Betty Cooper isn’t the only one whose heart got broken last week. When Archie Comics Publications announced on May 27 that archetypal teen Archie Andrews will soon pop the question to wealthy beauty Veronica Lodge, a nation’s-worth of girls and guys next door moaned in concert. The 600th book in the publisher’s signature series, due to arrive in September, will portray its main characters’ struggles after they graduate from college. It’s not just that the thought of Archie, who was introduced as a cheerfully clumsy 17-year-old in 1941 and hasn’t aged since, as a married man, is creepy. It’s that if Archie wants to ensure his future happiness, and if his publishers want to present their characters as true adults, Archie’s proposing to the wrong woman.
In his novel about the early years of the comics, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Michael Chabon described the central drama of the Archie comics as the competition between Betty and Veronica, “the deep, almost Oriental mystery of the two big-toothed, wasp-waisted goddess-girls, light and dark, entangled forever in the enmity of their friendship.”
But Archie could never really choose between Betty and Veronica, not because each was too impossibly perfect to resist, but because each girl was half of an ideal. Veronica is beautiful and wealthy, but the promise of glamour and comfort that she offers are shot through with arrogance and more than occasional cruelty and inconstancy. Betty can bake a pie, fix a jalopy, publish an article, or lead a protest, but she’s spent more than 67 years hung up on a guy who takes advantage of her talents and pants after her best friend.
Archie can’t make a permanent choice between Betty and Veronica because he’s not ready to choose—and they’re not ready to be chosen. Their triangle has stayed relevant for seven decades because, as perpetual teenagers, their experiences reinforce the lessons that are so heartbreakingly difficult for us to absorb, that flash fades, carelessness wounds, intellectual compatibility matters, and that being worthy of love doesn’t guarantee you’ll receive it. Archie, Veronica, and Betty are teenagers as they ought to be: lively, curious, brave, and convinced, like all of us once were, that their romances and heartbreaks are the stuff of legend.
But if this cycle must be broken, if the teenagers from Riverdale must move beyond their early explorations of love and grow up, then Archie should have made the mature decision, and the truly romantic one, and gotten down on one knee for Betty.
True, what recent college graduate wouldn’t want to take the stress out of the job search by marrying the heiress to an industrial fortune? And sure, Veronica’s a babe right now. But fifty years of diminishing conversation over dinner isn’t a pleasant prospect, even if the table that separates you from your spouse is mahogany, and even if you don’t have to clear your own dishes. By marrying Veronica, the comics won’t really have Archie grow up.
Veronica is the girl Archie worships, and accepts abuse from, the girl for whom he is only sometimes good enough, polished enough, or rich enough to escort. If Veronica’s fortune ever withers, and when her looks inevitably decline, it isn’t clear what she and Archie will have left. The recession—or any edition of Bravo’s Real Housewives—provides all too many examples of what happens to a marriage when one partner’s financial expectations, whether of opulence or simple security, are disappointed.
Marrying Veronica might let Archie fulfill his high school fantasy of tying his dream girl down. And Veronica’s official Archie Comics Publications Blog already has her fantasizing about her dream wedding and wondering whether Betty will be her maid of honor. It’s just another version of prom night, with rings instead of corsages, and no conception of what happens after the band finishes its last set. Choosing Veronica is a 17-year-old’s decision, not a twenty-something’s. It’s marriage as imagined through a hormone-induced haze, pushing issues like children and mortgages and the question of how your husband or wife will deal with those challenges to the periphery.
If Archie wanted a life partner, a wife who knows how to work on a relationship through decades of disappointment and joy, Betty Cooper would have been an easy choice. She could have helped him figure out what he wants to do with his life, because she has dreams and ambitions of her own: She wants to be a journalist—a potentially quixotic goal as the industry crumbles in 2009, but then, she has plenty of practice chasing lost causes.
It should have been simple for the writers to recognize the wisdom and logic of choosing Betty as well. But it seems they’re similarly blinded, unable to imagine Archie, Betty and Veronica as true adults. This isn’t the first time Archie’s writers have faced this dilemma: Even the makers of 1990’s officially-sanctioned live-action Archie TV movie, To Riverdale and Back Again, which portrayed some of the characters as divorced or depressed, couldn’t bring themselves to move their hero away from his childhood hometown or force him to decide between Betty and Veronica. That’s a testament to the power of the artists who conceived of Archie and his pals—they are eminently believable teenagers. But it’s also true that no author has yet had the imagination to help the Riverdale students make a convincing transition to adulthood.
“Archie Gets Married” will produce a nice burst of publicity, landing a group of characters who first appeared at the dawn of the television era on CBS’s Early Show and CNN. But the chances that it will substantially change Archie’s future—that he’ll make it to the aisle, or that the characters will be shown having to deal with the consequences of adulthood—are small. In Riverdale, realism can go only so far, and no matter how many burgers Pop Tate’s Chok'lit Shoppe dishes out, it’s always been clear that unresolved love stories are the comic’s bread and butter.