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How Riverdale made Archie relevant for a new generation of fans

An all-American comic is more subversive than it seems

Kids line up to ask questions about Archie comics, dressed as Jughead, Josie, and others.

The CW’s Riverdale has become a hit by adapting one of the most unlikely pieces of source material: the all-American line of Archie Comics. With a darker, more glamorous take, the show has been able to bring an entirely new audience to the traditionally wholesome high school adventures of Archie and his friends Betty, Veronica, and Jughead. A panel dedicated to the character at New York Comic Con this past Saturday highlighted the schism between the old and the new, revealing an unlikely key to the success of both Archie and Riverdale.

The members of the Comic Con audience were largely young girls and boys, with a smattering of teenagers, and talking to them afterwards it was clear they had largely fallen into the world of Archie through The CW series. Some mentioned that they purchased Archie comics at a nearby bodega and joined the fandom that way, but for the majority of them Riverdale came first, and only afterwards did they begin picking up the comics. “My dad grew up with Archie,” a teenager named Alyssa said, “and now I’m growing up with Riverdale.”

A big secret to Riverdale’s success is that it has fearlessly played to The CW’s sensibilities, rather than holding on to any particular sense of what a traditional Archie Comics story should be. The Suite Life of Zack and Cody’s Cole Sprouse stars as Jughead, giving former fans of the Disney show an easy incentive to watch. Riverdale’s promotional materials leave out any mention of Archie himself — neatly sidestepping any associations with a comics line that some may consider too old-school to bother with. If anything, Riverdale is marketed as just another CW high school drama in the vein of Vampire Diaries or Gossip Girl. To add even more heft, the show itself spends time exploring Jughead’s traumatic home life, with much of the first season revolving around the disappearance and murder of Riverdale High’s water polo team captain.

Panelists at the Archie Comics: Riverdale Revealed panel at the New York Comic Con 2017.

It’s all in sharp contrast to the original source material — with Archie and his pals first appearing in the comics in 1941 as the epitome of classical American wholesomeness. The original series featured Archie as the boy next door, always flirting with good ol’ blonde Betty Cooper, whose best friend was the posh brunette Veronica Lodge. All of this clashes dramatically with the TV adaptation. In Riverdale, Veronica’s now the daughter of a criminal involved with Ponzi schemes, and Betty and Archie have a much rougher relationship than meets the eye.

During the panel, Tor Books editor Diana Pho confessed that when Riverdale ads first began airing, she and her wife kept making fun of it. “It’s like, why is Archie Comics being so dramatic?” Even so, Pho started watching the series and found it exceeded her expectations. “I think [the showrunners] are totally self-aware, and they know it's a ridiculous premise. But they play it like a super serious primetime soap opera, and it works.”

It’s such a drastic revamp, that one would almost expect it to cause an uproar — but both the original Archie creators and fans seem to be more than fine with the changes. Nobody in the crowd at Comic Con on Saturday complained about having their beloved Archie comics ruined or retconned. If anything, the changes are part of the appeal. “Seeing all these different types of people come together on this all-American show was really cool,” said Alexis Williams, a Riverdale fan that came to the panel dressed up as Ashleigh Murray’s Josie. “I just really enjoyed that and stuck with the show.”

While Riverdale is perhaps the most notable recent success, it’s not the only time the Archie line has been updated and tweaked. Despite its reputation as a comic stuck in a time loop, Archie Comics has a long track record of being revamped. In 1969, Josie and the Pussycats member Valerie was added to the story as the first black character, and the comics line has a history of progressive action both in terms of its business models (it was the first big-name publisher to embrace same-day digital release of its comics) and representation within its stories.

Alexis Williams in cosplay as Josie from Riverdale at the New York Comic Con 2017.

Archie Comics has also given life to spinoffs, crossovers, and radical genre experiments. In an issue released last week, Betty and Veronica met DC Comics’ Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy. Jughead had a recent one-off book called Jughead: the Hunger, where he appeared as a werewolf, facing off against Betty as his wolf-hunting nemesis. In The Archies, real-life bands like CHVRCHES and The Monkees will run into the lead characters. It’s an approach that turns the archetypal nature of Archie and his friends’ high-school antics into a asset, able to shift and transform to fit any possible era. After all, there will always be kids in high school, facing the modern issues of the day.

Again and again, the artists and creators on the panel emphasized that as long as the core personalities of each character are kept intact, anything and everything else could be changed. The high school setting could easily be switched out for biker gang races, a zombie apocalypse, or a Pitch Perfect-style dance off. “Archie’s changed and I’m very happy with it,” said Victor Gorelick, the 76-year-old editor-in-chief of Archie Comics. “We did keep up with the times.”

The key to a show like Riverdale working, however, is that it is able to appeal to a generation of fans that actually have no attachment or memory of the source material at all. That may sound counterintuitive — usually, adaptations draw audiences in because there is already interest in the existing material. But Archie Comics has become something different; a set of characters and places that are mutable, playing to a given era, and then being left behind by fans as they move on to something else. And the comics are so lighthearted and fun that even those who do remember the old Archie comics aren’t likely to feel that strong of a connection to any given plot beat or character moment. By comparison, one can only imagine the fan meltdown that would occur if someone tried to add zombies and Harley Quinn to Star Wars or Star Trek.

The result is a franchise that has been allowed be flexible, finding success in multiple different iterations and formats — and reaching across multiple different eras of fans in the process. It may seem odd that a show from The CW of all networks would serve to bridge divides across generations, but in the strange case of Riverdale, that is exactly what has happened.

As one young girl dressed up as Betty Cooper confessed after the panel, “I watched Riverdale and as soon as I finished, I dove into the Archie comics. I talked to my grandfather, and he recommended some.”