The death of Archie... and innocence

July 16th, 2014

My childhood was full of comic books — Spiderman, Superman, Richie Rich, Casper… and Archie. When you’re a kid, you really look up to teenagers, and I related to Archie in the same way I related to Peter Parker. Archie was the good guy. His rival Reggie was the bad guy. Reggie was richer than Archie, a better athlete than Archie, and he drove a nice sports car while Archie got from point A to point B in a jalopy… if he got there at all. But Archie was more likable than Reggie, and Betty and Veronica were always fighting over him. (Years before the famous question “Ginger or Mary Ann?” was asked of guys, there was the question “Betty or Veronica?”)

Given the choice between Archie and Reggie, most kids probably wanted to be more like Archie.

Those were simpler times, when there was really only one universe to keep track of in a comic franchise. It was also before political and social agendas made their way so prominently into children’s comic books.

In case you haven’t heard, Archie, the flagship character in the comic book franchise of the same name, died this week. Not the teenage Archie of the main Archie universe, mind you, but the adult Archie of the “Life with Archie” comic series. (In a 21st century comic book multiverse, apparently Archies are expendable.) Archie is gunned downed by an assassin’s bullet that is intended for his friend, Kevin Keller, the first openly gay character in the Archie franchise. Keller is also a senator who happens to be a vocal proponent of gun control.

I know kids are growing up fast nowadays, but isn’t this stuff a little heavy for eight and nine year olds? Archie Bunker pushed the envelope 40 years ago, but that Archie was designed for an adult audience. Until recently, the biggest controversy Archie Andrews ever found himself in was making dates with two girls on the same night. When did kid’s comic books get so preachy and controversial?

To be fair, this was probably more a publicity stunt than a sinister left-wing indoctrination plot. According to some reports online, the circulation of “Life with Archie” is less than 3,000. Think about that for a minute. CNN, USA Today, and People magazine are making a huge deal about a national publication that sells less copies than many neighborhood small town weekly newspapers.

I wonder what kind of press Archie Comics would be getting right now if a main character with same sex attraction openly decided not to identify as a gay person or decided for religious reasons not to pursue a same sex relationship. Suppose Archie and the gang joined the NRA, ate at Chick-Fil-A or started attending an evangelical megachurch. I suspect that some in the mainstream media would be outraged. Controversy is only bad if the wrong people get upset.

So kill the main character, and throw in a little progressive propaganda to bait the press into giving you free publicity so you can sell more comic books. I get it, I really do. After all, we’re in the era of Upworthy, online clickbait, and “You won’t believe what happened next!”

Don’t misunderstand what I’m trying to say. Being willing to lay down your life for a friend is a positive value to teach kids, regardless of whether the friend shares your values, political views, religion, sexual orientation, or whatever else. But if a comic book series is going to move beyond entertaining children to teaching values, doesn’t it make more sense to stick to the basics, avoid unnecessary controversy, and stay away from politics? Do we always need to disparage people with traditional and conservative views on sexuality and guns, even in kid’s comic books?

The ABC Afterschool Specials of the 1970’s and ‘80s and the “very special episodes” from “Diff’rent Strokes” dealt with some heavy issues at the time, but those shows somehow managed to stay above the political fray of the day. The Archie comic franchise, on the other hand, appears to be selling its soul so it can sell more comic books.

This is a reminder that virtually anything nowadays can be used as a tool to communicate values to impressionable minds. If he hasn’t already, I expect that Archie will soon sell his gas guzzling jalopy and buy a Prius. Veronica’s dad’s company will be forced by a boycott to stop doing business with Israeli corporations. Moose will get Midge pregnant and she’ll sue her employer for not providing her the morning after pill. And recreational marijuana usage can’t be too many issues down the road.

I can see it now. Archie issue #420. And you thought Jughead had the munchies before.

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