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