In what sense do fictional characters live and die, and live again? When Dickens finished off Little Nell, or James brought the delicate life of Ralph Touchett to a less sentimental end, the killing of storybook people, serial or otherwise, was more a purely authorial decision than the strategic closing down of a franchise. So, Archibald Andrews of Riverdale — 73 years old in 2014 or always seventeen, depending on whether he is seen as commodity or character — is about to die a heroic death in the July issue of Life with Archie. Yet, the imminence of his death, together with its afterlife, is already vital publicity material for the continuing life of the series sans Archie. After the issue that kills him off, there will be another showing how his women and friends deal with the death. Then, Lena Dunham, trailing clouds of small-screen glory with Girls, takes over — although the details are still under wraps — to write a four-part continuation with the survivors. With the entry of Ms Dunham, a world that goes back to the early Forties gets carried over into cutting-edge popular fiction — but looking towards television now. And perhaps it is not just a coincidence that close to the announcement of Archie’s imminent demise, came the real death of Mickey Rooney, six years short of a century. He is the comedian whose Andy Hardy films inspired the original creators of Archie, the teenage Everyman who also has to be quintessentially American.
A certain way of depicting the life of Midwestern small towns comes to an end-that-is-not-quite-the-end here, for the Riverdale folk — modernized and politically corrected (with touches of gay and black) — have still not run out of narrative, and hence commercial, potential. It is worth comparing this deathwards progressing to no death with similar situations in other parts of the Western world. Tintin finished with the death of Hergé, unlike Sherlock Holmes, whose death and resurrection in the hands of his author, followed by startling new avatars by very different interpreters, have created new forms of immortality, while remaining true to the spirit and substance of the original stories. Asterix, on the other hand, has already had two lives, one with both his original creators, and then with just one of them after the death of the other, and his third life began last year with the surviving creator selling his rights to another publisher and agreeing to work with a new illustrator. But the offspring of the original creators remain divided over these changes in proprietorship.
Fictional creatures who spill out of a single work and live across extended periods of time, being continually re-invented to suit a changing present, embody forms of existence that cannot be contained within the logic of fiction. There is, on the one hand, the compulsions of commerce. Mickey Mouse is the true immortal — universal symbol of delight married to profit. On the other hand, the making of stories has its own ruthless, endlessly adaptive life. If it must kill its darlings in order to survive, so must it be.