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Comic fans will have more on their mind this summer than whether the beloved, freckle-faced Archie Andrews should chose between Betty or Veronica.
Publishers have announced that Archie is going to be killed this July in the spinoff series “Life With Archie.” But Rob Salkowitz, author of the book “Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture,” tells Here & Now’s Robin Young that the storyline will be done with a wink and a nod to other comic book hero killings, and that Archie Andrews may not be going away for good.
Salkowitz says Archie’s new generation of publishers has been taking a lot of risks during the past few years, including the introduction of diverse characters and evolving story lines about bullying, to take readers beyond 1950s Riverdale High.
On the decision behind Archie’s death
“A character like Archie– people care about the characters, but they’re not as invested in the story. And something like this, I think, is Archie Comics having a little bit of fun at our expense because they know they’re going to get these kinds of stories. They know that comic fans are going to kind of arch an eyebrow and say, ‘Oh, its a big gimmick.’ But in this case, I think the joke is on us.”
On the change to the comic over the years
“The company itself has undergone an evolution. There’s a new generation of leadership there and they’ve been tackling more current events kind of issues. They have a very successful gay character that they introduced a few years ago who recently got married. They have a line of comics that is more serious in tone. There’s a series out now called Afterlife with Archie where the zombie apocalypse hits Riverdale. That’s, if anything, even more disturbing than Archie dying is Archie and the gang not dying and coming back as zombies. Essentially Archie meets the Walking Dead.
On the comic’s management
“Archie was founded in the 1940s by three people. That generation of leadership gave way eventually to kids and heirs. Now the company has two CEOs, one of whom is the descendant of one of the founders and one is a widow of one of the other descendants. And they don’t always get along. There’s been a lot of drama behind the scenes. They’ve been suing each other and getting restraining orders against each other. Right now, its a period of calm. Honestly, I think the tension within the company might not be great for the people that work there, but the creative output of Archie, lately, has never been better. So, maybe turmoil is good for the creative spirit.”
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
And now to lighter fare, although maybe not for fans of Archie Andrews, the redheaded, freckle-faced teen who had trouble deciding between the blond girl next door, Betty, or the rich, dark-haired schemer, Veronica. The publisher of the popular Archie comics recently announced that Archie will die heroically in the July issue. What? Hard to believe if you read him years ago and the biggest problem Archie ever had was deciding which milk shake to order.
But, there is a catch. This Archie is living in a completely different universe, one of several that Archie now lives in several different comic book series out under the Archie umbrella. The one in question is called "Live With Archie", but still, apparently life with Archie ends with his dying.
Rob Salkowitz has been closely following Archie's perils. He's author of "Comic-Con And The Business Of Pop Culture." He's also a teacher of digital media at the University of Washington and Director of Content and Strategy at MediaPlant in Seattle. So Rob, this is going to be shocking to many, won't it be? I mean worthy of a comic book speech bubble.
ROB SALKOWITZ: Horrors, Archie is imperiled.
YOUNG: He is. Well more than imperiled. He's going to die. Catch us up because Archie, in the comics, began in 1941. He and his friends all hung out in Riverdale. It always seemed to be 1950, every time you looked. What happened? What's changed?
SALKOWITZ: Well, I think throughout most of the Archie comics that most people read, Archie is going to be alive and well to the foreseeable future. There's one comic story line that they're doing for a very particular reason. You know, often when it's announced that a comic character is going to die, it's in a more melodramatic setting, like Superman is going to die and that's something as fans need to pay a little bit of attention to because it's a major character and there's probably something in the storyline we should be paying attention to with that.
A character like Archie, people care about their characters but they're as invested in the story and something like this is, I think, Archie Comics having a little bit of fun at our expense because they know they're going to get these kinds of stories. They know that comic fans are going to kind of arch an eyebrow and say, oh, it's a big gimmick. But in this case, I think the joke is on us because they're doing a little bit of culture hacking here.
YOUNG: Culture hacking - what do you mean?
SALKOWITZ: That they understand what the reaction is going to be in the media. They understand what the reaction is likely to be in the comic's fan base, which is a little rolling of eyes and thinking, nobody's going to kill off Archie, everything is going to be fine.
And, instead of playing into those expectations, I think they're having a little bit of a joke at the rest of the comic industry's expense to say, hey you guys do these big serious story lines. We're going to do ours. We're going to kill off Archie, but in our case, it's going to be more of a sideline, more of a joke.
YOUNG: First of all, let's back up a little. How has this comic strip book changed over the years, because they have been tackling different issues, like gay rights, interracial marriage. It's not the Archie of the '50s.
SALKOWITZ: No, it's not. The company itself has undergone an evolution. There’s a new generation of leadership there and they’ve been tackling more current events kind of issues. They have a very successful gay character that they introduced a few years ago who recently got married. They have a line of comics that are more serious in tone.
There’s a series out now called "Afterlife With Archie" where the zombie apocalypse hits Riverdale. And that’s - if anything, even more disturbing than Archie dying, is Archie and the gang not dying and coming back as zombies. Essentially Archie meets the Walking Dead. It's done in a more traditional comic style, so it's not going to stylize Archie with the checkered sideburns, and stuff like that that we're used to.
It's as if Archie was drawn as a regular teenager and, you know, there's a zombie plague and people start getting turned into zombies and eating and killing each other and it's very, like, intense and you say, it's Archie, my God. It's not for everyone, you know, but again, it's like I think they're playing with the comic store audience and the fact that it's so very different from the people that ordinarily read Archie. And they're doing all of this at the same time as they're doing the tried and true teen humor stories that they're known for.
YOUNG: Well, what happens going forward. There's different arcs in the Archie stories. There are different comic books. I understand Lena Dunham of "Girls" fame, who couldn't be a bigger symbol of the current popular culture, is writing, I think, four of the comic books. So, what is the hope? Is the hope that in killing Archie and in calling everybody's bluff, they will bring in younger people?
SALKOWITZ: No, again, I think that the killing Archie story line is going to exist separately from most of their mainstream stuff, just as the Archie gets married storylines existed in their own. As you may know, a few years ago they had Archie married in parallel worlds to both Betty and Veronica.
YOUNG: I did not know that.
SALKOWITZ: And you can follow how his domestic life unfolded with both of those as he, sort of, got into middle age. Again, that's not a story line for, you know 8 to 10-year-old kids. It's more for the old fans and is a little bit of a treat and I think in this case it will be the same thing.
With Lena Dunham, this is another example of Archie being very smart about knowing, you know, who their expanding audience is. They want to get millennials, they want to keep those young readers past the ages of, say, 12 or 13, and keep them coming with more relevant story lines with things that resonate in their own lives. And going out and getting Lena Dunham is a great move for them.
YOUNG: And, by the way, we're reminded that as dramatic as this is, there's an almost - sounds like a bigger drama playing behind the scenes with the publishers of the Archie comics. What's happening there?
SALKOWITZ: So, Archie was founded in the '40s by three people. And that generation of leadership gave way eventually to kids and heirs. And now the company has two CEOs, one of whom is the descendant of one of the founders and one is the widow of one of the other descendants. And they don’t always get along. And there’s been a lot of drama behind the scenes.
They’ve been suing each other and getting restraining orders against each other, and stuff like that. Right now, it's a period of calm. Honestly, I think the tension within the company might not be great for the people that work there, but the creative output of Archie, lately, has never been better. So, maybe turmoil is good for the creative spirit.
YOUNG: Well, but beside killing Archie, what other creative output are you seeing in the Archie comics?
SALKOWITZ: Well, a couple of things. You have this introduction of Kevin Keller, and gay characters, and disabled characters, and characters representing a more diverse viewpoint than this sort of lily white world that Riverdale had been before. They're more exploring more sophisticated themes around bullying and stuff like that, even for their younger audiences, which is good stuff.
And then they're bringing in a lot of respected and good talent from the rest of the comics industry to do - like, Afterlife with Archie is drawn by some pretty talented folks. They're doing some superhero properties that they've had on mothballs for a long time and brought in some better people to do those stories. So, you know, for years this has been a very predictable, safe brand and they don't want to lose that safety, but they also are expanding in directions that poke the edges of that.
YOUNG: Well, and Rob Salkowitz, how are you going to feel when you see, what is it, issue 36, in which Archie reportedly, according to CNN's deep research, sacrifices himself to save a friend. How are you going to feel when you read that?
SALKOWITZ: You know, it's tough, because this is kind of my job now, so I'm kind of jaded about it, but I'm going and put on that innocent eye and read it and say, is this an emotionally affecting story? Is it good? Is this the right end for this character? And then I'm going to put it down and I'm going to go back and read jokes with Jughead or something and clear my pallet of that grimness.
YOUNG: Rob Salkowitz, author of "Comic-Con And The Business Of Pop Culture". He's also a teacher of digital media at the University of Washington and Director of Content and Strategy at MediaPlant in Seattle. But at heart, he loves comics and Rob, thank you for talking to us about the upcoming demise of Archie.
SALKOWITZ: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EVERYTHING'S ARCHIE")
YOUNG: No, not dead, too. Soon.
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
You know, it's surprising that they are - I'm not a comic guy myself, but it seems like they're getting more popular.
YOUNG: Well, and in fact, I was looking on Slate, and they have an answer to the question, how do comic books regain popularity? It's answered by Robert Frost, who's an engineer at NASA, who has more than 15,000 comics, and he said, it started when they rebooted characters like the Flash and Green Lantern, and gave them science-based origins.
HOBSON: Wait, you can become an engineer at NASA and know everything that it takes to do that and also have 15,000 comics?
YOUNG: Yes, apparently one helps the other. So there was science and then they started teen books - hero teen-year-old books and then they started giving them social issues and appealing to college kids. Voila. That same website also answers the question, who'd win a fight between Superman and the Hulk. HERE AND NOW is a production of NPR and WBUR Boston, in association with the BBC World Service. I'm Robin Young.
HOBSON: I'm Jeremy Hobson. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.