A Guide to the Weird and Wonderful World of Current Archie Comics
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With Riverdale premiering on the CW on Thursday, January 26, 2017, the Archie gang has potential to return to the forefront of pop culture. It features an intriguing cast, including Cole Sprouse as Archie’s best friend, the burger-devouring Jughead, Stranger Things‘ Shannon Purser as Ethel Muggs, Luke Perry as Archie’s dad, Fred, and Molly Ringwald herself as his long lost mother, who returns to Riverdale. The show has a darker tone, with the plot centering around the murder of Jason Blossom, a wealthy bully in the original Archie Comics and twin of Cheryl Blossom, a scheming rich mean girl who wants to steal Archie away from Betty and Veronica. From the cast description, it seems like everyone in this once-bucolic town has something to hide.
However, this switch in tone for Riverdale seems rooted in the award-winning (if irregularly published) Afterlife with Archie series (written by Riverdale showrunner and Archie CCO Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa), where Sabrina tries to resurrect Jughead’s dog and inadvertently triggers the zombie apocalypse. There are no zombies in Riverdale, thankfully, but Afterlife with Archie used the backdrop of the apocalypse to intensify and crystallize the classic relationships between Archie, Betty, and Veronica, his close friendship with Jughead, and even those of the supporting characters, like with Kevin Keller’s natural leadership skills and the incest vibes between Cheryl and Jason Blossom. The comic is about a utopian community falling apart, then slowly rebuilding and surviving in the face of the apocalypse, and hopefully Riverdale takes some notes from its ideas and characterizations (Sabrina being the Bride of Cthulhu is insanely cool too).
And, in its more “mainstream” titles over the past two years, Archie Comics has been home to an artistic renaissance, tossing the old house art style away and getting great talent like Mark Waid, Chip Zdarsky, Marguerite Bennett, Fiona Staples, Annie Wu, Erica Henderson, and Joe Eisma to write and draw the flagship title, Archie, and its spinoffs. Here is a rundown of the current Archie comics being published, and which ones you should check out to tide you over before Riverdale’s premiere:
Betty and Veronica
Out of the five core Archie titles, Adam Hughes’ Betty and Veronica seems the most unnecessary, with two issues being published so far. Neither Betty nor Veronica get to narrate their own title; the only character’s inner thoughts we get to see is Jughead’s dog, Hot Dog. The plot centers around trying to save Pop’s, Riverdale’s iconic watering hole, because Veronica’s father, Mr. Lodge, is putting in a Starbucks-like coffee chain. Hughes pits Betty against Veronica, as Veronica sabotages Betty’s attempts to raise money for Pop’s by holding fundraisers for pointless things, like spa dates for the cheerleading squad.
Veronica comes across as a spoiled, one-dimensional villain in this comic, and there’s really no reason that she and Betty were ever friends. The only positive about this comic is Hughes’ elegant pin-up art style, showing how idyllic Riverdale is with rustling leaves and beautiful sunsets while Betty tries her hardest to save Pop’s(I seriously need a Pop Tate one-shot comic.) Unfortunately, his barrage of word balloons filled with banal teenage banter covers up a lot of the art. Honestly, this comic isn’t worth picking up, and Betty and Veronica are written better in the Archie and Jughead titles.
Archie is the longest running and highest selling of the “New Riverdale” titles with writer Mark Waid and a team of artists (including Fiona Staples, Annie Wu, Veronica Fish, Ryan Jampole, and most recently, Morning Glories‘ Joe Eisma) chronicling the trials and tribulations of redheaded love-struck screw-up Archie Andrews. As the series has progressed, Waid’s writing has gotten more complex while embracing the wackiness of Archie Comics. For example, Veronica can only sing well when she’s looking at Archie, and Archie decides to cosplay as Jughead after Veronica is sent to boarding school in Switzerland when her father loses the mayoral election of Riverdale.
Joe Eisma has a refined, beautiful art style, which definitely fits in with Veronica’s scheming in Switzerland, as she becomes the queen bee of her new school after humiliating Cheryl Blossom. But Waid, Eisma, and co-writer Lori Matsumoto also show how empty her triumph feels. She is acting out because she misses her real friends back in Riverdale, especially Archie and his folks.
As of the most recent issue, she and Cheryl Blossom are back in Riverdale and mopey Archie’s world. Waid and Matsumoto used Veronica’s absence to help rebuild Archie’s friendship with Jughead, who talks him out of his relationship sadness and helps motivate him to throw a great 25th anniversary for his parents, even though he just wants to chill out, play video games, and make snarky one-liners. Archie wants to be like Jughead because Jughead has never had that feeling of heartbreak that he is so anxious to not have to feel any more.
The previous trade paperback volumes are worth picking up too, as the class differences between the Andrews and Lodge families lead to some hilarious misunderstandings, plus Veronica Fish’s art has a punk rock fire, especially when The Ronnies and Betty and the Waves face off in the Battle of the Bands. Archie is definitely written from a Team Betty perspective, as she breaks up with her own boyfriend to fix Archie’s car and drive him to say goodbye to Veronica at the airport. That definitely sounds like love to me, and that possibly not-so-platonic friendship will be tested when Veronica and Cheryl Blossom come to Riverdale in the upcoming Archie #16.
If you like teen comedy/dramas, Archie is worth picking up, especially now that there is a compelling redheaded villain to balance out its awkward, ginger hero. (And hopefully, no more arcs ending with a Twitter hashtag.)
Life with Kevin
Set in a different universe than the other Archie comics, Life with Kevin is one of my biggest comics guilty pleasures. It is written and drawn by creator and Archie veteran Dan Parent, with inks from J. Bone (Batman/The Spirit), and three issues have been published digitally so far. Life with Kevin is about Kevin Keller leaving Riverdale with Veronica in tow to work at a TV station, as well as being a single gay man. It has the wholesome look and feel of old Archie comics, while having a more progressive outlook on the world.
Life with Kevin‘s humor is quite broad, but Parent pulls off some heartwarming moments, like Kevin taking a shy gay teen to his high school prom and giving him some life advice along the way. It has similar relationship, but it’s a great, relax-with-a-glass-of-wine-and-Bath-Bomb kind of comic.
Reggie and Me
With one issue published, Reggie and Me is the newest New Riverdale book, and writer Tom DeFalco (Spider-Girl) and artist Sandy Jarrell (Black Canary) delve into the lonely, prank-filled, and occasionally evil life of Archie’s nemesis, Reggie. Like Betty and Veronica, it’s narrated from the POV of a dog: Vader. By writing from the perspective of his scrappy pooch, DeFalco and Jarrell make Reggie a little more sympathetic than he was in Archie, where he almost ruined his dad’s career as a newspaper owner to get in Veronica’s (who was dating Archie) pants.
DeFalco zeroes in on what makes this bad boy tick: having the unattainable. This is why he lusts after Midge so much, because there’s no way that she will leave her steady, sometimes dim-witted boyfriend, Moose. He also hates being pitied by her and the other inhabitants of Riverdale after his party goes down the drain when Veronica decides to throw a rager at her mansion. Jarrell draws Reggie attractively, but he is written as angry and insecure, even though he has some great lines, like “Archie is the embodiment of banality” (to be fair, it is a little ridiculous how he spends decades leading two girls on and can’t decided which one to date).
Reggie and Me definitely has a unique perspective on the Archie Universe, and is proof that having a dog can make your main character 10x more likeable. It’s worth picking up if you’re a fan of comics written from a villainous perspective, like Darth Vader or Warren Ellis’ Thunderbolts run.
Josie and the Pussycats
Josie and the Pussycats, from writers Marguerite Bennett and Cameron DeOrdio, artist Audrey Mok, and colorist Kelly Fitzpatrick, is the darkest and most metafictional Archie comic. The plot follows the tour of the newly formed Josie and the Pussycats, featuring frontwoman Josie McCoy, ditzy and pet-obsessed drummer Melody, and vocalist Valerie, who is probably the most talented member of the band. However, their path is anything but typical, involving races against bikers, stopping exotic animal smuggling, and lots of “comic book science.” Mok’s art is bright and fashion forward, but it can get gritty, like when the ladies are racing a biker gang so that they don’t have to be their house band.
The most interesting thing about Josie and the Pussycats is how Bennett and DeOrdio write Josie as the villain of her own story, kind of like Rebecca Bunch in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, a show with a dark core beneath its flashy musical numbers and romantic comedy tropes. Josie’s rival, Alex Cabot, flat-out tells her that she is using her bandmates to help her become famous, and this makes sense; in the first issue, she made the band only play her songs while hogging the lead vocals. Josie also might have only been childhood friends with Alex because she had lots of shiny, expensive things as a spoiled rich girl. On the outside, Josie and the Pussycats is a madcap, female-empowering musical comedy series, but its protagonist is pretty broken.
The icing on the cake in Josie and the Pussycats is the pop culture and trope-savvy dialogue of Marguerite Bennett and Cameron DeOrdio, as the fourth wall is all but obliterated with every turn of phrase. Characters discuss A and B plots, training montages, and of course, “comic book science,” comparing their lives to TV shows like Bojack Horseman. It might be a little too much at times, but does make the book stand out from its fellow Archie titles.
Jughead is the most consistently entertaining comic published by Archie, even with the shift in the creative team from Chip Zdarsky and Erica Henderson to Ryan North (Unbeatable Squirrel Girl) and Derek Charm (Starfleet Academy). Zdarsky and Henderson’s run featured Jughead finding out a dark conspiracy spearheaded by Principal Weatherbee, and an amusing genre spoof each issue. They also had Jughead come out as the most prominent asexual character in comics, and North and Charm explore this further when Sabrina asks him out on date, which he accidentally accepts, leading to Archie giving him terrible dating advice for which he is roasted by North, especially the old “buy one milkshake with two straws” trick.
North and Charm poke fun at the general mechanics of Archie comics in Jughead, and how the lives of grown men, like Pop Tate, revolve around “cool teens.” They also bring back some of the magical elements of older Archie Comics, like when Sabrina uses a cocktail of spells to get Jughead to be attracted to her, and she ends up creating a minotaur that somehow looks like Principal Weatherbee to Jughead and Reggie. It’s a pretty wild ride, but North creates a real friendship between Jughead and Sabrina, who tells him her backstory while substituting “burgers” for “magic,” and “cool teens” for “witch.”
Like its main character, Jughead wears its weirdness on its sleeve, embracing the strange side of Archie Comics and Riverdale. It will probably end up being the quirky, comedic antidote to the high melodrama of the Riverdale TV show, is the one Archie comic that is indispensable (and also makes me really want to grill burgers).
Whether you like villain protagonists (Reggie and Me), self-deprecating comedy (Jughead), postmodern dark comedy (Josie and the Pussycats), teen drama with a side of scheming (Archie), or light and fluffy romance (Life of Kevin), the current stable of Archie comics are definitely worth sampling before Riverdale premieres in a couple weeks..