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Times change. Troubles change. But the Archies stay the same.

They still make those? People gasp when they run across a new issue of Archie comics. The perpetual teens—hapless nice guy Archie, spoiled, raven-haired rich girl Veronica, and her rival and best friend, the wholesome, middle-class blond Betty—pose on the cover, enacting some timeless bit of slapstick, oblivious to our gaze. Indeed, the adventures of the gang from Riverdale have never halted since their introduction in an issue of Pep in 1941, in which Archie obscurely demanded to be called “Chick” and the

kids’ biographies

were haphazard.

The series’ longevity is impressive, seeing how the art form of comics has defined itself as inherently radical, has expanded toward new definitions such as the graphic novel, and has rediscovered the respectability of its early examples. The Archies are not terribly funny, and, despite the wholesome atmosphere, they’re never cloyingly moralistic. Read enough Archies and the characters seem to tread around and around in the same territory, from beach volleyball to Christmas shopping and back. The gang continually updates its clothes and cultural accessories; but their misunderstandings and vaudeville twists are eternal, and their punch lines remain ever the same—the “Next time, I’ll keep my big mouth shut!” sort of thing. If they were ever relevant when children had simpler tastes, how can they be so now? And who, after all, are Archie comics for?

Most of what’s on the comic-book-store shelves is targeted to an audience of young males who are not entirely satisfied with life. Despite the industry’s wan efforts to draw in female consumers, most comics perpetrate macho fantasizing with a boys-club identity—hardly attributes of the medium’s kiddie past, of which Archies are the main player, the best-selling nonsuperhero comic in the world, at 1.25 million copies per month. The whiff of shame that hangs over the comics racks is a symptom of that past—the current array of violent, action-packed superhero titles could not have been better designed to express “overcompensation” if Freud himself had made his living as an inker—and comic books’ attendant fascinations—Star Trek, sci-fi, Dungeons & Dragons, Magic cards—tumble into the category of infantile wish fulfillment.

In the hushed, porno-shop atmosphere of the comic-book store, the Archies have become a discredited dinosaur, lacking the form’s recently minted hipness factor and its traditional male fanship. The eternally 16-year-old Riverdalians skew to a readership about half their age; the series isn’t for young adults with tastes pitched downward, but for kids with curiosity pitched up—teens for tots.

Yet the first decade of Archie comics revolved less around teen dreams than around unserious young-adult traumas, carrying the undertones of brutality that marked many early comics. Sweet Betty, the rapacious sweater girl, maintained an arsenal of harassment techniques for landing the boy next door; Veronica Lodge was a New York socialite who had moved to Riverdale on a whim; Big Moose’s violent tendencies were rather frightening; and the gluttonous Jughead, with his iconic crown, seemed a much more bitter and serious woman-hater than the late-blooming Juggie of today. One typical early story culminated with a black eye for Archie when Betty discovered that a date with her was the loser’s prize in a bet between Archie and Reggie. Gangly Ethel, brainy Dilton, and Moose’s pert, black-haired girlfriend Midge served as typical subsidiary characters of the time and remain players today, although they have since made room for the more diverse talents of the artistically inclined Chuck (a sort of meta-character, he draws the gang as comics) and his girl, Nancy—both black and only trotted out on a need-to-appear basis for parties and the like.

Writers of the first Archie decade weren’t sure how to manipulate these comic types into unique situations. Most of those early stories elaborated on the eternal romantic triangle, with sympathies lighting on each third at random, the faint grotesqueness of the penciler’s line making them look like dime-novel savvies indulging in a junior high skit. The gap between the Archies’ developmental maturity and the emotional frivolousness of their behavior was inevitable.

Historically, the Archies predated the invention of the teenager, a construct not introduced until the ’50s, when youngsters began to define a tribal identity. It was only after World War II that this tribe emerged as a consumer and social force, because in the ’40s, there simply were few young men around to blur the line between child- and adulthood. When men from 18 to 30 went to war, kids a few years too young to fight popped into relief as a visibly unique group, with a set of customs and fashions as distinct from those of children as they were indecipherable to grown-ups. In that atmosphere, the Archies couldn’t stay weirdly mature high-schoolers for long. With the introduction of a new class of financially liquid adolescents telegraphing its identity by its choice of styles, products, and gewgaws came the need to interpret that identity for the society at large, specifically the generation just below.

The series’ simple premise, the protean environment of Riverdale, and its chronological stasis furnish the creators infinite ways to take the threat and mystery out of adulthood for little readers who will certainly abandon Archie and the gang in their own teenage years. (I wonder how that 18-year-old in Hanson feels about his peers starting bands influenced by the likes of Korn.) Because children don’t know what’s normal, their notions of what is expected of them and what to expect are fluid and fragile. The Archies’ template interprets the ever-shifting refinements in popular culture while keeping the series’ meaning constant.

As exponents of Riverdale’s civic and social ethos, Archie & Co. play out in their microcosm the roles of the adult world surrounding them. Riverdale’s mayor, businessmen, office workers, and blue-collar wage-earners become mere window dressing, as Betty has all the car-fix-it, pie-baking, and craft know-how in town, and Veronica owns every store, building, and service. When the writers want to invent a comic scenario that takes place outside an ordinary 16-year-old’s ken, they simply plug Archie into a job for a day, whether supermarket stock boy or temporary CEO—which is also what happens to Barbie. Every character plays every sport as circumstances require, indulges in every hobby, and, over the years, has dabbled in every trend—from beatnik jargon and roller skating, to women’s lib and CB radios, to grunge and body piercing.

The Archie world absorbs trends easily, because the onset of fads typically follows individual characters’ attributes: a gadget Archie wants to buy, a style only Veronica can afford, a dance Betty does well. If the earrings-for-men fad looked a little risqué to ’80s preteens, it lost its hardcore subtext when Archie scandalized the crowd with one of his own, which was revealed to be clip-on only after the competitive Reggie had both ears pierced—a neat lesson in moderation. The series’ main players always indulge as much of any trend as is acceptable or face a comeuppance, regulating to within the quarter-ounce the age-appropriate level of involvement with Tamagochis (unlimited; they’re harmless) or visiting rock star “Bruce Bingstone” (limited; musicians are trouble).

The series folds in new second-string characters at its whim—Brigitte, the chubbette with the beautiful singing voice, and the pixie-haired Cricket O’Dell, who has the ability to literally smell cash. There even used to be a creepy, hard-core Christian branch of Archie comics that must be seen to be believed: One startling panel shows Betty in a shortie nightgown at prayer by her bedside saying, “Everything is easier to see when you’re on your knees.” (The imprint no longer exists.)

Nowadays, the Archies writers are expanding Riverdale’s frame of reference to address the pressures of media and celebrity culture—they are revving up the series’ approach to sex and class, two of its principal motifs. Sex has long lain at the heart of the central trio’s action. Fashion, popularity, and physical allure have always been at the forefront of the girls’ stories, and, despite the chaste atmosphere, the pencilers have sometimes understandably indulged in hot-and-bothered depictions of the young ladies’ well-proportioned charms. Class, too, is frequently on the table, thanks to the aristocratic Veronica’s limitless financial resources and her unapologetic tendency to put her wherewithal to work and ask for more.

Yet despite their traditional prominence, matters of class and sex were stepped up with the 1994 appearance of Cheryl Blossom, a flame-haired temptress even more solvent than Veronica and the focus of every ogling teenage boy in Riverdale. (Cheryl made some cameos in the early ’80s, but she was a bit rich for the time—her debut revolved around her attempt to go topless on Riverdale Beach.) She attends not Riverdale High but Pembroke Academy, mixes with the snobs of her pedigreed circle, and shuns the presence of the common little “townies” while going after Archie with all of her considerable guns blazing. As a crass exaggeration of Veronica’s chief attributes—wealth, vanity, and selfishness—Cheryl’s presence softens Ronnie’s image and bands the gang together against a common enemy.

At the same time, Cheryl and her even-rottener-than-Reggie twin brother Jason are hopelessly vulgar star-chasers and media hounds whose fondest dream is to appear on The Jerry Springer Show, as Cheryl does in one issue. All their attempts to thrust their mugs before the public eye end in disaster, be it God’s will or the result of sibling sabotage. The Blossoms are the Archies gone Hollywood—sexier, shallower, more venal, and more petty. They succeed where Cricket doesn’t because Cricket’s bizarre talent vulgarizes the class issue, making it about pure cash, but the Blossoms’ tawdry hopes indict the lure of media culture while putting it on the outside edge of the Archies’ universe.

It’s always a bit of a shock if an Archies story is funny or satisfying, but the series’ immortality makes sense when seen as an anodyne against the ever-present threat of maturity. That threat remains constant even as it changes shape, and for kids who stand cautiously on the brink, vanquishing it is no job for superheroes.—Arion Berger