If there is one phrase which has rarely been used to describe Archie Comics’ flagship title, it is “contemporary hit”. Yet that is exactly what the series has become thanks to the company’s bold but ultimately successful relaunch of the series by writer Mark Waid and artist Fiona Staples. The third and final issue of Staples’ run as artist sold over 27,000 copies in the direct market, which is over 60% more than how issues of Archie sold earlier in the year. The first spin off of this new era – “Jughead #1” by Chip Zdarsky and Erica Henderson – sold over 32,000 copies last month (more than “Ms. Marvel” or “Cyborg” that month). Having a debut issue with roughly two dozen variant covers selling well is almost a foregone conclusion for a well known franchise title these days; the fact that the series is still thriving within the top 75 several months later speaks wonders to how successful this reboot had been. As stated in the monthly editorial column every month, Waid’s approach has been to find innovative ways to bring some of the original dynamics the series had during the 1940’s into the modern day in new and creative ways. As great as the series has been so far, this issue may be the best so far. “Guest artist” Annie Wu helps showcase an issue which blends teen comedy and drama in a way which the series has rarely done.
Much like was done with his run on “Daredevil”, Mark Waid has written every issue as a “standalone story” yet has developed a subplot which gradually progresses throughout the series to both propel action and reward serial readers. It is a skill which almost vanished from comics once the “six issue or bust” editorial mantra ran through the industry at the start of the 21st century. In introducing the cast of Riverdale High, there was one event which seemed to be mentioned by various characters in hushed tones regarding the break up of “power couple” Archie Andrews and Betty Cooper. Dubbed “the lipstick incident”, it had been built up for over three issues but is revealed within this story in full detail. Rather than be a miscue involving another woman (as the name implied), it turned out to be an even deeper misunderstanding which strikes at the heart of growing up from childhood to adolescence. Having been friends since they were kids due to living next door to each other, Archie and Betty were best friends. This naturally changed thanks to one tumble off a water tower and close proximity to each other’s bodies. Gradually, they started to shift from “best friends” to potential lovers faster than either seemed to realize. After defending Betty to two of her peers leads the girls to encourage her to “doll up” and take things to the next level as per social norms. Things get weird, and then go tragically wrong at what used to be a routine night at the movies. Betty continues her progression beyond “hot blonde” stereotypes, and Waid showcases that while Archie may be the star of the franchise, he isn’t always right.
Waid and Wu, along with colorists Andre Szymanowicz and Jen Vaughn have crafted a very down to earth teenage tragedy. It isn’t aliens or robots or monsters which destroyed this “true love”, it was simply growing up at different speeds. Full of overreactions and hysteria, it is every well intended date which has gone horribly wrong. As Waid has explained (and showcased with reprints), this is returning the dynamic of the series to its’ roots: where Betty was considered a long suffering childhood friend of Archie’s who was playing a longer game than Veronica, who Archie actively pursued in the shorter term. Wu’s artwork is energetic and vibrant, mirroring the look that Staples had established brilliantly. Wu seems to pack all of the energy of an entire run on this book into a single issue’s worth of pages, and it shows. In this one issue, an entire semester of teenage angst and misread signals are packed into just a few pages, and it is marvelously real. It is quite a feat considering things start out with Archie being comically electrocuted. What passes for a cliffhanger see Betty and Jughead seeming to join forces in their scheme to “save” Archie from Veronica with the last major franchise character who had barely been seen until now – the arrogant (and frequently mischievous Reggie Mantle).
Everything about this issue is perfect, from the dialogue to the art to the themes presented. It showcases that not all attempts to bring near antique franchises to the modern day need to be done by tossing babies out with bathwater or making everything grimly violent. While every issue has slapstick comedy, the series has seemed to mature just enough to appeal to readers of all ages as they are today, rather than seeking to imitate the status quo of the 1960’s. It’s a lesson that, frankly, more than one superhero series should learn from. The sky seems the limit for this new “Archie” gang, with readers being the true winners here. As most people begin to compile their “best of” lists in a few weeks, don’t be surprised to see this series pop up!