The most famous teenager in the world, Archie Andrews of Riverdale, turns 75 next month. The December 1941 issue of the Pep Comics anthology also introduced his long-mistreated love interest, the quintessential girl next door, Betty Cooper (her rival for Archie’s affections, the raven-locked Veronica Lodge, would make her first appearance several months later). But it’s Jughead—lovable, sarcastic, smirky Forsythe Pendleton “Jughead” Jones III—who is still making news. Earlier this year, the septuagenarian comic book character launched a thousand news blips and hot takes by casually coming out as asexual. Contrary to the hormonal hothead that is Archie, Jughead has always been female-phobic, no matter how many Big Ethels and countless other less memorable love interests comic creators have thrown his way.
The Archie universe is famously chronologically static. The storylines rarely, if ever, change: Archie, Betty, and Veronica still form the three sides of a bland love triangle; they all still attend Riverdale High; Jughead consumes hamburger after hamburger from Pop Tate’s Chok’lit Shoppe without ever gaining a pound. Occasionally a new member is added to the cast (or subtracted, as was the case when Archie is killed by a deranged gunman at the conclusion of the recent Life With Archie series), but the core ensemble—the “Gang” in Archie parlance—has remained constant for three-quarters of a century.
Though Archie never ages—except for in those weird, alternative universe titles featuring the character getting married and having kids—we most certainly have. Riverdale’s readership has matured, progressed, and moved on from a character who remains a typical, white, American teenage male mired—even in his most recent iterations—in the 1940s. Jughead, however, is a character adults can gravitate to and identify with. “Jughead is the most interesting of the Archie characters because he is the most uncommon,” according to Bart Beaty, author of the indispensable biography Twelve-Cent Archie. Archie is likable, Betty is sweet, Veronica is wealthy, Reggie is vain, and Dilton is smart. But what is Jughead?
Reading the very first Archie tale, a six-page story from co-creators Bob Montana and Vic Bloom, is most remarkable for how familiar it feels. Whether you’re an Archie lifer or have never dipped your toes into Riverdale, you know what’s going to happen. Like the greatest of Campbellian myths, the lives of these characters have been ingrained into our nation’s culture. Archibald Andrews—preferring the nickname “Chick” over “Archie” at this point—is redheaded, freckled, and toothy-grinned, a good kid wearing sensible saddle Oxfords. But his proclivity for creating chaos in pursuit of mischief—slingshot in the back pocket, tottering along fence-tops while blindfolded—and romance would define the character from the splash page that introduced him to the millions of panels that have followed. Over the course of the story, he meets cute with blond, wholesome, and bobby-soxed Betty Cooper, performs feats of derring-do to express his adoration, and ultimately makes a fool of himself.
Archie’s best pal pops up midway through this first story. “Gals! Phooey! They’re poison, Chick! Stay away from ’em,” Jughead warns his lovestruck friend. Toeing the line between boho chic and hipster bozo, he sports a sweater embroidered with a giant S (what the letter stands for remains a mystery), patch-sewn overalls (worn with one strap buckled), and a crown-shaped cap. That questionable bit of haberdashery was a short-lived trend of the day: an inverted felt fedora with its brim cut into a ring of jagged peaks. Called a “button beanie” or “whoopee cap,” its wearers were often called “jagheads,” giving a name to the character condemned to forever wear this World War II-era throwback: Jughead.
Throughout the story, Jughead hovers in Archie’s background—the exemplary sidekick. He sulks, repeats the only antidote to Archie’s girl fever (“Dames is trouble!”), and endures his friend’s insults. But when Archie tumbles from a big top tight rope—in a bid to impress Betty—Jughead is there to try to catch him. And by story’s end, Archie is left repeating his friend’s mantra: “Girls! Double phooey!” Appearing in just 10 panels, it is arguably Jughead who makes the greater impression.
From the very beginning, Jughead’s defining characteristic—more than the funny hat, loyal friendship, insatiable appetite, and misogyny—are his eyes. More often than not, they are drawn completely closed. He walks and talks with shuttered eyelids. He eats, attends class, and can even read, it seems, without ever opening his eyes. Occasionally his lids hang at half mast; sometimes, when excited, they might open wide and bug out. But Jughead lives principally with his eyes wide shut—“alone,” he says way back in a 1962 issue of his own comic, “in my nice, clear darkness.”
That issue, along with countless others from the ’50s through the ’80s, were illustrated by Samm Schwartz, who offered teenage readers an alternative to the monotony of Archie-dom. What could be more pleasing to the adolescent mind then eating with reckless abandon? Of ignoring one’s budding pubescent impulses? Of shutting out the adult world?
Schwartz’s Jughead—the classic version of the character according to most Archie comic aficionados—might float across the pages with a Zen-like calm, but he’s also frequently portrayed as an artist and intellectual. He might become an expert in Shakespeare one issue, a master clarinetist the next, and a ventriloquist soon following.
In a series of shorts called “Jughead’s Dipsy Doodles,” he is portrayed as an accomplished artist—a beret replaces the crown but the eyes remain closed—whose power of imagination causes paintings to come alive. The lesson for young readers was clear: Archie is monochromatic, but Jughead is multidimensional.
In July 2015, the Archie Comics Publications initiated a “bold and unexpected” revival—billed as the “New Riverdale” universe—of “America’s favorite teens,” aimed at an adult readership who had grown up with the characters. The prerelease buzz was cautiously mixed. The company filled its roster with premier creative comic book talent. But would the new direction be too bold? Too unexpected? This is still Riverdale, where change is ploddingly slow, if it ever comes at all (Kevin Keller, the first openly gay character in Archie’s history, was introduced only in 2010).
In this New Riverdale, Archie is still Archie, just more millennial—hipper and hotter—in a disconcerting way. Betty, Veronica, and the rest of the Gang remain unchanged. Yet when Jughead’s solo title hit the stands, under the direction of creative team Chip Zdarsky and Erica Henderson, there was a discernible difference to the beloved oddball. He remains the glutton, the crush-worthy but unavailable cad, the unwavering friend, the persistent dreamer, the Gang’s goofy anchor.
But beneath that now absurdly anachronistic whoopee cap—which the writer Zdarsky kept as a “punk affectation that nobody else wears or has”—the character’s heavy-lidded look is gone. Jughead’s eyes, as drawn by Henderson, have suddenly opened to the world. Jughead, it seems, has finally grown up, become fully realized. It’s as if—to quote contemporary usage—he is now literally and figuratively woke. He is conscious, evolved, an adult in a town full of teenagers. “Sorry if I’m just wise beyond my years,” he tells Archie in the first issue of his new series. “The world is out of our hands. You just gotta make your own weird way in it.”
And Jughead 2.0’s weirdness quotient matches, and even surpasses, that of his predecessor. In the opening storyline, he uncovers a series of threats to Riverdale’s sense of community—a new principal plans to turn the high school into a paramilitary training camp, Pop’s lease is not renewed, a real estate tycoon intends to pave over the local forest. But in his typical Jugheadian nonchalance, he initially greets each challenge by daydreaming himself into a pop culture-influenced reverie (Jughead as a tamer of Game Of Thrones-esque dragons, a time-traveling cop, a hamburger-powered superhero). Waking from each dream opens Jughead’s eyes to the injustices that surround.
It’s the perfect conceit for reinventing Riverdale 75 years later. “If you shake your head at the introduction of Kevin Keller, or Jughead’s asexuality, or the introduction of a more diverse cast,” Zdarsky told The A.V. Club, “then you’re not the kid in the back of the car reading digests and laughing at the gags and picturing what teenage life is going to be and the great potential of it all, which is what these comics are about.”
In an era when white cis-male power—a demographic in which this writer is included—has never felt more apparent and loathsome, Jughead might be the comic book hero we need and deserve right now. Simultaneously a realist and a dreamer, he offers a different path, a weirder way. In a world overrun by men frozen in time, Jughead is our anti-Archie.