Each week, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic-book issue of significance. This week, it’s Archie #1. Written by Mark Waid (Daredevil, S.H.I.E.L.D.) with art by Fiona Staples (Saga, Mystery Society) and colors by Andre Szymanowicz (Hell Yeah, Elephantmen) with Jen Vaughn (Adventure Time, Avery Fatbottom: Renaissance Fair Detective), this issue propels Archie Andrews and the town of Riverdale into the present with a dramatic new art style, but never loses the spirit of classic Archie Comics. (Warning: this review reveals major plot points.)
Over the past six years, Archie Comics has gone from a paragon of traditionalism to one of the biggest risk-takers in mainstream comics, pushing character diversity in its main titles and shifting away from its all-ages roots with the Archie Horror and Dark Circle lines. It’s seen remarkable growth under publisher and co-CEO Jon Goldwater, who joined the company in 2009, a decade after the death of his father, Archie co-founder John L. Goldwater. Jon Goldwater has worked vigorously to update the publisher’s output and make its product more relevant to modern audiences. New characters like Kevin Keller and Harper Lodge brought different perspectives to Riverdale, while series like Life With Archie and Afterlife With Archie reimagined familiar faces in exciting new contexts. These big changes often garnered exceptional creative results.
Goldwater’s tenure has been building up to this week’s release of Archie #1, a high-profile relaunch featuring two Eisner Award-winning creators in writer Mark Waid and artist Fiona Staples. Canceling the main Archie title with #666 was the final nail in the coffin of the old Archie Comics; this new first issue is the birth of something truly fresh and exciting for the publisher. Fiona Staples’ sleek digital artwork is far removed from the classic Archie house style, but the added realism in her art makes the world feel more concrete than the more cartoonish Riverdale of Archie’s past. Waid writes a charming script that works as a very accessible introduction to Archie and his hometown, but the star of this book is Staples, who is the key to modernizing the characters and environment.
From the very first page, Staples brings a dynamic energy that immediately pulls the reader into the story. The issue opens with a splash page of Archie introducing himself and Riverdale to the reader, with so much vitality and style in just that one shot. Waid doesn’t have to do much to make the story contemporary because Staples does most of the heavy lifting in her costume design, immediately establishing a modern Riverdale in just one splash page. A lot of that comes from the specificity of Staples’ costuming, as she brings a huge array of different ensembles to the page to show the range of current teen fashions.
Much of the book’s modernity stems from Staples’ style, which means Waid doesn’t have to go overboard with contemporary references or incorporating technology, two of the most common ways writers make their stories look hipper. That doesn’t mean those elements aren’t there—Josie And The Pussycats are former American Idol winners and characters occasionally communicate by texting because that’s what teenagers do—but they aren’t a priority. That’s because Waid understands that the central conceit of Archie’s story is timeless. It’s a story about a teenage boy discovering the complications that romance brings into his life, and that doesn’t need much updating at all. It just needs a little polish.
The most aggressive attempt to cater to a younger audience comes at the very end of the issue. Archie tells readers that they can give him suggestions on how to get over Betty by reaching out to @ArchieComics on Twitter using the hashtag #lipstickincident; this is also a clever way of taking advantage of the publicity that comes with social media. And it’s worked. People are reaching out to Archie on Twitter, and while #lipstickincident isn’t trending around the world, those tweets prove that there are people eager to engage with entertainment on this level.
This week, Mark Waid also sees the release of The Fox #4, which he co-wrote with Dean Haspiel for Archie’s Dark Circle Comics, and the debut of his Strange Fruit #1 with artist J.G. Jones at Boom! Studios. Of the three, Archie is the strongest showcase of Waid’s talent as a writer. Strange Fruit features some gorgeous art, but it reinforces unfortunate racial stereotypes with its story about a silent, superpowered alien that takes the shape of a black man when he crash lands in the early-20th century South. The book is intended to be provocative, but the discussion it’s provoking is largely about how tone-deaf the story is when it comes to the actual struggle of blacks in America.
Archie shows a completely different side of Waid than Strange Fruit: the fun-loving side that has made his runs on The Flash, Fantastic Four, and Daredevil so memorable. Waid can do effective work when tackling mature subject matter in books like Kingdom Come and Empire (and those aforementioned superhero titles), but he has the highest success rate when he embraces a more light-hearted tone in his work. It doesn’t get much lighter than Archie, and Waid captures that classic Archie tone in his script, which focuses on Archie dealing with the aftermath of his recent break-up with Betty Cooper. Putting Archie and Betty’s relationship at the center of this issue is a wise move, and establishing a strong connection for the couple will intensify the conflict when Veronica Lodge eventually arrives to form the all-important Archie-Betty-Veronica love triangle.
Kevin Keller, Sheila Wu, and Maria Rodriguez scheme to bring Archie and Betty back together by campaigning to get them elected as homecoming king and queen, and giving ample attention to these supporting characters kicks off the relaunched Archie with a more diverse Riverdale. It would have been great to see Archie, Betty, or Veronica as a person of color, but it’s also understandable why Waid wouldn’t racebend those characters for the relaunch. Instead, he gives the non-white, non-straight characters more pronounced roles in the narrative, and ideally Kevin, Sheila, and Maria will get just as much spotlight in future issues as Archie, Betty, and Veronica.
Fiona Staples colors her own artwork on Saga, but the grind of two monthly comics meant that she wouldn’t be able to color Archie. (It’s also why she’s only attached to the first three issues of Archie.) The best thing that can be said about colorists Andre Szymanowicz and Jen Vaughn is that it looks as if Staples colored the book herself, and they have a strong understanding of how to highlight Staples’ linework to get the most dimension and depth. They keep the book’s visuals rooted in Archie tradition by embracing a vibrant color palette, and incorporating lots of bright pastels gives the art an especially playful look. The visual highlight of this issue is the homecoming dance, a scene covered in romantic pinks and purples that tease a reunion for Archie and Betty, and the combination of Szymanowicz and Vaughn’s rich coloring with Staples’ vivacious linework and layouts makes Archie especially dreamy when he takes to the stage for an impromptu jam session with the band.
The new Archie Comics is taking a lot of risks, but not all of them have been successful. In May, it launched a Kickstarter to crowdfund $350,000 for the launch of three new series—Jughead by writer Chip Zdarsky and artist Erica Henderson, Betty And Veronica by writer-artist Adam Hughes, and the Kevin Keller-centric Life With Kevin by writer Dan Parent and artist J. Bone—a campaign that received heavy criticism from the comics community for its lofty goal, lackluster rewards, and the fact that it was a mainstream publisher relying on fans to fund its future. It was canceled after reaching just over 10 percent of its goal, but Archie Comics made the right decision in abandoning what was quickly turning into a PR disaster.
Not every risk is going to reap rewards, but the Kickstarter did a lot to raise awareness of those upcoming Archie titles, which are still seeing release, but now at later dates than originally planned. Those announcements didn’t appear in the best context, but they got people talking about upcoming titles, and that’s what Jon Goldwater’s Archie Comics has done best. It gets people talking, whether it’s by having Archie die by taking a bullet for a gay president, overrunning Riverdale with zombies, or giving the Archie universe a stylish modern makeover. After decades of tradition, Archie Comics is firmly in its next stage of evolution, and Archie #1 is a rock-hard foundation to build on as the publisher continues to grow.