Archie does more gimmick stories than just about any comic today. The biggest gimmick of them all comes this August, in the 600th issue of the main Archie title, when the world’s oldest teenager proposes to his wealthy sweetheart Veronica (part of a six-issue arc that takes place after they graduate from college). When the story was announced, it created what its writer, Michael Uslan, calls “a firestorm of media attention.” It’s the latest in a recent string of Archie media events: the publisher has already done “New Look” stories with the characters redesigned in an unrecognizably realistic style, and another comic, Archie: the Freshman Year, was billed as the first-ever look at the characters when they started at Riverdale High. For a comic that’s been telling the same stories for 67 years, Archie sure is making a lot of changes—even if everything will probably go back to the status quo eventually.
Why does Archie feel the need to shake things up? Partly because an unusual story can get heavy promotion in the press. Uslan, a Batman movie producer who conceived and wrote the marriage arc (drawn by longtime Archie artist Stan Goldberg), told Maclean’s that he was astonished by all the publicity from people who would ordinarily not have much to say about comics. “Jay Leno talked about it on his last Tonight Show,” he says. “Katie Couric used it as her sign-off. Major magazines and newspapers are running editorials on it. Weirdest thing of all, we’ve gotten coverage on al-Jazeera.” This would never happen for a six-page story that sticks to the formula. That’s why Victor Gorelick, Archie’s long-time editor, says that these longer, change-of-pace stories are necessary to “remind people we are out there.”
These reminders risk alienating regular Archie followers, who read it for the comfort of familiarity. “Many of our fans aren’t too big on change,” Gorelick admits. The “New Look” stories received many complaints, and a similar thing is happening here. “Fans are much more passionate about the wedding than we expected,” Gorelick says. “Not that we weren’t expecting controversy. But some of our fans are very upset with Veronica.” Not that no one took Veronica’s side; a popular blog post on mightygodking.com explained that Archie chose Veronica because Betty is, on the evidence of past comics, a psychotic stalker. But most fans tend to prefer the “good girl,” Betty, and are furious that Archie would choose Veronica; Uslan says that people online are so sorry for Betty that they’ve started “writing to her in person with letters of encouragement.”
Still, in comics, negative reaction is better than no reaction at all. And at this point, not even the death of Superman (again) could get a bigger reaction from comics fans than resolving the Archie-Betty-Veronica love triangle they grew up with. Uslan says that the story has inspired a renewed interest in Archie from people who may not have known they were still fans. “Everybody really cares whether he marries Betty or Veronica. They can’t believe they care, but they do.”
A less positive spin on this would be that Archie needs to use gimmicks to get noticed, because the regular stories no longer attract as much interest as they once did. Some of the older Archie stories now have a high reputation among comics connoisseurs, particularly those of Harry Lucey, who drew the Archie title in the ’60s and ’70s (he drew Betty and Veronica nude and left it up to the colourist to dress them). Those stories, still being reprinted in digests, can sometimes overshadow the new Archie stories. Some readers may not even know that the company is still making new stories: Uslan says that “you hear people saying ‘I didn’t know they were still being published.’ ” It may be that Archie needs to do something a little different to set its current issues apart, just like Superman can no longer stick to old-fashioned stories about saving Lois Lane from danger.
The way Uslan sees it, though, this story isn’t just a publicity opportunity, but an artistic one. “These are creative and innovative people,” he says of the Archie staff. “For them to explore different aspects and different eras in the lives of these people, I think it’s wonderful.” And never discount the power of shock value; Uslan recalls that when he pitched the idea to Gorelick, “Victor said, ‘What do you have in mind?’ I said, ‘Archie gets married.’ He said, ‘No, really.’ ” That’s the reaction a gimmick comic wants to provoke in its potential readers: they’re skeptical, and then they buy it.