Would you do an extreme home makeover if the people living in the house didn’t want one? Would you get a face-lift just to see how people react to it?
It seems that’s exactly what Archie Comics will soon do, in its own way, when it debuts a radical new look in May for some of the comics world’s best-known characters: Archie, Betty, Veronica, Jughead and the rest of the Riverdale gang.
Fans caught their first glimpse of the makeover in December when the cover to “Betty & Veronica Double Digest” No. 151 hit the Internet and made the rounds. Aside from still being a blond and brunet, respectively, the new, more realistically drawn Betty and Veronica bear little physical resemblance to the cartoony originals. And the fans aren’t happy about it.
On the Newsarama.com forum, for example, one poster writes, “That grinding noise you hear is [longtime Archie artist] Dan DeCarlo spinning in his grave.”
The remake, says Victor Gorelick, vice president and managing editor of the 65-year-old Archie Comics, is meant to accompany just a single story line -- for now, at least. But some fans think even temporarily tampering with the look is a major misstep.
On Archie Comics’ own website, one reader offers, “To change Betty & Veronica’s looks is to change your comic book entirely. I hate it!” And over at the Comics Journal message board, a post reads, “It looks like they gave the artist some Bratz dolls and some Apartment 3-G comics and said, ‘Go crazy.’ ”
And adding fuel to the fire was the initial misconception by some readers that the new look would supplant the old one entirely. Instead, the new realistic style will appear in a single 110-page story that will be broken up into four chapters and run through four consecutive “Betty & Veronica” double digests. In other words, out of each 192-page comic digest, only 25 or so pages will have the new look. The rest of the pages will comprise new and reprint material featuring the traditional Archie house style.
“What we’ve done is come up with a story that has a little more to it, and then we needed artwork that would fit that story,” Gorelick says. “The regular Archie style is fine, and for years it’s been successful, so there’s no way we’d change the look for all of our books.”
Even factoring out the initial confusion, the negative comments are outpacing the positive ones by a margin of 3 to 1, concedes Archie Comics publisher and co-chairman Michael Silberkleit. That said, Silberkleit says he’s been very pleased by the number of and passion behind the responses.
“While we’ve gotten a lot of negative responses, I’ve also seen quite a few positive responses from people who like the fact that we’re experimenting with something different for older readers.”
The story, written by Melanie Morgan and titled “Bad Boy Trouble,” will involve a new character, Nick St. Clair, a motorcycle-riding bad boy who comes to Riverdale and steals Veronica’s heart, threatening her relationships with all her friends, especially Betty.
For the last several years, Archie’s predominantly female readership has centered on 7- to 12-year-olds and, by revamping the characters to look more realistic, Silberkleit and Gorelick hope to capture a portion of the “tween” readers who typically move from Archie comics to teen magazines and chapter books. The story, though, stays true to the Archie sensibility, Silberkleit says.
“While the story may be a little more mature, it will still keep with the normal Archie credo of decency -- no sex, no drugs, no violence, no cursing and no putting down of authority,” Silberkleit says. “Our readership, and the parents and grandparents of our readership, feel safe with Archie so we always have to be careful how we handle the characters regardless of what they look like.”
Archie’s dedication to tamer tales sits well with such mothers as Tracy Edmonds of Yorba Linda, who allows her 8-year-old daughter, Sarah, to read Archie comics without prescreening them.
Though she hasn’t read Archie comics since she was a child, Edmunds was taken aback when she first saw the updated look circulating on the Web. “I immediately showed the cover to Sarah, and she asked me, ‘Why are they ruining Archie?’ ” Edmunds says.
“The art is my favorite thing, and I don’t want them to change it,” adds Sarah, who along with her mother and her sister Shelby, 10, contributes to the Newsarama website.
For as much flak as Archie Comics has taken for the new look, designed by former Spider-Man (and current Sonic the Hedgehog) artist Steven Butler, this is not the first time it has tinkered with one of its core titles. As recently as 2004, Archie brought in writer-artist Tanya del Rio, who came to Archie’s attention when she won a spot in a Tokyo Pop’s Rising Stars of Manga anthology, to redesign “Sabrina the Teenage Witch” in the Japanese manga style. The response was positive from the get-go, and “Sabrina” remains one of Archie’s more popular titles, Silberkleit says.
Other experiments weren’t quite as successful. A subsequent attempt to “mangafy” Josie and the Pussycats didn’t take, and in the late 1980s a futuristic version of the Riverdale gang that featured Archie with a mullet and Jughead with a Mohawk haircut lasted just 16 issues.
Even the current incarnation of the Riverdale teens is a significant departure from artist Bob Montana’s original take on the characters back in the early 1940s when a beaver-toothed Archie Andrews bore more than a passing resemblance to Howdy Doody.
The high school pals’ look continued to evolve until artist Dan DeCarlo, who passed away in 2001, came aboard in the late 1950s, and soon thereafter he defined the look that became Archie’s de facto house style for the next 40 years.
“The look that Dan developed is very iconic and beloved from our childhood -- most of us don’t want things like that to change -- so it’s not surprising that people have had such a strong reaction to the change,” says Bill Morrison, who recently wrote the DeCarlo tribute book, “Innocence and Seduction: The Art of Dan DeCarlo.”
“At the same time,” adds Morrison, who also serves as creative director of Bongo Comics, “Archie is in the business to make money and not to please the baby boomer generation, who for the most part doesn’t buy their comic books.”
Ultimately, readers will decide with their pocketbooks whether they like the new style or not. The hope, Gorelick says, is that the digests will sell well enough to warrant collecting the new look stories into a trade paperback, eventually spinning off the style into its own book.
“Alternatively, the book could flop and that will be that,” he adds. “Either way, Archie will always be Archie -- he’ll always be in love with Betty and Veronica.”