The Fascinating Death Of Archie Andrews Breaks Creative Ground In American ‘Event Comics’ [Review]
It’s been very interesting to watch Archie Comics transform from a company built on eternally unchanging teenage shenanigans in a peaceful, small town to the culturally progressive company that grabs headlines at every turn with how it’s rebuilding Riverdale for the modern comics reader. But besides the stories that strike chords within contemporary political conversations, it’s been fun seeing just how Archie tackles these “Big Event” elements that we’ve seen in other American comics. I mean, in the world of superheroes, a character’s death (or “death”) has been a rite of passage since the ’70s, but for Archie, it’s entirely new territory. In waiting so long to use these elements, the events not only feel fresh, they’re also built in a much more interesting way than their cape-and-tights counterparts.
Or at least, that’s the case with Archie’s death at the hands of a gunman in the pages of this week’s Life With Archie #36, which isn’t just an evocative and moving story, it’s also one of the most fascinatingly structured comics I’ve ever read.
In case you missed it back when we first covered Life With Archie, the series has always had a pretty bizarre structure. Spinning out of the two stunt storylines in the ongoing Archie title that showed how the title character’s life would play out if he finally married Betty or Veronica, each issue was split between two different timelines, each with its own ongoing soap opera elements and plot twists to keep things interesting. In the “AMB” timeline, for instance, Archie moved to New York to pursue a career in music before washing out and returning to Riverdale to become a teacher. The “AMV” timeline saw him taking a job at Lodge Industries just as it was wracked by controversy and scandal — both of which were built on giving the eternal teenager as many “adult problems” as he could possibly handle.
That said, there were common elements across both universes, the most important of which was the return of Kevin Keller, who was wounded while serving in the Army and married his physical therapist, Clay.
As much as it was a big deal to have Archie Comics — which, again, traded for decades on a reputation for reflecting an idyllic small-town America — release a comic showing an openly gay war hero getting married to his husband right there on the cover, the importance in the storyline was that it was a common element for both timelines, as was Kevin’s successful campaign for senator. And that formed the core of what happens in Life With Archie #36.
See, what makes this issue so fascinating is that Archie’s death works with both timelines.
Writer Paul Kupperberg and artists Pat and Tim Kennedy have structured their story so that the identity of Archie’s wife is left purposefully vague, even when he’s thinking about the future that he might have — and yes, this is a story set in two alternate futures that has a character imagining two more alternate futures beyond that, just in case things weren’t complicated enough at the start. And to be honest, while treating Betty and Veronica as interchangeable characters sounds like it’s not a great idea, it actually works here, because this isn’t a story about their love triangle.
Instead, it’s a story about how the core of those characters remain constant, no matter what else happens in their lives, and in a way, that makes the death of Archie perfect. Even the older Archie, the one who does grow up and get married, doesn’t get the chance to grow old. Instead, he dies in a way that’s in tune with the most important thing about Archie. Not the klutziness that provided the punchline for a thousand stories, not the romantic indecision that provided decades of a love triangle (or, if you’re throwing in Cheryl Blossom and Valerie from the Pussycats, a love pentagon), but from being the guy who’s always there for his friends when they need him.
That’s as much a part of Archie’s character as anything else, and it’s arguably the most important part. If Archie was any less of a good person, we’d all hate him, but at the end of the day, he’ll jump in front of a gun and take a bullet for his friends, and this issue makes that idea literal. It’s a consistency across all timelines, across all versions of Archie, whether they’re the alternate futures of Life With Archie, the beleaguered zombie fighter of Afterlife With Archie, or that regular milkshake-loving teenager who’s going to keep having those teenage hijinks forever.
The consistency across all those versions of Archie, and how they’re supported no matter the subject matter of their stories, is something I find fascinating, which is what really makes Life With Archie #36 such an interesting comic. Even in a medium where the deaths of major characters have become as regular as clockwork, it’s rare to see one like this that makes a statement about the character that’ll outlast all the hype surrounding it.