The modern Archie Comics has developed a reputation for doing the unexpected and somehow pulling it off. The wholesome publisher pipped Marvel and DC to the lead in launching an ongoing book with a gay teen protagonist in Kevin Keller; it broke with the conventions of comic book continuity with its attention-grabbing Archie Marries... storylines; and it successfully brought zombies to Riverdale with its critically and commercially successful Afterlife With Archie books, potentially kicking off a new line of horror books.

So it feels in keeping with that spirit that Archie Comics announced this week that it plans to relaunch its cheery (and perennially under-exposed) Red Circle superhero line as 'Dark Circle,' a line of adult-oriented series with the sophisticated narrative ambitions of HBO or Showtime. It's certainly unexpected. Can Archie Comics pull it off?

Archie Comics' superheroes line is one of the oldest in the business -- its first hero, the Shield, debuted in 1940. However, the success of Archie Andrews and the Riverdale teens always overshadowed the publisher's cape comics, and repeated efforts to grab readers' attention -- relaunching as Mighty Comics, Red Circle Comics, Spectrum Comics, and even as an imprint of DC called Impact! -- have all ended in failure. The most recent relaunch of Red Circle Comics as a digital imprint occurred in 2011, to little fanfare.

Given Red Circle's track record, it's not hard to imagine the editors and executives at Archie realizing that they've nothing to lose if they try something radical. The deserved success of Afterlife With Archie saw its author Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa promoted to the new role of Chief Creative Officer at the company. One can see echoes of the way Afterlife introduced higher stakes drama to the cheery Archie universe in Archie Comics' proposed plans for Dark Circle.

But that doesn't make Dark Circle any less of a gamble. In a press release promoting the new line, Archie Comics said the approach for Dark Circle would be "cinematic, literary and mature", with an emphasis on accessibility to new readers. The books will not be all-ages appropriate, and though they will utilize existing Red Circle characters, they will not have ties to past continuity. It sounds like a departure even from the recent Red Circle comic The Fox, by Mark Waid and Dean Haspiel, which was a fun but fairly traditional superhero adventure story.

Line editor and Archie Comics marketing director Alex Segura promises that Dark Circle will feature "creator-driven books telling new, genre bending stories", and "stories about flawed characters from a range of genres, including crime, superhero adventure and off-the-wall action." Formerly of DC Comics, Segura specifically cited cable television shows Boardwalk Empire, True Detective, and Orange is the New Black as examples of the line's storytelling aspirations.

It sounds very ambitious -- in a way that makes one wonder if everyone involved is perhaps a little bit crazy. Sure, you wouldn't expect anything less than lofty aspirations in a press release; but even so, hoping to carve out a place in the adult comics market with gritty and sophisticated tales through the medium of Archie superheroes sounds bold beyond belief.


The Red Circle heroes in 1983. Art by Rich Buckler.
The Red Circle heroes in 1983. Art by Rich Buckler.


But only a fool would deny Archie Comics's ambitions out of hand given their recent successes. If the Dark Circle line is successful, it would provide a very welcome new voice in the market, and a high profile venue for mature genre storytelling away from Image, Dark Horse, and Vertigo.

At this point we have no idea what titles Dark Circle will launch with or which creators will be involved, but Segura has promised a "dream team." It could take an impressive raft of talent to get a project like this off the ground.

The first Dark Circle titles will be announced later this month, during the lead up to San Diego Comic-Con.

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