The End Of Archie?

by 16-Mar-15

While Marvel and DC have been thundering along with their usual succession of “Nothing Will Ever Be The Same Again – No, We MEAN It This Time!” events, one comics publisher has been quietly introducing permanent and significant changes. But this risky makeover is not without its downside…

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One of six variant design for the worryingly-numbered final issue of Archie. Art by Dan Parent.

Archie Comics, once ghettoised as ‘kid’s stuff’, has rocked the boat in the last half-decade with some attention-getting moves; the debut of Kevin Keller, the first mainstream gay male to hold his own title; the “Will You Marry Me?” arc launched in Archie # 600, which kicked off an entire ‘What If?’ series, Life With Archie, in which his possible marital bliss with Betty or Veronica was told in parallel strands; the controversial decision in which Archie dumped his girlfriends of 70+ years, Betty and Veronica, in favour of Valerie from Josie and the Pussycats, giving Riverdale its first interracial romance; and the experimental titles, Afterlife With Archie and Sabrina, in which familiar teen archetypes are placed, with surprising effect, into horrific situations.

All this, and an outreach to newer creators, fans of the series in childhood who’ve brought their own ideas to the table, has given Archie Comics its highest visibility since its heyday of the 1960’s. But has all the media attention equated to sales? Is the circulation of the line adequately financing the higher-profile creators being attached to some of these projects?

For a little while now, I’ve observed that as the fringier aspects of Archie Comics have been drawing all the attention, the core titles have been falling by the wayside, unannounced and mostly unnoticed.

As recently as 2011, for instance, the core of Archie Comics was its six regular comics (setting aside interlopers like Sonic the Hedgehog). Archie, of course; the anthology title Archie & Friends, his pal Jughead, and his girlfriends Betty & Veronica, who, in addition to their shared title, each had their own solo books (in which the other co-starred, so the contents were to all purposes virtually interchangeable.) . These served as ‘feeder’ titles for the Digest series – while Archie has a 75+ year backlog of stories, a great many of them are too old-fashioned for the contemporary reader, and at 200+ pages, the Digests burn up material pretty rapidly.

But in 2012, long-running series started going under; Betty ended with #195, while Veronica, after introducing Kevin Keller in her 202nd issue, got hijacked for a four-issue Kevin mini-series in her final editions, and ended with # 210; Archie & Friends exited with its 159th issue, and Jughead ate his final burger with # 213. Veronica was almost immediately replaced with a Kevin Keller ongoing, but that, too, met its demise with issue # 15 in 2014. That left Archie and Betty & Veronica as the only ongoing Archie Comics – a line slashed by two-thirds over a three-year period.

Now, it’s true that new titles have emerged – the horror-themed Afterlife With Archie, in which a zombie apocalypse hits Riverdale, and Sabrina, in which the formerly light-hearted teenage witch is given a Rosemary’s Baby/Exorcist twist – but for all the critical success that they have had, their infrequency is perturbing; Afterlife With Archie started well, but the gaps have gotten longer and longer between issues, and issue #8 is nowhere in sight. Similarly, it has been roughly half a geological epoch since Sabrina # 1, and the second issue has yet to materialise.

This delay is hurting both series; Diamond Comics Distributors recently sent out a notice to retailers cancelling all their initial orders of Afterlife With Archie #9 and Sabrina #’s 3 & 4, citing lateness as the cause; this means that the issues, when finally ready, will have to be re-solicited and shops will have to order them again. Given that resolicitations almost never move as many copies as initial solicitations, this bodes badly for both series, and Archie Comics are in danger of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory – no matter how much critical acclaim you get, readership and sales can still bleed out if the issues don’t appear within living memory of each other – viz. and to wit, Matt Fraction’s Hawkeye.

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Missing in action; Has Afterlife With Archie been eaten by zombies?

Attempts have also been made to reboot Archie’s superhero characters. But New Crusaders didn’t catch, being slashed back from an announced ongoing to a six-issue mini, with vague murmurings of the characters returning ‘somewhere’. And of the three new ‘Dark Circle’ titles, only Black Hood # 1 has managed to actually happen; Fox is still in limbo, and the original solicitations for Shield # 1 have also been cancelled.

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Meanwhile, Sabrina # 2’s broomstick is stalled on the launching pad…

In the middle of all this, the company has announced plans to cancel its flagship title. Archie will end with issue # 666, and be relaunched shortly afterwards with a new # 1, a new creative team, and a new direction, in a less cartoony style, and with a more dramatic, soap-operatic tone.

Scripter Mark Waid and penciller Fiona Staples certainly have the successful pedigree which any new venture requires, (and have a proven track record of getting books out on time, the lack of which is hurting Afterlife With Archie and Sabrina so badly…) but nevertheless it’s a courageous step for a publisher to eliminate the very series that gave the company its name. Betty & Veronica’s cancellation has not officially been announced, but since B&V #275, due for release shortly before Archie #666, is a ‘special event’, with a myriad of variant covers, it’s a reasonable assumption that that will be the title’s swan song. After all, if Archie himself is relaunching, it would make very little sense to continue ‘old school’ B&V.

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The last we’ll see of B & V? Variant cover to Betty & Veronica # 275 by Adam Hughes.

Fans of the ‘classic’ Archie need not despair – the company’s strongest sales have always been in its Digests, and the traditional, cartoony appearance of Archie & His Pals N’ Gals will continue there – though how much new material will be commissioned for the largely-reprint Digests is not yet confirmed. It certainly appears as if a lot of the publisher’s writers and artists will abruptly find themselves under- or unemployed.
Superficially, all seems well at Archie Comics – since Archie # 600’s “Will You Marry Me?” storyline, they’ve achieved a huge amount of publicity, and have the highest level of public consciousness and critical acclaim that the company has had in decades – possibly the highest ever.

However, looking beneath the news releases would seem to indicate a publisher who is struggling. For decades Archie Comics’ mantra was, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” The hairstyles and the hemlines altered with the passing years, but the characters and their relationships didn’t; they remained archetypes (yes, some would say stereotypes) with whom succeeding generations could readily identify.

But now, it looks like ‘It’s broke’; the decimation of the standard comics line, and a company-wide price hike from $2.99 to $3.99 indicates a grave sales crisis for the ongoing comics. The Digests sell well in a lot of mass-market outlets that don’t carry the regular comics, and appeal to a lot of people who aren’t, otherwise, comic readers. The traditional 32-page comic, at nearly four dollars, looks like a poorer bargain by far, and has ceased to be an impulse buy or pocket-money purchase in the eyes of the public.

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One of the 22 – no, seriously – 22 variant covers to the rebooted Archie # 1, due July 8th. Art by Greg Scott

So with their traditional base eroding, Archie Comics could have simply folded up its new commissions, gone all-reprint with the Digests, and survived, for the time being at least.
Reaching out to the Direct Market is a huge gamble, but the publishers are to be applauded for taking a new, risky, direction, rather than going the easy way out.

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