Before You Watch Riverdale, Read the Best Non-Archie Archie Story: Criminal: The Last of the Innocent

Comics Features Ed Brubaker
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Before You Watch <i>Riverdale</i>, Read the Best Non-Archie <i>Archie</i> Story: <i>Criminal: The Last of the Innocent</i>

In recent years, Archie Comics has proven its fearlessness in how far it’s willing to stretch their ageless teens. Afterlife with Archie continues to be a powerful zombie story that, believe it or not, is poignant as hell (and also hellish as hell). Archie and the gang have battled Predator and Sharknado, and they’ve teamed up with Glee, KISS and the Ramones. In the Glee crossover, which could easily have been a boring drama-fest, Dilton invented a universe-jumping portal-porter and name-checked DC’s multiverse, suggesting the possibility of a future Crisis on Infinite Archies.

But the most jaw-dropping Archie mashup, featuring the most mayhem and death, is no Archie comic at all: it’s the sixth arc of writer Ed Brubaker and artist Sean Phillips’ crime classic Criminal. In “The Last of the Innocent,” (which is also on sale at comiXology right now) Brubaker and Philips answer the question: “What if Archie Andrews was the biggest scumbag in the world?” They also deconstruct all of the Archie characters, showing the hidden toxicity beneath the wholesome surface. This is the Archie equivalent of Watchmen (at least until the Archie Meets Rorschach one-shot).

Criminal: The Last of the Innocent Cover Art by Sean Phillips

Riley Richards is our antihero, though that term gives him too much credit. Riley is a brunette Archie Andrews to go along with analogues for every major Archie character, including Jughead, Betty, Veronica, Reggie, Moose, Mr. Lodge and the portly Mr. Weatherbee. In a dense four issues, Riley returns to Brookview (Riverdale) from the big city, where he works for Mr. Doolittle (Mr. Lodge) and is married to Felix (Veronica), who is having an affair with Teddy (Reggie). Riley comes back to deal with his father’s stomach cancer and he reconnects with his best friend Freakout (Jughead) and longtime crush, the still-sweet Lizzie (Betty).

Riley’s return does not go well for many of these beloved characters, as the most famous love triangle in comics becomes the pretext for cruel manipulation and vicious murder. Archie fundamentalists may not be able to handle it. Anyone who likes seeing beloved icons flipped on their head and given a wedgie will love it.

Criminal: The Last of the Innocent Interior Art by Sean Phillips & Val Staples

Brubaker’s take on the Lodges will be particularly enjoyable for anyone with an irrational (or rational) dislike of rich people. In most Archie comics, the Lodges are portrayed as decent people despite their obscene wealth: the Lodge Mansion and daughter Veronica’s expensive tastes are just quirks, like Jughead’s bottomless appetite. But in this comic, the equivalent Doolittles are pompous aristocrats who expect money to buy everything—and it usually does. Amazingly, neither is even close to being the worst person in the comic.

Brubaker and Phillips’ have logical takes on all the Archie characters, but their most inspired analogue might be Freakout, aka Jughead. Aside from a goofy hat, the defining characteristic of Archie’s best pal is hunger, and that appetite is turned in a logical direction: drug addiction. Freakout goes to meetings for substance abuse when the story begins, and things go rapidly downhill from there. Whether in an official Archie mashup or not, Jughead tends to get the worst of things, as seen by his fate in Afterlife with Archie and Archie vs. Predator. (Spoiler alert: ouch). At least in this series, despite his problems, Jughead still retains his basic decency. In fact, he’s not far from being the Bubs (The Wire character) of Archie.

Criminal: The Last of the Innocent Interior Art by Sean Phillips & Val Staples

Phillips tells this story by switching to Archie-style art for the flashbacks. The bright colors and loose figures of these pages contrast with the dirty, moody palette of the rest of Criminal’s run, highlighting the difference between appearance (or memory) and reality. This juxtaposition hits home hard, since even readers who don’t love Archie and the gang likely cling to some illusions. Who wouldn’t want to live in the broadly rendered, brightly colored, almost My Little Pony-esque world of Brookview or Riverdale? At the very least, we want to imagine that world once existed. But even if we’re not managing drug addiction or covering up a murder, our day-to-day is probably more like the present-day scenes of this comic: muted, disturbing, complicated and depressing. Le sigh.

Brubaker and Phillips like loading their work with moodiness and murder, but they also love the comic-within-a-comic trick, especially in Criminal. The original arc, “Coward,” often cuts away to the newspaper strip Frank Kafka, Private Eye. Recent Criminal one-shots have taken this much further. After Brubaker learned that many prison inmates in the ‘70s and ‘80s subscribed to comic mags such as Heavy Metal and The Savage Sword of Conan, he produced the 2015 Criminal special edition “By This Sword I Live!” which features 14 pages of a fictional comic mag called Savage. In another one-shot, “Deadly Hands of Criminal,” young Tracy Lawless finds escape in comics while accompanying his dad Teeg’s latest crime spree. Escaping from the world through comics—talk about relatable.

Criminal: The Last of the Innocent Cover Art by Sean Phillips

While this series is an impressive deconstruction of the Archie characters, it doesn’t just dismantle them: it shows how powerful they are. The love triangle, the hungry best friend, the innocent ingénue, the big lug and the smug rival are probably part of the collective unconsciousness at this point, and they continue to be perfect fodder for crossovers and mashups. Archie Comics should continue pushing the envelope with their own alternate Archies, but this Criminal arc is a reminder that anyone can play with these archetypes. We’ve seen endless Superman analogues over the years: Supreme, The Homelander, The High, The Saint, Samaritan, Apollo, Huck and many others. The world could use a few more Archies.

“The Last of the Innocent” was the final multi-issue arc of Criminal published, and it might be the best. Brubaker and Phillips managed to nail a vicious yet respectful satire of Archie while telling a story as honest and brutal as any other in the series. It’s unlikely the creators of CW’s new teen drama Riverdale—second episode on tonight—will take any inspiration from this series, but they should read it, just to see how compelling Bizarro Riverdale can be.

Mark Peters is the author of Bullshit: A Lexicon. Follow him on Twitter.