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Death in Riverdale: Comic Icon is Martyred in Political “Sacrifice”

When we think of Archie Comics, what usually comes to mind are team jackets and football games, guys and girls in high school relationships, and of course, a lovable (and slightly accident-prone) red-headed, seventeen-year-old.

However, in a recent series of stories that look beyond the teenage adventures of Archie Andrews, lead character of the Archie Comics franchise, the innocence of the character is brought to an end, with Archie being gunned down.

CNN reported on the bizarre comic plot, featured in the “Life With Archie” series where the future of character Archie Andrews is explored in different alternative story lines. Some hint at varying twists of reversible fate and alternative universes, which include alternative future events where Archie marries his long-time gal pal Betty in one instance, and Veronica in another.

But the authors assure us that in this case, all roads lead to the same Rome, so to speak; in other words, this is truly how Archie Comics intends readers to understand that Archie dies.

The story is sure to arouse controversy, both for the death of the character, but also the elements that lead to his demise, as the plot mirrors a number of the most controversial social issues in America today; namely gun violence, and sexuality:

Kevin Keller, the first openly gay character in Archie Comics history, is a senator in the “Life With Archie” universe, and he’s in favor of gun control.

An attempt is made on Keller’s life, and Archie takes the bullet for his friend.

“Archie died as he lived — a hero, representing the best in all of us,” Archie Comics CEO Jon Goldwater said in a news release.

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The political overtones present in the story are unusual, particularly for an Archie Comics story line. If anything, the life of Archie Andrews might be the last place we’d expect to see biting social and political commentary playing out, and of course, resulting in the heroic death of a character associated mostly with the fun and frivolity of youth.

Therefore, rather than merely killing the character, perhaps one could ask whether Archie’s death actually represents a martyrdom, of sorts… or even a sacrifice. 

In truth, how better to convey the severity of a situation than to take an icon–such as Archie–who represents all the light-hearted and carefree elements of the American lifestyle in a post World War II America, and to make a “sacrifice” to illustrate social and political commentary? Sure, it’s meant to be shocking, and Archie’s persona is perhaps best to convey the literal “death of innocence,” following the killing of one of the most famous goody-two-shoes ever to color the strips of comic panels.

While the symbolism here seems obvious, the Washington Post takes a slightly different angle on all this, likening the political themes portrayed in the “Life With Archie” series as evidence of a sales and media strategy, resulting from numbers of the comic performing at roughly half of what the company’s flagship Archie title is pulling in. Nonetheless, they highlighted some of the other themes present in the “Life” series, which hint at commentary on everything from the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” to race issues in America:

In the past several years, the company has introduced Kevin Keller, a gay character from a military family , whose storyline provided the franchise an opportunity to challenge the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, Last month, Archie Comics debuted Harper, the first regular character in the strip with a disability . The franchise, which initially stayed away from interracial relationships, had a storyline in which Archie married and had a baby with Valerie , one of the band members from Josie and the Pussycats.

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Although the Washington Post sees this as a strategy (and perhaps rightly so), the strategy has obviously utilized social issues as tools to draw interest on many occasions, portraying a more adult-oriented, “real world” sensibility to a series of characters who, quite literally, live in an ageless Neverland where they have remained teenagers for decades. Military enrollment, drugs and alcohol, marriage, pregnancy, careers, disease, and yes, death are not things which have ever been of concern in the Archie universe.

There is perhaps no better way for a shocking point to be made than to introduce such themes into an overtly “innocent” story like that of the life of Archie Andrews, and fuel the social commentary with the paradoxes of real life and grave existential concerns. They wouldn’t be paradoxical for anyone else, per se, but for Archie Comics, they might become a powerful vehicle, if not one that is slightly bizarre.

I can’t help but feel that there is indeed a bit more to all this than just a sales strategy. Sure, Archie Comics will probably see a small jump in sales coinciding with the tragic killing of their character (the regular “Archie” series will continue unaltered, with the characters remaining happy teenagers as they have for decades already). But killing Archie in order to boost numbers alone would seem a bit like overkill, wouldn’t it (pun intended). Maybe that’s just what it is, or maybe in an attempt to make a public statement that will be viewed as more controversial–and perhaps more meaningful–than any they’ve ever launched, Archie’s writers realized what kind of message the death of their flagship character would convey, mostly due to the fact that the character conveying it was Archie Andrews.

Archie’s is now a world where innocence can be so very easily shattered; the message is poignant indeed, and yes, even a bit archetypal in relation to the long lineage of shining Paladins, warrior kings, religious leaders, and hero myths that result in the death of the central character, often followed by a holy reverence for the fallen, if not a complete resurrection. Stop and consider the number of heroes in both comic books, as well as ancient mythology whose life-cycles have followed this route; whether it’s Hercules, Jesus of Nazareth, or Superman, the super-human hero has always prevailed as the archetypal essence of death and rebirth.

Archie, on the other hand, may come to represent something different. His will be a story remembered for the hero who really was just a man, and to whom life–and death–were fair in their treatment, rather than showing the exceptionalism often given the superhero. That flaw of mortality, rather than being a limitation, draws us all a bit closer to the essence of the character, and perhaps even to that little glimmer of Archie, his innocence, and his imperfection, that we can recognize in every one of us.

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Micah Hanks is a writer, podcaster, and researcher whose interests cover a variety of subjects. His areas of focus include history, science, philosophy, current events, cultural studies, technology, unexplained phenomena, and ways the future of humankind may be influenced by science and innovation in the coming decades. In addition to writing, Micah hosts the Middle Theory and Gralien Report podcasts.
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