Archie Andrews has died, felled by an assassin’s bullet intended for a friend. Let’s pause here to mourn an iconic figure of our childhood.
If you’re of a certain age, you might suspect that his murder was the result of a tormented love triangle involving either Betty or Veronica. Wrong Archie. The Archie I knew is a redhead stuck in high school, a perpetual teenager whose friends populate a mythical Riverdale. Alive and well, with nary a wrinkle, he’s the lead in the “Classic Archie’’ series.
But the Archie who was shot at Pop Tate’s restaurant last week is the star of a separate comic book series. In “Life with Archie,’’ he has, at long last, reached adulthood, and as a result, his writers have been free to tackle socially relevant issues, the kind of situations teenage Archie would’ve never encountered.
Launched in 2010, the hero of “Life with Archie,” has faced the death of longtime teacher Ms. Grundy, a love interest’s bout with breast cancer and two alternate futures in which he married both Veronica and Betty. The series also included the same-sex marriage of Kevin Keller, a military veteran turned senator who happens to be the comic book’s first openly gay character.
While the jaded may see these plot developments as publicity stunts, I think they’re truly revolutionary for an industry struggling to keep up with the times. Other franchises have hurtled into the 21st century, too. Wonder Woman was spotted wearing pants and Spider-Man’s alter-ego is a multiracial teenager. The “Life with Archie” series, however, did more and better — and in doing so helped rile up more than a few people.
The fact that Archie died while protecting his friend, who campaigned for gay rights and gun control, presses practically every culture war button of the past decade. It’s a plot ripped from the front pages. And it couldn’t happen at a more propitious time.
On the week Archie was killed, a Florida judge ruled that two Key West bartenders and other gay couples must be allowed to marry, a decision some called “the beginning of the end’’ of the state’s archaic law banning same-sex marriages. Gay marriage has been a hotly contested — and deeply divisive — topic, with state legislatures passing, and then appeals court striking down, same-sex marriage bans. Meanwhile, surveys show a shift in society, a move toward acceptance. A poll released earlier this year reported that a record-high 59 percent of Americans support same-sex marriage, while 34 percent are opposed, the widest margin tracked by Washington Post-ABC polling.
The debate over gun control is equally acrimonious. More than a year ago gun legislation stalled in Washington, just months after a shooting at a Newtown, Connecticut, elementary school prompted national outrage. Since then other massacres, most notably the May slaughter in Isla Vista, California, have sparked calls for new legislation, to no avail.
But what to make of Archie’s sacrifice? Is it a way to sell more books? Will the Archie Comics publisher bring back Archie in the adult-themed series, much as DC Comics killed off Superman in 1992 only to revive him a year later?
Those fan worries hardly matter to me. But the fact that Archie’s death made headlines does, in the same way the attention paid to Olympic swimmer Ian Thorpe’s coming-out did. Both incidents underscore that we have a long way to go before such public proclamations are unnecessary. A comic book character’s death at the hands of a fictional assassin targeting a fictitious gay senator is art imitating life — and one very small step in our society becoming more inclusive and less violent.