So this is how the end begins.

When it comes to affairs of the heart, we are gathered here today to bear witness that Archie Andrews - that long-iconic teenager of Riverdale High, that sputtering chassis of eternal chastity - is a complete and utter jughead.

After nearly 70 years in one of popular culture's most celebrated threesomes, Archie is about to ask Veronica - that shallow, conniving, materialistic tease - to marry him.

Archie will pop the question in Issue No. 600, which will see general release Aug. 31 but already has debuted at comic book stores as of last Wednesday.

The six-part storyline centers on Archie fast-forwarding five years into the future, when on bended knee and seemingly not on a two-day bender, he will ask for Veronica Lodge's trust-fund hand in matrimony.

And how does Veronica respond to her letter-sweatered suitor?

Archie Comics gives us the news in an online preview: "Future Archie" will wed and procreate with the "Future Mrs. Andrews." Goodbye, 67 years of virginity; hello, rugrats and hefty tuition bills for Riverdale Day School.

But is this really news? Is it still culturally relevant? Isn't this merely a stunt in the grand tradition of comics to revive broader interest in an elderly title, short of icing Archie outright?

The answers: Yes, yes, and, of course, yes.

The "Betty or Veronica?" question has been woven so deeply into the American social fabric that it's about much more than a single story arc. The Betty-or-Veronica puzzler - so famed and ingrained that one would never reverse the order of the names - long ago took on the aura of a comical Zen koan. Precursor to countless modern pop-culture threesomes - think Rachel/Ross/Emily of Friends and Carrie/Big/Aidan of Sex and the City - it has drawn its mystique from being both highly debatable and ultimately unknowable.

"It seems entirely wrong," said Steven Rothman, 55, of Center City, a comic-book aficionado who devoured the stories as a child.

"It's like he went for the money," said Rothman, incredulous. The lifelong fan of comics amassed a collection of 30,000 comic books (including a few Archies), which he began donating to alma mater University of Pennsylvania Rare Book & Manuscript Library in 2006.

But given the state of the economy, can you really blame the red-headed guy?

"I imagine Archie will have a difficult relationship with his father-in-law, who already hates him," Rothman said, "and a difficult relationship with his wife, who will want to control him even more than she did in high school."

One online poll has 71 percent of 974 votes favoring the statement, "Betty is the real love of his life, is he blind?!"

On Twitter, Facebook, and fan forums, few are wishing Archonica hugs and kisses.

"They marry, divorce, he gets 1/2 and spends the rest of his life with Betty," tweeted one.

Said another, "I'm rightly pissed off that Archie chose Veronica over Betty. I mean, really? VERONICA over BETTY?"

Facebookers have started sites to "boycott" the marriage of Archie Andrews and Veronica Lodge. It seems many don't take this storyline lightly.

That includes Dave Luebke, a Betty proponent and shopkeeper at Dave's Comics in Richmond, Va. He's so invested, literally, in Archie's love life that he protested the proposal by selling his prized Archie Comics No. 1 issue ("fine to very-fine condition - best in existence" Luebke assures). The 1942 comic fetched $38,837 at auction this month.

A George Washington University alumnus who says he stocks about a million comic books, Luebke, 54, acknowledges that the cash is a boon in the economic downturn. But he sold the comic book primarily because he is peeved that Archie picked the wrong woman.

"Betty symbolizes natural beauty - she's very American, apple pie. She's not using her beauty as just a lure for Archie," says Luebke, who has been reading the comic for nearly a half-century.

Victor Gorelick, editor-in-chief and copresident of Archie Comics, said he'd gotten "tremendous response" to the issue. "Everyone's worried about poor Betty."

Don't those at Archie Comics care about poor Betty?

"We wanted to do something exciting. But we can't do what comics like Superman or Batman do and kill off Archie. Seven [decades] of people have been reading this thing," Gorelick, 67, said. (For his part, he has been working at Archie Comics since he was 16.)

Before "The Proposal" came a proposal - from Michael Uslan, comic-book historian and executive producer of the Batman films.

"Michael presented me with some outlines, and we went over the story - word for word, page by page, panel by panel, balloon by balloon," Gorelick says of the marriage arc. "And he said: 'To start out, let it be Veronica.' " (Note his use of "to start out." Can we read that to mean: There's hope for Betty yet? Gorelick says sorry, but Archie Comics "is in lockdown.")

In the meantime, the Jilted One confessed in a Dear Amy letter that she was "heartbroken" and "mad" - Veronica had the gall to hint she should be a bridesmaid! - and the advice columnist counseled Betty to "hold your head up high, go to that wedding, and tell yourself that you are better off without him."

Besides, Amy added, "no doubt he'll come crawling back to you, just like he always does."

Perhaps this is about whether we as people make healthy choices that foster our well-being and sense of true connection - or whether we want all that glitters and titters. In short, then, this is about where we want to settle down: Des Moines or Las Vegas?

But a careful look at Part One hints that Betty lovers - the lovers of goodness - shouldn't despair completely.

That's because Archie's stroll into the future leads to a forked path. He chooses the left road, which seals the deal with Veronica.

Or does it? He pointedly says that he'll "save the right one for another day!"

Maybe Archie isn't a complete jughead after all.