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Opinion For Archie Comics, a political focus is a strategy, not a stunt

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In April, I wrote about the news that Archie Andrews, the forever-teenaged redhead, would be dying in an upcoming issue of his comic books. The plot turn was shocking enough for a series that has focused on the stakes of everyday choices, but this week we learned more about that death: Archie would be fatally shot by an assassin targeting his friend, an openly gay senator campaigning for gun control.

On his personal blog, the Weekly Standard’s Jonathan Last cast a gimlet eye on this development, particularly on the politicized nature of Archie’s death.

“How relevant is Archie? I mean, from the hundreds and hundreds of items in the news yesterday, you’d think it’s a pretty big deal. Well in June the regular, flagship Archie title came out with issue #656. It was ranked #327 on the sales chart. Anyone want to guess how many copies it sold?” he wrote on his personal blog. “4,063. Not a typo. But Archie is a dynamo compared to Life with Archie. In May, the most recent issue of Life, #35, sold 2,064 copies. The stunt is perfectly in line with a company that’s experiencing massive internal turmoil.”

It is probably more appropriate to describe Archie Comics’ shift as a strategy rather than a stunt. Some of the storylines take on policy, but the franchise has also made a deliberate effort to include characters who show up infrequently in other comics.

In the past several years, the company has introduced Kevin Keller, a gay character from a military family, whose storyline provided the franchise an opportunity to challenge the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, Last month, Archie Comics debuted Harper, the first regular character in the strip with a disability. The franchise, which initially stayed away from interracial relationships, had a storyline in which Archie married and had a baby with Valerie, one of the band members from Josie and the Pussycats.

This makes sense as both a media strategy and a sales strategy.

As young adult fiction has become increasingly sophisticated, increasingly popular and more widely available, Archie Comics’ sweet stories of first loves, first jobs and teenagers’ evolving relationships with their parents and teachers feel slightly anachronistic, or at least low-stakes. The company could have responded by going the ABC Family route, and spicing up YA stories with sex and violence.

Instead, the franchise went in several different directions. It moved to make the core teenage stories more inclusive, recognizing that there was at least some hunger for representations of teenagers whose stories are often marginalized. Archie Comics leaned into genre experiments such as the “Afterlife with Archie” series of zombie stories. And in the stories that featured Archie as an adult, the comics leaned fairly heavily into political issues.

The 73-year-old beloved comic book character Archie Andrews will die in Wednesday’s installment of “Life with Archie” while saving the life of his gay friend. (Video: Reuters)

Zombie stories may not be political, but a focus on diversity and big issues certainly is. Is that necessarily suspect?

Being ideologically correct, as determined by a potential constituency, is not the same as being good art. But people all across the political spectrum have an interest in demonstrating that storytelling about different issues and from different political perspectives can be viable. Dinesh D’Souza’s politics are at least as significant a part of his pitch for his books and documentaries as Archie Comics’ recent turn left is to the small bump in sales that Last identified.

While I do not favor ideologically litmus testing as a judge of artistic quality, making the case that a market exists for art from different perspectives can serve a useful purpose. A bump in book or ticket sales can make it easier to green-light more nuanced stories on the same subject. Today’s after-school special is tomorrow’s surprising exploration of gender identity or blossoming religious faith.

In a moment of sharply declining print runs in comics, Archie Comics has made a canny assessment of the market and trends in criticism, and accepted that it might be better to be a politically niche product than an utterly irrelevant one. That is less a stunt than a recognition of market realities.

And I think conservatives recognize the wisdom of such an approach. D’Souza’s “America” or the third installment of “The Fountainhead” may play mostly with niche audiences. But they can be part of a slow, painstaking case that Hollywood should find ways to appeal to conservative audiences and less-political ones simultaneously.