Ask Chris #187: Archie Gets Weird
Q: What's the weirdest thing Archie Comics has ever done, and why was it awesome? -- @darkmaple
A: It almost goes without saying at this point, but Archie's marketing strategy over the past few years has been nothing short of brilliant. All the stunts they've been pulling -- and I mean that in the most positive way possible -- have been designed to shake up the public perception of just what Archie Comics are. Most readers, even if they're casual fans of the actual Archie comics, tend to have this mental picture of Riverdale that's built around those eight-page gag strips where Archie has to run back and forth between two dates, and for good reason. That's been the core of the line for the past 70 years, so when they announce something like Lena Dunham dropping by to write a story or an adult-oriented horror comic where Archie's classmates are devouring each other's flesh, it immediately makes people wonder how it's going to work in the peaceful, idyllic world of Archie Comics.
But here's the thing: They've always been weird out there in Riverdale. They're weird as Hell.
If we're talking about the single strangest comic they've ever put out -- which, you know, was the actual question you asked -- then there's no getting around the obvious answer. It's Afterlife With Archie, hands down, no debate necessary. I've got every issue of that comic sitting on my desk right now, and every now and then, I still have a lot of trouble believing that it's something that actually exists. And the crazy thing is, the zombies are the least of it.
As writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa has been fond of saying in the past, it's not just a zombie comic, it's a horror comic. He and Francesco Francavilla have designed a world where everything is meant to be creepy and unsettling, from the zombies all the way down to a version of Riverdale where Reggie can run Hot Dog over and spend a sleepless night scrubbing blood off of his car to, well, Cheryl and Jason Blossom and their incestuous relationship.
Seriously, when it comes to weird stuff that's happened in an Archie book, there's no amount of Jughead Time-Policing that's going to begin to hold a candle to the kids from Pembrooke Academy getting all Cruel Intentions out there in their mansion.
It's so far out there in terms of Archie books, heck, in terms of comic books, that it sparked a debate between me and my writing partner, Chad Bowers. I'm pretty sure he likes the book as much as I do, but he wondered whether it was, as he put it, "like Identity Crisis for Archie fans" -- by which he means a book that ruins everything by skewing it all into a spiral of trying to go darker and more adult, moving away from the core of what's actually appealing about those characters in the name of catering to an audience that just wants things "serious," dark, and grotesque.
Before I could even attempt to pull rank as an Archie reader, he shot me down by pointing out that I'm not exactly the audience he was talking about. Don't get me wrong, I have a deep and unironic love of the Archie characters and their adventures, but there's nothing I love more than finding those books where they did get into the more bizarre and forgotten corners of the universe, whether it's the serious, dramatic action stories of the '70s, or the stuff I'll be getting around to in a few minutes. As a result, I'm the exact target audience for a book like Afterlife. But is there someone out there who only likes the gag strips and the comedy, someone who looks at that Cheryl Blossom scene with the same frothing hatred that takes over my brain when I think about how those dopes called in Superman -- Superman -- to look at a knot because ha ha he's a boy scout get it.
I don't think it is, for a couple of reasons, the first and most important being that Afterlife is actually a really great comic so far, while Identity Crisis was 100% hot garbage. Second, it's still the exception rather than the rule. Identity Crisis was the bottom of a barrel that got rolling back in the '80s, the culmination of a trend that's still continuing today. Afterlife, on the other hand, is pretty isolated -- Archie's output as a company still overwhelmingly geared towards kid-friendly titles, whether it's the main-line comedy books or the all-ages action titles like Sonic the Hedgehog and Mega Man.
Another main factor is that as weird and scary as things get, everyone's still more or less in character, which is exactly what makes it work, and frequently what makes it kind of hilarious. Betty and Veronica's rivalry has been amped up and dipped in acid, and Reggie's been nudged from "annoying prankster" across the line to "complete dirtbag," but the relationships and characters are all where they should be. I was just talking to Jonathan at the Riverdale Podcast, and while it took him 'til the latest issue to warm up to the series, what sold him on it was that Archie was still the klutzy guy who's always going to come through and do the right thing.
Even if, you know, "the right thing" in this case is beating his zombie father to death with a baseball bat.
What really makes me think that everything's going to be okay, though -- and this is where we finally drag this column kicking and screaming back to the original question -- is that this is far from the first time that Archie's gone off the rails over the years, and again: I mean that in the best way possible.
Like I said, that's the stuff that really interests me as an Archie fan, and the reason is that these characters are built to fit into any story that requires them, almost to the point of being a high school full of stand-ins. They're not quite "archetypes" in the traditional sense; they've all accumulated enough quirks over the years that they qualify as characters with actual personalities that are pretty consistent, and it's not difficult to describe them in terms of what they want, even if that motivation is as simple as "Veronica" or "Hamburgers." But at the same time, they've got this purposefully universal quality to them. And since we tend to only see them in one kind of story, seeing them in another genre, where they actually fit just as well, is endlessly entertaining to me.
That's the secret that makes Afterlife work, because the line between Archie's gang of friends and your average slasher movie's roster of teenage victims is so blurry that it might as well not exist, but that's just the most recent take on it. And obviously, the other most famous example -- and the one that held the heavyweight championship of weird Archie stories until about four months ago -- is Punisher Meets Archie.
Like Afterlife, it's a comic where the joke is entirely in the premise, and like Afterlife, it also succeeds by staying true to the core of the characters. It's good because it actually works as both an Archie story and a Punisher story.
But even that's not the only weird comic Archie published over the years, and there's stuff out there that's every bit as bizarre. And I don't mean "bizarre" like this...
Or even this, the single greatest comic book panel ever published:
(Sorry. I had a lot of those saved up over the years.)
For my money, there's a line of Archie comics out there that's every bit as weird as Afterlife, while actually being the exact opposite of that book in almost every way. And I'm referring, of course, to the Spire Comics line of Christian Archie stories.
I am obsessed with these things. The actual story behind them is fascinating even before you get to what's on the page, and the short version is that it's all down to one man: Al Hartley. Hartley was a long-time comics artist who broke in at Timely in the '50s, working with Stan Lee, but when Lee and Jack Kirby revolutionized superhero comics in 1961, Hartley wans't really a good fit. It makes sense that he wouldn't be -- stylistically speaking, his work is about as far from Kirby's as you can get -- and he only ended up drawing one superhero story for Marvel, and scripting a few others. Where he found his niche was in Patsy Walker, the Archie-esque "teen humor" book, which he stayed on 'til 1967, well into that first leg of the Marvel Age of Comics.
And then there was Pussycat.
This, my friends, is the comic I've been dying to see a reprint of, and that I doubt we'll ever get: An almost-but-not-quite-porn comic about a sexy spy working for S.C.O.R.E. to battle the evils of L.U.S.T., and frequently had her clothing torn off along the way. It was sort of the mid-'60s version of Empowered, but written by Stan Lee and Larry Lieber with art from the likes of Wally Wood and Bill Ward (who drew the classic "The Cavortin' Case Of The Booby-Trapped Bra"). Despite the presence of Lee and the fact that it was published by Martin Goodman, it wasn't a Marvel book -- it was more Marvel-adjacent, this weird little lost artifact that, aside from Matt Fraction Jamie McKelvie briefly incorporating her into the Marvel universe int he pages of their beautifully kooky Defenders.
Hartley drew a few issues, but then, in 1967, he became a born-again Christian and left the book, and Marvel, for what are probably obvious reasons. Ironically enough, his signature character, Patsy Walker, would be incorporated into the core Marvel Universe as Hellcat, marry the literal Son of Satan, and gain psychic powers from spending time with the Devil. Hartley, meanwhile, ended up at Archie.
His version of the gang was extremely devout, to the point where he was actually asked to cut back on one point (for reasons I'll get to in a second), and he went on to become one of the more influential creators who shaped Betty's character in particular. In 1972, though, he was instrumental in launching Spire Comics, the religious line that adapted stories like The Cross and the Switchblade and the infamous Hansi: The Girl Who Loved the Swastika, but also licensed the Archie characters for their own religious adventures.
That's what makes the Spire Archie books so interesting to me. Hartley had been working in the teen humor genre for almost twenty years by that point, so a lot of times, they read like standard Archie comics, and then they suddenly take a left turn into these panels where Betty and Archie talk about how their dates involve chastely reading the bible, while other teens are hunched-over shadowy figure whose dates end in guilt and shame, presumably because they were totes bangin'.
No, seriously. That's in there.
Goodness knows that I don't want to offend anyone's religious beliefs, but that's a little over-the-top. I mean, it's certainly no Jack Chick tract where demons are casting people who give out Halloween candy into fire, but still. Getting blasted with the gnawing shame of pre-marital sex in an Archie comic is kind of surprising.
They're all like that, too. One of my favorites involves the gang apparently wandering into Riverdale's seedy porno district and being confronted with the best fake movie title of all time:
Did DIVORCE ANYSTYLE ever get a DVD release? Criterion should probably get on that.
You could say that those don't necessarily count since they weren't actually put out by Archie, just licensed out to a third-party publisher that happened to have an established Archie artist writing and drawing the books, but like I said, Hartley was prone to dropping a little of it into the regular books, too, and there's one... hoo boy. This couldn't have been the one that caused the publisher to intervene and ask him to tone it down a little, but in Life With Archie #129, there's a scene that's so bonkers that I'd stack it up with any of the gory violence in Afterlife in terms of sheer "I can't believe this actually happened" factor.
The story in question involves a debate over whether life was better in the in the past or in modern times (because that's the kind of conversation people had before the Internet, I guess), and Archie and his friends who are all teenagers agree that LIFE WAS BETTER IN THE 1890s.
Because, you know, in the 1890s women were "MORE than equals," and people showed cops the proper respect, which are definitely the things that high school kids in 1972 were concerned with. As I am always fond of noting, you don't really see Chuck and Nancy weighing in on that debate. I think they might've had slightly different opinions.
Those are far and away my picks for the weirdest things to ever happen in an Archie comic, and while they all have varying degrees of being awesome, that's really just scratching the surface. I mean, I didn't even get into that time Betty had to fight a bear, or when ten foot tall aliens showed up in Riverdale and started blasting people with their eye-beams, or even that time when Veronica was held at knifepoint by a robber who kidnapped her and drove Archie to go full-on vigilante to take him down.
No, seriously. Those '70s books are wild.