Archie Andrews has finally made the transition to a live action television series. Riverdale is airing on Netflix in Australia, but be warned, this millennial version of Archie may not be as you remember. According to show’s marketing blurb, Riverdale ”follows the the main crew of Archie, Betty, Veronica and their friends as they explore the surrealistic twists of small-town life and the darkness and weirdness bubbling beneath Riverdale’s wholesome facade”.
A description that could very easily have been lifted from the cancelled-too-soon cult favourite Veronica Mars.
Way-back-when, Archie comics were light, inoffensive and easily digested, but Riverdale, as presented in the new show, is dark and dangerous. It has been compared to Twin Peaks, though apart from its misty, forested locations it bears little resemblance to Lynch’s twisted imaginings. Riverdale High is populated with a host of improbably attractive students, and everyone, including Archie, is hiding a potentially explosive secret that could tear their lives apart.
Riverdale begins with an unseen narrator describing the tragic disappearance of local teen Jason Blossom in a supposed boating accident. Jason’s twin sister Cheryl survived the accident and seems to have an unhealthy obsession with her missing brother.
Meanwhile secrets abound in the community, blonde girl-next-door Betty Cooper has a crush on newly buff Archie Andrews and a nascent reliance on prescription medication. Production values are high and the young cast hold their own alongside a few established performers, most notably Luke Perry of Beverley Hills 90210 fame as Archie’s father.
But this is most definitely not a straightforward adaptation of the old Archie comics to the screen; it is rather a complete reimagining of the franchise from the ground up. Archie fans may have trouble recognising anything familiar in Riverdale other than the character names and hair colours.
As a child I read everything I could get my hands on, books, shopping catalogues, cereal boxes and of course comic books. Archie and his Riverdale crew, Betty, Veronica, and best friend Jughead first appeared in Pep Comics in December 1941. A year later in 1942, Archie got his own title Archie Comics. In 1949, Archies Pal Jughead Jones was released, followed in 1950 by Archie’s Girls Betty and Veronica.
By the late ’70s and early ’80s, which is around the time I encountered my first bunch of tattered old Archie comics, they had progressed with the times to include ’70s fashion and activities like disco, though story content remained decidedly chaste.
When I was eventually able to selectively purchase new comic books I left the perennial Riverdale teens behind, comfortable in the thought that their innocent small town hijinks would continue more or less unchanged indefinitely.
But unbeknown to me, Archie wasn’t content to slowly sink into the mists of lost cultural relevancy. A revolution has quietly been occurring in the Archieverse and now it is finally bursting out into the mainstream.
Throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s, the Archie characters also appeared in various series published by Spire Christian Comics. These stories, filled with parables and Bible verse, existed independently and quite separate from the official Archie continuity.
The deal with Spire ended in 1988, making way for an impending explosion of creativity. The clean cut, and it must be said, often boring teens from Riverdale were going to get a lot more interesting in coming years.
In 1994, Marvel and Archie comics broke new ground with a one shot story published simultaneously by both companies. The book was called either Archie Meets the Punisher (Archie Comics title) or The Punisher Meets Archie (Marvel title). Both versions contained the same interior pages but with different covers.
The Punisher, recently seen on season two of the Netflix superhero show Daredevil, is an unashamedly violent vigilante who, following the murder of his wife and children, embarks on a crusade to punish the criminal underworld by any and all means at his disposal. In his Archie appearance, The Punisher mistakenly targets Archie for assassination: hijinks ensue.
This might not, at first glance, be a natural fit for the Archie series, where the biggest drama was traditionally to be found in the love triangle between Archie, Betty and Veronica. But then Archie comics explored that in unexpected ways too, with an alternate timeline series that saw Archie marry Betty, then later jump to a different time-zone and marry Veronica.
And just a few years ago, bizarre sounding Archie comic book covers began popping up on social media. Improbable titles like Archie vs Predator (2015), based on the Predator movie franchise, or Afterlife with Archie (2013) – about a full blown zombie apocalypse in Riverdale, which depicted Archie smashing in his zombified father’s skull with a baseball bat – were not jokey internet memes but real comic books.
Still, things had been progressing in Riverdale a lot faster than anyone could have predicted. In 2010, Archie comics introduced their first openly gay character Kevin Keller, who also features prominently in the new TV show. At the time Archie Comics co-CEO Jon Goldwater said:
“The introduction of Kevin is just about keeping the world of Archie Comics current and inclusive. Archie’s hometown of Riverdale has always been a safe world for everyone.”
There has been much speculation about Jughead Jones’s orientation over the years, with many readers suggesting he might be closeted. In the comics, Jughead has dated girls, perhaps most notably Big Ethel, but the comedy from those encounters has generally been derived from his efforts to avoid female attention.
Jughead became laughingly known as a “womanhater” in the books, a title that he readily accepted and that his friends seemed to find amusing and appropriate.
Times have changed for Jughead, though. In issue #4 of the Jughead comic book series (February 2016), Jughead has a conversation with Kevin Keller who is bemoaning his troubled love life: “Look there are only like, five gay guys at Riverdale High…you just don’t get it cause you’re asexual.”
In his response Jughead says, “I’m not hobbled by these hormonal impulses.”
The exchange is brief and low key, Jughead’s asexual orientation is stated simply and matter-of-factly, presented as common knowledge and no big deal. The move has proven extremely popular with millennials, a demographic who have embraced the notion that gender identity is not binary but exists on a spectrum.
Riverdale showrunner Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa has said that Jughead will not initially be presented as asexual in the series, and while that has sparked some controversy it should be noted that he has not closed that door completely.
“I think all of the kids are discovering themselves, and a big part of that is discovering their sexuality, their sexual selves. Rather than have everything fully formed — for instance, we’re not going to start with Archie’s band or Jughead’s asexuality.”
Riverdale’s writer/producer Greg Berlanti made his name on Dawsons Creek but in recent years has been the driving force behind numerous comic book adaptions, producing Arrow, The Flash, Supergirl and Legends of Tomorrow.
The work Berlanti and his team have produced on the small screen has been colourfully dynamic and most of all fun. The approach to Riverdale couldn’t be more different. By the end of episode one we learn that Jason Blossom was indeed murdered, and we also know by then that everyone in Riverdale has something to hide and much to lose.
The second episode sees Cheryl Blossom under increased pressure after the shocking revelation of her brother Jason’s murder. Archie feels obligated to confess what he heard the morning Jason died but can he convince Ms Grundy to risk revealing their taboo relationship? And Archie’s estranged former BFF Jughead uncovers a secret that Archie would prefer to keep hidden.
Fans of Archie comics from the ’80s and earlier may struggle with this interpretation, but for those willing to give it a chance, Riverdale promises plenty of intrigue and excitement.
Peter Allen, Lecturer in Film and Television, Victorian College of the Arts, University of Melbourne.
This article first appeared on The Conversation.