Archie has been running since 1942. Archie and the Archie Comics stable of characters – Archie, Betty, Veronica, Jughead, Josie and the Pussycats, even Sabrina the Teenage Witch – have appears in TV shows and feature films. Despite that, and while most people understand the basics of Riverdale drama (a love triangle between all-American boy Archie Andrews, gutsy girl-next-door Betty Cooper, and wealthy young socialite Veronica Lodge), the series was rarely talked about, either in comic shops or in wider pop culture circles. But Archie Comics recently decided to relaunch their longest-running characters, and hired a bevy of some of the most talented people in comics to do it. They started with Archie, written by Mark Waid and illustrated by Fiona Staples, late in 2015, and now, the first collection of the series, Archie, Volume One, is now available.
And it’s good. It’s different from classic Archie, I think – the naked earnestness is gone, replaced by a more modern look and feel – but it’s not worse at all. Waid and Staples launch Archie with a tone that feels like a mash-up of Easy A and Annie Hall, a smart, pop-savvy romantic comedy that plays with the fourth wall and story structure without sacrificing character. Archie often talks directly to the reader, largely eschewing the need for speech bubbles to get into his head; rather than ‘hearing’ his thoughts, he makes pleas directly to us, an attempt to recapture or repackage that earnestness. But the series plays with how that works, allowing other characters to interrupt and interact with Archie (and us) without breaking the fourth wall themselves, which creates a fun, anything-goes energy that pushes the series forward.
The downside here is that the series is never better than its first three issues. Fiona Staples, co-creator of sci-fi comics powerhouse Saga, handled the art on the first three issues, and Staples is one of the most talented young artists working today. She has a talent for grounding big ideas in concrete visuals that help keep the world consistent. There are some gags, be it in the panel layout or in the basic imagery, that simply don’t work with anyone other than Staples. Still, having her create the visual language of modern Riverdale helps sell the character-driven romantic comedy of it all. A fourth-wall breaking flashback-heavy teen soap opera cartoon sounds like a disastrous mash-up, but, as I said, Staples has a talent for grounding big ideas. She creates a kinetic visual language here that smooths over the rough edges that come from combining all those different elements into a single chunk.
That said, Annie Wu and Veronica Fish are more than apt replacements. Wu’s figures are sharper and leaner, less playful than Staples’, so it’s fitting that she gets to handle the big argument in Archie #4. And she nails it. The big break-up between Betty and Archie is phenomenally well-handled, both in the reasons and in Wu’s character work. There’s a high-strung tension to Wu’s best stuff that helps sell the underlying unease behind the fight. But she also harnesses that tension to provide a glimpse of the vibrancy of Archie and Betty’s time together. And Veronica Fish, whose chapters focus much more on Veronica and Archie than Betty brings yet another energy to the book, a little more hot-blooded and energetic than Wu’s. Veronica Lodge is a character dominated by her passions, someone who can run over anyone without thought if they’re between her and what she wants right now, and Fish is great at conveying that boundless personal energy.
And maintaining the same team of colorists (Andre Szymanowicz and Jen Vaughn) and letterer (Jack Morelli) helps provide some continuity to the styles of Staples, Fish, and Wu. Even as the artists change, the world of Riverdale looks the same. Szymanowicz and Vaughn help sell the loose, breezy atmosphere of the book with persistent, vibrant colors that help subtly define the characters. I don’t typically like it when artists switch this often on a book, but between the persistent color team and the way the structure of the story supports the changing artists by pairing it with changing points of view, Archie gets it very right.
It also helps that writer Mark Waid remained on board as the artists changed. Waid has long been one of my favorite writers in mainstream comics, but hiring a 54-year-old man to write a teen drama comic could have very easily been a disaster. Instead, Waid approaches the book without much interest in ‘real’ modern youth culture, acknowledging the increased diversity and the changing face of what’s ‘cool’ to young people but otherwise running with the idea that everyone has their own niche. Rather than painting Riverdale with a broad brush, all the kids are doing their own thing, brought together by big events but otherwise living in their own nerdy worlds. It’s a brighter take on modern youth, but an honest and consistent one. Most importantly, it means we have a deep bench of supporting characters he can pull in, many of whom are funny and interesting even when they’re thinly developed. Waid’s greatest strength has always been in finding entertaining ways for characters to bounce off one another, and Archie gives him a chance to really play that up.
Archie, Volume 1 provides readers with exactly the kind of breezy, charming romantic comedy I love to celebrate here at Cinema Romantique. But, like the best romcoms, Archie is surprisingly insightful about the way people interact, at the peculiar things that draw us to others and the unpredictable ways those things can turn on us. Waid, Staples, Wu, and Fish have found a genuine, warm path through the typical soap operatics this type of story can easily descend into, and have crafted a book that’s funny, engaging, and endlessly re-readable. Classic Archie fans may balk at the new look and modern readers may question reading a teen romantic comedy, but I think Archie, Volume One is the perfect book to bring both crowds together to celebrate the rebirth of an iconic comic.
Archie, Volume One was written by Mark Waid, illustrated by Fiona Staples, Annie Wu, and Veronica Fish, colored by Andre Szymanowicz and Jen Vaughn, and lettered by Jack Morelli. Published by Archie Comics, Archie, Volume One collects Archie #1-6 and Jughead #1 and has a list price of $19.99.
(prices accurate as of date of publication of this article)