I’ll admit. I’m kind of obsessed with Riverdale, The CW’s neo-noir crime drama starring K.J. Apa, Lili Reinhart, Cole Sprouse and Camila Mendes. If the name and characters seem familiar to you, but you just can’t place them, that’s because the show’s a dark adaptation of the Archie comic books.
Yes, those comic books and yes, I mean dark.
If you remember Archie, Jughead, Veronica and Betty as thin teen stereotypes concerned only with who to take to the homecoming dance, your illusions are about to be shattered. Take that all-America trope and shove it through the lens of David Lynch; or think about movies like Heathers or River’s Edge; and you’ll be in Riverdale’s neighborhood.
By any standard, it’s a pretty remarkable transformation.
Honestly, I was never a fan of the Archie comics, finding them a little too white bread for my tastes. Granted, Archie was created just prior to World War II when wholesome, nostalgic depictions of young adults were in vogue. Mickey Rooney, Julie Garland, Shirley Temple and Jackie Cooper dominated the box office and Archie was a deliberate attempt to replicate their success by offering a serialized character who was “normal” (i.e. didn’t have super powers). The downside of normalcy was storylines that strayed into the mundane. Major themes included the female characters (Betty and Veronica) vying for Archie’s attention, rivalries with other students, homework problems and difficulties relating to parents. All of these things are common challenges for adolescents regardless of the era, but Archie was inclined to present them in a highly sanitized, and increasingly unrealistic, manner.
By the 1960s, this trend reached its zenith. Archie had become a superhero called Captain Pureheart (yes, really) whose main power was being a really swell guy. By the following decade, he’d been coopted by conservative Christians and spent much of his time espousing the virtues of Jesus Christ and encouraging prayer in schools.
None of these later comics, nor the related animated shows, were particularly successful. Many didn’t last more than one edition (or season), and it was clear Archie needed to be modernized if he was going to appeal to increasingly sophisticated, worldly young adults.
And the competition was fierce.
By the start of the twenty-first century, comic books had become something very different from what they’d been in decades past. Zombies chewed their way through humanity in the stark, black and white artwork of The Walking Dead (2003). Japanese manga was on the rise, exposing American readers to unapologetically adult themes including frank depictions of sexuality. Even mainstream publishers like Marvel Comics were shifting long establish paradigms, with one of the best examples being 2006’s Civil War. Yet despite these industrywide changes, the Archie brand was slow to adapt.
In fact, the Archie comics really didn’t push boundaries until the century’s second decade. One of the most notable changes was in the art. The cartoony feel used since the 1940s was replaced by something more stylized and storylines became more inclusive. Real-life themes such as gun control, divorce and death were introduced. By 2010, an openly gay character named Kevin Keller was established and the following year made history as the first male LGBT character to have a solo comic book storyline. In 2012, the comics even went so far as to kill off Archie when he takes a bullet intended for Kevin.
But as you know, nothing that dies in comic books can stay dead forever. (Just ask Superman.)
By 2014, Archie was relaunched and rebranded to appeal to millennials under the New Riverdale banner. With writer Mark Waid (Daredevil) and artist Fiona Staples (Saga) leading the way, the concept was to keep Riverdale as a “whitebread community” on the surface, but give it a seamier underbelly. Ultimately, this transformation fed into The CW television series which began with the revelation that underage Archie’s having an affair with the high school’s music teacher, which has caused a schism between he and long-time friend Jughead Jones and possibly caused him to witness the murder of a classmate named Jason Blossom.
How’s that for shifting a paradigm?
With the season two trailer dropping yesterday (see below), now’s a good time for you to check out the series if you haven’t done so already. The show can be streamed on The CW website, Netflix, YouTube and a variety of other places.
Enjoy the ride.