The Best Book You’re Probably Not Reading, #1

If you’re like me, or millions of other people out there, you probably spent at least a little bit of your childhood reading Archie comics.  Archie, for the 6 people out there who have no idea who I am talking about, is the red-headed all-American caucasian teenager growing up in the all-American small town of Riverdale, umm, Riverdale. . .okay, it’s never actually said what state Riverdale is in, but I’m gonna guess it’s not far from Springfield, where The Simpsons live, and only a couple hours west of Gotham City.  Hope that helps.  Anyway, Archie Andrews is has been in high school forever and is perpetually trapped in a love triangle between two unreasonably attractive women:  blond, girl-next-door-type beauty Betty Cooper, and rich-girl princess Veronica Lodge.  The comics have always been compilations of vignettes about his adventures with his best friend Jughead, romantic rival Reggie, and peripheral characters like ill-tempered and highly jealous Moose, Moose’s girlfriend Midge, Sabrina the Teenage Witch (yes, the one played by Melissa Joan Hart in the ’90s TV series), L’il Ambrose, supergenius Dilton, soda shop owner Pop Tate, and Chuck and Nancy, apparently the only people of colour that live in Riverdale.  The stories are always pretty basic, humourous, and the end of each story usually returned things to the status quo.

In case that got boring, though, there were always the spy stories of Archie as “The Man From R.I.V.E.R.D.A.L.E.”, Archie as superhero Pureheart the Powerful, The Mighty Archie Art players taking on Shakespeare and various other plays with a humourous take, et cetera. . .there were many variations of the character, but one thing remained constant: nobody ever grew up, nothing really ever changed.  Archie and friends never graduated, the 50s-style soda shop they frequented never closed down. . .in short, nothing real ever happened, and the comics were kept strictly divorced from whatever was going on in the real world.

Growing up, you probably read a little of these comics, maybe a lot.  But then you started changing, and Archie and company didn’t.  You sprouted hair in odd places and got funny feelings whenever non-familial members of the opposite sex (or, for some of you, the same sex) were around.  Archie never seemed to experience these things.  You had to start wearing deodorant; Archie never seemed to have body odor issues.  You faced all the myriad dramas of high school and found they didn’t end after five pages; Archie always had his problems solved in usually less than that and everything was cool again.  Archie never got drunk or hacked his lungs out trying to smoke a cigarette because he thought it would make him look cool.  Archie was only broke when it was funny; you learned the hard way it’s never funny to be broke.

In short, you grew up.  Archie and his friends did not.

So you left them behind, probably without even so much as a wave.  that’s how it’s been for the past 60 or so years of Archie:  he never changes.

Until this year.

Earlier this year, Archie comics ran a six-issue miniseries in the pages of Archie called “Archie Marries Betty/Archie Marries Veronica,” in which Archie walks down a strange path and is shown a future in which he married Veronica.  After three issues of that, Archie walks back down the path, takes a different fork, and is shown a future in which he married Betty instead. (I haven’t read this story yet, but I may buy the trade paperback when it comes out.)  It was a well-received story that got a lot of media coverage, but ultimately, it wasn’t real and Archie comics went back to their static world.

Sometime between then and now, Archie had his first interracial relationship with Nancy (there really weren’t any other black people in town besides Chuck, and I don’t think comic readers are ready for Archie to go black and bi at the same time), which was a bit of a long-overdue shock, but also a sign that maybe Archie’s world was opening up to the changing face of America and different societal attitudes towards interracial relationships.  It’s not much of a step for ward for Archie – really, that’s just taking him from the 50s to the 70s – but it’s a step nonetheless.

After that, someone had the idea to introduce a gay character to Archie’s world (the first openly gay character; Pop Tate’s always been in the closet), and so, that happened this year, a sign that Riverdale is becoming more diverse (and more fabulous!)  That was pretty recent, so we’ll see how that goes over with Archie’s fan base, most of whom may be asking their parents some uncomfortable questions soon. (To be fair, I did have some people that don’t normally buy Archie comics buy the issue debuting the new gay character.  I hope they do right by those new fans.)

And finally, someone at Archie Comics Publications headquarters said, “Hey, what if we kept telling the story of Archie being married, in two separate stories?  And we made it a lot like a soap opera?  And Mr. Lodge, Veronica’s dad, was a prick in both worlds?”

Ergo, Life with Archie: The Married Life, the best book you’re probably not reading.  In Life with Archie, Archie has finally followed you into adulthood. . .and found that life sucks.

Life with Archie contains two serial stories: one of Archie’s life being married to Veronica, one in which he is married to Betty.  While you might think this is the same thing as the miniseries I mentioned before, there is a difference, one I won’t discuss here so as not to give out spoilers.

To not give away too much, Life with Archie is the BESTEST MOST AWESOME ARCHIE BOOK I’VE EVER READ. This is a more mature book, though minus the more mature language and sex, keeping it still safe for more mature kids.

In the first serial story, Archie’s married to Veronica, wealthy, and unhappy – his wife is his boss and too busy with work and her father to pay much attention to him, he’s in charge of ruining the soda shop so Mr. Lodge can buy it cheap, his best friend won’t talk to him, and there’s nothing he can do about it.  His friends aren’t doing much better:  Midge left Moose because of his temper and jealousy, Jughead is fighting a losing battle to keep the soda shop afloat, Reggie works for Veronica and hates it, Betty is lonely and miserable, Dilton has mysteriously disappeared, and Mr. Lodge is secretly buying up the city as fast as he can to put up shopping malls and condos (okay, that part kind of has a populist-leaning edge to it – the wealthy millionaire as greedy, heartless money-grubbing developer – that’s all too close to the real world; if you live in Seattle or most other major cities you know exactly what I’m talking about). . .this is not the happy and unchanging rainbow-laden Riverdale you remember.  It’s roughly 3 million times better.  Yes, it’s a fresh coat of soap-opera paint on old Riverdale, but Archie wears it so well that you won’t care.

Between the two stories lies a vale of ‘tween-age crap that you’re better off skipping over and forgetting you ever saw.

In the second story, Archie marries Betty and is. . .also miserable.  He’s just miserable and poor, which is always worse than being miserable and rich.  Archie and Betty have moved to New York, so that Betty can work in the fashion world and Archie can make a go of his music career. . .which of course didn’t happen.  Archie can’t get decent gigs to save his life, and Betty, who works at Sacks 6th Avenue, has to take a pay cut in order to keep her job, when her earnings already were barely keeping them afloat.  Back in Riverdale, Jughead is having a hard time keeping the soda shop afloat, Moose has been dumped but he’s not ready to let Midge go yet, Reggie’s broke and unemployed, Chuck and Nancy are encountering difficulties in keeping their comic book shop going, and their old high shcool teacher Mrs. Grundy is dying of cancer, a revelation that causes the principal to propose to her. . .and Dilton has mysteriously vanished while studying parallel universes.

And that’s all in the first issue.

The second issue of Life with Archie is filled with even more twists and catches; there’s a happy scene in the “Archie Marries Betty” side that seems great. . .until the next page makes you realize that lifting your arms to cheer good news only makes it easier to get punched in the gut by bad news.

As Bill Ellis (one of my English professors) would say, “It’s good stuff!

And indeed it is.  It’s so good, in fact, that I was interrupted while raving about it to a customer in the shop I work in by another customer who said, “I’m sorry, I know you weren’t talking to me, but you just totally sold me on that book.  Where is it?”

If you have any fondness at all for Archie and his friends, you have to read Life with Archie.  You owe it to yourself to see how well Archie has grown up, and how fascinating this trip into soap-opera real-life drama is.

If you don’t have any fondness for Archie, read it anyway.  It’s solidly-written and drawn in an art style that’s a beautiful homage to the late, great, definitive-yet-tragically-underappreciated Archie Comics artist, Dan DeCarlo.

Basically, go buy the book.  Now.  It’s worth it.

VS – 9.11.10

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