When Luke Perry was growing up in small town Ohio, sharing a tiny bedroom in a trailer with his brother, he took sanctuary with a stack of comic books piled high in his closet. He’d pull issues from his stash and read them diligently by flashlight, and amid the many superheroes and sci-fi epics there was another favorite – a staple of the medium since debuting in 1941: the quaint, relatable, all-American adventures of teenager Archie Andrews and his high school pals, rivals and crushes, set in the idyllic town of Riverdale, U.S.A.
Today, Perry – no stranger to series centered around iconic locales, thanks to his stint on Beverly Hills 90210 – is among the cast of Riverdale, The CW’s ambitious and decidedly edgier take on the 75-year-old comic book series.
Veering away from the wholesome vibe that many associate with classic Archie, the drama adds a Twin Peaks-inspired aura of mystery, danger and controversy to the small town proceedings.
For instance, in the pilot episode, our redheaded, freckle-faced hero, played by New Zealander K.J. Apa, indulges in a steamy backseat tryst with his teacher Miss Grundy – reimagined from the comics’ silver-haired spinster into the much younger, more curvaceous form of actress Sarah Habel. Not only that — the site of their forbidden dalliance soon puts them in uncomfortable proximity to the season’s unfolding murder mystery.
“I was the biggest skeptic,” Perry admits to Mashable of the more adult take on the Archie gang. “I said, ‘I’m the guy you’ve got to convince.’ I grew up reading Archie – I am that guy. So show me what is different about this.’ And they did.”
“They” are the production team led by writer-producer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, an accomplished playwright and veteran scripter of popular television series including Glee and Big Love, who’s also enjoyed an acclaimed second career in the comic book industry.
A stint at Marvel Comics writing top-tier characters including the Fantastic Four and Spider-Man ultimately led Aguirre-Sacasa to an opportunity to write the 2013 comic book miniseries Afterlife with Archie. The endeavor represented a bold step for publisher Archie Comics in which the company combined their longtime characters with a zombie apocalypse narrative drawn by emerging fan-favorite artist Franco Francavilla.
“It is a five-year-old Roberto’s dream come true,” Aguirre-Sacasa tells Mashable. “I’ve always loved the characters. I read them from when I was a kid.”
Like Perry, the writer was among a second generation of Archie devotees that discovered the now-iconic characters – Archie, Jughead, Betty, Veronica and Reggie, as well as spin-off headliners like Josie and the Pussycats and Sabrina the Teenage Witch – over a quarter century after they first debuted.
In 1941 – a few years after rival publisher DC Comics had launched the superhero genre with Superman — MLJ Comics had been riding that pop culture wave with their own powered-up characters, including the patriotic, pre-Captain America hero The Shield.
But publisher John L. Goldwater was looking for a new comic book genre that would feel fresh yet familiar. Hoping to capitalize on the popularity of the wholesome, funny, relatable teen antics of MGM’s Andy Hardy screen franchise, starring a young Mickey Rooney, he gave over a six-page portion of the twenty-second issue of an established title, Pep Comics, to the earliest incarnation of the Archie gang.
Though not even mentioned on the cover of its debut issue, the Archie feature, originally written by Vic Bloome and drawn by Bob Montana, was quickly established as the hottest – and much imitated – new genre in comics, so popular that within a few years MLJ formally changed the book’s name to Archie Comics, and Archie himself appeared on every cover from 1944 onward.
Over the decades, circulation soared to nearly 300,000 copies, and Archie-mania was born: Several of the ever-expanding Archie-verse characters headlined their own solo series; Dan DeCarlo, who moonlighted drawing sultry pin-up girls for pulp magazines, became the definitive Archie artist and developed the signature look of the comic; The Archies, a prefabricated pop group of anonymous studio musicians (packaged as Archie’s garage band) scored an enduringly popular hit song in 1969 with “Sugar, Sugar”; past issues were collected in conveniently miniature digests; progressive new minority characters were introduced into white-bread Riverdale; and the characters became widely commercialized, appearing on TV shirts, lunchboxes, Saturday morning cartoons and a hit primetime sitcom starring Melissa Joan Hart as Sabrina the Teenage Witch.
Although the Archie line’s mainstream appeal would gradually wane to cult status among comics fans in the 1990s and 2000s, the characters would endure as iconic figures to multiple generations of readers.
Through it all, though the hairstyles, hemlines, hotrods and hi-jinx evolved, the Archie stories rarely wavered from their core conceit: the misadventures of an average American high-schooler pursued by a pair of beautiful, competitive girls, constantly vexed by his rivals and consoled with good humor by his offbeat, free-thinking best friend.
By 2010, more opportunities were arising to tap the ongoing goodwill toward the Riverdale mythos.
“I love the characters. I’d grown up reading the characters. I always kind of went back to the characters,” says Aguirre-Sacasa. “I always wanted to write them – even when I started writing for Marvel Comics. I was exclusive to them for years. And in fact, I broke my exclusivity with Marvel because I had a chance to write an Archie comic, Archie Meets Glee, which was the first thing that I did for Archie, and that was a dream come true.”
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Even as he was bringing the characters slightly outside of their traditional comfort zones, it was clear that Aguirre-Sacasa was simpatico with the essence of the Archie gang, and he quickly assumed greater custodianship of the characters, eventually being named Chief Creative Officer of Archie Comics, overseeing a critically and commercially successful re-launch of the core titles by top-tier comics creators. At the same time, he began shopping new and left-of-center takes on the properties to Hollywood.
“I really want to help bring these characters to life in a way that’s never really happened successfully,” he says, explaining how he promised publisher Jon Goldwater, the son of the original Archie Comics head, that they’d have to create a slow build of heat on the publishing side before turning Hollywood’s head.
“Though there’s always sort of heat on Archie,” he adds. “When they make a move and they get tons of press. I know that my friends at DC and Marvel were always like, ‘Why do you get so much ink?’ People love the characters.”
Afterlife With Archie, a surprise sensation in the comics world, demonstrated that after three-quarters of a century that the tried-and-true Archie format had more malleability than expected.
“We were really nervous about putting the Archie characters in quite a hardcore horror story with a lot of gore, and violence, and some pretty wild ideas,” says Aguirre-Sacasa. “But we found out two things: one is that the characters could withstand that kind of caldron of stuff; and two, the fans loved it – the fans loved seeing the characters they loved in different situations, and they were emotionally invested in what happened to the characters. They were sad when characters were eaten by zombies.”
“It of course has a little bit informed Riverdale,’” says the writer, who teamed with executive producer Greg Berlanti – no stranger to successful comic-to-TV adaptations thanks to his success with DC Comics and The CW’s interconnected superhero series, Arrow, The Flash, Supergirl and DC’s Legends of Tomorrow – to infuse a similarly shadowy sensibility into the television take.
“When we start pushing at the boundaries, I think people get nervous, but I think when you see it, you see that it’s done with integrity, and care, and comes from a deep abiding love of these characters,” Aguirre-Sacasa says. “No one wants to protect them more than I do. But you do have to evolve them, and you do have to push boundaries, and you do have to be more than just a story with a joke at the end.”
“My pitch to Roberto was, ‘Number one, we have to find a form where in this can work as a TV show,’” Berlanti tells Mashable. “Number two, can what’s beloved about Archie and intrinsic about Archie and the Americana-esque, period element of it translate to today’s audience?’ That’s the challenge we have to at least be aware of… [I’d tell Roberto] it has to be as much of his personality as possible, because you’re a show creator, and you’re creating this thing, and there’s so many elements of things you love: you love horror, you love comedy, you love irreverent stuff. It has to be as evocative of you and your personality, as Afterlife with Archie really was too.
“As we moved along, he wrote a script that was terrific and had that magic thing,” Berlanti adds. “I’m not sure I knew until I read his draft of the pilot script that we developed that it was a real TV show.”
“One misconception that is out there is that this is ‘Dark Archie,’ this is dark, gritty Archie, and ‘Rated R Archie,’” chuckles Aguirre-Sacasa. “And in fact the show is a mix of light and dark. The show honors what is Archie, and then subverts it. For me, the sweet spot is the tension between Twin Peaks, and the tension between the 1950s sock hop Archie – right in between that is where stories work on both levels. They work as good Archie stories, but they work as good noir, or mystery, or moody stories as well.”
“Roberto loves these characters, and I don’t think anyone’s salacious to be salacious,” Berlanti says of the elements that may sound eyebrow-raising to anyone who hasn’t read Archie Comics in a while. “That is not our goal. That being said, the show wants to deal in the tropes of these kinds of shows, and comment on those kind of things, and have that be a part of it. I’m sure that won’t be the first time we have a subject matter that makes people [take pause] – but I can say, in terms of our heart being in the right place, we don’t start from that place of like, ‘this is going to get us some people to watch.’ We love these characters, and you don’t want to assassinate them either.”
“Though the characters may be in dark, adult, morally-compromised, scary situations, the characters are still true to their essences,” says Aguirre-Sacasa. “Those characters are basically the characters they are in Archie’s Double Digest, just put in a crazy, messed-up situation. There’s trial and error, but I think that’s where the show lives in the tension and the juxtaposition of those things.”
“I would say we’ve been met with guarded optimism,” Perry — who ultimately signed on to play Archie’s father, Fred Andrews — says of the Archie fanbase. “They don’t want us to mess Archie up, but they do want to see it in a new way. They do want these characters to have a new life – that’s the sense I’ve got. So we’re going to try to give them that without messing up the other.”
Riverdale airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. on The CW.
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