Every week in a new installment of “Leading Questions”, the young, lantern jawed Publisher of Comics Bulletin Mark Stack will ask Co-Managing Editor Chase Magnett a question he must answer. However, Mark doesn’t plan on taking it easy on Chase. He’ll be setting him up with questions that are anything but fair and balanced to see how this once overconfident comics critic can make a cogent case for what another one obviously wants to hear.
So without any further ado…
What do you see as the key to the longevity of a property like Archie Comics?
I think the first thing to do is consider what we mean by “longevity”. Success as defined in the American comics market is very different than what it might mean in film or television, even when focused on franchises. Comics is a very small market in this country and for a publisher or brand to stick around is a very difficult achievement.
I’m not talking about simply keeping books on shelves and sales at a sustainable rate. Image Comics, IDW Publishing, and Dark Horse Comics aren’t going to factor into this conversation. While they have some brands that are associated with them, they are not publishers focused on selling characters or a franchise. Image Comics could lose Saga or The Walking Dead tomorrow and it would survive. These publishers are diversified in a way that prevents them from needing to focus on a single universe or core stable of characters.
This does not refer to the singular success of great works that do fall in that category either. Consider two of the most significant comics in the history of the medium: Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns. They are incredible works and have certainly seen longevity to themselves. Neither has ever gone out of print and both have maintained relevancy, popularity, and acclaim in the 30 years since their initial publication.
Both have also seen their publisher, DC Comics, attempt to cash in on that longevity and fail. While projects like Dark Knight III: The Master Race and “Before Watchmen” have seen decent sales numbers, neither has come close to reaching the heights of their predecessors. More significantly, they have been maligned and mocked by the readers buying them precluding an ongoing effort to continue selling them. You may see Doctor Manhattan pop up in some future event, but he’s not a self-sustaining property. Batman might be, but it’s clear Frank Miller’s vision for the character has long since reached its limits.
The longevity of something like Archie is the same as the longevity of something like the stables of super heroes at Marvel or DC Comics. It’s focused on telling stories using the same base set of characters in the same basic sort of setting utilizing familiar tropes again and again. And longevity here isn’t measured in the same manner as a television show where a decade is forever. A decade is just a good start when we’re talking comics properties. Consider all three of the major properties I’ve just mentioned and that all of them date back to World War II.
So when you have a property that already has almost a century of stories behind it, how do you keep selling them for decades to come? That’s one heckuva challenge.
We’ve seen a lot of publishers of properties like this offer potential answers in the past decade, but let’s focus on Archie. The key to understanding the potential success for a publisher like Archie Comics is to understand what value they possess as a company. That value lies in the property they’ve been publishing for 77 years, the fictional inhabitants of Riverdale. These stories didn’t last by accident and no one has had any wool pulled over their eyes regarding Archiekins, Veronica, Betty, Jughead, or anyone else. They are beloved characters for a reason.
You can argue about what that reason is. I think there’s something iconic to be found both within the central cast and setting of Archie Comics. They represent a certain type of Americana better than just about anything else I’ve ever encountered; it puts The Breakfast Club to shame in a discussion of high school story “types”. There are also strong elements of nostalgia, flexibility, humor, and style to be made. Whatever the reason or reasons are though, these stories have been popular for a long time. Short of a fundamental change in culture that makes them irrelevant, there’s no reason they can’t be popular now and in the future. The question is how to make them popular.
Archie Comics has been engaged in a serious and thoughtful revamping of their properties that I would mark as starting (from a reader’s perspective) with the launch of Afterlife with Archie #1. That comic made some pretty remarkable adjustments within the brand. It brought in new talent and allowed them a great deal of freedom to do unprecedented things with the characters. It and its sister title The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina have been a rousing success for the company. This has led to a revamp of the core titles of Archie Comics: Archie, Jughead, and Betty & Veronica. These are comics that don’t rely on a twist to the property, they present the essential property to the world.
While the success of the new horror titles at Archie Comics is indisputable, the success of the core titles is much more uneven. It’s in this uneven success and reception that I think an answer lies for what Archie Comics and similar publishers must do to achieve longevity.
Archie itself has been a moderate success. Mark Waid’s writing on the series leaves a lot to be desired and is clearly out of touch with the youth is aspires to imitate. Yet it still has some good jokes and acknowledges the strengths of the property. The introductory artwork of Fiona Staples and continuing efforts of Veronica Fish are excellent too.
Jughead has been a much stronger installment. Writer Chip Zdarsky and artist Erica Henderson displayed a clear love for the character from the very start of the series. They incorporated bits of history, including the Time Police, into a story that was all about Jughead’s obsession with food and disdain for hard work. It’s a story that reads as being irreverent even though its worshipping on hands and knees.
And then there’s Betty & Veronica, an utter embarrassment of a comic by Adam Hughes. It’s out of touch with both the generation it aspires to reflect and the characters it wants to update. There’s nothing about this comic that will appeal to a current fan of the property or those who might become one.
Looking down the list of creators and their degrees of success, I think there’s something telling. The biggest flaws in the work have emerged from writers and artists who could be described as out of touch. While Waid still writes one great superhero story, his conception of teenagers is similar to that of Abe Simpson after he finishes shouting at a cloud. Hughes is a step behind even that; Betty & Veronica is really just that bad.
This isn’t necessarily an age thing though. Zdarsky isn’t exactly a spring chicken and yet his writing appears much more relevant than that of Waid or Hughes. He doesn’t appear to have even more love for Jughead than the others do for their respective foci either. The key difference is that his approach to writing comics. Take a look around the world of comics today and consider which of these names is being regularly praised for pushing boundaries and being entertaining.
The same applies to the artistic teams. Staples’ work on Saga and Henderson’s work on Unbeatable Squirrel Girl both lead end of year lists and are establishing styles that appeal to new readers. They are a new wave that someone like Hughes can’t hope to compete with when it comes to the attention of readers under the age of 40. And let us be clear, longevity comes from finding an audience that will be around longer.
So is it really just a matter of finding the new hotness and letting them loose? Not at all.
As enjoyable as Zdarsky and Henderson’s work on Jughead has been, it certainly hasn’t been groundbreaking. They love Jughead comics and introduce a classic one at the end of each stripe. Jughead Jones is the same old goofball in their strips and he isn’t pushing any boundaries or challenging readers. While making Jughead asexual is a great example of making comics more representative, it’s hardly a watershed. Changes like that are really just a matter of making sure Archie Comics doesn’t read like something produced in 1939.
What this pair of creators does so well is to take the character and the essential components of his stories and add their own understanding of the modern conventions of comics storytelling. Zdarsky and Henderson get jokes in 2016 comics. They can make funny books for days and ones that are actually funny. That’s what they bring to the table, and it’s what some of their peers are failing to do (but might have done 10 or 20 years ago).
To take one example outside of comics, look at Marvel Studios. Whether or not you like their films, they are wildly successful. They feel fresh and updated, but are essentially no different than the past 50 years of Marvel stories. It doesn’t matter which actors or directors they assign because these characters still run through their roles; the toys always get placed back in their box at the end of the films. The aesthetic is updated, but the stories are unchanged from old cartoons and newsreels.
The key to longevity for something like Archie Comics is the illusion of change.
Like I said at the start of all this, Archie Comics’ greatest strength lies in its characters. They are something people have responded to for decades, and to radically alter them risks losing that response. While they might find success in bold moves and changes, they risk failure as well and losing the core value of their brand. Success really comes from finding new ways to present the same, old thing.
Giving modern, celebrated creators like Zdarsky, Henderson, and Staples a chance to visit Archie and Riverdale with their own take on comics provides a fresh coat of paint on this old, but well built house. They make things look fresh, update the jokes, and add some youth to the proceedings. Yet they don’t actually leave their fingerprints on Archie.
This isn’t an inherently good or bad thing. The stories being told by some of these creators are enjoyable and people enjoying comics is never a bad thing. At the same time there are possibilities being avoided for the sake of maintaining what Archie is. It’s possible that there are incredible Archie stories waiting to be told, but that they risk the very essence of what Archie is and the company’s core value. It’s a matter of getting something reliable and good, at the cost of something that is unknown and possibly great.
But you asked about longevity, and producing great or challenging art has never been a sure fire recipe to being remembered.