True confessions time: Although I’ve been reading comics religiously for some thirty years, prior to reading the all-new Archie #1, I had never read an Archie comic book before in my life. It’s just one of those things I never got into for reasons unbeknownst to me. Even so, I still know the gist of the whole thing, and have absorbed the basics through cultural osmosis; say the names “Archie Andrews”, “Betty and Veronica”, “Jughead” and “Riverdale”, and I pretty much know what you mean and what archetypes those characters represent. This jut goes to show the true pop culture power of Archie; you don’t need to have ever read it to understand and know it instantly. But for the most part, I was walking into Riverdale blind.
Although I’ve remained mostly ignorant on all things Archie, most of America hasn’t been; aside from several comics published since 1941, Archie has had a radio show, a newspaper strip, several cartoons — one which spawned a hit single, ‘Sugar, Sugar‘, that remains an classic song to this day. Even though no one has ever made it explicit, Archie and Riverdale are clearly the inspiration behind the TV series Happy Days. For much of the fifties and sixties, Archie Comics outsold the majority of DC and Marvel comics. For a long time, Archie was the most powerful ginger in America.
Ever since the comic’s heyday, Archie Comics has been publishing tons of comics and digests set in the world of Riverdale. Now it seems that the folks at Archie Comics realized that it was time for Riverdale to get a shot in the arm and really update the vibe of Archie for the 21st century. To do so, they tapped two of the biggest names in comics, writer Mark Waid (Superman, Kingdom Come, a million other things that are mostly classic) and Fiona Staples (Saga). As for the first issue of the rebooted Archie #1, the result was a pretty fun little slice-of-life high school comic, although nothing that’s going to set the world on fire. Which is completely fine; not everything has to be earth-shattering.
When we’re talking about the plot of this issue, well, there barely is one…and that not a negative criticism. This issue is just more interested in being a a reintroduction to the characters and situations in Riverdale, U.S.A. than telling a particular story. (I may be speaking out of turn, but I say ‘U.S.A’ because I think Riverdale is given as not having any particular state attached to it, like Springfield on The Simpsons for the majority of its run.) The book opens with out title hero, Archie Andrews, who is breaking the fourth wall and talking to the reader, Ferris Bueller–style. If you’re gonna lift from teen movies, might as well lift from the very best. Archie is explaining how he and Betty Cooper have been an item since they were both five years old, but that they recently broke up, due to “a lipstick incident.” We don’t know exactly what this incident is, but it’s not someone else’s lipstick found on Archie’s collar or anything to do with Archie actually cheating on Betty. But lipstick was involved somehow. (I like to imagine that Betty caught Archie trying on her lipstick. But that’s probably not what happened.)
So the breakup of power couple Archie and Betty is the topic of gossip at school, and everyone is trying to get Archie’s BFF Jughead Jones to spill the beans on what broke them up and what the lipstick incident actually is. They try bribing him with food and treats of different varieties, which probably means that Jughead is a big foodie, which is likely a longstanding Jughead trait I’ve remained oblivious to. All I know about the guy is that he wears a goofy-looking crown thing, which he still does. But gastronomic tempations or not, Jughead isn’t spilling the beans on what happened between his best friend and his girlfriend. In fact, being the good friend that he is, Jughead has a secret plan to get Archie and Betty back toghether. And that, in a nutshell, is the plot of Archie #1.
For comics fans who need more complicated, “adult” plots in their comics, well, this isn’t for you. It’s made for pre-teens mostly, kids for whom the world of high school is still this glamorous adventure filled with potential romance and excitement, instead of what we all know it really is. As such, it does its job very well. Mark Waid does a tremendous job of making the kids all come off as likable, without resorting to making this play out like a bad Saved by the Bell-style sitcom. Yes, it’s mostly a book for younger readers, but Waid is too good of a writer to talk down to kids. He manages to make the characters charming, even if they are just this side of a bit too squeaky clean for this old reader. (I remember high school…differently.) But this isn’t about the reality of American High School; it’s about the fantasy we wish it was. If anything, this reminds me of first season Glee and the movie Clueless, although with a lot less sexual innuendo. Maybe that’s best left for the Archie 2025 reboot.
As fresh as Mark Waid’s writing is, it’s Fiona Staples’ art that really shines here. Until now, I’ve only seen her work on the excellent Saga, a sci-fi spectacle filled with alien worlds and intricate designs. I wasn’t sure what to expect with something as down to Earth and relatively simple as Archie, but her style is exactly what this book needed in order to reboot itself properly. Her pencils are clean enough to not be jarring and aren’t “too complicated” for the younger readers, many of whom are undoubtedly used to the Archie “house style” they’ve used for some fifty years. Yet, her work is still modern and stylish enough to not look dated and retro for the potential new readers, many of whom probably viewed Archie as a relic stuck firmly in the past. Staples turned out to be an inspired choice.
So if you’ve got kids who you are interested in getting into comics, but want to give them something you can feel comfortable letting them read without adult supervision or worrying that it will rot their brains with how insipid it is, then Archie #1 isn’t a bad place to start. And if you’re an adult who wants to read it too, well…there are a lot of “mature” comics out there that are far less entertaining and with less witty dialogue or beautiful art. One could do far worse.
RATING: 3.5 OUT OF 5 BURRITOS
Archie #1 hits store shelves on Wednesday, July 8.