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Archie Andrews gets hip for the 21st century

Comic artist Fiona Staple (above) teamed up with writer Mark Waid to come up with the new, hipster Archie with his chiselled jawbone, skinny jeans and Justin Bieber haircut.
Comic artist Fiona Staple (above) teamed up with writer Mark Waid to come up with the new, hipster Archie with his chiselled jawbone, skinny jeans and Justin Bieber haircut.PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES
Comic artist Fiona Staple (above) teamed up with writer Mark Waid to come up with the new, hipster Archie with his chiselled jawbone, skinny jeans and Justin Bieber haircut.
The new, hipster Archie with his chiselled jawbone, skinny jeans and Justin Bieber haircut.PHOTO: ARCHIECOMICSOFFICIAL/FACEBOOK

If it were not for the flaming red hair and toothy grin, you might not recognise the new Archie Andrews.

The 75-year-old comic book character has undergone a major makeover and his new hipster look debuted at the annual Comic-Con event in San Diego last week.

Archie Comics, which is based in Pelham, New York, is launching a new line of comics featuring a modernised Archie after it experimented for six years on how to bring the iconic character into the 21st century.

"It was clear to me that Archie was moving down the path of irrelevancy," says Mr Jon Goldwater, chief executive officer of Archie Comics and son of the man who created the first Archie in 1941.

"I really wanted to aim for the comic book shops and the real comic book reader and do a complete relaunch of Archie."

With his chiselled jawbone, skinny jeans and Justin Bieber haircut, the new, hipster Archie is a far cry from the buck-toothed bumpkin of earlier days.

The rest of his pals at Riverdale High have also been transformed. In her low-slung, ripped jeans, Betty is a thoroughly modern teenager; unlike her slightly two-dimensional 1950s incarnation, she is endowed with a full range of facial expressions.

Archie's best friend, Jughead, still wears a crown, but in every other respect, he looks more like a stoner than a jester.

In a slow-reveal strategy, the publisher has left Veronica out of the first comic in the new series.

When he took over the company in 2009, Mr Goldwater said the brand was emblazoned in readers' minds as a nostalgic stereotype.

Meanwhile, a wave of indie titles was sweeping into comic book stores. One of the most successful in the new breed has been Saga, a science-fiction fantasy series illustrated by Fiona Staples. Archie Comics tapped the Canadian artist for its Archie redesign.

"Fiona was our first choice," Mr Goldwater says. "If she said yes, there was going to be no conversations with anybody else. We were so lucky she said yes."

To create Archie #1, Staples teamed up with writer Mark Waid, known for his work on such titles as Superman and The Flash for DC and Marvel Comics.

Riverdale High, as reimagined by Staples and Waid, seems a fairly good mirror of a public high school in a middle-income neighbourhood. The student body is ethnically diverse, one character is handicapped and almost everyone is glued to smartphones.

Representing today's tech-centric world through writing was a struggle for Waid. The old Betty and Veronica characters bonded over trips to the mall or days at the beach. Today, characters are Instagramming and texting. "Kids don't socialise the same way they did 20, 30 years ago," says Waid. "Kids socialise almost exclusively on social media. That's antithetical to (visual) drama."

Staples drew mobile phones and video-game remotes in the hands of the characters and Waid filled in text bubbles and other visual cues that let readers know what is happening on characters' screens.  

Staples told the New York Times in an interview that Archie was the hardest character to interpret.

"Archie was harder than everyone else," she said. "I mean, Archie is the most iconic - his head goes in the logo! There are certain features that the characters had, like Jughead's needle nose, that don't translate to real life or my drawing style. I tried to interpret it."

She added: "What Mark Waid and I are doing is a relaunch: start fresh and put our own spin on it. We don't want to change more than necessary.''

The change is a big gamble for the 30-person publisher, which relies on its namesake comic as a major source of revenue.

Modernising Archie was "expensive," says Mr Goldwater: "You hire the top talent, so costs increase. But it's a small price to pay because we're rebranding the entire Archie universe."

Archie Comics, a private company, declined to share revenue figures, but Mr Goldwater says preorders for Archie #1 were the highest he has seen in six years.

The publisher also plans to release a Jughead #1 series in October, followed by a digital comic featuring Kevin Keller, Archie's first openly gay character.

Last year, North American comic sales increased 7 per cent from a year earlier to US$935 million (S$532 million), according to Comichron, a website that covers the industry.

That bump in revenue is partially due to an increase in digital comic sales (Archie #1 will be released digitally and in print). While e-books and digital comics made up just 4 per cent of overall sales in 2011, they made up an estimated 10 per cent of sales last year.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 12, 2015, with the headline 'Archie Andrews gets hip for the 21st century'. Print Edition | Subscribe