Despite the many decades during which he’s shared rack space with comic book superheroes, and the fact that he’s attained a longevity and iconic status comparable to the most most popular and longest-lived superheroes, Archie Andrews doesn’t really share all that much in common with the caped crusading crowd.
This past month, however, Riverdale’s eternal teenager experienced a very superheroic rite of passage: The highly-publicized, noted-by-mainstream-media death. Now, unlike all the superheroes who have preceded him in comic book stunt death, from Superman in 1992 to Wolverine this year, Archie’s death isn’t going to be a temporary one nor will he be replaced by a legacy character. For Archie Andrews, dead really does mean dead.
Of course, he dies in the pages of Life With Archie, a series set in a possible future, in which Archie and the gang have grown into adulthood and paired off into marriages. This is the series in which Archie married Veronica…and Betty, in different possible timelines. So this is more of a “Whatever Happened to The Man of Tomorrow?” than a “Death of Superman” storyline; it’s the end of this possible future Archie (or Archies, I guess, as it serves as the punctuation of both of the possible futures Life With… has followed).
The teenage Archie forever unable to choose between Betty and Veronica? Don’t worry; he’ll live on in other Archie Comics.
Something else this particular, over-sized special issue shares with modern superhero comics is how convoluted its continuity is, although I should note it’s not actually all that important to reading and enjoying this story, whether you’re a lapsed Archie fan, a speculator, or someone curious to see what all the “Death of Archie” hubbub is about.
There’s a two-page flow-chart summary of paragraph after paragraph explaining the events of the preceding 35 issues, including those from both timelines, and the events the two timelines share. They both end with this two-part story, which includes Archie’s death in #36, and Riverdale’s mourning of its favorite son in #37 (A trade paperback collecting both and plenty of supplementary material entitled The Death of Archie: A Life Celebrated has already been released).
Beginning with an image of a little boy version of Archie upending a chocolate soda with three straws in front of Betty and Veronica and recapping in a few fleet pages their adolescence, the book includes Archie reminiscing while jogging, his route taking him down the magical Memory Lane, where he sees different futures for himself, in which he’s got two ginger kids and graying temples, as well as some meditation upon what makes Riverdale such a special place.
After checking in with the various characters, the climax occurs at a campaign event for Kevin Keller, who is now a United States Senator. There are vague warnings that he may be a target for a deranged killer (Keller is gay and married, giving the threat of any assassination attempt against him the edge of a possible hate crime). Refusing to go into hiding, Kevin makes his appearances and, at an after party at Jughead’s Chocklit shop, the killer pulls a gun on him, and Archie takes a bullet for his friends. He saves the day, but at the cost of his own life.
It’s a remarkably intense and poignant story, probably more so because it is taking place in an Archie comic, as the publisher’s reputation over the previous few decades has been for pretty anything other than intense and poignant stories. There’s a political edge to it too, calling to mind—perhaps coincidentally, but more than likely not—the 2011 shooting of Congresswoman Gabby Giffords.
The artwork, by pencil artists Pat and Tim Kennedy and inker Jim Amash, is slightly rounder and more fully-fleshed out and dynamic than that of the “regular” Archie stories (as has been the case for much of Life With…), but between the strict adherence to the default character designs and color artists Glenn Whitmore’s use of the usual Archie palette, the events seem all the more shocking, as it looks and reads so much like your average Archie comic, even if its story is that of the penultimate chapter of Archie’s story.
Because the issue serves as a capstone for both of the storylines-the one where Archie marries Veronica and the one where he marries Betty—the book has to allude to them both as his wife, generally by keeping the identity of his wife concealed and having him never refer to her by name. When he addresses his wife and we do see her face, the Kennedys are careful to include both women in the panel.
So, for example, when Archie says with his dying breath, “I’ve always loved you,” we see both Betty and Veronica, one on either side of the dialogue balloon, crying.
So, is this the way Archie Andrews should die? There are arguments to be made either way, I think. If his core appeal is that of a generic, all-American everyman, and the genre in which he is most successful is goofy, old-school teen comedy, then giving him such a heroic and extraordinary death seems to be some sort of violation, as taking a bullet meant for a senator is hardly an everyman’s death, and Archie seems like a character that, if we ever really must see his death, would end up dying peacefully in his sleep as a very old man, or perhaps suffering a terminal illness, slipping away while surrounded by his huge family.
On the other hand, the character’s motivation for so many of his comedic hijinks over the years has been the ridiculous lengths he’s willing to go for Betty and/or Veronica. Even if he never finally picks one over the other, and even if the nature of his narratives prevents him from ever formally consummating a romantic relationship with either, Archie is and always has been someone who would do pretty much anything for those girls.
So rushing a gunman who pulls out a weapon in the Chocklit Shop and endangering Betty, Veronica, Jughead, Kevin, and his other friends? Yeah, I guess that does seem like a pretty Archie thing to do.