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If someone had come up to me four years ago and told me that Archie Comics would publish not only one of the most “grown up” storylines that they have ever published but also that it would end in the death of the titular redhead with freckles, I would have laughed my way to the bank. That’s just how it was back then, and even now it seems like something unfathomable. Something not quite possible. Yet it is, and it exists, and it happened on July 16th, 2014 within the pages of Life With Archie.
Life With Archie has been, from the start really, a series that no one has ever been able to figure out entirely. People that I have shared it with, those that shared it with me, and those with whom I read it together with say that they never knew that they could be so invested in an Archie Comics series. That’s the word right there: invested. Archie has been, at least for a sizable few, an ever present and constant factor in our lives. The various double digests hanging on deli and grocery store stands, hanging out with the promise of short and sweet stories for a reasonable price. Sure the stories themselves always had a retro feel, but that was part of the charm. Even if you never went past the front page or bought one, it was always there with the allure of love triangles and hamburgers.
That’s what investment is, however, for those that did get the digests and maybe saw one or two of the characters. I can freely admit that Archie’s Weird Mysteries was a personal favorite of mine despite some wonky plots and voice acting. You can treat them for the throwback novelties that they are sure, but like American Graffiti it’s nice to have that around. Even as the main line got updated the innocent sensibilities stayed the same, creating a weird revision of the modern age as 50’s small-town America. Yet, like cape comics, what pay off can there be? Archie and the gang would never leave high school, that’s their unending status quo. Which is why Life With Archie garnered so much interest and left its readers hooked – because it’s the closest that we will ever get. It has the allure of being these characters as adults and facing problems that we would have never dreamed that they would.
This is like the Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? or The Dark Knight Returns of the Archie series. It’s just about their struggles at their end and for their advancing age. It has been called a pure soap opera comic, but that doesn’t really do it justice either. It can get ridiculous, yes, but the series balanced out its overwrought plots with some actually very well carried slice-of-life stylizations. While there were crooked land deals and corrupt city officials to be sure, just as much focus was put onto people just trying to live their lives. The pursuit of love, the failure of love, strength of family (blood or otherwise), and the acceptance and endurance of defeat for something better were all things the comic touched upon.
Where else could we see Jughead, in one of the comic’s timelines, struggle with the economic downturn while trying to save his own small business, or even deal with the pressures and worries of being an expectant father in another timeline? While that may sound like too much to place onto the Archie brand it was a testament to the writing that the balance between being inherently “Archie” and grappling with these other nuances never breaks. It’s a tricky thing to pull off but straight onward to the end of the series, or close to it, it has pulled off what other comics like Funky Winkerbean have been trying to do for decades but not quite succeeding. Staying what they were but also seemingly having natural growth.
Probably the best thing about this series was that you got to now fully enjoy the Archie gang as characters first and then archetypes second. They were now much fuller and richer than many would remember them from foggy early memories. The second best thing would be the idea of doing the side-by-side dual stories. As long runners like Archie so often do, it garners a lot of ideas by fans of what it “should” be. By doing dual timelines the series was able to give everyone something they would like, in one universe or another. It was the balance of which happened where that kept the two at the same level instead of one overtaking the other is terms of which was the “right timeline”. They were both right in their own ways, for whatever one would think right would be.
Jughead and Ethel even managed to tie the knot after decades of pining on the latter’s part in the “Archie Marries Veronica” timeline, which came with no a little amount of supporters. Each character got to get their moments in the sun like this and, again, the split story allowed them to share the weight on which gained focus. Characters who are a primary focus in one story are noticeably replaced by other characters, in effect giving everyone a chance to share the spotlight. Everyone gets their part in the drama, and there was a lot. There is no need to sugar coat it, this was a soap, but to reiterate an earlier point, if never crossed the line into overbearing. Something that I would say rightly belongs in the pro column.
Writer Paul Kupperberg and an array of artists (most notable Norm Breyfogle, Fernando Ruiz, and Pat and Tom Kennedy) have taken readers on a roller-coaster ride of emotion for the last four years. Into places that we never really ever thought they would take Archie, least of all his death. People will describe it as Archie “taking the bullet for Kevin Keller”, but no that’s not quite it. Archie didn’t take a bullet, he got one racing toward the shooter in an effort to stop him. Earlier descriptions don’t do it justice, because at the end Archie lost his life trying to save his friends, not just a single one, but all of those in the classic Archie malt shop. It may not be the perfect way for him to have gone, but it stayed true to Archie – all of Life With Archie did.