Jughead Jones, the character who has played the loveable second banana in Archie comics for decades, has always made clear his favorite food: a simple hamburger. In 2013, however, he has yearned for a different kind of meat.
In a scene from the second issue of “Afterlife with Archie,” due out Wednesday, an undead Jughead (more on that in a bit) chomps into the neck of Big Ethel, the awkward teen who has long nursed a crush on him. Blood flows. Flesh is eaten. Given these new circumstances, Ethel probably wishes the two had never met.
This is Archie?
The appeal of the red-headed high-school kid and pals like Jughead, Betty and Veronica has long been found in their unchanging innocence. No matter what the tenor of the times, life in their home, Riverdale U.S.A., remains more or less idyllic. Yes, fashions and accessories come and go, but Archie’s most pressing concern is usually whether to date Betty or Veronica, not fending off a member of the undead. As comic-book publishers seek to stay relevant in changing times, however, nothing is sacred.
“What we are trying to do, in addition to touting the great books we’ve put out in the market for kids, is also to expand the reach, and reach out to older fans of Archie who may have outgrown the traditional stories, but feel a sort of kinship to the brand,” explained Jon Goldwater, chief executive of Archie Comic Publications in Mamaroneck, N.Y.
“Afterlife with Archie,” which debuted last month, is something of a hit for the publisher. In the story, longtime antagonist Reggie Mantle accidentally runs over Hot Dog, beloved pet of Jughead Jones. When Jughead beseeches pal Sabrina, the Teenage Witch to raise his favorite pet from the dead, well, all hell breaks loose. The art is more of a piece with creepy horror titles like “Tales from the Crypt” published by E.C. Comics in the 1940s and 1950s than it is the bright, clean-cut illustrations of Archie characters first drawn by artist Dan DeCarlo.
The first issue sold approximately 50,000 copies, according to Goldwater, and a second run of about 15,000 has also sold out – all extraordinary when you consider the company for the first time sold “Afterlife” only at comic-book shops and not in more mainstream outlets where its more traditional “Archie” offerings are available (the better to keep them away from the eyes of children).
“Afterlife with Archie” was the 42nd biggest selling comic book of October, according to Diamond Comic Distributors, ahead of such fan-favorite titles as “Hawkeye” and “Daredevil” from Disney’s Marvel and “Flash” and “Batgirl” from Time Warner’s DC Entertainment. In September, the company’s top selling comic featuring the character, “Archie” ranked 354th, notching just 4,076 copies, according to Comichron, a web site that tracks comic-book sales.
“This is tapping into something primal – teenagers and horror. Archie is the ultimate teenager, and the audience for horror is teenagers,” said Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, the writer on “Afterlife.” Archie Comic has already received inquiries regarding potential film projects for “Afterlife,” Goldwater said.
Longtime fans should not be overly alarmed. “Afterlife” is just one series among many, and most of the comics continue to feature Archie, Dilton and Mr. Weatherbee in their better-known guises. Goldwater is admant that Archie will never be depicted in sexual scenes, taking drugs, or in moments of similar debauchery. “We are always going to keep the integrity of the characters,” he said. “That’s unbreakable.”
But Archie’s appearance in a comic that is graphically more sophisticated than the original and in a plot that hews closer to gory flicks like “Pet Sematary” or “Evil Dead” than “Happy Days” is more the rule than the exeception in 2013. Comic-book publishers have begun to tilt less at kids and more at the adults who grew up reading comics and have returned to them as a result of Hollywood’s fascination with movies based on characters that were once childhood favorites. At Time Warner’s DC Entertainment, for example, Batman and Catwoman have been depicted in flagrante delicto, for instance, in comic-book pages, while some fights between heroes and villians have resulted in limbs and heads being severed form torsos.
There will be blood. But not buckets of it. “In general, in all my comics, I always try to go for a mood rather than a graphic form of fear. I like to spook people out rather than disgust them with some gruesome rendition of spilling guts,” said Francesco Francavilla, the “Afterlife” artist. “If something graphic happens, it’s in silhouette or ‘off screen.’ I let the reader figure things out if they want to. If my moody art unsettles the reader, then my job is done.”
What a change in vision! Archie characters, who first debuted in “Pep Comics” in 1941, “were similar to the Andy Hardy kind of character,” said Carol Tilley, an assistant professor at the University of Illinois, who does historical research on comics. “Almost anyone can identify with who these characters are. Riverdale in many ways was kind of modeling-clay putty: You could form your own impressions and put your own experiences into the mix.” Maintaining that element is critical, suggested Paul Kupperberg, a veteran comics scribe who writes more mainstream Archie work. “Everybody’s either going to be, is, or has been a teenager,” he explained. “Archie is a dude with girl problems, friend problems, and school problems. The appeal doesn’t get any more basic than that.”
To be sure, the zombie Armageddon of “Afterlife” isn’t the first unlikely scenario to confront Archie and his pals, who often seem more at home in an old-fashioned “chok’lit shoppe” that is often the center of their stories. In 2006, the publisher unveiled plans to run stories depicting Betty and Veronica in more grown-up fashion, part of a gambit to woo older girls more attuned, perhaps, to “Gossip Girl” than Archie property “Josie and the Pussycats.”
And in the intervening years, the company has moved more aggressively to color the characters’ world in more modern tones. Kevin Keller, the first openly gay character in Archie comics, debuted in 2010. The publisher also generated publicity by running stories showing what might happen if Archie actually broke up the love triangle that has vexed him his entire life by and settled down with Betty or Veronica.
The characterhas proven quite malleable over the decades, appearing as a superhero (“Pureheart the Powerful”), or a secret agent (“The Man from R.I.V.E.R.D.A.L.E.) In 1994, the character even teamed up with the super-violent Marvel character The Punisher.
“Afterlife with Archie” had its genesis in an alternate cover Francavilla drew some time ago for one of the mainstream Archie titles that depicted the characters in the same creepy style. Meeting with Goldwater in 2012, Aguirre-Sacasa, the writer, brought up the illustration and an idea for the series. Now, said the writer, who has also worked for Marvel and written the 2013 film remake of “Carrie,” there seems to be no limit on what the characters can do.
“Afterlife” is set to be an ongoing series, according to both the publisher and writer, and the first year of storylines has been mapped out. Whether “Afterlife” has one of its own remains to be seen, but its mere existence speaks to the gambles comic-book publishers may have to consider as popular tastes continue to evolve.
“So many comic-book publishers are very, very conservative about what they are publishing, for fear of diminishing the potential for movie properties,” said Aguirre-Sacasa, but the company has supported his vision of “a hardcore horror book where members of the main cast are dying in every issue.” Why? The heart of the story, he said, is pure Archie: The characters “are still basically trying to be decent and good in a world that is now evil and monstrous.”