That's What's Up: Actual crimes committed In Archie comics

Each week, comic book writer Chris Sims answers the burning questions you have about the world of comics and pop culture: what's up with that? If you'd like to ask Chris a question, please send it to @theisb on Twitter with the hashtag #WhatsUpChris, or email it to staff@looper.com with the subject line "That's What's Up."

Q: I've been watching Riverdale and it is fairly wild. How close is it to the comics?@franzferdinand2

If you're only really familiar with Archie Comics from half-remembered digests picked up at the grocery store when you were a kid, I have to imagine that Riverdale probably comes off as a little more than fairly wild. It is, after all, based entirely around the gimmick of mashing up the archetypical teens of Archie Comics with an increasingly disturbing roster of crimes that are more than a little inspired by Twin Peaks. I mean, this is a show that starts with a murder and just gets bigger from there, with conspiracies, twisted family histories, drug smuggling via maple syrup, and more murders just to cap things off.

But if you're really curious, I can tell you what's up with Riverdale—and that show's seemingly endless list of crimes and misdemeanors is a lot closer to the source material than you might expect.

Archie's Date Book, 1981

That's what it seems like to me, anyway, but I'll admit that I came to love Archie in a slightly different way than most readers. Like a lot of people, I read the comics when I was a kid and liked them well enough, but I didn't really get into them as a hardcore reader until I was in my 20s. At the time, I was trying to figure out how to write comics rather than just reading them, and I figured that looking at a series that seemed like it was built entirely on twisting an established formula into new stories would give me some insight onto how to write those kinds of twists myself. In the process, I ended up genuinely becoming a fan, mostly because I figured out the one big truth about Riverdale: that town has always been just a little bit off.

Take, for instance, Al Hartley's Spire Christian comics from the '70s. Hartley had been a comics artist for years, working for Marvel on books like Patsy Walker, Jungle Action, and even Pussycat, Stan Lee's often forgotten strip about a sexy secret agent working for a spy organization called S.C.O.R.E., whose missions were usually light on espionage and heavy on nudity and puns. After he found Jesus, though, Hartley decided to turn his (considerable) artistic talents towards more wholesome pursuits.

The results were the Spire comics, which licensed out the Archie characters for Hartley's particular brand of shame-based evangelism meant to drive kids away from "new age" ideas like "doing your own thing."

Archie's Date Book, 1981

Hartley's version of Riverdale, presented in comics like Archie's Date Book and Archie's One Way, was basically a sin-filled hellhole designed to tempt its residents into an eternity of suffering. That was a pretty big contrast to the way the idyllic small town was usually portrayed in the main-line comics, where the biggest problem was that these poor kids had to share a single milkshake with three straws.

If it seems weird to imagine Riverdale with a grimy 42nd Street-style porn theater district offering to show viewers "Divorce Anystyle" and "BLOOD," it gets even weirder in Archie's Sonshine, where the extremely cartoony Archie characters meet a disturbingly realistic bearded man who teaches Ethel all about the Bible and feeds an entire beach of kids with only two cokes and five sandwiches before driving off in his van. Truly he is… the King of Kings.

At the same time, as strange as those books might be, it's pretty easy to write them off as not being "real" Archie comics. Even though Hartley's figures were definitely on-model (and even though Hartley was working on the core Archie titles at the time), the Spire books just licensed the characters for some proselytizing. Fortunately, though, there are plenty of other opportunities to find Archie books where someone's up to no good.

Life With Archie, 2014

In recent years, you're actually a lot less likely to find an Archie book that doesn't involve some kind of felony than you are to stumble across one that does. After years of working within that same formula, the publisher managed to breathe new life into their line with stories that grabbed headlines—which is kind of ironic when you consider that they did it by taking the life out of their characters

It all really started with a stunt: a story to mark the 600th issue of Archie that would find Archie finally settling down and marrying Betty… in an alternate future that was quickly followed by a different alternate future story in which he married Veronica instead. Despite the comic book multiverse shenanigans, the story was popular enough to spin off into its own ongoing magazine, Life With Archie, split between the two competing futures with a chapter of each in every issue.

As you might expect from a project that was all about Archie growing older, the stories frequently wound up pretty depressing. Jughead had a failed marriage, Archie's dream of being a musician collapsed, and Cheryl Blossom got cancer, although she recovered. Archie, on the other hand, wasn't so lucky. In the book's last issue, he died after taking an assassin's bullet meant for Kevin Keller, who had just been elected Senator. His final words were "I've always loved you," spoken to Betty. Or Veronica. Or possibly, probably, both.

Afterlife With Archie, 2013

Archie's alternate-timeline death was far from the only game-changer that Life With Archie brought to the table. In fact, it ended up being the source of what's arguably the most important Archie comic of the modern era. And it all started with a joke.

For one of Life With Archie's variant covers, artist Francesco Francavilla drew Jughead as a zombie and swapped out the title for Afterlife With Archie. The idea was an instant hit, and inspired an entire ongoing series with art by Francavilla and scripts by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa—the company's Chief Creative Officer who, unsurprisingly, also developed Riverdale for television and wrote four of the first season's 13 episodes—based entirely on the premise of the zombie apocalypse hitting Riverdale.

Needless to say, it's the bloodiest, goriest title in Archie's considerable history, rivaling even crossovers like Archie vs. Sharknado and the amazingly great Archie vs. Predator, which a) exist, and b) boast a bloody dismemberment on almost every page. It's full of scenes like Archie having to beat his own zombified father to death with a baseball bat, and Cheryl Blossom maybe (definitely) killing her brother Jason with a machete while using a zombie attack as an excuse. The thing is, the inciting incident is a much smaller crime than the end of the world: a simple hit-and-run where Reggie Mantle ran over Jughead's beloved pooch, Hot Dog. While Reggie scrubbed the blood off his fenders, Jughead attempted to bring his dog back with the help of Sabrina the Teenage Witch and her copy of the Necronomicon, and the rest is the end of recorded history.

Archie: Over the Edge, 2017

The success of Afterlife With Archie wound up foreshadowing a huge change for Archie Comics. Not long after it hit shelves, the core Archie titles were all rebooted with an updated look and a more melodramatic approach to storytelling. And once again, there are so many crimes.

Most of them—like Archie trespassing onto the site of the Lodge mansion while it's under construction and accidentally knocking the entire house over—are played for laughs, but one storyline took things in a much more serious direction. Archie and Reggie got fast and furious with a street race, and wound up in a huge crash. Both of them were unharmed, but Betty, who was speeding to the scene to stop the race, wound up critically injured.

It's worth noting that the rebooted Jughead title also had its own criminal activity, in the form of a secret military project designed to take over Riverdale High and brainwash its students into becoming super soldiers. Not quite as immediate a threat as a drag race down Serpent Hill, but definitely not something you want getting out to the public.

But again, alternate universes, horror stories, and shiny new reboots probably aren't quite the stories you're thinking of. If you're wondering about all the illegal danger to be found in the pages of Archie Comics, you're probably thinking of the classic strips. Don't worry. There's an entire series devoted to that stuff. In fact, there are two.

Life With Archie, 1974

In the mid to late '70s, the original Life With Archie spent a few years switching from the usual gag strips to a format that was focused on serious stories about deadly peril. Archie at Riverdale High would follow a pretty similar shift, but while it tried to deal with social issues, Life With Archie was just buck wild.

Sometimes, the peril would come from stuff like a bear that interrupted a nature hike and tried to eat Archie and his pals (#143), or from a dilapidated skyscraper that caught on fire while Betty and Veronica were inside it (#160), but more often than not, it came down to shockingly ruthless crooks flat-out trying to murder them. This was a series that saw Veronica held hostage at knifepoint by a robber trying to get at the Lodge fortune in a story that promised "everybody's got something to lose in this deadly stalemate" (#165), and Archie threatened with being mauled to death by a dog that was trained to steal jewelry (#175).

In other words, they're rad as hell. So much so that they're the only comics I dig through long boxes at conventions to look for anymore, because despite the fact that Archie's entire business model for decades involved reprinting "classic" stories in those grocery store digest magazines, these things aren't likely to see a new printing anytime soon. As for why, well, that's probably obvious. 

Life With Archie, 1971

A couple of stories, however, go far beyond just the regular level of violence and into something truly, shockingly bonkers. "The Tangled Web," from #112, is definitely one of those.

Judging by the cover, it actually seems a lot less ominous than the other issues' bear attacks or hostage situations, and the first few pages of the story follow along. The basic idea is that Archie starts avoiding Betty, and even getting Jughead to lie and say he hasn't seen him, because he feels like she's getting too clingy. Unfortunately, without Archie around, Betty takes a lonely walk in the park and ends up getting beaten into a coma by a pair of muggers. Wracked with guilt, Archie decides to go vigilante, digging a broken bat out of a trash can and stalking the park, looking for the "rowdies" so that he can pay them back with a beating of his own. Unfortunately, he is himself mistaken for the robbers and arrested without ever getting his righteous vengeance. So yeah: it's Death Wish in Riverdale. Maybe even Death Wish III

What makes it even weirder, though, is that once she finally wakes up, Betty's response to all of this is to claim that it's a blessing in disguise, because now Archie will never leave her alone again. It's downright chilling.

Life With Archie, 1976

The all-time champion for Life With Archie's most over-the-top murder attempt, however, goes to "The Devil's Disc" in #175. Mainly because the disc in question is a deadly frisbee.

The crook this time is an ace frisbee player who accidentally breaks a window with a wild shot while he's goofing around on the beach. Fortunately, he's a former window repairman who's able to fix things up as good as new with a spare pane of glass. Unfortunately, he's actually a saboteur who uses the whole thing as a setup so that he can break into the house and steal all the government secrets from the scientist who's working there. For some reason, this scheme in which global security hangs in the balance ends up involving Archie Andrews, America's Most Typical Teen.

When Archie and Betty investigate, the frisbee ace reveals that he's actually packing a metal discus, and promptly tries to decapitate Archie with it. When that doesn't work, he moves on to another tactic: running him down with a dune buggy, leaving Archie to give him a taste of his own medicine. Thus, Democracy as we know it is saved from Satan and his love of frisbee. 

Archie Giant Series, 1958

By 1979, having seemingly exhausted their supply of stories in which Betty and Veronica were entombed in ancient sarcophagi, Life With Archie reverted back to the usual gag format, and that kind of leaves us back where we were at the start of things. There are plenty of stories about terrible crimes happening in Riverdale, but are they all weird anomalies and side stories? Are there any that happen in the kind of Archie stories that everyone knows, the ones that are supposed to be about funny teenagers having too many dates to the prom?

The answer, of course, is yes. In fact, two of the most memorable Archie comics I've ever read also feature some of the most shocking moments in the history of the comic. And the first one that comes to mind is actually a Christmas story. "Generous to a Fault," by Dan DeCarlo, Rudy Lapick, and Vincent DeCarlo was originally published in 1958, and still shows up in Holiday reprints for good reason. As violent as it is, the joke still holds up.

The idea is that Betty and Veronica convince all the boys of Riverdale that 'tis better to give than to receive. The only problem is that they start thinking about who's been "giving" the most, and when they settle on Big Moose and his tendency to hand out black eyes and chipped teeth, they all decide to grab baseball bats and beat the living hell out of him as a bit of Christmas revenge. And then they do. That's it. That's the entire story. Merry Christmas. 

It's almost as surprising as the time Cheryl Blossom was arrested for public indecency.

Betty & Veronica, 1982

Yeah. I wasn't kidding about that one.

Believe it or not, 1982's "Dare to be Bare" is actually the first Cheryl Blossom story, and with a debut like this, it's no wonder that readers speculated that the reason she was absent from the pages of Archie comics between 1984 and 1994 was that she was banned for being too sexual. She certainly lives up to the reputation in this one.

To be fair, she's not the only one causing trouble. Her twin brother Jason also gets busted for trying to sneak a beer onto the beach in one of Archie's very few references to underage drinking. Cheryl, though, just casually suggests going topless on page two, scandalizing Veronica and prompting Betty to physically restrain her from untying her bikini top while Jason gets blitzed. Betty and Veronica's self-satisfied confusion as they're led off to jail by the beach patrol at the end is just the last twist in a story that's still surprising a quarter century after it originally saw print. With a debut like this, it's actually pretty of shocking that they made it a full two years before that rumored ban was handed down.

So does the comic book Riverdale match up to its TV counterpart? Well, no. Not exactly. In terms of the crime rate, it's actually a lot worse.

If you'd like to ask Chris a question, please send it to @theisb on Twitter with the hashtag #WhatsUpChris, or email it to staff@looper.com with the subject line "That's What's Up."