humour

Archie turns 65 and takes out the garbage

Despite his advanced age, the comic hero tries to keep up with new trends, to a point

JAIME J. WEINMAN February 27 2006
humour

Archie turns 65 and takes out the garbage

Despite his advanced age, the comic hero tries to keep up with new trends, to a point

JAIME J. WEINMAN February 27 2006

Archie turns 65 and takes out the garbage

Despite his advanced age, the comic hero tries to keep up with new trends, to a point

humour

BY JAIME J. WEINMAN • Comic books come and go, especially those aimed at young children. Most of the kiddie comics of the last generation are gone now, replaced by new ones with new characters. But one series keeps going: Archie, the story of a red-headed “typical teenager” in the generic American town of Riverdale. This year, Archie celebrates what its editors are calling its “65th Anniversary Bash,” and at retirement age, it remains one of the best-known, bestselling comic books in the world. Editor Victor Gorelick, who has been working at Archie Comics Entertainment for more than 40 years, says: “I can’t remember a time when Archie wasn’t popular.” Part of that popularity is fuelled by good old Canadian money: Canada accounts for an estimated 30 per cent of Archie Comics’ overall sales. “I seem to receive the most mail from our Canadian readers,” Gorelick says. The company has responded to its huge Canadian fan base by doing occasional Canadianthemed issues, like an “All-Canadian Digest.” The formula of Archie hasn’t changed much since 1942, when the publishers introduced the romantic triangle between Archie, sweet, blond-haired Betty Cooper, and rich snob Veronica Lodge (who looks exactly like Betty except with dark hair). Archie and his friends have spent 65 years doing the same types of things over and over: Archie makes dates with one or more girls, Betty and Veronica compete over Archie, and Archie’s pal Jughead eats more hamburgers than any cartoon character since Popeye’s J. Wellington Wimpy. Occasionally Archie has tried other types of comics. Some of the experiments even worked: writer/artist Bob Bolling won acclaim in the ’50s for his action-packed Little Archie comics. But after the occasional experiment, Archie always goes running back to the safe, reliable territory of Pop Tate’s Chok’lit Shoppe and teachers handing out detentions.

From the moment it became popular, Archie has been attacked as bland and unrealistic; in the ’50s, Mad magazine did a parody called “Starchie” that reimagined Archie as a violent juvenile delinquent. Yet none of the attacks seem to matter: kids keep buying the comics, and the Archie audience—which Gorelick breaks down as “55 per cent girls, 45 per cent boys”—remains large while Mad’s continues to shrink. Generations of children have been raised on Archie’s love-triangle comedies. “In many cases they are a child’s first reading experience,” says Gorelick. “Archie comics are known as ‘reader breeders.’ ”

In many cases they are a child's first reading experience. Archie comics are "reader breeders'"

Part of the secret of Archie Comics is that the company continues to target kids who are not diehard comic book fans. Whereas most comics have retreated to specialty shops, catering to people who want to know if this will be the issue in which Superman dies for real, Archie is sold the old-fashioned way: at newsstands, in drugstores, and other places where kids might tag along with parents. Archie digests—mini-books reprinting old stories from the vast archives—are as much a fixture in supermarket checkout lines as the tabloids.

Despite its advanced age, Archie tries to keep up with new trends, to a point. There’s

always some sort of acknowledgement of the things kids are doing for fun—from hula hoops in the ’50s to video games today—and Betty and Veronica are usually dressed according to the latest fashions. Gorelick says that his writers have tried to work in some nods to changing gender roles, pointing out that now, unlike in the past, “Archie’s mom is not responsible for all the household chores. Father and son have become more involved.” And sometimes the company even revamps its house style to fit in with changing public taste: in response to the popularity of Japanese manga, Archie Comics relaunched its title Sabrina the Teenage Witch as a manga-style “magical girl” comic, in which characters have huge eyes and terms like “trickster-god” are tossed around.

Still, the main appeal of Archie is familiarity, the knowledge that the stories and characters will mostly stay the same. For kids, this familiarity provides a comfort level they can’t get from superhero comics, with their confusing storylines and constantly changing characters. For adults, the fact that they grew up reading Archie makes them happy to buy the same kind of thing for their children.

Gorelick is happy to be selling familiarity: “You know what you’re getting with an Archie comic. They’re safe for children and adults.” It could be that today’s children will wind up buying Archie for their children someday—and Archie still won’t have made up his mind between Betty and Veronica. M