Using a formula that company president Mike Pellerito sums up as "really sexy girls and really funny guys," the venerable comics publisher Archie Comics has been chronicling the exploits of perpetual teenagers Archie, Betty, Veronica, Jughead, Big Moose, and the rest of their Riverdale High friends since 1941. But with new story lines, an emphasis on graphic novels and digital delivery, a distribution deal with Random House, and more diversity in the characters, things are definitely changing in Riverdale.
Actually, the rather quiet revolution in Archie Comics is taking place for real in Mamaroneck, N.Y., where the company is headquartered, with editors over the past few years stretching the boundaries of tradition without breaking continuity with the past. In the last two years, the company has made news with its parallel story lines, Archie Marries Veronica and Archie Marries Betty (now continuing in its Life With Archie magazine); the introduction of Kevin Keller, Riverdale's first openly gay character; and its recent announcement that it would publish all its comics digitally on the same day they are released in print.
Originally named MLJ Magazines, Archie Comics was founded in 1939, and its initial lineup included a mix of science fiction, superhero, and crime stories. Archie Andrews made his first appearance in 1941 and was loosely modeled on Mickey Rooney's teenage Andy Hardy character, the star of a series of successful movies. Betty and Jughead also appeared in that first comic; Veronica did not appear until a year later.
The heart of the Archie line is its six 32-page comics, Archie, Archie & Friends, Betty, Betty & Veronica, Jughead, and Veronica. These comics, along with older stories, are then reprinted in small digests, and the stories are also collected in larger-format graphic novels based on story arcs or common themes. A second magazine, Betty or Veronica?, is in the works, and the magazine stories will also be collected as graphic novels. In 2010, the company increased the frequency of its double digests and discontinued the smaller single digests. "We found that with single digests we weren't giving enough value to readers," says co-CEO Jon Goldwater. "By printing more double digests at a better price point, we are giving better value."
The Riverdale characters have become more diverse over time and now reflect a more contemporary sensibility. In addition to a broader ethnic mix, the cast has shown a greater range of interests and problems. Big Moose, for instance, once depicted as dumb and aggressive, turns out to have dyslexia. Kevin Keller is an integral part of the cast and will star in his own series later this year. Goldwater says these changes are both a natural evolution and part of a deliberate effort. "It's a natural evolution because that is what the world is," he says. " It is a deliberate editorial push because we are reflecting what is going on in the real world." That reflection includes topical issues such as a Jersey Shore parody, a Twilight parody, and guest appearances by President Obama and Sarah Palin.
One reason why Archie comics remain so popular with children is that they are among the few comics still available on the newsstand and at supermarket checkouts; indeed, the newsstand represents "the lion's share" of comics sales for the company, according to Goldwater.
In September, the company signed a distribution deal with Random House, which Goldwater says has spurred a renewed emphasis on graphic novels. The monthly comics are not going away, but Goldwater says he wants to increase the company's graphic novel line by 50%–100%. "It is a very, very important part of our business here at Archie Comics, and we are focusing a lot of energy and resources behind promotion and creation of our graphic novels," he says. Last week, the company announced its first original graphic novel, Archie Babies.