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Can you imagine the difficulty in distilling 80 years of comics history down to a single collection?
That was the task Jamie Lee Rotante faced as she worked to assembleThe Best of Archie Comics: 80 Years, 80 Stories, the recently-released 700-page trade paperback that features eight decades of gags, jokes and hijinks from the ageless Riverdale gang. As Archie Comics' senior director of editorial, Rotante was in charge of the project. She was the perfect person for the job, considering she already went long box diving for Archie's 75th anniversary book five years earlier.
"It was really a lot of fun so they said, let's do it again for 80," she tells SYFY WIRE. In this cynical world we live in, some may view this as just a rote reprint job, where Archie took the stories from the 75th anniversary TPB and then just slapped on a few extra stories. That couldn't be further from the truth. Whereas many "Best Of" trades spotlight memorable story arcs and fan-favorite tales, The Best of Archie Comics: 80 Years, 80 Stories features a story from every single year in Archie Comics publishing history, starting from the present and working its way all the way back to 1941. And each one is different from what was published in the 75th anniversary collection.
"It's a completely different book, with a new story for every year," Rotante says. "I made sure I didn't step on my own toes, so there's no crossover with the last [book] because we want the fans to feel like they're getting the full picture. We don't want you to feel like you're just reading the same stories with this one."
The Archie headquarters in New York's Westchester County is loaded with bound volumes of comics dating back to the 1940s, but a large swatch of Archie's archives are available digitally. That helped the editors tremendously, since the special edition book was put together as the pandemic made work-from-home the new normal. It also helped them avoid picking stories that had already been recently reprinted.
"Our digest archival process, it's really almost a perfect system," Rotante says. "It makes it very easy to sort through our back catalog and see what's been reprinted and where it's been reprinted."
Archie, Betty, Veronica, Jughead, Reggie and the others may not age, but they sure have changed. None more so than Betty and Veronica, according to Rotante.
"Going through these stories, at first, they kind of existed separately. And then obviously you have the love triangle. So there was a lot of stories where they were at odds with each other," she notes. "I feel like their friendship was more of just a friendship out of always being in Archie's life. So to see them these two really interesting women go from fighting and see their friendship evolve over the years and their personalities being more defined is just really fascinating to watch."
Repurposing the past for new readers in new formats is part of the comics business. The industry has matured to a point where celebrating its own history is a key part of any longtime publisher's business plan. Archie Comics knows this, and since 2010, when Jon Goldwater took over as CEO, the company's reprint business and digital collection sales have thrived. Not just because their characters are iconic, but because the stories are self-contained and are ideally suited for trade collections. There's a reason why Archie is often referred to as the "gateway drug" that gets people hooked on comics. Pick up any "Best Of" Archie book and good luck putting it down anytime soon. Tapping into that timeless "comfort food" approach that has worked so well for so long was part of the strategy for the 80th anniversary book.
The world has obviously changed drastically since Archie, Betty, Veronica and the rest of the gang put Riverdale on the map when they debuted in 1941's Pep Comics #22. While many of the archetypes of the Archie world remain intact, certain aspects of comics storytelling that may have been acceptable in past decades are no longer appropriate. And if you've ever wasted time going down an Internet rabbit hole about unintentionally WTF Archie comic book panels, you know there are a quite a few gags in Archie's past that haven't aged well. That led Rotante and the Archie editorial team to make some tough calls as they curated the collection.
"There are a lot of factors that go into picking out the stories. You really want to narrow it down to which ones sort of best exemplify the time but you also want to be mindful of modern sensibilities," she says. "A lot of the stuff from [decades ago], we reprint anything, we always have some sort of disclaimer, but there's some stuff that doesn't feel right to reprint in today's society. So we always want to go for something that is very of its time, but that we're comfortable sharing today."
Some of the stories in this collection also obviously reflect the era in which they were published.
"When you're putting together a book like this, you look at it through a different lens," says Rotante, who grew up on '90s Archie stories. "The 1960s stuff is always fun. I have to say, I always find for that similar reason, the '80s, late-'80s stories, were very interesting. Because we just took some crazy risks. We did some really wacky off-the-wall stuff then, and it's so fun to look at it now."
Comic book fashion could be hit or miss at DC or Marvel, where the artists maybe were more concerned with battle-ready capes and cowls than couture. But DeCarlo, arguably the most beloved Archie artist, always had Betty and Veronica in sharp outfits. This was doubly true during the 1970s.
"Dan DeCarlo was the master of fashion. He always had such a knack for staying on top of the fashions, and having these gorgeous, intricate outfits for the girls. Harry Lucey did some great stuff as well as far as fashion goes, but DeCarlo's the master."
When asked to pick a favorite story from the 80 chapters that made the cut, Rotante chose the very meta "Visit To A Small Panic," from 1969's Everything's Archie #1. This story debuted around the same time as the Saturday morning cartoon series, The Archies. The comic finds the gang visiting the offices of Filmation, the production studio making that actual cartoon.
"I love anything that breaks the Fourth Wall and it's very meta in that way. And Archie has been doing that for a long time. we have a lot of stories where you actually would see a drawing of Dan DeCarlo drawing the characters."
The roster of artists that have left an indelible impression on the Archie characters is packed with legends such as DeCarlo, Bob Montana, Harry Lucey, Dick Malmgren, and Frank Doyle. The modern-day artist most closely associated with the company, however, is Dan Parent. There are stories spotlighting their talents throughout the book, along with chapter essays by company co-president Mike Pellerito that give some historical context to each era of Archie.
For decades, Archie was the comics publisher that was taken for granted. The stories were fun, but formulaic. Most comics fans didn't collect Archie back in the '80s or even the '90s, at least none that this writer knew. Because the stories didn't involve planet-devouring threats, mutant menaces or rogues galleries, Archie had no buzz. It was simply the company that put out the funny bite-sized digests you could buy in the supermarket checkout lane.
That changed in 2010, when Life With Archie, a title that showed an Archie Andrews dealing with decidedly real-life issues, was published. That same year, the groundbreaking gay character, Kevin Keller, made his debut.
Kevin sparked a 21st century renaissance for Archie. It would eventually lead to other high-risk, high-reward publishing moves like the Archie horror titles and the new Archie ongoing series, which was a more modernized take on the popular characters. Then came the CW's hugely successful Riverdale television series, which was recently renewed for seasons five and six.
Count Rotante as a fan, not because she 'ships Bughead (Betty and Jughead) like so many do, but because of the impact the show has had on the comics.
"Riverdale has gotten Archie back in conversation, and getting people to talk about Archie at all, and be a part of the current conversation is so important to us."
She recalls the reaction some fans would have just a few years ago, before Riverdale debuted, when they would come across the company booth at a major convention like New York Comic Con.
"You'd get the people that would come over and say, 'Oh my God, Archie, I read they're growing up. They still make those?' And that was always just a like gut punch," Rotante admits. "Like, come on, we're right here! That doesn't happen anymore. What you get is people coming up saying, "I used to read these as a kid and I love Riverdale. And others say "I loved this as a kid and now my daughter or my son loves the show or loves these comics." And that's just the best reception we can ever ask for."