  And yet, the art style stays exactly the same.

Oh, but that's not the weird part.  The weird part is that after Archie takes the first fork, he goes through graduation, he gets married to Veronica, and goes through life's drama where he starts to realize that money doesn't make him happy but has to work himself ragged after getting a job from Mr. Lodge, but seems overall content after Veronica gives birth to twins.  Then he goes for a walk late one evening, winds up at the fork again, takes the other path, and winds up back in the past just in time for graduation again.

This time, he winds up marrying Betty, struggles to find work, moves to New York to support his wife's new career, later have them both move back to Riverdale, and have kids of their own.  Later, Archie goes for a walk, winds up at Memory Lane again, and walks down it where he turns back into a teenager.

But that's not the weird part.  The weird part is that Archie remembers both future timelines.

But anyway.  The Life With Archie book came out later, and it took the unique path of continuing to follow both timelines in their own separate stories.

Look at that picture on the right.  Archie in a literal rain of cash realizing he isn't as happy as he could be, and Veronica wondering if she's ruined his life by marrying him, whereas Betty and Archie are poor and struggling to get by, but seem overall happy.

Not only does it perfectly boil Betty and Veronica down to their perfect differences ("wealth with less love or more love without wealth"), but those images are things you never would've caught in the past.

Now, we all know Archie comics.  The most serious thing they've ever had to deal with (other than that time the Punisher came to town) was wacky hijinks involving bank robbers that wouldn't be out of place in Scooby-Doo.  Or even Baby's Day Out.

Here's a few topics that happened in Life With Archie:

Cheryl Blossom moving to Hollywood to become a big star, but instead is cut off by her family and has to make a living as a waitress.
Kevin Keller ("the gay character") serves in the military, meets a guy he later marries, and eventually becomes a US Senator after his husband is shot and he runs on an anti-gun platform.
Moose attempts to run for mayor and completely screws it up, instead becoming the new custodian at the high school.
Mr. Weatherbee and Miss Grundy get married.
Six months later, Mrs. Weatherbee's sickness and eventual death from renal failure.

Comics!  For kids!

What is it all building up to?  Well, in issue 36, Archie winds up taking a bullet to save Kevin Keller's life.  From that point on, the future issues of the book will revolve around what happens to his friends (and wives) when he isn't there any more.

Here's what I think of the whole thing.

First off, remember that this is Archie Comics, a business that until the past ten years never put a mixed race couple kissing on the cover, never had a gay character (or at least not one portrayed in any kind of positive light as a primary character), and would never dream of having someone get shot.

When DC or Marvel announces "the next big event," I pretty much sigh because it is, in essence, all just one big gimmick to get people to buy comics.  Wolverine's supposed to die soon, and I pretty much couldn't care less because I just figure it means they need to send Thor out to smack the tar out of Sabretooth and that there might be more ninjas running around that the Canadian hasn't killed.

But when a character like Archie dies, it actually has meaning.  This is a company that, for decades, has remained firmly fixed in a world that wouldn't be out of place in Pleasantville if it weren't for the advances in technology.  To have a character die here actually feels fresh, and it's certainly treated with a lot more respect than anything "the big two" have done in recent years.

The issue doesn't make it feel like a gimmick at all.  It doesn't revolve around a love triangle.  It doesn't start out wacky and then suddenly veer off towards bananas-ville.  It's solid storytelling that comes to a head when Archie does what he does best: come to the help of his friends.

I'll admit, for a long stretch of time, I hated Archie comics.  My mindset was that Archie knew full well what he was doing, and was just living it up by having two gorgeous girls throw themselves at him.  It soiled the "idyllic town" in my eyes, and it took me a long time to be willing to go back and look at the characters again.

Here's the thing, though.  Archie isn't a bad guy at all.  He's not perfect, by any means, but the poor guy does genuinely have feelings for both Betty and Veronica, and that struggle against being poor buy happy in a down to earth way against huge riches and distancing oneself from his friends and roots is a thought a lot of young people will have to eventually go through.  Do they want to go to a local college and stay close to where they grew up, or is the dream to move to somewhere like Chicago, New York, or even to another country?

Much like how you can boil down Betty and Veronica into what they represent, Archie can be boiled down to one thing as well:  He's the guy who's always there to help his friends and never wants to hurt anybody.

That's what the story of his death is.  Disregarding his own life, his own future, and even his own family, he jumps into the path of a bullet to save his friend, Kevin Keller

I also love the fact that this isn't a split issue book.  Certain events, like Kevin Keller becoming a senator, happen in both storylines, so at this point in time both futures for Archie converge.  It comes down to that no matter who Archie married, this was going to be his future.  The eternal teenager might grow up, but he can never "get old."

When it comes down to it, if I had to look back at the year so far and pick what I think might be the best comic book to come out, it's rather remarkable that two of my top five picks so far are books featuring America's favorite red-headed teenager.

Of course, all this is also ignoring the fact that Dilton Doiley, the nerdy scientist friend of Archie's, is using his knowledge of quantum physics to discover that both universes are uniquely real and are simply part of a growing number of alternate dimensions to feature Archie.  The 40s and 50s?  They're one dimension.  Archie marries Betty?  That's one.  Archie as Pureheart The Powerful?  That's one, too.  Little Archie even gets his own dimension.

But that's a topic for another day.

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