Meet the cre­ator of moody Archie

San Francisco Chronicle Late Edition - - DATEBOOK - By Alexis Soloski Alexis Soloski is a New York Times writer.

VAN­COU­VER, Bri­tish Columbia — Most comic book heroes have an ori­gin story. Here is Roberto Aguirre-Sa­casa’s: He was 8 years old. He was in the su­per­mar­ket. Next to the reg­is­ter he saw an Archie comics dou­ble di­gest. He begged his mom to buy it for him. “I kind of never let the Archies go,” he said.

Aguirre-Sa­casa, 46, “the good mid­dle-age,” he calls it, was speak­ing in a suite at the Fair­mont ho­tel in Van­cou­ver. He lives in Los An­ge­les with his hus­band and a dog named Ms. Molly, but ev­ery week he flies to Van­cou­ver, where the CW’s “Riverdale,” now in its third sea­son, and Net­flix’s “Chill­ing Ad­ven­tures of Sab­rina,” which be­gan stream­ing its first sea­son Oct. 26, both shoot. He’s the showrun­ner for both, corol­lar­ies to his role as the chief creative of­fi­cer of Archie Comics.

That he’s a (very) se­nior ex­ec­u­tive for a com­pany that once sent him a strongly worded cease and de­sist let­ter (in his 20s, he wrote “Archie’s Weird Fan­tasy,” a play in which Archie meets up with the mur­der­ers Leopold and Loeb and is later re­vealed as gay and it’s un­clear which was the big­ger prob­lem) is just whipped cream on the malted.

With “Riverdale” and “Sab­rina,” Aguirre-Sa­casa has be­come an au­teur of moody, sexy teen angst. He is a John Hughes for a darker, more cyn­i­cal, way more li­bidi­nous age. When I asked him if “Riverdale” was a thirsty show, he laughed and said: “Big time. Bi­i­iig time. Big time.”

The Archie uni­verse, which chron­i­cles the milk­shakes and ad­ven­tures of a red­headed quar­ter­back and his co­hort, was born in 1941, an off­shoot of Pep Comics. Sab­rina, “that cute lit­tle witch,” who first showed up in a 1962 hu­mor an­thol­ogy “Archie’s Mad­house” se­ries, is an­other.

Archie wasn’t re­ally made for boys like Aguirre-Sa­casa. Born in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., to Nicaraguan par­ents, Aguir­reSa­casa knew he was gay early on and un­til re­cently, the Archie Uni­verse was pretty much all-white and def­i­nitely all straight.

But the comics showed him a place, he said, “where ev­ery­one was ba­si­cally nice and ev­ery­one was ba­si­cally friends and ev­ery­one would go and have ham­burg­ers ev­ery night and ev­ery­one would go to dances.”

“I wanted to be friends with them,” he said. Now he is. Shows like the moody “Riverdale” (I like to call it “Tween Peaks”) and the sin­is­ter “Sab­rina,” a droll spine-freezer that evis­cer­ates the ditsy ’90s ver­sion, prob­a­bly won’t win Em­mys. (“Riverdale” does how­ever clean up at the Teen Choice Awards.) They are al­most no one’s idea of pres­tige TV. Genre pieces — noir for “Riverdale,” hor­ror for “Sab­rina” — they are ar­dently de­riv­a­tive, an homage a minute.

And yet, by throw­ing in just about ev­ery­thing he’s ever loved — comics and teen soaps and great books and slasher films — and hit­ting the but­ton for frappé, Aguirre-Sa­casa has made some­thing orig­i­nal: shows that are sexy and smart, story-drunk and story-driven, point­edly in­clu­sive. Un­like the comics he read as a kid, th­ese are worlds where ev­ery­one — boy, girl, non­bi­nary, gay, straight, ques­tion­ing, jock, brain, burnout — be­longs. Well, ev­ery­one who is preter­nat­u­rally gor­geous and Al­go­nquin Round Ta­ble quippy. Aguirre-Sa­casa’s cul­tural knowl­edge is en­cy­clo­pe­dic in a World Book, shelf-buck­ing way. (“I don’t dis­tin­guish be­tween higher art and low art,” he would tell me, un­nec­es­sar­ily.) Ton­ing the episode, “The Man in Black,” he started with a Simp­sons ref­er­ence, then moved to “On the Road,” “Drac­ula,” and the re­cent re­make of “The Beguiled.” Stephen King came up, Steven Soder­bergh and Ing­mar Bergman, too, plus “Casino,” “Dou­ble In­dem­nity,” “Shock Cor­ri­dor,” the orig­i­nal “Sus­piria,” Edgar Al­lan Poe, “Days of Heaven,” “The Nun,” “The Sev­enth Seal” and the cru­sad­ing jour­nal­ism of Nel­lie Bly.

As Kier­nan Shipka, who stars as Sab­rina, would later say: “His ob­ses­sion level is like 10 out of 10, 11 out of 10, for any­thing that he’s pas­sion­ate about. There are so many lay­ers to his shows that peo­ple might not even re­al­ize are there. But they’re there for him.”

Or here’s Peter Roth, pres­i­dent of Warner Bros. Tele­vi­sion Group, which co-pro­duces both shows: “I can’t keep up.”

On a tour of a set, Aguir­reSa­casa showed 38 dis­tinct spa­ces de­signed by Lisa Soper. The level of de­tail was lit­er­ally dizzy­ing. There was a fivesided room, home of the Academy of Un­seen Arts, which has paint­ings bor­rowed from hor­ror mas­ter Clive Barker lin­ing the walls and a statue of the goat god Baphomet in the cen­ter. “Ev­ery­thing has a story,” Aguirre-Sa­casa said. “Ev­ery­thing has a rea­son.” Ev­ery­thing had a work­ing fire place, too. Spells were etched into the win­dow glass.

Then he showed the wardrobe depart­ment where bolts of se­quins and tulle crouched on shelves near a tidy maze of suits, shim­mer­ing gowns and school­girl chic. One whole rack bulged with tim­ber wolf pelts. Real ones.

When asked why he was so at­tracted to th­ese com­ing-ofage sto­ries, he said he’d never re­ally put to­gether that they were com­ing-of-age sto­ries. He said maybe it was be­cause ado­les­cence is some­thing ev­ery­one goes through or maybe it was a way to hang on to his own youth or maybe be­cause the sto­ries of those ado­les­cent Archie char­ac­ters were the first sto­ries he re­ally loved.

Then he gave a good-mid­dleage an­swer: “I will def­i­nitely have to talk to my ther­a­pist about it.”

Alex Welsh / New York Times

Roberto Aguirre-Sa­casa is the showrun­ner for “Riverdale” and “Sab­rina,” which fea­ture dark, sexy teen angst.

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