As we all know, the bell tolls tomorrow for the most famous ginger in comics, and what’s surprised people is just how inherently political the book is. Archie saves Kevin Keller from a domestic terrorist angry at Keller for advocating gun control. This is after Keller’s husband was killed in a robbery.
Some are a little surprised that a company as seemingly apolitical as Archie would have such a strongly political story, but it’s really a reflection of how Archie, over the last few years, has changed as a company, from anachronism to vibrantly creative company.
Archie Comics has a reputation for being wholesome comics for kids. And in fact, it was so dedicated to wholesomeness that it forced the entire comic book industry into being more wholesome, whether it wanted to or not, all thanks to one man, Archie creator and publisher John Goldwater.
At the company from the very beginning, Goldwater was proud of his involvement with the Comics Code Authority, which, in theory, was supposed to make comics more kid-friendly.
In reality, Goldwater designed it from the ground up to hurt his competitors as much as possible, especially EC Comics. No newsstand would stock books that didn’t have the Seal of Approval, and that, for a time, made Goldwater the most powerful man in comics, often to their detriment.
The company doesn’t talk much about its role in this, and in truth, Goldwater began losing influence across the comics industry in the ’60s as the Code began losing teeth and some publishers, such as Marvel, began openly defying it. But he kept control of his company, and his “wholesome or else” dictum stood for years.
Double Digests Of The Same Old
While comics began changing in the ’70s and ’80s, artistically and as a business, Archie was pretty squarely stuck in the past. The house style, defined by Dan DeCarlo in the ’60s, was largely only updated with the fads of the time.
Part of this, truthfully, is that Archie didn’t have to change, and comics fans didn’t have to care about it. The company still does a surprisingly brisk business in the supermarkets and convenience stores of America, partially due to the fact that it prints books in digest size. It even saw success elsewhere: Batman may have the Oscar and gross billions at the box office, but does he have a number one hit single?
Still, one or two signs the company was loosening up aside, Archie was practically separate from the rest of the comics industry by the late ’90s, and it began hurting the company. It arguably only stayed relevant thanks to Dan Parent, who joined the company in 1994 and immediately started working to bring Archie forward creatively. And, oddly, it was helped along by, of all things, legal action.
New Blood In An Old Town
First of all, Archie found some new blood in 2003, in the form of Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa. Admittedly, it found him because the company sued him over a stage play he wrote where Archie comes out as gay and moves to New York… but, hey, they found him.
That play, Archie’s Weird Fantasy, stands out for two reasons: One, Aguirre-Sacasa really loves Archie. And two, he laid out a blueprint for Archie Comics to change as a company: Aguirre-Sacasa strikes the very difficult balance between staying true to the fundamentally decent nature of the characters while making their lives a bit more realistic. It’s fairly clear that as management changed, the play became of some interest: Aguirre-Sacasa now works for Archie.
In some ways, Life With Archie ending with Archie dead is symbolic, both in why Archie is shot and the fact that he dies. The company isn’t putting an end to its digest business, but it is ending the company’s refusal to grow up. And it’ll be fascinating to see where that takes them.