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 teen-ager of Riverdale High, that sputtering chassis of eternal chastity — is a complete and utter jughead.

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 teen-ager 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 has asked Veronica — that shallow, conniving, materialistic tease — to marry him.

Archie pops the question in Issue No. 600, which went on sale last week at comics specialty shops.

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 letterman-sweatered suitor?

DC 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, redheaded 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.

Recently, "Eighty percent of the (100 or so) people I've talked to say they are in agreement with me," says Dave Luebke, noted "Pick Betty" proponent and shopkeeper at Dave's Comics in Richmond, Va.

Luebke, 54, does not take this storyline lightly. 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 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, whose been reading the comic for nearly a half-century.

As for Veronica, "she's materialistic — her daddy can buy her whatever the hell she wants."

So maybe that's it. In tough economic times, even Archie is "selling" Archie.

And, of course, Archie Comics, the publishing empire, is selling, too.

"We knew it might be controversial," say Victor Gorelick, editor-in-chief and co-president of Archie Comics. "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. (For his part, Gorelick, 67, has been working at Archie Comics since he was age 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.")

So what does the Betty-or-Veronica question mean to a man who's been at the comic's ground-zero for a half-century? What do these characters symbolize?

"Veronica has always had Archie wrapped around her finger, telling him what to do," Gorelick says "Betty helps him with homework, with cars — with life."

But we just can't accept that the Betty-or-Veronica question is simply some shallow blondes-or-brunettes debate that's been co-opted in beer ads. This goes far deeper than the "Ginger or Mary Ann?" banter — that other "guy talk" shorthand filched by advertisers.

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?

Archie apparently wants to gamble on Sin City. And over a six-part series, what weds in Vegas might not stay in Vegas. Who knows?

Archie could come to a crossroads, make another Major Life Decision, then spend years backtracking to learn from his mistake and ultimately earn that golden Second Chance.

After all, comics are all about the promise of a brighter next chapter. And like the Betty-or-Veronica question itself, what could be more American that that?