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‘Riverdale’ reimagines Archie comic-book gang

KJ Apa, left, Camila Mendes, Cole Sprouse and

KJ Apa, left, Camila Mendes, Cole Sprouse and Lili Reinhart star on "Riverdale." Photo Credit: The CW / Katie Yu

It’s not your parents’ Archie . . . or Betty . . . or Veronica.

Some of the comic-book world’s most celebrated characters get a big, frequently dark transformation in a CW series named for their town: “Riverdale.’’ Premiering Thursday, Jan. 26, at 9 p.m. on Ch. 11, the drama from prolific executive producer Greg Berlanti (“The Flash,’’ “Arrow,’’ “Blindspot’’) involves the mysterious death of popular student Jason Blossom in the quintessentially all-American locale where musically inclined Archie Andrews (played by KJ Apa) is viewed romantically by both longtime friend Betty Cooper (Lili Reinhart) and sophisticated new arrival Veronica Lodge (Camila Mendes).

Other familiar figures featured in the program include Jughead Jones (Cole Sprouse, “The Suite Life of Zack and Cody’’), Josie McCoy (Ashleigh Murray) — as in Josie and the Pussycats — and the late Jason’s sister Cheryl (Madelaine Petsch).

Famously a former television teen himself, “Beverly Hills, 90210’’ alum Luke Perry portrays Archie’s blue-collar father, Mädchen Amick (“Twin Peaks”) as Betty’s newspaper-editor mother and Marisol Nichols (“24’’) as Veronica’s mom. Robin Givens has a recurring role as Josie’s mother and Riverdale’s mayor, and Molly Ringwald will surface later in the series as the mother who deserted Archie and his father.

“We’re not the happy all-American family,” Perry told the Los Angeles Times. “Archie’s parents are separated, he lives with his dad. We’re the working-class side of Riverdale. We’re the blue-collar guys. I’m a construction worker and it’s me and my boy, and we’re going to figure it out together, and it’s kind of neat because traditionally in the comics, Archie came from a happy family, you know everything was always great and apple pie in the window and all that stuff, and it ain’t like that here.”

“Riverdale’’ debuts just after the 75th-anniversary year of the Archie character’s first appearance, and even if the show seems to take major gambles with the franchise, it has direct lineage. One of its principal writers is Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, the chief creative officer of Archie Comics (in 2011, he was hired to rework Broadway’s troubled “Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark”) , and executive producer Jon Goldwater is a son of that brand’s co-founder, John L. Goldwater (who developed “Archie’’ with writer and artist Bob Montana).

Co-star Reinhart notes that Archie and company are “humans, and humans have darkness to them. Archie Comics appreciates that we are putting a modern spin on these iconic characters that have been around for so long, and we’re making them come off the page in a very real way. We’re able to create our versions of them, but it’s been a very collaborative process between the actors and the writers and the producers. We’ve crafted these characters together, which is rare. And it’s great.’’

Since “Riverdale’’ is cast largely with relative newcomers, Reinhart voices gratitude for the acting veterans surrounding them: “Luke [Perry] is like our fairy godfather in a way, always checking in with us and making sure we’re OK. He’s so wise, and he’ll talk to us individually and share his insight and his experiences. He’s incredibly helpful and very sweet. He was unfathomably huge when ‘90210’ was on, so he shares with us ways to stay grounded, and it’s good to have someone who’s been through that. We see him as a real person, not an icon.’’

As the launch of “Riverdale’’ nears, Reinhart is wishing for acceptance of the line it walks between the nostalgically familiar and the very updated. She says, “We just hope that people know these aren’t the stereotypical characters that they kind of were on the page. They are real.’’

Welcome to Riverdale

Riverdale — it’s not a place but a state of being. Forget Riverdale, Kansas, or Riverdale, the Bronx, or Riverdale, Georgia, or any of at least two dozen Riverdales in North America, because there’s really only one: the home to “America’s Favorite Teenager” Archie Andrews and his friends for generations of comic-book readers.

It’s a small town of the mind that still has Pop Tate’s old-fashioned Chocklit Shoppe as well as a newfangled mall. There’s a park named after a fictional Civil War hero. Union? Confederate? No one knows. There’s a beach with ocean waves for surfing, but also Riverdale Cove with a pine forest nearby. Where is Riverdale? May as well ask, “Where’s Springfield?”

What we do know is that Riverdale and its denizens arrived 75 years ago, in “Pep Comics” #22, cover-dated Dec. 1941 and on sale two months earlier. Archie Comics was MLJ Comics then, founded in 1939 by Maurice Coyne, Louis Silberkleit and John L. Goldwater — M, L and J, get it? Like most in that burgeoning Golden Age of Comic Books, they published superheroes, and that issue of “Pep” cover-featured the Shield and the Hangman; others in the stable included the Black Hood, Steel Sterling and the Comet.

It was in a lowly humor backup feature that we meet Archibald “Chick” Andrews, his friend Jughead and new girl in town Betty Cooper. The “Chick” quickly got dropped and the characters, who seemed about 12, gradually became perpetual 16-year-olds. Soon Archie and his friends — including rich girl Veronica Lodge (introduced in “Pep Comics” #26, April 1942) and frenemy Reggie Mantle (“Jackpot Comics” #5, Spring 1942) — muscled-out the superheroes. Archie began sharing the covers with them with “Pep” #36, became the lead feature with #49, and took over completely two issues later. Issue #56 (March 1946) was the first labeled “An Archie Magazine,” and within a month or two, MLJ officially became Archie Comic Publications Inc.

Archie already had a solo series, launched a year after his debut. Jughead got his own in 1949 and “Archie’s Girls Betty and Veronica” began in 1950. That title’s fourth issue (undated; published between late 1951 and mid-1952) brought artist Dan DeCarlo to Archie, and soon his chipper, energetic renderings became the house style for decades.

Yet who created Archie is a matter of dispute. The first story is signed by writer Vic Bloom and artist Bob Montana, who became the feature’s longtime regular artist and often writer as well. But publisher Goldwater always asserted it was his idea. Montana’s heirs sued in 1996, and a settlement followed listing Goldwater as “creator” and Montana as creator of “the original characters’ likenesses.”

More characters followed, by artists including Henry Scarpelli and Hampton Bays’ Stan Goldberg: dimwitted, bighearted Moose Mason and girlfriend Midge Klump; science whiz Dilton Doiley; Sabrina the Teenage Witch; rock band Josie and the Pussycats; African-American aspiring cartoonist and all-around athlete Chuck Clayton; wealthy vamp Cheryl Blossom; gay school president Kevin Keller; Veronica’s disabled cousin Harper; amateur filmmaker Raj Patel and others including Riverdale High’s faculty and staff, led by principal Mr. Weatherbee. They variously appeared in comics, animated series, hit records by studio musicians as The Archies, and live-action film and TV.

The last few years have seen what-if series of a married, adult Archie and even the zombierific “Afterlife With Archie.” And a well-received reboot in 2015 made them all more naturalistic and less cartoony.

So they’re still going strong in their semisesquicentennial year. With the new TV show feeding the characters’ enduring popularity, their adolescence will last forever. To borrow the title of a cartoon’s theme son, everything’s Archie.

— FRANK LOVECE

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