Ask Chris #236: How I Learned To Love ‘Archie’
Q: Can you help an Archie skeptic understand why it's so great? - @SuperSentaiBros
A: Man, I hope so. After all, until a few years ago, Archie was arguably the most overlooked publisher in comics just by sheer volume of what they were putting out, at least among die-hard superhero fans. And to be honest, they had a good reason for it --- in a lot of ways, those comics had gotten stale, and they were in dire need of exactly the kind of shot in the arm that they got from the big name projects that have made them so engaging today.
The thing is, at least in my case, it wasn't when Archie suddenly got weird that made me such a big fan. It was when I realized that they'd been weird all along.
I'm about as big a fan of Archie as you're likely to find, but oddly enough, it's not because I ever really liked the books when I was a kid. I mean, I'm sure I read Archie books --- lord knows I begged my mom for comics every time we went to the grocery store, and just from a statistical standpoint it's impossible that a Double Digest didn't end up in our cart at some point --- but I don't really remember them. Really, the only Archie books that I do remember picking up were from when they were publishing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and those early Sonic the Hedgehog comics that were built around Sonic's weird obsession with chili dogs.
As a result, and I can't imagine this is typical, I'm one of those weirdos who decided to get really into Archie Comics when I was in my mid-20s.
But while I don't remember ever really reading them when i was a kid, I still knew who all those characters were. It's one of those bits of pop culture that just seem to show up in your brain, like how even folks who've never picked up a comic in their lives tend to have at least a vague idea of what Superman and Batman's deal is, if only because they've been around since before World War II started. If something sticks around long enough, people are going to know about it, especially if that thing is vaguely responsible for an honest-to-God #1 hit song --- and if the characters are stripped down to archetypes, then that makes them a lot easier to know about.
Which is exactly the case with Archie and the gang. Even if you're an Archie Skeptic, I'm willing to bet that you can describe the main cast pretty well: Archie is klutzy and girl-crazy, but kindhearted; Veronica's beautiful but rich; Betty's sweet but poor; Reggie is five seconds away from getting punched in the mouth at any given time; and Jughead is literally the fifth best comic book character of all time. You know, the stuff we can all agree on. They work as these vague ideas with the occasional quirk as much as they work as defined characters, and I don't think there's any better example of that than the fact that Archie plays sports. Not a sport, just "sports." If there's ever a story that requires him to be involved in athletics, he's there.
Because, you know, that's what teenagers are into: Sports.
That's actually what made me want to read Archie books to begin with. At the time, I was starting to get serious about figuring out how to write comics, and one of the things that's always fascinated me across all media is the idea of tweaking a formula. How much can you really get out of a love story about an unlikely Lothario and the two girls that compete over him? How many different combinations can you put these vague archetypes into before you run out? Those were the questions I was really interested in.
So I did what anyone who was working at a comic book store and had a lot of free time would do, and I decided to start reading literally every comic the company published, including those 200-page Double Digests. And that, my friends, is a lot of Archie comics.
In retrospect, it might've actually been the best time to jump on. To be honest, a lot of the stories were extremely formulaic and, sadly, not that great, but there were a lot of gems in there, too. Even the ones that weren't that great still had this kind of interesting fumbling towards relevance that they'd finally get to a couple of years later, like that time Jughead showed up in a t-shirt reading "DON'T TAZE ME BRO" in a story that ran about a year after the incident that made that a catchphrase.
The main thing I got from all those stories was getting a baseline of the characters, and figuring out how detailed those archetypes really were, something that turned out to be mostly situational. But while I enjoyed reading a lot of those comics, they weren't really what made me a fan. What hooked me was the weird stuff.
At the same time as I was reading the current output, I was also digging through back issue bins for some of the more obscure titles that weren't getting reprinted, and the ones that always caught my eye were the truly bizarre Christian comics put out by Spire (and drawn by born-again Archie artist Al Hartley), and the ultra-serious Life With Archie books from the '70s, where Archie was dealing with stuff like Veronica being held at knifepoint or crooks trying to bilk people out of money by renting a "haunted" mansion.
Please try to work "the tape deck of Satan himself" into as many conversations as you can. I promise it will be rewarding.
Anyway, those stories are almost never reprinted --- although the one above showed up alongside a couple of others in a recent paperback called Archie's Favorite Comics From The Vault --- and it's easy to see why. They break the formula, and they do it in a way that's fascinating. At its worst, Riverdale isn't just a peaceful, idealized small town, it's placid and saccharine in equal measure, which I think is the version most people who haven't read a lot of those comics have in their head. In those stories, though, it's every bit as violent and scary and full of flinthearted con-men as everything else. It's what made those comics so appealing, that they took that well-established formula and broke it into pieces.
The thing is, the more stories I read --- and honestly, a lot of credit for this has to go to whoever was in the office picking out which classic stories went into the digests --- the more I realized that the formula was being shattered all over the place, and had been since those comics started.
Don't get me wrong, the vast majority of Archie comics I've read have been playing into the formula of putting these archetypal characters into typical teenage situations, to the point where one of Archie's taglines back in the Golden Age was "America's Typical Teenager." This is, for the record, a pretty terrible tagline, but to be fair, it's better than the previous one, "The Mirth of a Nation." Yikes.
But while the formula is prevalent, there are a ton of stories that only use it to make everything else seem weirder. Not only are there stories where Betty and Veronica have a much sharper, more acid-tongued rivalry than the friendship they'd eventually be cast in; there are stories where aliens and Christmas elves show up, or the Weird Mysteries arc, where you find out Veronica is a destined vampire slayer, or the fact that everyone knows there's an actual teenage witch who lives two towns over.
And then there's Cricket O'Dell.
Cricket O'Dell is my single favorite Archie character of all time.
If you're not familiar with her, Cricket has the uncanny ability to literally smell money, to the point where she can determine exactly how much cash a person has on hand just by sniff, and can even identify foreign currency by its distinct aroma. That is bananas, and even stranger is the fact that everyone just completely accepts this as something that's weird, but not entirely unheard of. Like... that's basically a mutant superpower, right? And yet, Archie and Co. just refer to it as a slightly odd talent.
That she even exists in a world that is defined as being the home of typical teenagers is pretty great, but what makes it even better is when she shows up in my all-time favorite Archie story, which involves my second-favorite Archie character, the Elevenaire.
Again, if you're not spending all your free time reading Archie comics, this one might've escaped you, but the Elevenaire is a recurring character/plot device who has been authorized by his benefactor, the mysterious Gosford P. Wobbledon, to present certain people with the sum of eleven dollars in cash, which naturally leads them into hijinx. If that sounds weird, and it should, then keep in mind that it's also a reference to a TV show called The Millionaire that ran on CBS in the '50s, where the mysterious benefactor was named John Beresford Tipton, Jr. I didn't even find that out until six months ago, and it only made me love that story more.
The two characters come together in Veronica #180 (which, incidentally, is available digitally), where Ronnie gets the $11 and initially thinks it's useless since she always uses a debit card, but then falls down a hole and only gets out of it because Cricket can track her down using the exact scent of eleven dollars.
And that, to me, is Archie Comics. All the stuff you know, or at least the stuff that you think you know, is still there in place. It's just happening on top of a world that's a whole lot stranger than you might expect, where that formula gets hammered into as many bizarre shapes as you expect from 75 years of trying to do something new with it.