Let Us Now Praise Archie Andrews, Lone Survivor of the Great Checkout Stand Apocalypse : Monkey See How comic book spinner racks went the way of the dodo, and how one skinny Riverdale teenager avoided the doom that befell other comics.
NPR logo Let Us Now Praise Archie Andrews, Lone Survivor of the Great Checkout Stand Apocalypse

Let Us Now Praise Archie Andrews, Lone Survivor of the Great Checkout Stand Apocalypse

Last man standing: The world has changed a lot, but Archie is still going strong. Archie Comics Publications hide caption

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Archie Comics Publications

Used to be, comics were everywhere. Not so long ago, squeaky spinner racks crammed with four-color whimsy were thick on the ground; you couldn't enter a drugstore, supermarket or bookshop without spotting this here large, friendly sign.

But over the course of the 1980s, the spinner rack, and the comic books it carried, steadily disappeared from the country's Pick n' Saves and Pathmarks. No longer could a kid repair to the newsstand to thumb through the latest issue of Marvel Team-Up while his mother puttered down the condiments aisle.

Even the most popular comics, with the toughest, too legit-to-quit heroes — your Wolverines, your Hulks, your Supermans — abandoned newsstands, retreating like frightened woodland creatures to the relative safety (and steady sales) of the comics specialty shop.

The sole survivor? The only comic book character that can still be found in every supermarket in the country, where he merits prominent point-of-purchase placement alongside US Weekly and Fabulous Fruitini Orbit gum? A skinny teenaged redhead in a sweater vest.

The question: what is it about Archie Andrews that has allowed him to bravely weather a sales environment harsh enough to send the X-Men fleeing for cover? Did he get Mr. Lodge to front him some cash? Is that weird tic-tac-toe thing inscribed on the side of his head some kind of eldritch protection sigil?

We explore this mystery wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a letterman jacket, after the jump.

Chuck Rozanski's Tales from the Database blog offers this nifty — and brief — analysis of how comics got chased off the newsstands.

His key points:

* In 1979, mass market retailers (supermarkets, newsstands, etc) were still responsible for the vast majority of all comic book sales.

* Over the next ten years, comics fans began to realize that the nation's specialty comics shops, dank and dingy though they were, received their shipments of new books a week before the newsstands did. So they started seeking out these (still relatively rare) comics stores to feed their habit.

* This occasioned a drop in newsstand sales, and it became less easy for supermarkets to justify giving over shelf space (well, spinner rack space, anyway) to low-pricepoint, low markup items like funnybooks.

* There's more to it than that, of course — much of it having to do with such sexy topics as invoicing and overhead* — but the upshot is that comics shops started sprouting up in greater numbers.

* In the process, the once-ubiquitous comic book retreated from public consciousness. Where before supermarkets and five-and-dimes put comics before the eyes of the idly curious, casual reader, now comics sequestered themselves behind forbidding walls, guarded by surly creatures who refused entry to all but those who knew the secret password.

Don't get me wrong — things have markedly improved since then. Today, most local comics shops have shed chthonic dinge for airy brightness, and provide the kind of focused customer service their customers value — making recommendations, entering into spirited debates over sundry bits of Marvel minutiae, etc.

But all of this now takes place within the insular world of the comics shop, while the wholesome hijinks of Archie and company remain as much of a fixture of express checkout stands as Seek-n-Finds and horoscope scrolls.

How'd he accomplish this?

You gotta chalk a lot of it up to the guy's essential, abiding Archieness. The comics are light, breezy, brightly colored entertainments. The characters are familiar and welcoming, the situations so resolutely G-rated that any parent can slip an issue into a kid's hands without a second thought.

But the company engages in some canny marketing: They offer Archie's adventures in thick digests on cheap newsprint paper, which allows them to stuff the books with new and reprinted content without raising the price. That means more Dilton Doily for the buck.

The fact that Archie doesn't generally traffic in serial "oh my god I gotta know what happens next" narrative means that even regular Archie readers never felt compelled to seek out the books the day they arrived in stores, and so were content to pick him up the next time they went out for bread and milk.

It also means that a new reader can pick up any given issue without getting stymied by the need to play catch-up on several years' worth of densely plotted continuity.

The makers of Archie comics aren't afraid to mix things up, they just go about it cautiously. A manga version of Sabrina the Teenage Witch came and went recently, but not before clocking an impressive 100 issues.

The company has recently introduced "New Look" takes on the classic characters, albeit with decidedly mixed results. Moose and Midge, for example, look kind of unsettlingly hot.

Jughead, however, looks just ... unwell. ("Tonight on Dateline. Crystal Meth: Scourge of Riverdale.")

But through it all, above it all, the essential Archie Andrews abides and endures. He's managed to shoulder aside even the most steroidal superbeings for shelf-space, and he's done it all backed by a network of friends and family so supportive they're willing to overlook his fondness for checkered orange pants.

*Although newsstands were subject to more forgiving return policies than the specialty shops, the specialty shops were much better able to gauge their clientele's preferences, and thus were more likely to sell through the books they'd ordered in the first place. Ultimately, comic book companies could save on production costs by focusing on the direct market. Yeah, I warned you.