The New (After)Life of Archie Comics

This article was originally published at ComicBook.Com on June 6, 2016.

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Afterlife with Archie returned to comics stands two weeks ago with a new issue more than one year after its previous installment was released. Fans anticipating this long-awaited comeback have no reason to fear though. Afterlife with Archie #9 is in fine form with one of its creepiest tales to date, focused on Riverdale pest Reggie Mantle. It’s another great issue in what will hopefully be a more timely series moving forward (happily, #10 has already been solicited for August).

With #9 on shelves now, it’s easy to forget it has been almost three years since the series debuted in October of 2013. That’s a long time, especially in comics where news moves as quickly as Wednesdays come and go. Archie Comics is in the news a lot now and the quality and success found by a series like Afterlife with Archie seems entirely unsurprising. Back in 2013 though, it was an entirely different story.

When Afterlife with Archie premiered comics fans and the mass market alike treated Archie Comics like a safe, reliable product, something like Coca-Cola. You could pick up any digest or issue and know what you could expect to get. That’s not a good or bad thing, it’s just the way things were. Occasional oddball ideas, like “Archie Meets The Punisher”, would come around and raise some eyebrows, but they were exceptions to the ruling tone and style of Archie Comics.

That’s why Afterlife with Archie felt like such a tremendous debut. It featured excellent comics talent in the forms of artist Francesco Francavilla and writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa. The first issue presented a captivating spin on the zombie genre, which had begun to feel played out thanks to The Walking Dead’s unending popularity. Then it deployed this talent and twist on genre in the form of an excellent, character-driven story.

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But in addition to all of that, it was utilizing Archie Comics most-beloved characters in a way no one imagined was possible. It was breaking rules every in comics had assumed were as settled as gravity. If Archie Comics was Coca-Cola, they had just invented Dr. Pepper, a new formula that could comfortably co-exist with the old one and expand their market.

If you’re looking for the origin point of Archie Comics current success, then you have to look at Afterlife with Archie #1. It brought the publisher much needed attention from readers, retailers, and creators. The dramatic reimagining of Riverdale reminded all of these groups of just how flexible the franchise really is. The view of classic, digest material as child-friendly, comedic stories of teenagers ignored the real heart of Archie Comics: its characters. From the holy trinity of Archie Andrews, Betty Cooper, and Veronica Lodge all the way down to bit players like Dilton Doiley and Mr. Svenson, Archie is founded on a collection of archetypal characters who can tell almost any sort of story.

Over the past several years other “odd” Archie series like Archie Vs. Predator and The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina have only proven this thesis to be true, utilizing the Riverdale Gang to touch upon horror, satire, and adventure. These alternate versions of Riverdale have not become the driving force of Archie Comics though. While they continue to show off what can be accomplished with this particular set of intellectual property, Archie Comics has envisioned and executed an even grander overhaul of their comics line.

After 75 years of publication, Archie Comics relaunched their banner series with Archie #1written by Mark Waid and drawn by Fiona Staples. It was a bold move that broke from a well-established house style in both art and storytelling. That change was driven by a pair of modern comics all-stars with Waid backed by a career of successes and fresh from the highly-lauded Daredevil and Staples having scooped up armfuls of Eisners in only a few years and still working on creator-owned favorite Saga. It was a dream team and they delivered three issues of Archie together that brought the series in line with more modern comics sensibilities, while impressing fans and retailers alike with its quality and sales.

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Staples return to Saga didn’t diminish the series popularity much either as Annie Wu came on board and was then followed by rising star Veronica Fish. This set of artists have established a new look and feel for Riverdale that make it resemble a modern town in the Northeast without robbing it of an ounce of its original charm.

Archie Comics did not plan for Archie to exist in a vacuum though. It was the first series planned in a new line of Riverdale-based comics planned to roll out over the coming year. In spite of the setback caused by a failed Kickstarter event, the publisher has pushed ahead with its plan to continue expanding its revitalized lineup (albeit at a slower pace) featuring both the most popular Archie characters and some of the best comics talent of today.

Jughead written by Chip Zdarsky and drawn by Erica Henderson was met just as warmly asArchie, if not more so, as it presented an oddball sense of humor and highlighted fantastical tangents in each issue. A planned relaunch of Betty & Veronica featuring writer and artist Adam Hughes is set to be released in July. A series featuring Kevin Keller appears to still be in the cards as well.

It has been a long time since Archie Comics was a regular subject of discussion at comic book stores, but that is certainly the case today. The consistent quality of titles like Jugheadand Afterlife with Archie combined with a steady stream of exciting #1’s is keeping eyes on this publisher. They’re also reaffirming their relevance to the mass market as one of the few comics publishers to continually supply grocery stores and other chains with comics. A deal struck with Wal-Mart last year has ensured that all of the exciting Archie comics found in comic book stores can also be discovered by non-typical readers in America’s largest physical retailer.

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The success and revitalization of recent years has not been restrained to comics either. Last week The CW premiered the very first trailer for “Riverdale”, a new series set to debut on the network this fall. Responses to the trailer have been positive and surprise has been a key factor. In addition to the expected collection of attractive teen stars filling the many roles of high school students at Riverdale High School, the trailer set an unexpected tone for the series. It was dark, brooding, and mysterious. Quotes comparing the series to cult classic “Twin Peaks” were taken more seriously as it became apparent the series would be focused around the murder of one well-known character.

Yet what once would have been deemed a strange or even unreasonable choice now seems perfectly logical. There can be no doubt in the minds of creators or fans familiar with Archie Comics properties now that they are endlessly adaptable. If a concept like Afterlife with Archie, where a zombified Jughead leads an army to destroy his former friends, can work, then surely a “Twin Peaks”-influenced version of these stories can as well. The comic series has shown that given good talent and interesting story ideas, Archie can work in just about any genre.

Archie Comics has never been as lively as it is today. Between its various spin-off titles, new launches of key properties, the continuation of classic digest and video game stories, and opportunities in television, Archie is quickly becoming a name on everyone’s lips. It’s ironic that this resurgence in popularity and creativity began with a story about the dead. Afterlife with Archie was the comc that reminded us all of just how much life there is to be found within the world of Riverdale. It’s not something anyone is likely to forget again.

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About chasemagnett

Chase is a mild-mannered finance guy by day and a raving comics fan by night. He has been reading comics for more than half of his life (all 23 years of it). After graduating from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln with degrees in Economics and English, he has continued to research comics while writing articles and reviews online. His favorite superhero is Superman and he'll accept no other answers. Don't ask about his favorite comic unless you're ready to spend a day discussing dozens of different titles.
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