Archie’s Long, Dark Journey to Riverdale

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Photo: Courtesy of Archie Comics

Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa is sitting in a booth at Pop Tate’s Chock’lit Shoppe, the diner hangout of one of pop culture’s most venerable quartets: hapless Archie, earnest Betty, entitled Veronica, and behatted eccentric Jughead. He’s picking a weapon for Archie.

It’s a gray autumn day in a bleak suburb of Vancouver, where the reedy 43-year-old writer/producer is dropping by the set of Riverdale, his eerie, modernized, television take on the Archie Comics mythos. In the show, the foursome sets out to solve the murder of one of their classmates. Late in the first season, Archie — for reasons that I’ll leave unsaid — finds himself holding someone else’s knife. This afternoon, the prop master is presenting the bespectacled showrunner with two blade options and recommending the smaller one.

“Once it’s in the neck, you could even, maybe, have it not all the way in,” the prop master suggests. There’s a yet-more-macabre reason to go with the smaller option, according to the prop master: “I think the makeup people will have a hard time hiding the big one and getting that body into the barrel.”

“Yeah, no, I agree,” Aguirre-Sacasa says, nodding enthusiastically. “Smaller is better. I like that.”

Knives in necks? Bodies in barrels? What on Earth has happened to our dear Archiekins? How has this purehearted paragon of normality, longed for by preteens in the grocery aisle for nearly a century, found himself leading a prime-time drama about the corpse-laden secrets of his once-idyllic burg? Seeing the reflexive look of shock on my face, Aguirre-Sacasa assures me that the gruesome and the heartwarming are not mutually exclusive.

“People say, ‘I hear you're doing dark Archie,’” he says. “We're not doing dark Archie. We're doing an Archie that mixes dark and light.”

As it turns out, Archie Comics has been experimenting with this mixture for the better part of a revolutionary decade, successfully embracing new narrative approaches to tales about their 76-year-old teenagers. In recent years, the gang has done battle with zombies, extraterrestrial serial killers, and flying sharks; they’ve navigated unsatisfying marriages; they’ve explored unconventional sexual identities and mourned fallen companions; they even traveled through time to play at CBGB with the Ramones. In doing so, the brand has garnered acclaim, attention, and a newfound coolness that had eluded it for the previous half-century. The Archie Renaissance is, improbably, upon us.

Cole Sprouse, the actor who plays Jughead in Riverdale, nails the reason why Archie has undergone such a turnaround. Occupying that same booth at Pop’s, he gazes straight ahead with the passion of the converted and says, “The archetypes of Archie are like a theater troupe that just kinda fits themselves into any sort of situation.” As Riverdale demonstrates, these simple, antiquated characters have improbably become among the most adaptable — and enduring — in American popular culture. The theme song to the beloved 1960s Archie cartoon declared, “Everything’s Archie,” but the current Archie regime has set out to prove that Archie can be everything.

“As soon as I knew who my mom was and my dad was, I knew who Archie was,” 57-year-old Jon Goldwater says with hands behind his sizable skull, leaning back in his capacious, memorabilia-lined office at Archie headquarters, in Pelham, New York. He’s the co-CEO of Archie Comics (we’ll get to the “co-” part in a bit), and though he has the confident gravitas that comes from decades as a seasoned mogul, his business wasn’t supposed to be comics. “The door was never fully opened for me to come into Archie,” he says. “It was never, ‘Hey, get ready, you're taking the ship.’”

Goldwater’s father, John (with an h), was a Jewish shipping entrepreneur from East Harlem who sensed, in 1939, that a cataclysm was coming in Europe — one which would be bad for business. So he decided to get into the hottest sector of the day’s entertainment industry: comic books. Superman had debuted the previous year, and cheap, four-color tales of derring-do were flying off newsstands. His friend and partner, Louis Silberkleit, was game and, along with Silberkleit’s bookkeeper, Maurice Coyne, the trio formed MLJ Magazines, putting out superhero titles about now-obscure figures like the Shield and the Wizard.

It wasn’t until two years later that they came up with their most iconic creation: teenage goofball Archie Andrews. A co-creation of Goldwater and writer/artist Bob Montana, Archie was partly inspired by real people in each of their lives, but was also something of a shameless rip-off of Andy Rooney’s hit Andy Hardy films. The boy was a near-instant hit.

Within just a few years, the company changed its name to Archie Comics and built a robust dramatis personae around their titular kid. He was locked in an eternal love triangle, perpetually sought by a fair-haired, girl-next-door type named Betty Cooper and a vivacious, condescending socialite named Veronica Lodge. Hanging around those young lovers were figures such as a jackass named Reggie, a gentle giant named Moose, an old-crone teacher named Miss Grundy, and a weirdo named Jughead. They dwelled in the small burg of Riverdale, its geographic location deliberately unclear so as to make every reader (well, at least white readers) potentially see themselves hanging with the crew.

The short-form adventures of that gang of knuckleheads were, by the early 1960s, assembly-line narrative products, subject to strict factory guidelines for the writers and artists who manufactured them. Illustrator Dan DeCarlo laid out the house style that is still recognizable: thick lines, slapstick poses, eyes like fermatas. Their stories — published in an array of anthology titles whose contents were only barely distinguishable from one another — were targeted at nascently literate preteens. But the shallowness belied a kind of mass-market artistic genius. The pantheon of Archie’s greatest creators — men like Frank Doyle, Samm Schwartz, Bob Bolling, and Harry Lucey — was able to generate thousands upon thousands of stories while working within a tightly circumscribed set of rules.

Because you couldn’t change the fundamental nature of the characters, you could only mix things up with new combinations of them and new narrative instigations. This structure was perhaps best summed up by literary historian Bart Beaty in his fascinating 2015 tome Twelve-Cent Archie: “To paraphrase Anton Chekhov, if a bowling ball is shown on the first page, it must be dropped on someone’s foot on the final page, because in the world of Archie, any newly introduced element necessarily suggests its own outcome — if it is breakable, it will be broken; if it is round, it will be tripped over.”

Perhaps the kids would go skiing or surfing (Riverdale’s locational vagueness allowed for both), perhaps one would come up with a get-rich-quick scheme or buy a mockably audacious hat, perhaps they’d plan to go on a romantic encounter or sabotage someone else’s, perhaps they’d even stumble into some magical realism and turn invisible or be cursed. After familiar and vividly drawn slapstick business, everyone would get their character-appropriate comeuppance and the reset button would be hit for the next strip. A loyal customer always knew what they were going to find beneath the flimsy covers of Archie, Jughead, Betty and Veronica, and the like.

Throughout these stories, Archie, despite being the flagship character, would act as something of a cipher, one to whom things happen rather than the other way around — and who among us doesn’t narcissistically see ourselves in that role? And if you weren’t into the core characters, the company offered you spinoff series about supporting characters like teenage witch Sabrina or female rockers Josie and the Pussycats. The comics were reliable best sellers, reaching their cultural apex in 1968 with the debut of The Archie Show, a Saturday-morning cartoon that, bizarrely enough, spawned a number-one hit single in the form of the downright diabetic “Sugar, Sugar.”

However, though the stories never ceased, they quietly and gradually dimmed in relevance. The formal rigidity that had once been a marketable virtue ossified into a creative disability. “They were very, very guarded about what you could and couldn't do with an Archie comic,” recalls comics writer Mark Waid, who worked for the company in the early 1990s. “Any sense of risk, any sense of taking a chance? That wasn't gonna happen.”

On the rare occasions when they did take such risks, they were cringeworthy failures, like the 1990 live-action made-for-TV movie Archie: To Riverdale and Back Again, in which the characters reunite as grown-ups. The zingers were horrifically archaic and the CIA might want to consider using Jughead’s rap version of “Sugar, Sugar” as an instrument of torture. The comics made impotent stabs at the Zeitgeist. Take, for example, a 1996 cover that depicted Archie and company playing in an alt-rock outfit while grinning blissfully, which was not that particular musical trend’s emotional vibe. “The Archies are going for an alternative sound!” Veronica cries. Her dad yells back, “Oh, yeah! How about silence!” Ba-dum-ching?

In other words, Archie Comics had lost its ability to perform the clever market adaptation that had allowed it to come into existence in the first place. The brand’s importance to children became negligible in the age of SpongeBob SquarePants and Bratz. It was conceivable that Archie Andrews might disappear — and, heartbreakingly, few would have even noticed his absence.

Luckily for Archie, he had a long-lost sibling of sorts. When Jon Goldwater was growing up in the 1960s, that ship was steered by his father, John, with a tight grip. “My dad was a tough guy,” Goldwater recalls. “He just was a very tough businessman. Even at home, you know, it was his house. Put it that way. And when I went to visit the company, it was his company.” The elder Goldwater ruled alongside his old friend Silberkleit, cranking out comics that he’d bring to his son in towering piles. “Every time I went to his office, I really felt like I was stepping into a magical place,” he says.

Nevertheless, by the time Jon was of working age, it had already been decided that he wouldn’t be the one to inherit the kingdom — that honor would go to John’s son from a previous marriage, Richard Goldwater. In 1983, their father and Silberkleit retired, leaving Richard in charge alongside Silberkleit’s son, Michael. By then, Jon had contentedly gone off on a long career in music management and was, as he puts it, “completely on the outside” of the firm his father had built.

Then, in a tragic coincidence, Michael and Richard both died of cancer within a year of each other, leaving the company under the temporary stewardship of veteran employee Victor Gorelick in 2008 — but without the dynastic foundation it had rested upon for nearly 70 years.* Into that vacuum stepped two people who, in short order, settled into a titanic legal battle: Goldwater, and Michael’s widow, Nancy Silberkleit. In 2009, they became co-CEOs of the company and immediately clashed over its creative direction.

Goldwater thought the brand had become, as he puts it, “irrelevant,” and was particularly shaken by an interaction he had a few weeks into his tenure while taking a train to Manhattan. “I took a couple of Archie books with me, and a woman sits down next to me on the train and she sees the Archie books and she goes, ‘Archie! Wow, they still make those?’” he recalls. “I was like, We really need to get to work here.” By contrast, Silberkleit — a schoolteacher by trade — felt that the company needed to double down on its existing reputation as a producer of kids’ stuff by putting out comics that encouraged literacy and combated bullying.

That ideological clash was overshadowed by their fights over workplace conduct and corporate decision-making and a blizzard of vicious administrative and legal actions swept across Archie Comics from 2011 to 2016. Goldwater sued Silberkleit for an estimated $32.5 million; Silberkleit sued Goldwater for $100 million, claiming Goldwater was merely trying to cut her out of the business. The lawsuit is now settled, though the terms of the agreement are secret. Silberkleit remains a de jure — but largely powerless — co-CEO, speaking out against bullying and, in 2013, running unsuccessfully for mayor of her hometown of Rye, New York.

And yet, amidst this backstage chaos, Goldwater executed a stunning turnaround in the company’s fortunes. He organized a creative summit of Archie employees a few months after he started, in order to lay out his editorial philosophy. “Guys, the time has come to be fearless,” Goldwater remembers telling his new subordinates. “Whatever ideas you have, come to me. No idea's a bad idea. Doesn't mean we're going to use it. But we need completely out-of-the-box ideas.”

The first such idea stemmed from a project that had begun during the brief Gorelick interregnum. The company had published a brief pair of stories that were published during Goldwater’s ascent, one that imagined Archie marrying Betty and the other depicting similar nuptials to Veronica. They got attention in mainstream media outlets and Goldwater saw an opportunity. “I caught a very lucky break with the marriage thing, because that was like lightning in a bottle,” he says, his voice bright. “I saw there was a market for people who were interested in a different story.”

He commissioned an ongoing series called Life With Archie, which depicted the futures of the different marriages in two parallel universes that looked very much like our own — sweater-vests and gumball machines were replaced with drab suits and smartphones. Life’s alchemy lay in its ability to balance the familiar with the innovative: Although the gang was all there, rendered in DeCarlo’s house style, the tales featured empathic and nuanced narratives about the challenges that couples face when the thrill of the chase has long worn off and the responsibilities of adulthood dissolve childish high jinks.

What’s more, the series also contained a surprisingly engrossing sci-fi subplot about the two universes crossing over. The series was weirder and smarter than anything Archie Comics had put out in recent memory, and Goldwater coordinated a publicity blitz that brought it to the attention of older readers who, like that woman on the train, may not have even known that their beloved characters were still around.

The next victory was a political one. Longtime Archie writer/artist Dan Parent had wanted to introduce a gay character to Riverdale, but, as he puts it, “Under the old guard, that wasn't going to happen.” However, hearing his new boss’s request for the unprecedented, he cautiously pitched the notion. Goldwater’s response was blunt: “I immediately said to Dan, ‘Great. That's great. Of course, we have to,’” Goldwater says. “‘It's Riverdale, we're inclusive. Let's do it.’”

The winsome and openly gay Kevin Keller rode into town in 2010’s Veronica No. 202 astride another successful publicity play, subsequently earning the company an award from GLAAD for its efforts. Meanwhile, the company won less-visible successes by shifting its bookstore-distribution methods and becoming the first comics company to put out digital versions of its comics on the same day they were released in print. Victory after victory was scored and comics-industry watchers raised their eyebrows.

There was one ambitious project that didn’t materialize, but whose gestation led to the most consequential turn in Goldwater’s tenure: an Archie musical. Goldwater shopped the concept around during the early years of his reign, and Aguirre-Sacasa — then a TV writer who was on the verge of working for Glee — leapt at the chance to pitch a script for it. He met up with Goldwater in Manhattan’s Theater District and feverishly told the co-CEO about his long-standing Archie fandom, even going so far as to show a photo of himself dressed as Archie during his undergraduate days at McGill. The musical didn’t get off the ground, but Aguirre-Sacasa tracked Goldwater down a little while later at New York Comic Con and asked if he could at least write a comic for the company. Goldwater asked what he’d do; the younger man offered a crossover comic where the Riverdale gang meets the Glee ensemble. They made it happen, and a very lucrative partnership was born.

In the booth at Pop’s, Aguirre-Sacasa bears an Archie watch and a phone case depicting Kevin and Veronica; he later speaks of being ribbed by his fellow Glee writers for constantly wearing a Jughead fleece and setting his ringtone to “Sugar, Sugar.” “Over the years, people have said, ‘Roberto, Why are you obsessed with the Archie characters?’” Aguirre-Sacasa says, his emphatic voice bounding with the momentum of an evangelist. “The best thing that I could say is that, when I was a kid and I read Archies, I so wanted to be friends with them.” The son of a Nicaraguan diplomat, Aguirre-Sacasa was raised in the gritty landscape of 1980s Washington, D.C., and started losing himself in the Archie idyll at an early age. “I was a little bit of a misfit,” he says, “and it seemed like everyone in Riverdale, even if they were mean to each other, they still loved each other.”

He never stopped thinking about the characters, even going so far as to stage an elaborate play about Archie Andrews while studying at the Yale School of Drama in the early ‘00s. It was a strange, three-act tale in which Archie interacts with celebrity kidnappers Leopold and Loeb in the 1920s, then leaps in time to work for a horror-comics publisher in the ’50s, and finally jumps to the present and gets a job at Pixar. What it gained national attention for, though, was its depiction of Archie as a gay man — a heresy for Archie Comics under Richard Goldwater and Michael Silberkleit’s regime. Aguirre-Sacasa received a cease-and-desist letter from the company.

How joyous, then, that Aguirre-Sacasa found, in Jon Goldwater, a fellow Archie revisionist.  The pair tumbled into a thick friendship, and when the protégé pitched the tycoon on a series that would follow the Riverdale gang as they weathered a zombie apocalypse, Goldwater gave it the green light without hesitation, and an acclaimed series, cheekily titled Afterlife With Archie was born. The story — illustrated by Italian impressionist Francesco Francavilla — was a critical and sales smash, in no small part because it never let its premise devolve into silliness or cheap shocks. The story was surprisingly earnest and, therefore, movingly frightening for anyone who had an attachment to these characters.

Aguirre-Sacasa and artist Robert Hack soon started another horror series, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, and in 2014, his golden-boy status was cemented when Goldwater named him Chief Creative Officer. Under his tenure, the comics have only gotten more ambitious, publishing surprisingly good stories bearing titles like Archie vs. Sharknado; Archie vs. Predator; Archie Meets Ramones; and most famously, the 2014 conclusion of Life With Archie, in which Archie dies saving Kevin Keller from an assassination attempt. Sleek, modern reboots of Archie and Jughead followed. Both were critical hits, and the latter abruptly became a minor progressive landmark when it canonically declared Jughead to be asexual, a sexual identity never before depicted with a character of that renown.

Archie Comics wasn’t a total stranger to wild ideas: Jon’s father had overseen stories where everyone became superheroes or cavemen or secret agents; the characters were licensed out for some supremely odd evangelical-Christian comics in the 1970s; and there had been an unexpectedly cool mini-series about Archie meeting Marvel Comics’ vigilante antihero the Punisher in the ’90s. But Aguirre-Sacasa and Goldwater have made such experimentation the rule, not the exception. They still put out digests containing old strips and new ones done in the old style, and Goldwater says those digests still make up a large share of the company’s revenue. But there’s no mistaking the goal that he and Aguirre-Sacasa seek: a breakthrough that once again liberates the Archie characters from the comics page and ensconces them in the American imagination. That plan of attack begins with Riverdale.

The log line Aguirre-Sacasa tends to use for Riverdale is “Archie meets Twin Peaks,” mostly because of the central narrative conceit. The show rotates around the mysterious murder of Jason Blossom, a minor existing character from the Archie mythos who comes from a family whose wealth dwarfs even that of Veronica. Jason was a dick, so nearly everyone has a potential motive, and his death unearths a wealth of other secrets: Betty’s (Lili Reinhart) mother is foisting prescription pills on her, Veronica’s (Camila Mendes) family is involved in shady dealings with organized crime, Jughead is nursing a mysterious grudge, and Archie (KJ Apa) has been having an illicit affair with Miss Grundy (Sarah Habel) — here portrayed as a sexy, 30-something cougar in heart-shaped shades.

In fact, everyone’s sexy in Riverdale, from the chronically shirtless Archie to slender Betty and Veronica, who share a gratuitous girl-on-girl kiss in the pilot. Riverdale is very much a prime-time teen soap, evoking Beverly Hills, 90210 (conspicuously, Archie’s dad is played by none other than Luke Perry) and more recent forebears like Gossip Girl and Pretty Little Liars. Much of the action takes place in the semidarkness, with youthful skin illuminated by neon and moonbeams.

As you might suspect, given all that, Riverdale regularly wades into the dangerous waters of camp. At one point, Betty threatens to boil someone alive in a Jacuzzi while wearing a black wig and lingerie; Grundy’s high bun, church-clothes sweater, and thick-framed glasses make her look like an undersexed librarian in a Skinemax feature; and Betty and her scheming mother have screaming matches that wouldn’t be out of place in Mommie Dearest. That’s not a complaint, as these facets offer pure delight. That said, Aguirre-Sacasa gets a little nervous when I ask him whether the campiness is intentional: “Listen. It's a little bit of a high-wire act,” he says. “I don't think that a little camp is bad, but you still want things to be real.”

Real is a strong word. Earnest is a better one. The danger inherent in the pitch for Riverdale is that it could become a series of winking, deconstructionist jabs at the silly shallowness of the Archie legendarium. That is in no way what Aguirre-Sacasa has created, and as long as the superfan remains in charge of the show, it’s hard to imagine that changing. Jughead may not wear his crown or wolf down burgers, but he remains a compelling outsider; Betty and Veronica are not grinning sexpots, but they’re still frenemies trying to navigate romance; and Archie … well, Archie’s still the all-American, carrot-topped fuck-up who carries the weight of the world with boastful charm and awkward dignity.

What Goldwater and Aguirre-Sacasa have realized and demonstrated is that those traits, so simple to describe and yet so deeply etched in popular culture, are what has kept these characters alive in uninterrupted publication for nearly eight decades — a run matched only by the likes of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and Mickey Mouse. On one hand, the characters are archetypal representations of love, rivalry, and youthful hubris, concepts that are eternal and universal. But at the same time, they’re all just specific enough in their visual and behavioral quirks to remain boldly unique. That uncanny balance of the general and the specific allows the ensemble to teleport into nearly any environment and still be who they are. At least so far, the two men at the top of Archie Comics have figured out how to save their beloved intellectual property by changing the characters enough to make them relevant but not so much as to make them unrecognizable.

The characters are also a romantic vision of another time, though not in the way you might think. Sure, there’s a way in which the Riverdale gang harkens back to an invented, Pleasantville-esque period of American consensus and stability. But the time that we seek through Archie and his pals isn’t a historical time, but rather a personal one: adolescence. When you’re a child, you thumb through an Archie digest and, like the young Aguirre-Sacasa, dream of how great it’ll be to be a teenager. When you pick up one of Goldwater’s revamped Archie comics as an adult, you’re dreaming of how great it was to be a teenager. Either way, you’re pining for those axial days of high school.

Of course, actual teen-dom is, for the most part, awful, and no teenager would see their life reflected in an old-school Archie strip. As such, the long-standing irony of Archie stories has been that, as Waid, who writes the rebooted Archie series, succinctly puts it, “They were comics about teenagers that teenagers didn't read.” Given that fact, Riverdale might actually be taking the most ambitious risk of the new Archie era — by situating itself in a teen-aimed genre on a teen-friendly network, it’s the first major Archie project actually aimed at teens. Archie is about to encounter beasts even more fearsome than Predators and Punishers: adolescents with short attention spans and lots of Snapchatting to get done before bedtime.

Which brings us to the most utopian aspect of Riverdale: Everyone actually puts down their phones and talks. Social media is an afterthought; in-person interaction and hard-fought empathy is what the citizens spend their time on. On that fall day in Canada, in a soundstage tucked away from the chill, you can find Kevin, Betty, Veronica, Jughead, and Archie sitting in the student lounge. Their town is coming apart at the seams, high-stakes paranoia abounds, and they can’t agree on how to get back to the safety they once knew. But whatever their fears and differences, here they are in their high school, talking to one another and figuring out how to heal. In Riverdale, hearts and bones may break, but friendship never does.

This is what Aguirre-Sacasa sees, and hopes you’ll see, too. He and Goldwater have ambitions for spinoffs, cartoons, and even an Archie musical, all rooted in a camaraderie that began at the height of the Second World War. “Betty and Veronica might be fighting over Archie, but by the end of the story, they're going off to Pop's to have a milkshake,” he says. “Reggie is Archie's arch-nemesis but really, all he's going to probably do is put itching powder in his jock strap. You're never going to walk into Riverdale High and be afraid that Columbine is going to happen. There's something that's the platonic ideal of high school that I think people gravitate towards. These kids will always be there for each other, no matter what.” And, perhaps, for us.

*A version of this story appears in the January 28, 2017 issue of New York Magazine.

*This article has been updated to clarify the circumstances under which Jon Goldwater became co-CEO of Archie Comics.