TR Interview: Paul Kupperberg of "Life with Archie"

By Chris Cummins in Comics
Wednesday, October 19, 2011 at 2:00 pm
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I'm just going to come right out and say it: I think Life with Archie is the best comic currently on the market. Continuing on from 2009's much ballyhooed Archie Marries storyline, the monthly magazine chronicles the adult lives of Riverdale's eternally youthful ginger and his pals and gals. Separated into dual storylines -- one in which Archie has married Veronica and another in which he tied the knot with Betty -- the title has been given much attention thanks to its blending of realistic adult storylines with apeshit crazy plot points involving death, arson, betrayal, failed dreams, lowered expectations, hamburgers and, naturally, parallel universes. It's intriguing reading, and along with the Kevin Keller comics and the Archie Meets Kiss miniseries, makes Archie Comics seem more fun and edgier than ever before. No small task given that the company is in the midst of its 70th anniversary.

Much of the success of Life with Archie can be laid at the feet of Paul Kupperberg. A veteran in the comics industry who has also written fiction featuring Spider-Man, Doctor Who and Batman, Kupperberg took the reins of the title after original scribe Michael Uslan left early in the series' run. Under his watch, the book has continued to juggle elements of humor, soap opera and Lost-esque mystery. The resulting product is so unexpectedly satisfying, it effortlessly blows more mainstream "event" comics out of the water. This is not the Archie you're used to. This Archie is all grown up and dealing with real life problems... as well as the occasional multi-dimensional storyline in which existence itself hangs in the balance. I recently had the opportunity to speak with Kupperberg about his involvement with the book and what he has in store for Archie and company.

Topless Robot: When was it decided torevive Life with Archie?
Paul Kupperberg: After the success of the Archie Marries miniseries in Archie #600 to #605 by Michael Uslan and Stan Goldberg they wanted [to continue] the idea of the story in some way. Originally we were going to be doing two separate montlhy comic books, just regular 32-page floppies. Then I was told that there was going to be a magazine combining both features. When the decision to invade the magazine market with Archie came around they figured it was good to go with a title they already have, and Life with Archie sure fit.

How did you personally get involved with the magazine?
I got a phone call (laughs). I had just started writing for Archie a few months before. I had written five or six shorts, just regular features. I got a call from Victor Gorelick, who's the Editor-in-Chief of Archie and he wanted to meet with me and Michael Uslan. I went in and they offered me the ongoing gig. It was kind of surprising because I was very new to Archie. I didn't expect to pick up something like that, but there it was.

Originally the series was written by Michael Uslan but now you are the sole writer. How much are you working from his original plan and how much of the story at this point is purely yours?
It's all mine at this point. Beyond carrying on the things he had set up, all the direction that we've been going in the last, after the first six issues, has been primarily mine.

Life with Archie could have easily just been about the difficulties of adult life, but what's really connected with people is its strange sci-fi elements with whatever the Dilton is up to. Why did you choose to incorporate this weirdness into the book?
Well, that was one of the things that came from Michael. There were some plans in place that would have taken much greater advantage of all the stuff I was setting up in Life with Archie. I don't quite know where all those stand right now. I'm sure they'll go ahead at some point. So I was given the stuff and I ran with it for awhile. In fact I'm writing the Betty story for issue 18 even as we speak. Actually, I stopped to answer the phone. But that wraps up the whole Dilton story. In the third arc, issues 13 through 18, there's a lot of the Dilton story woven through there. It starts to get a little weird and resolves in issue 18.

A lot of former Archie readers, myself included, have returned to the fold with Life with Archie and the insanity that has been going on within it. Why do you think the title has resonated with readers on such a huge scale?
I think it is different than what they expect from Archie. It's more contemporary of a comic than the average Archie title. Most of them, even the stories about the caveman Archie or Night at the Comic Shop, they are still based on the funny teenage Archie. Whereas Life with Archie is very heavily continuity driven. I had to start keeping a list of everything and everybody because I'm writing two stories using the same set of characters. So it gets very confusing sometimes. I'll sit there at the word processor and go "wait a minute, is this in the Betty story or..." I just totally lose track.

So I'm trying very hard to make it a contemporary comic with a lot going on. Actually that doesn't make it a contemporary comic, because with a contemporary comic it would be decompressed storytelling. It would be six issues of Archie that would have them all sitting around the Choklit Shoppe talking about things. So I actually try to make it like an old-fashioned comic, now that I think about it, with a lot of stuff happening in the 24 pages. Your typical comic book doesn't have a lot happening in a given issue. In the same 24 pages I have about probably seven or eight major scenes with full character development going on... as opposed to three guys fighting in outer space.

The Life with Archie books are pretty dense with material; I just finished issue 13 and when I was done I was taken aback by how much information I was presented with. By comparison I also just finished reading a recent issue of Fantastic Four, in which hardly anything happened.
I think the thing that prevents me from getting work at Marvel and DC -- the fact that I'm an old fart -- is what enables me to write a story like Life with Archie. I used to do comic books where you had to get a lot into an issue because the whole story was in one issue. You know, the most highly touted comic book of the year so far has been Justice League #1 and tell me what happened in there. Nothing. I'm a reader too, when I can find something that's readable, and I like to sit down and have a good dense story and a lot of characters and a lot of stuff thrown at me.

Why do think something like Game of Thrones is so popular? It's a big, rich, dense story. It's got a ton of people and 8,000 things going on at once. People respond to that, they want something to follow. I think most mainstream comics, superhero comics at least, they're not in the business of doing that anymore. They're in the business of telling these epics that will change the universe every six months.

With a company like Archie I can write a story like this because they're not sitting there saying "we have to be contemporary and cutting edge." Archie has never been contemporary and cutting edge, but has always been cool. You know? I read Archie when I was a kid and periodically while growing up, even before I started working for them, just to see what was going on. Who doesn't love Stan Goldberg's art? I think there's a big advantage to a company like Archie in that they are very character driven. Coming up in issue 17 I have a three-page sequence set in a war. I turned in the script and I got a call from Victor saying "I think this is the first time we have ever shown combat in an Archie comic." The instruction to the artist was to go full-blown Joe Kubert on it.

Throughout Life with Archie there is an integration of old Archie series' and characters -- perhaps the best example being the return of Little Ambrose. Are there any more to come?
I throw them in at random as I come across them. I try to do it with some of the teachers in the Betty continuity. Ambrose actually plays a big role in the Dilton story coming up and does return. But yes, I'm trying to do that.

In the arc that I'm plotting out now, issues 19 to 24, Jellybean (Jughead's little sister) will be coming back. She'll be in the Betty story. I've got major plans for Cheryl Blossom. She's coming back to town but there will be major, major changes in her life. Kevin Keller will be coming into the Life with Archie continuity. He will also have major changes in his life. I'm trying to make it as much about the Archie universe as possible. I love playing with a big universe, throwing all these things together. I spent most of my career writing for DC comics, you can't help but love that stuff.

So is there any chance of say some of the crazier Archie titles like Jughead's Time Police or Archie Meets the Punisher being referenced?
Well, sure. It's like Jughead showing up to a costume party as a time cop. I will play with things like that. But all that stuff is up for grabs. It's all fun and games, and I'm having a lot of fun by the way.

One of the most interesting aspects of the stories is how they are often a brutally honest depiction of how much adult life can completely suck. Why is Life with Archie so serious at times?
It's a soap opera, and if I'm going to do a soap opera I'm going to do a soap opera. You need suffering. People need adversity and you need to throw everything at them. And when you're through throwing everything at them to find something else to throw at them.

I just really wanted to make it as based in reality as possible, Dilton and Ambrose aside. When I was doing the court stuff with Reggie in the previous story arc I really kept it real. I didn't want it to turn into a Perry Mason "A-HA, so you confess!" TV thing. I really wanted to do it correctly. I consulted with a friend who was a lawyer to get procedure right. When I'm doing this stuff I just want to do like it was in the real world. That's the concept: this is Archie grown up in the real world.

Do you have a preference writing for the alt-Betty or the alt-Veronica futures?
No. I have to tell you that in a long career of between 800-900 comic book stories I have never had so much fun as writing this one. And I've loved most of what I've had to write in my career. Both of these storylines are equally fun. Each has their own challenges. I do plot everything out in advance, but when I come to writing the actual scenes is when the character develops. I was with the Archie characters when I sat down to write them. You know? I knew these guys, I've been reading them my entire life. They're fun to write and they're easy to write for me because again I know them so well. You don't think of them as these well-developed characters, you think of them as one-dimensional objects for jokes. But they're not. And it's all there, all these character bits are there. You just have to use them.

I've discovered that my favorite character is Reggie. I think Reggie is an amazingly enduring character. I've tried to mess with him. I've tried to screw him up and break him down, and the character doesn't let me. I hear writers say things like "you know I tried to do this to the character but the character was telling me no." Sometimes it really does happen. This was the case with Reggie. I put him through his paces. I had him working at K-Mart, Dunkin' Donuts, wherever. And he wouldn't lose his dignity, he just wouldn't. He's a great character. I think when every writer is doing a series they latch onto a character that becomes theirs -- like Kirby had the Thing -- well Reggie Mantle is my Thing.

He's certainly more developed than he ever has been before. In the past he's always been either the antagonist or the butt of jokes.
When I was in high school I knew those guys and I didn't like them. They weren't likable. In fact, I got an e-mail from one recently that said "hey man, I saw your stuff and you're doing great, remember when we were kids?" I wrote back "I don't know what world you were in, but the only memory I have of you is you bullying me when I walked down your street so piss off." Reggie was that guy. But Reggie didn't grow up to be the clueless idiot that this other guy was. Reggie got lost along the way. He was the guy who used to be the big shot in high school. Then after high school he went nowhere. Whatever happened to Reggie Mantle? That changes a person. You can either become a bitter idiot or, like Reggie, you just go with it.

How will Kevin Keller fit into Life with Archie?
He's been in the service and he has been wounded and is back in Riverdale for a very special occasion. In one of the continuities he comes back as regular. There's Fort Pickens outside of town where he's stationed for the time being. Kevin is another interesting character. He's the "gay" character, but he's just another character. He's also the military hero. At one point after Kevin has told his war story of how he got wounded, Reggie says "I didn't know what to make of you when we were in high school, but you're Sylvester Stallone." So Kevin's got friends in town.

It was announced that Kevin is getting married in Life with Archie. Are you worried at all about courting any controversy by including gay marriage in the storyline?
No, not in the least. It might come along but bring it on. I think people who are against same sex marriage are just hateful bigots for the most part who usually try to cover it with some religious bullcrap. I think the problem is that most Republicans think that if gay marriage becomes legal it will become mandatory. They're just confused.

More importantly, will some Dynasty-style mayhem go down at his wedding?
No, the wedding is kept fairly straightforward. It's the background for the rest of the stories that are going on at the time.

We're going to get into spoiler territory here a bit. First off, are there two Diltons and are they fighting each other?
(Coyly) I don't know.

Is Mr. Lodge genuinely evil? Or does he have a noble goal and he is just terrible at trying to reach it?
It will all be explained. I think I went a little overboard with the level of his evil. But you really need a good villain. He is definitely being pulled back in both storylines. Where we need a corporate villain in the Veronica storyline we'll have somebody else. But Lodge's motives were purely good.

Is there a conclusion in mind, or is Life with Archie open ended?
It is open ended. I could write this forever and ever and ever. It even sparked an idea for a book that I pitched to them and wrote a first script for called Riverdale Chronicles, which would be a history of Riverdale set in the same universe with ongoing stories. Showing the generational saga of the Lodges and the Andrews throughout the town from the Revolution on. There's a ton and a half of stories to tell.

As a fan that's a mind-blowing idea.
I love it. I can't wait for us to get around to doing that.

So is it accurate to say that Life with Archie is the definitive future history of the Archie-verse?
No. These are possible futures. Frankly in the Archie-verse they're never going to grow up. They're always going to be teenagers. It could be this, it could be Jughead's Time Police, it could be Pureheart the Powerful. Nobody knows for sure.

I have a few questions about other aspects of your career. To avoid getting lynched by He-Man-loving Topless Robot readers I have to ask how you came to be involved with the original Masters of the Universe DC comic.
Originally Mattel came to DC or DC came to Mattel, however they hooked up. This was prior to the release of the toys, which only existed as prototypes up to that point. DC signed a deal to do what were essentially promotional comics for the toys with Superman as a guest star. Dave Manak was the editor of that, and it was done as a special project. It wasn't even done under DC's regular editorial system. Frankly, I may have just been the guy who was in the office when Dave looked up needed a writer to do this because that's the way it was done in those days.

Anyway, I got the gig and a representative from Mattel came in with a box of prototype toys and we sat on the conference room floor for a couple of hours and played with them. Mattel just wanted a comic book. They knew that Superman was going to guest star in the DC Comics Presents story and then a miniseries. I asked what the back story was and they said "we don't have one, make one up." They gave us the names and the basic description of the character and I went with the basic sword and sorcery concepts. I kind of kept it simple because it was He-Man, Master of the Universe. (laughs) I never saw the cartoons, never watched them, because I was a grown up. But I'm told that a lot of the material from the comics made its way into the back story of the original cartoon series.

Growing up I loved Crazy magazine as much as I did Mad, if not more so because it featured the Marvel universe. How crazy was working for Crazy?
I liked working for Crazy. I didn't do a lot of work for Marvel. Crazy was a hoot. In the 1970s and '80s it was more subversive than Mad. It was a lot more down and dirty. Especially by the time Larry Hama took over as editor, because Larry has a wickedly evil sense of humor that involves high-powered rifles. So it became really nasty. There was a Flintstones parody by Jim Owsley -- who is now Christopher Priest -- called The Brownstones. Which was a urban kind of take on The Flintstones that I don't think Mad would have run in those days.

My first stuff for Crazy was years earlier. My brother, Alan, an artist for Marvel, was supposed to do a parody of Star Wars for Crazy in 1977 and he asked me to write it. I wrote a few other pieces for them, some TV parodies and the like, and eventually drifted away. Then when Larry Hama took over he was looking for writers and Marv Wolfman said I was funny so Larry gave me try. I was doing the movie parodies for Crazy for two years, maybe longer.

You worked as Senior Editor for Weekly World News, too. Did that experience prepare you for Life with Archie?
It couldn't hurt (laughs). No, but it was a great place to work. It was a small staff, just five of us churning out a weekly paper with total freedom. It was a wonderful job on a great metropolitan newspaper.

Can you give us any hints as to what lies ahead for Archie and the gang?
I'm just looking for interesting stuff for them to go through. I'm looking for real life issues. Again, I've got something major planned for Cheryl Blossom that should be pretty hard-hitting. I just want to do interesting stuff. We've kind of done the growing pains of being an adult and getting settled and trying to find a way in life. Now they've got to be somewhere. By now they should be moving ahead towards specific goals. I want to do that. I want to put them on a path and throw as much crap in their way as they try to get there.

Thanks to Paul Kupperberg for his time (and for blowing my mind with his ongoing Archie mayhem) and to Alex Segura for arranging the interview.

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