First published on The Daily Beast, April 9, 2014. Read the original here.
Archie, that lovable doof, and his sweater set posse from Riverdale—Betty, Veronica, and Jughead—have long been bywords for the idealized adolescence of the Baby Boomers. What Norman Rockwell was to oil painting, Archie Andrews was to comic books. But with Archie himself slated to die this summer, and Lena Dunham (yes, that Lena Dunham) onboard as a new writer, Riverdale is undergoing a radical transformation.
“I'm always shocked when I hear some people think Archie the comic books are set in the ‘50s,” says Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, who was recently named chief creative officer of Archie Comics. Last year, he created the critically acclaimed zombie-apocalypse-in-Riverdale themed title Afterlife With Archie. As of last month, he is the first CCO in the company’s 75 years of existence.
Aguirre-Sacasa has a long resume on the illustrated page, including many years at Marvel, perhaps the biggest name in the industry right now. But you’re more likely to recognize him as a writer for the TV shows Big Love and Glee. In an era when comics are a bigger business off the page than on it, Aguirre-Sacasa is Archie’s ambassador to Hollywood. Or as Jon Goldwater, publisher and co-CEO of Archie Comics, affectionately calls him, “Archie West.”
If Aguirre-Sacasa is the public face of Archie’s rebrand, then Goldwater is the mind behind it. He is the grandson of John L. Goldwater, one of the founders of the company, and for the last five years, he’s been working tirelessly to bring Archie back into the public consciousness. “My mantra coming in was: We have to take chances. We have to modernize,” says Goldwater. Audiences were hungry for new stories with deeper emotional resonance. This drove Goldwater to push for plots that brought familiar characters to unexpected places (like Archie marrying Veronica and Betty), as well as plots that introduced new characters that embodied the modern Archie ethos (like Kevin Keller, Riverdale’s first gay resident). “All the characters, the core of their integrity is the same,” Goldwater says, but “Riverdale has changed” to keep up with the real world.
Being a small, family-owned company, Goldwater believes, has been instrumental in Archie Comics newfound success. “We have an advantage over companies like Marvel,” he says, “because we can move and react very quickly.” He offers Aguirre-Sacasa’s Afterlife With Archie as an example. The idea was jokingly tossed around over breakfast by Aguirre-Sacasa and Goldwater’s son Jesse. By that afternoon, the company had given Aguirre-Sacasa the greenlight to develop it.
In some ways, hiring Aguirre-Sacasa could be seen as the biggest chance Goldwater has taken so far. In 2003, Archie Comics issued a cease-and-desist letter to Aguirre-Sacasa, when he mounted a play called Archie’s Weird Fantasy, which imagined the eponymous hero moving to New York City and coming out. “I know this seems like sacrilege,” he told the company at the time, “but it really comes from a deep, abiding love of these characters.” Nonetheless, he still had to rename the show.
Now, he says it feels a little bit like he’s living in “a bizzar-o universe” where these characters are finally his to play with. “You have a blank canvas,” Goldwater told him when they created the new position. “You fill it in.”
The kind of changes Aguirre-Sacasa will bring to Archie can be summed up in two words: Lena Dunham. The same day that Archie Comics announced his hire, they also announced that Dunham would be writing a four-issue arc in the mainline title in 2015—a deal Aguirre-Sacasa was instrumental in making happen. “It's going to be both a quintessential Archie story and a quintessential Lena story,” he says, revolving around a reality TV show that comes to film in Riverdale. It’s a sign of the bold moves Aguirre-Sacasa says we can expect from Archie moving forward. “We want to bring that kind of excitement and that kind of event out on a monthly basis,” he says. Imagining Lena Dunham writing Archie is like imagining my grandmother in a cameo on Girls. But it’s a deft move from a rebranding perspective. What better way to announce a new Archie era than via the pen of the Millennial It girl? Other big projects are also in the works, including a Sabrina the Teenage Witch movie (and accompanying comic) that’s currently in “very active development” with Sony. Although Archie is their flagship, Goldwater and Aguirre-Sacasa are eager to promote many of the other intellectual properties the company owns, from familiar names like Josie & the Pussycats, to less well-known ones like the Red Circle group of superhero titles. Taking a page from others in the comic book industry, they plan to push their characters in every medium possible: books, television, movies, perhaps even musicals. (Aguirre-Sacasa worked on both Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark and the musical version of American Psycho.) So far, this aggressive modernization has been able to win over both fans and critics. “Thank god for the change!” laughs Goldwater. “It's really expanded our audience.” Last year, the company won a GLAAD Media Award for their handling of Kevin Keller, and a Diamond Gem Award (given for the “the pinnacle of sales achievement”) for Afterlife With Archie. This is a big change for Archie Comics. Although the company does not release sales numbers, they’ve been trimming their actual comics book offerings for years. In 2011 and 2012, about 40 percent of each published Archie comic went unsold; to date, every issue of Afterlife has sold out. Archie Comics has made a few splashy forays into the modern entertainment market over the last few decades: the hit TV show Sabrina the Teenage Witch, the mediocre Josie & the Pussycats movie. But a sustained rebranding initiative like this is entirely new, which makes Aguirre-Sacasa’s role as chief creative officer all the more important. If he cannot guide Archie to a larger, more youthful audience, it may well become the yesteryear comic book brand some people already believe it to be.