Riverdale is trending. That might have seemed unimaginable back in 1941, when Archie Andrews made his first appearance in issue 22 of Pep Comics. But Archie’s fictional hometown of Riverdale is now the setting of a hit television series—as well as a #hot #topic on Twitter. Although there have been highs and lows over the past 77 years, Archie and his cohorts are mainstream icons again. What’s the secret behind the brand’s lasting appeal?
Archie was immediately popular when he debuted, quickly graduating from Pep Comics to his own series and many spin-offs. The publisher, MLJ Magazines, changed the company’s name to Archie Comics in 1946. The setup of the Archie series was straightforward, as was its protagonist. “Archie, according to an outline provided by Archie Enterprises, is an assertive, optimistic, conventional person who is unquestioningly loyal to American institutions,” Sharon Scholl wrote in her article “The American Teenager: From Archie to Funky” (Studies in Popular Culture, 1979).
Scholl noted that “‘Archie’ presents a stereotype that has been altered only superficially, despite intervening changes in American culture. Because it portrays the teenager as a hapless adventurer operating well within the restrictions of conventional mores, it has been supported by parents.” By making the series acceptable to parents, Archie Comics ensured that it would be accessible to kids.
Archie’s cast of characters have provided consistent fodder for a seemingly limitless progression of stories. There’s Jughead Jones, a benevolent oddball and Archie’s best friend; blonde, sweet Betty Cooper and brunette, wealthy mean girl Veronica Lodge (Archie is constantly stuck choosing between them); and snobby rich kid Reggie Mantle, who is Archie’s rival. Rounding out the peer group are characters like Moose Mason, Midge Klump (Moose’s girlfriend), and Cheryl Blossom, as well as adults such as Riverdale High School’s Principal Weatherbee and Pop Tate, the owner of the popular hangout spot the Chok’lit Shoppe.
“In visualization, Archie is drawn with firm, moderately thick strokes and presented in two facial styles—the innocent optimist and the wisecracker,” Scholl observed. All the other “Archie” characters are drawn with broad strokes, too, both literally and idiomatically. Archie’s beanie-wearing best friend Jughead is one example of the series’ uncomplicated characters. Scholl describes Jughead as a “lethargic and laconic jester, frustrating in his mental reticence,” adding that “Jughead serves as the bad example, enhancing the preferred values of energy, optimism, and constructive activity.” A story involving Jughead might feature his sneaky attempt to obtain more than his fair share of pizza.
Similarly, the plotlines of the traditional Archie stories were simple and repetitive. The love triangle between Archie, Betty, and Veronica frequently took center stage; other familiar story arcs involved pranks, rivalry, clothes, and food. The consistency—and consistent banality—of the stories was part of the series’ appeal to both parents and children.
Despite this, even Archie fell victim to the backlash against comic books that reached its fervor in 1954 when Dr. Frederic Wertham published Seduction of the Innocent, a book meant to warn adults about the potentially harmful effects of comics on youth, including exposure to violence and sexual themes, as well as juvenile delinquency. “Congress took immediate notice,” Jim Windolf wrote in the 2006 Vanity Fair article “American Idol,” adding that Wertham’s book had an effect on the circulation numbers of comic books in general, including Archie. “The Riverdale gang was clean-cut enough to elude the congressional comic-book hearings led by Senator Estes Kefauver, but sales at Archie dropped, too,” he writes.
In response, the comic companies created the Comics Code Authority. The Comics Code Authority “imposed a code of standards of almost incredible restrictiveness,” wrote Louis Menand in the New Yorker. “Five censors working full time vetted new comics. Even Betty and Veronica were ordered to wear less tight-fitting blouses, in accordance with the requirement that ‘females shall be drawn realistically without exaggeration of any physical qualities.’” Archie Comics complied, and the series received a black-and-white stamp on each issue with the words “Approved by the Comics Code Authority.” The Code died off in 2011.
The Code reassured adults of Archie’s harmlessness. With reassurance came renewed acceptance, followed by the concept that the medium might even have educational and sociological benefits. In her 1973 article “Comic Books: Conduits to Culture?” for The Reading Teacher, Kay Haugaard wrote: “As the mother of three boys who, one after the other, were notoriously unmotivated to learn to read and had to be urged, coaxed, cajoled, threatened and drilled in order even to stay in the super slow group in reading, I wish to thank comic books for being a conduit, if not a contribution, to culture.”
Haugaard explained that after allowing her oldest son to read comics such as Archie, “his eagerness to read these things was so consuming that he kept running to me with words to explain (‘Mommie, what does s-y-n-d-i-c-a t-e spell?’ ‘What does k-e-r-p-o-w mean?’). Soon his growing skill made him aware of other words in other books and magazines and everywhere. He was lured into them by the magnetic power of his own knowledge.”
Bonny Norton expanded on that idea in her 2003 article “The Motivating Power of Comic Books: Insights from Archie Comic Readers,” also for The Reading Teacher. “Kay Haugaard’s plea for research on comic books is no less relevant today than it was 30 years ago,” Norton wrote after interviewing 30 Archie readers “[aged] approximately 9 to 12, just discovering the richness of language and the myriad possibilities of irony, puns, and plays on words.” Norton explained that not just burgeoning literacy but a sense of connection and community was important to these readers: “In my research I found that Archie readers, and the girls in particular, constituted an informal and loosely connected reading community in which the vast majority were introduced to Archie comics by friends. The children in the study borrowed comics from one another, went to one another’s houses to swap comics, and talked about the stories on a regular basis.”
The brand’s next hurdle was to find cultural relevance again. It had lost older readers by failing to meaningfully align with the changing zeitgeist. “Though the [Archie] stories never ceased, they quietly and gradually dimmed in relevance,” wrote Abraham Riesman for Vulture. “The formal rigidity that had once been a marketable virtue ossified into a creative disability.” Riesman also observed that “Archie Comics had lost its ability to perform the clever market adaptation that had allowed it to come into existence in the first place.” After years of creatively spinning its wheels, Archie’s peculiar dichotomy—an obedient adherence to cultural norms coupled with the ability to successfully evolve—needed to be present again. There was more room to maneuver; adults were no longer looming quite so large by providing or blocking access to comics, and the negative focus on the medium had shifted to other potentially harmful pursuits, like video games.
In 2009, Jon Goldwater, son of John L. Goldwater, one of the co-founders of the original Archie Comics, became co-CEO of the company and began steering Archie and his friends into new creative territory. His first step was to encourage the Archie staff to come up with fresh, relevant ideas. And so Archie finally married Veronica. And in a parallel universe, he and Betty were also wed. These two divergent roads were explored in the subsequent series Life with Archie: The Married Life, which began in 2010.
The Archie Comics brand had never seen anything like it, this curious mix of traditional Archie, science-fiction, and a kind of world-weary realism that took on topics such as terminal illness, marital woes, and financial stress. Perhaps Archie and friends were simply due, after so many years, for this kind of shakeup. Or maybe readers were ready to see a resolution to Archie’s long-standing inability to choose between Betty and Veronica. Or it might have been that the series recognized and incorporated prevalent fears and anxieties, which struck a chord with readers both new and old. But whatever the reasons, the series was a huge hit, making headlines and attracting readers in record numbers.
The 2010 version of Archie also introduced the groundbreaking Kevin Keller, the first openly gay character in the world of Archie Comics. Just as Archie Andrews had almost seventy years earlier, Kevin debuted in someone else’s series (Issue 202 of Veronica), found immediate popularity, and graduated to an eponymous series (the 2016 digital series Life with Kevin, which was followed by a print collection). Affirming Kevin’s importance and value to the brand, Life with Archie ended with Archie heroically saving Kevin from an assassination attempt and dying in the process.
Archie Comics had found a newfound fluidity, and the company went with the flow. 2013 brought Afterlife with Archie, featuring an alternate, apocalyptic universe in which the Riverdale characters were under siege by zombies, with a decaying, bloodthirsty Jughead as Patient Zero—a far cry from the Comic Code-approved, modestly attired Betty and Veronica of earlier years. Variety reported the same year that “The first issue [of Afterlife with Archie] sold approximately 50,000 copies… and a second run of about 15,000 has also sold out.”
Archie Comics had asserted a powerful political stance, portrayed parallel universes and a zombie apocalypse, and even killed off its protagonist (albeit only in one particular timeline). The next step would be to transcend its initial medium. Archie cartoons ran for ten years beginning in 1968, and the song “Sugar Sugar,” performed by the studio band behind the fictional Archies, was a chart-topper in 1969. But its most recent effort had been the much-maligned 1990 live-action TV movie Archie: To Riverdale and Back Again.
In the 1990s, TV underwent its own transformation, becoming a source for high-quality and groundbreaking shows that often eclipsed film in popularity and influence. Hits like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Dawson’s Creek captured the attention and loyalty of teenage audiences. In 2017, Archie followed them with Riverdale, which has been a huge success both with fans who obsess over the characters’ nail polish to critics who approve of the concept’s makeover. “The whole Archieverse is hotter and more haunted,” James Poniewozik wrote in his 2017 New York Times review of the show, describing Archie as “not just ripped, but woke.” Noel Murray called the show “Archie reimagined as a steamy nighttime television drama” in his review of Riverdale for Rolling Stone.
Surprisingly, it was the actor Cole Sprouse, who plays Jughead Jones on Riverdale, who was able to explain, simply, why Archie has not just endured, but adapted. “The archetypes of Archie are like a theater troupe that just kinda fits themselves into any sort of situation,” he told Riesman. While it may seem strange to have such a succinct encapsulation of the brand’s success come from the young man playing Jughead, we’ve learned that in the Archie universes, people can—and will—surprise you. You just have to give them a little time.