Friend to the End… For Now
BY MICHAEL SHIREY | In an heroic act of self-sacrifice, Archibald “Chick” Andrews, better known as Archie, has died foiling an assassination attempt on his gay friend Kevin Keller. In last week’s issue of “Life with Archie,” the title character of the popular comic series took a bullet intended for Keller, and his sudden death, portrayed as an inspiring example of solidarity in the fight for equality, garnered massive media attention, even outside of traditional comic circles.
Characters die — it is one of the understood facts of storytelling. But unlike most other fictional genres, it has become somewhat standard practice for comic book writers to resurrect their offed heroes. With that in mind, it can be difficult to wrap one’s head around the death of Riverdale’s favorite redhead. What is the cultural significance, if any, of Archie dying in Kevin’s place, when Archie is likely right around the corner in other series of the Archie universe?
Rumors started back in April that Archie would meet his untimely end in an upcoming issue of “Life With Archie,” one of the many different storylines in the 75-year-old franchise. “Life” follows Riverdale’s mischievous teens in their adult years.
Archie sacrifices himself for gay Kevin Keller, but it’s no final goodbye
Issue #36 of “Life With Archie” starts like a made-for-TV movie, with adult Archie basking in a seemingly perfect life, though readers are presented with two alternative — and very different — paths. Iconic moments from his past are spliced amongst the two scenarios and two possible wives — never identified but whose names are not hard to guess. But before either of these utopian futures can play out, Archie attends a benefit fundraiser hosted by longtime pal Kevin, who has recently returned to Riverdale.
Now a US senator, Kevin has become the comic’s poster boy for gay rights, anti-violence advocacy, and gun control. The benefit is for the families of shooting victims — a follow-up on a story from a previous issue — but the event takes a dark turn when a crazed shooter sneaks in and threatens the senator’s life. Archie jumps to his friend’s rescue, and is fatally wounded. Cue the tears.
Or not. While there are good intentions here, Archie’s untimely ending feels a bit empty. Though the plot twist was supposedly carefully thought out, it comes across as an exceptionally rushed device that doesn’t really give the readers anything new. Frankly, it reeks of a marketing ploy attempting to boost sales, which have been in gradual decline in recent years.
Archie’s shooting points up an inherent problem with comic book deaths. Because characters frequently come and go in some capacity or another in different series of a comic franchise, their deaths tend to loose meaning and are seldom taken seriously. Readers have become accustomed to the possibility that their favorite characters will die — and they are also all too aware those characters are just as likely to return in upcoming issues. That lessens the weight, if any, the death of a major character might otherwise have.
To be sure, the death is unprecedented in the Archie universe; no other major character has been killed off to date. Still, the shooting, as sensationalistic as it was, lacks a punch. It also cheapens the supposed message of allies standing up for equality. The writers at “Archie” have already amply demonstrated their investment in LGBT equality, given Kevin’s high profile since his introduction in 2010.
In a 2013 reading, Paul Kupperberg, “Archie” writer and author of “Kevin,” a young adult novel that tells the story of Keller prior to moving to Riverdale, even went so far as to hint at making Kevin the first gay president in future storylines. Presumably Archie’s death will set the stage for Kevin’s upcoming big adventures.
There’s no word yet on how long the current “Life With Archie” series will continue, but for now it is slated to publish through at least September. Issue #37, released July 23, picks up the story of the good folk of Riverdale still coping with Archie’s death a year later. At the same time, the comic’s writers have assured fans the shooting will not keep Archie from appearing in other series.
Originally inspired by the “Andy Hardy” film series from the 1930s, “Archie” comics have provided generations of readers a bird’s eye view of teenage angst. For three quarters of a century, Riverdale’s favorite all-American boy has faced many challenges, but prior to his dramatic end in “Life With Archie,” the driving theme has always been an unending triangle among him, girl next door Betty Cooper, and popular socialite Veronica Lodge.
Kevin Keller’s emergence in the past four years and his marriage to his African-American husband Clay Walker prove just how far the genre has come since 1941. Since we first met Kevin, he has been warmly embraced by fans. Dan Parent, the creative mind behind Riverdale’s token LGBT resident, has always stressed that the storyline’s success comes from the fact that Kevin is so much more than just a gay character. Raised as an army brat, he eventually joined the military himself and later plunged into politics. His young adult novel backstory and the genre’s first ink-on-page kiss broke important ground. His buddy Archie’s courageous act to save his life unfortunately fell well short of that mark.
LIFE WITH ARCHIE #36 | Paul Kupperberg | $4.99 | 53 pages