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Review Brew: Archie #1

Writer: Mark Waid Artist: Fiona Staples There's been a minor brouhaha on the internet this week when John Byrne and Dan Slott very publicly debated each other on, among other things, whether dramatic changes to a classic character are ever appropriate.  Slott's opinion is that change is appropriate where the story allows it, and readers need to be given the chance to see if the change is something they want.  Byrne's opinion is that "change" should never last more than a single story over one or maybe two issues, and that the character should return to default by story's end.  The debate really centers around a larger question of whether certain comic book characters should forever remain exactly as we want them, or whether they can be allowed to change over time, and to what extent.  Which brings us to Archie and his somewhat controversial reboot.

For a long time, Archie has always been Archie.  I’m not enough of an Archie expert to tell you how long “house” Archie has existed, as I’m aware the character has been through many phases since the 1930s.  I think the first Archie book I remember buying was 1994’s The Punisher Meets Archie, and that version of the character was fairly consistent with what the company was publishing up until last month–distinct style, teenage antics, and the ever-ridiculous juggling of two women.  Sure, the comic added some controversy with the “what if” issues where Archie got married or a few arcs where they used something other than the “house” style, but it was largely the same book month after month.  Usually.

I'm a traditional Catholic, and this still weirds me out.

I’m a traditional Catholic, and even I’m weirded out by this.

And now we have the Mark Waid/Fiona Staples reboot.  I’m not aware that Slott or Byrne have weighed in on it yet, but I imagine that Slott would tell us to have fun and enjoy something different, while Byrne would say that Archie should have been left the hell alone.  I’m not sure either position would be correct.

You see, Waid and Staples’ Archie #1 is both familiar and new all at the same time.  The premise, so far, is exactly what it was last month: Archie Andrews is a red-haired teenager who goes to high school in Riverdale and deals with teenage problems.  Staples’ more realistic style notwithstanding, everything resembles classic Archie: it’s set in small-town America, familiar landmarks like Pop Tate’s are still present, and the supporting cast members of Jughead, Betty, Reggie, and others are still there.  (Veronica doesn’t show up yet, but she’s very clearly on the horizon.)  So there’s no radical overhauling of the characters here, where Archie is now wearing a suit of armor or Jughead having been replaced with a younger African-American or female character.

At the same time, however, it’s clear that even though these are the same toys, somebody else is playing with them.  The writing style is remarkably different from the traditional Archie we had up until today.  The style of the book has shifted from humor and hijinks to pure “young adult” teenage drama.  The “new” Archie introduces himself to us (Waid cleverly does the story in first-person narration directly addressing the “camera”) with the pained revelation that he recently broke up with Betty over a yet-to-be-explained “lipstick incident.”  Behind the scenes, Archie’s friends work to get the couple back together, certainly through scheming, though not nearly in the silly vein that traditionally drove most classic Archie plots.  I won’t spoil how this turns out, except to say that the manipulation of Archie and Betty’s relationship will probably continue for the foreseeable future.

Waid is certainly writing a more “mature” Archie in the sense that the exaggerated elements of the characters are either gone or severely diminished.  This issue doesn’t give us any of Archie’s clumsiness, Jughead’s appetite, or Betty’s sweetness.  These may come in future issues, but for now, they’re substituted for the angst and confusion that come with the frequent turmoil in young lives.  Is this a bad change because this take on Archie isn’t all that funny?  Or is it a good change because the publisher is trying to keep itself relevant to modern audiences?  I guess time and sales figures will have to be the judge of that.

Staples’ art is a good mix of cartoony and realistic.  These characters still look like real people, but still in a distinct style that brings out their distinguishing features without overexaggerating them.  Her Archie looks like Archie, with freckles and letter jacket, and Betty still looks like a blonde girl next door.  I do think she needs to work on making some of the other characters distinct.  Being more “realistic,” Jughead has lost his rail-thin frame and stick-like nose.  If not for his crown, he’d be hard to identify.  Reggie Mantle has a cameo appearance, but he looks like a generic greaser and if he hadn’t been identified by name, I’m not sure I’d have known it was him.  It’s a good start overall, but let’s see how she brings out the other characters in future issues.

If you’re lamenting the loss of “classic Archie” (who is still being published in the Archie digests!), the publisher reminds us of the inevitability of change by including a 6-page reprint of the very first Archie story from 1941.  It’s a nice touch, as it reminds us that comics are not static–only our memories of them are.  You might be horrified by 2015 Archie compared to “house” Archie, but the reprint reminds us that classic Archie looked radically different from his 1941 source.  The reprint is cute, but I don’t think anyone’s clamoring for that version of the character to come back, so maybe the “new” Archie should be cut some slack.

Overall, I’ll recommend this book with the caution that it’s lost something while not having lost anything at all.  It’s the same Archie, but definitely one aimed at a different audience than it was a month ago.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 hamburgers.

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About Adam Frey (371 Articles)
Adam Frey is still trying to figure out what he wants to be when he grows up. In the meantime, he's an attorney and moonlights as an Emergency Medical Technician in Maryland. A comic reader for over 30 years, he's gradually introducing his daughter to the hobby, much to the chagrin of his wife and their bank account.
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