It breaks my heart a little to learn that Archie Andrews, the freckle-faced teenager who has graced comic books since 1941, is going to die. At least temporarily. In an event comic book that seems inspired by his constantly resurrecting superhero peers, Archie Comics will kill off its hero to end the “Life With Archie” series, which flash-forwarded into different versions of Archie’s future as an adult.
“Archie dies as he lived — heroically,” Archie Comics CEO Jon Goldwater told the New York Post. “He dies saving the life of a friend and does it in his usual selfless way. Archie has always been a representation of us — the best of us. Our strengths and our faults.”
But part of what has been best about Archie Comics is the way it has tended to avoid the sorts of escalating stakes that characterize superhero comics (even when the Punisher showed up in Riverdale, no one got whacked). As Archie Comics let its titular redhead grow up enough to explore what his life might be like had he married Betty Cooper or Veronica Lodge, Archie Andrews remained a kind of forerunner to “How I Met Your Mother” main character Ted Mosby (Josh Radnor). Precisely because the stakes in Archie’s life were so low, the comics could focus on his quest for true love without making the question of which girl Archie might pick seem silly.
The choice between what Michael Chabon described in “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay” as “the two big-toothed, wasp-waisted goddess-girls, light and dark, entangled forever in the enmity of their friendship” is easy to caricature as average and rich, nice and mean, tomboyish and feminine. But Betty and Veronica represent two competing visions of the American dream that Archie must choose between. Is he aiming for middle-class security with Betty, and a lifestyle they can support on relatively modest careers? Or does Archie truly want to leap classes and try to fit with Veronica and the Lodge family, who are convinced that their wealth is their due?
Archie Comics complicated this choice over time, introducing Cheryl Blossom, who was even richer than Veronica, as a potential love interest for Archie and breaking with its past discomfort about interracial dating and telling a story in which Archie marries fellow musician Valerie Brown and has a daughter with her. But whomever Archie paired up with and how we got there, the Archie comics have always been a story that treated decisions about courtship and dating as if they were serious and consequential.
Their counterparts in the world of superhero comics may have garnered critical respect and political attention on the big screen by tackling issues like use of drones and the privatization of military equipment. But as Matt Zoller Seitz pointed out in his review of “Man of Steel” last year, “virtually alone among big-name superheroes, [Superman is] a romantically and sexually mature man who seems to like and be comfortable around women.”
We all know that Archie Andrews’s preternaturally extended teenage years are a fantasy. But making the comics, however temporarily, about death rather than life, turns away from the franchise’s core purpose. Superhero and crime comics teach us about all the ways we can die. Archie Andrews, in all his bumbling, indecisive, lovelorn foolishness, has always been a character who taught us how we want to live.