Archie Andrews dies today on the pages of a comic book. But in reality he died a long time ago for most of us.
The declining sales of Archie comics, which plunged 40 percent between 2007 and 2009, pushed the comic book to revamp, rejig and reinvent itself. But the facelifts never quite worked. And each attempt to stay relevant felt more desperate.
In 2008, Riverdale High saw its first Indian American character -- camcorder-toting Raj Patel. In 2010 the series' first gay character, Kevin Keller, showed up and resisted Veronica's charms. In 2011 Archie and the gang came to Mumbai. Jughead chowed down on samosas and vindaloo and Veronica and Betty put on saris and lehengas. And they all found everything about Mumbai "amazing."
The Indian stopover, or the accompanying gush, was not accidental.
"India is a very important market for us," said Jon Goldwater, co-CEO of Archie Comics. "This year we've already shipped about a million copies to the country."
But even India could not save poor Archie Andrews. He dies today, heroically, trying to save his gay friend Kevin Keller. Keller isn't just gay, he is a military veteran and a senator who pushes for stricter gun control laws after his husband Clay is shot during a robbery attempt. This could almost be a Karan Johar movie.
Talk about messages piled on top of messages -- all overwhelming a series whose only mantra had been "Don't worry, be happy."
For us in India, the entire appeal of the teenagers of Riverdale High was that they were so totally not concerned with the larger world out there. The social and political issues roiling America cast no shadow on them. Its eternal sunshine allowed the series to cross over cheerfully to a country like India much in the same way Enid Blyton's Five Find-Outers crossed over from England into our Indian childhoods.
It's not that we could relate to the lifestyles of Archie and his gang. But it was a relief that this was not moral science masquerading as teen fiction. In a world where we were being programmed to not think about anything other than that coveted engineering or medical school ranking, Riverdale High was even more of an escape than Bollywood films. For all their song-and-dance, chiffon-in-the-Alps fantasies, Bollywood films eventually drummed home the virtues of settling down, family, duty and responsibility.
In the Never-Never Land of Riverdale High, however, nothing mattered other than girls, jalopies, pizzas and baseball. In a society where we were being trained to be good productive career-minded citizens, Archie had all the pleasures of junk food. Archie was not taking coaching classes to ensure a good ranking in his IIT engineering college entrance examination. In fact, Archie was amiably unambitious about pretty much everything, utterly sacrilegious in a country where every teenager seemed to be running from one tuition class to another, preparing for some kind of examination all the time -- class test, half yearly, final exams, selections, board exams, entrance exams. Archie was the epitome of indecisiveness -- in life and love. The Life With Archie series that looked at Archie as an adult, in fact, comes up with two futures for him -- one married to Veronica and one to Betty. As he dies, his last words to both Betty and Veronica, as they stand over his body, are "I've always loved you."
We too always loved, or at least liked, Archie because in a socialist India it was another kind of escape. Archie served up a slice of Americana that was dated, stale and vacuum-wrapped in a '50s Norman Rockwell fantasy but which we gobbled up nevertheless. Now it turns out it was actually based on America in the '30s, when its creator, Bob Montana, was growing up. Jughead's trademark cap is a Depression-era makeshift headwear made by turning a worn-out fedora upside-down and pushing its crown inside-out.
Of course, we did not know any of that.
Even if we had it would not have made a whit of difference. Our India was too far removed from Riverdale High anyway. We did not have Pop Tate's Chocklit Shoppe or baseball games. Or redheads. We didn't know the difference between a malted and a single malt. As teenagers we didn't drive second-hand cars and we certainly did not learn to fix them. Heck, we barely had something that passed as pizza. And Coca-Cola was still banned.
But Archie was a passport of sorts to a world where teenagers dated with social sanction, where there were things called prom dances and root-beer floats and garage bands.
Globalization changed all that. There's nothing an Archie can serve up anymore that's not easily accessible to a teenager growing up in urban India. The American fantasy is available for sale at a nearby mall and in fact, has been overtaken by its consumerist Indian version. Now the romantic escapades of Archie feel quaint and safe, never progressing beyond a big fat smackeroo of a kiss. The world of Archie feels sanitized and bland.
That is probably why its creators tried to breathe life into the series by introducing Themes and Issues. In Life with Archie, Kevin Keller gets married to his boyfriend. Cheryl Blossom copes with breast cancer. African American Chuck Clayton, Latina Ginger Lopez and Indian American Raj Patel add some demographic diversity. Riverdale High grapples with budget cuts and school closures like all real American schools. "It shows that Riverdale is in the 21st century," said writer and artist Dan Parent.
But the 21st century was like an alien invasion in Riverdale High. It's not like any of the stock characters could be drawn differently. Jughead, always disinterested in girls, could have come out as gay. But that would have destroyed the sanctity of the safe Archie bubble. "Traditional Riverdale characters won't be coming out," said Parent. Diversity was not natural to Riverdale High. It was an import, an add-on, an experimental drug that couldn't save it.
Archie was just trying too hard. The last bell had rung long ago at Riverdale High. It was not just America that had changed. The world had changed too much. Other than those evergreen Are-You-Betty-or-Are-You-Veronica quizzes, there's little that Archie can offer anyone anymore other than nostalgia.
But at least for a while, there will always be a corner of India that will be Archies. In 1998 the Bollywood popcorn blockbuster Kuch Kuch Hota Hai was allegedly inspired by Archie-Veronica-Betty love triangle. Now long after the rest of the world has moved on we will be still going to our malls and seeing stores named Archies Gallery that sell the kitsch of teenage years -- cutesy cards and coffee mugs and key rings. Apparently this Archies got its name from a neighbor's dog named Archie not an American redhead. But perhaps the dog was named after the redhead. It does not matter. Long after the "real" Archies is dead and gone, a memory of him will remain alive in malls in India.
The all-American teenager could not have found a more appropriate resting place.
The original version of this blog appeared on Firstpost.com.