75 Years Ago Today: An Anniversary Tribute To America’s Not-So-Typical Teenager, Archie Andrews
In the early '40s, the comic book business was booming. Superheroes had lit the fuse on an explosion of a whole new popular medium, and while there were plenty of Superman and Batman knockoffs running around, publishers were finding their footing in other genres, too, from westerns to teen comedies. And on October 15, 1940, when Pep Comics #22 hit newsstands across the country (cover dated December 22), it was that last one that gave comics one of their most enduring, beloved, and important characters.
That character was Archie Andrews, and over the ensuing years he'd rack up one of the most interesting legacies in comics, one that included not only enduring success, but becoming synonymous with an entire genre, taking weird diversions into over-the-top drama and religious proselytizing ---- and becoming one of the very few fictional characters to ever have a #1 single.
Looking back, Archie's first appearance, where he attempts to impress new neighbor Betty Cooper with a series of stunts that inevitably go haywire, has a lot of the elements that would define the character for the next seven decades. Sure, it seems a little odd, especially the parts where he insists on being called "Chick," and the art is just different enough from the big-eyed "house style" that the Archie books would have for so long that it's in a weird sort of uncanny valley where it doesn't seem quite right, but Vic Bloom and Bob Montana are working with the same klutziness and the same hapless girl-craziness that readers are still seeing today. He's even got Jughead in there!
That was the beginning, and before long, Archie would become so popular that MLJ Magazines would rechristen itself as Archie Comics and devote the vast majority of its resources to putting the spotlight on Riverdale's favorite teens --- and it made sense that they would. Archie's steady increase in popularity coincided with the rise of the American teenager as a social and economic construct that would be in full swing by the middle of the 20th century --- the same shift that gave us Elvis and the Beatles, and that continues to be a massive force in the world. The emergence of the teenager as cultural force made Archie's never-ending stay at Riverdale high something that young readers wanted to see.
In a genre that was increasingly dominated by superheroes --- partly because the folks at MLJ were some of the more prominent people behind the Comics Code Authority that helped narrow down the medium from its more extreme and popular elements in the mid '50s --- Archie didn't just survive, he kept on thriving. There were, of course, experiments in taking Archie into different genres, from weird little side projects like the spy-themed parody "The Man From R.I.V.E.R.D.A.L.E." to the far more memorable superhero goofiness of Pureheart the Powerful.
Those were only diversions, of course. For a long time, Archie sold himself on a sense of familiarity --- and in fact, the digests full of reprints that were available at virtually every grocery store were a major source of income for the company even as superheroes tightened their stranglehold on mainstream comics. There was a formula for Archie's adventures that was tweaked and repeated, always within the bounds of the company's well-advertised Good Clean Fun.
But because of that, it's those deviations that end up being some of the most interesting episodes of the character's history. It's one thing to see Archie bumping into Mr. Lodge's priceless Ming vase, or scheduling a date with Betty and Veronica on the same night, but seeing him dealing with a switchblade-wielding robber or bemoaning that modern society is rife with sin and devil worship? That's the stuff, folks. That's the stuff.
And over time, those weird little deviations have become ingrained in Archie's character, and the result is a character built around familiar formulas that, underneath all that, is unique and vital in a way that almost nobody else can be. He's America's Typical Teen, but despite that, because of that, he's also a character that works in a zombie apocalypse, a battle against the Predator or the Punisher, a time-travel comedy, or a darker and more adult future. There's a history there that makes those weird ideas not just possible, but viable.
That might seem like a strange legacy, but it's one that has worked in Archie's favor, something that's allowed him to stay relevant and relatable even as times and teenagers have changed around him.