Since I rarely read comic books these days, and do not haunt any of the specialty stores that sell them, I am somewhat out of the loop as to the current activities of the comic book world’s most notable residents. So it came as quite a jolt when I learned last week that Archie Andrews, for 70 years America’s favorite comic book teenager, has met a violent death by gunshot in the latest issue of “Life with Archie.” Stunned by the news, I immediately sought out all the information I could find on the matter, and soon found out that Archie’s demise comes with a key caveat. Apparently, the “Life with Archie” series, since 2010, has served as an alternative universe which has allowed Archie, along with his many pals, to finally grow into adulthood, and has followed Archie in two separate storylines, one where he marries Betty, the other having him wed to Veronica. The two stories have been combined, and the “Life with Archie” publication will cease upon the popular redhead’s death. The regular “Archie” title, will continue, with Archie remaining a 17 year old, hopefully forever.
Killing off popular fictional characters is certainly not a recent phenomenon. In early ballads of Robin Hood (circa 1450), Robin meets his death at the hands of an evil nun, who bled him to death while pretending to be nursing him back to health. Fans of Sherlock Holmes are aware that Arthur Conan Doyle attempted to bump off his famous detective in 1893 in a short story entitled “The Final Problem,” as Holmes supposedly met his death when he, along with his arch-enemy Professor Moriarty, fell off a cliff near Reichenbach Falls while locked in physical combat. Since Dr. Watson, Holmes’ sidekick and story narrator never actually saw the fatal incident, it was easy for Doyle to bring Sherlock Holmes back to life a few years later with a simple explanation. Perhaps Arthur Conon Doyle was inspired by Jules Verne’s resuscitation of Captain Nemo, who is briefly back among the living in “Mysterious Island” (1874) after supposedly perishing at the end of “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” (1869).
The idea that fictional characters can return from the dead was picked up on throughout the 20th century, a good example being the Frankenstein monster, who after being destroyed near the end of the classic horror film “Frankenstein,” (1931) manages to make several comebacks, starting with “The Bride of Frankenstein” (1935). The comic book world has seen several resurrections, among the most notable being Superman, who was killed by “Doomsday” in 1992, dramatically returning to the living the following year. Unfortunately, some fictional figures have remained dead, including Bambi’s mother in the feature length cartoon, “Bambi” (1942) when she is blown away by a hunter, inflicting unnecessary pain on viewer …horrible.
Television has never been immune to having programs losing long running characters, although the reasons for this have varied from show to show. When Jean Hagen decided to give up her role as Danny Thomas’s wife on “Make Room for Daddy,” having the character die was the best explanation for explaining her absence, a situation that was repeated when Kathy Nolan left “The Real McCoys” and when McClain Stevenson walked away from “MASH.” Of course real life deaths have also necessitated eliminating principle members of a cast. When Bonanza’s Dan Blocker passed away in 1972, the role of Hoss Cartwright went with him, just as the character of “Coach” on “Cheers” was terminated when the actor Nicholas Colasanto died in 1985.
But in the case of killing off animated characters, the question has to be why? Comic book figures are drawn, not acted, and thus have the ability to remain intact forever. In the long running comic-strip, “For Better or For Worse,” creator Lynn Johnston wanted to inject realism into her daily strips, which included having her characters aging over time. Since pets generally do not live as long as people, Johnston decided in 1995 to end the life of Farley, the family’s Old English Sheepdog . When she confided her plans for Farley to fellow cartoonist Charles Schultz, the Peanuts creator was livid, insisting to Johnston that comic-strip characters are not supposed to die. Schultz jokingly threatened to beat her to the punch by killing Snoopy, thereby lessoning the impact of Farley’s demise. Despite Schultz’s protest, Farley died after saving a young family member from drowning.
But far from being apologetic for having Archie blown away, the writers and illustrators of the Archie comic books have reveled in the opportunity to take their characters in many different directions. The “Life with Archie” stories have seen the gang struggle with health, financial and relationship issues, proving that life after Riverdale High has not exactly been “Sugar Sugar.” And don’t think this voyage into uncharted territory is over with the ending of “Life with Archie.” Last year, the publishers of Archie introduced readers to still another Archie parallel universe with a series of stories under the title, “Afterlife with Archie” which finds Riverdale overrun with zombies, including an undead Jughead, who seems to have moved past burgers when he is seen eating Big Ethel alive. All bets are now off when it comes to Archie, except for one notable exception. According to Jon Goldwater, CEO of Archie Comics Publications, Archie and his pals will never be depicted in sexual scenes, and this vow is “unbreakable.” So let me get this straight…it’s ok to witness Archie getting blown away, or watch a zombie version of Jughead commit murder, but I still don’t get to see Betty or Veronica naked? Come on, man!
Useless trivia: One of the most unusual TV deaths took place in 1972 during the final episode of NBC’s “Nichols,” which starred James Garner as the title Character. Minutes into the program, Nichols, a reluctant and pacifist sheriff of a small Arizona town, is shot to death in a saloon by a notorious gunman, only to have his murder avenged by his identical twin brother, naturally played by Garner. It was hoped that the newly introduced Garner character, more heroic and aggressive than the original, would boost the ratings for the struggling show. We’ll never know, as the network canceled “Nichols” a short time later.