Saturday, July 11, 2015

Return to Riverdale

I told Audrey I had done something for the first time in at least 35 years, but, on reflection, I'm not sure that's true; it's possible that I never bought an Archie comic before today.


Growing up in the 70s and 80s, when a much larger chunk of the comics spectrum was intended for, well, kids, I had always maintained a certain respectful distance from humour and funny animals and gravitated instead towards the action and adventure of superhero, war, and western comics.

That's not to say I didn't read and enjoy them. I still have fond memories of Carl Barks' Scrooge McDuck adventures, which presented a globetrotting and swashbuckling sensibility to the genre that, looking back, was a gateway to adventure stories like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre on the screen. And even Archie wasn't bad in moderation, but the simplicity of the stories and art always made me feel I wasn't getting my money's worth for the 25 cents I was spending on used comics at Leduc's second-hand Book Shop.

The Andrews lad is ubiquitous though, and you could be assured of coming across him at a relative's house (even if they no longer had kids your age) or in a waiting room, or in a musty box in the cabin you were staying in.

I quickly learned that Riverdale was a place like no other, where teenagers drove vintage jalopies in one story and then joked about playing video games in the next, and even more encompassing was the range of quality in art and writing. Many of the stories were labouriously constructed efforts designed to 'pay off' with a grizzled or grisly pun (why can I suddenly hear a sad trombone?), but some of them showed genuine insight and charm as they presented the timeless travails of adolescence, linked prepetually to period clothing and hairstyles, and frozen like flies in amber.

As a fan of the medium and student of the history of comics, I was forced to sit up and take notice when I heard the publishers of Archie were releasing their first new #1 issue in 75 years. When I heard who they were putting at the helm of their flagship title, I became personally interested.

Like a lot of comics fans, I read Mark Waid's Kingdom Come years ago and was intrigued by both his encyclopedic knowledge of the DC superhero canon, as well as his uncanny ability to extrapolate from it in an unexpected but thematically consistent fashion, imagining a world where the original superheroes have faded away or retired, while the next generation has become wild and indiscriminate in their battles against wrongdoers. Like an in-universe Watchmen, Kingdom Come simultaneously honours and deconstructs the mythology of the DC Universe, while admonishing the medium for how 'grim & gritty' it had become.

In more recent years, Waid has had a remarkable run on Daredevil, one of my favourite characters, brilliantly balancing the hero's swashbuckling roots with the tragic noir elements of his more recent iterations. He has a tremendous gift for both dialogue and monologue, and a delightful sense of humour that would not be out of place in an Aaron Sorkin screenplay, so the potential for Archieto have a great story was firmly in place.

Hearing that Calgary's Fiona Staples was doing the art was enough to bring me on board. In addition to being one of the few popular female artists working in comics, Staples has an unparalleled ability to convey expression in her facial work, most notably in the work she does with Brian K. Vaughn on Saga, possibly the best comic out there today. Such is the degree of my appreciation for her work that I would probably get a subscription to the Hansard if I heard that Fiona Staples was illustrating it.

Last week I took a look at the preview pages of Archie #1 at the Comic Book Resources website, and I was hooked. In just six pages, I was drawn into the high school drama of Riverdale like never before, as young Archie Andrews introduces himself directly to the reader, Ferris Bueller style, as well as some supporting characters, but mostly laments his recent breakup with none other than Betty Cooper, due to something called 'the Iipstick incident'.

A Greek chorus of three nameless friends trying to repair "Bettchie" make their play, aided, as unconventionally as you might expect, by Jughead Jones.

A chance opportunity at a high school dance drags him onstage, which not only opens the door for Archie as a musician, but also a chance for a great writer like Waid to shut up and let Staples take the lead for a while, and to great effect.

Despite the newness of everything ("#lipstickincident"), Waid's writing captures both the quips and pathos of high school melodrama (and the best instances of same in the Archie canon), while Staples' art continues to seamlessly blend the best elements of realism and cartoons. Everything old really is new again, and both creators wear their affection for these characters and the setting way out on their sleeves,

I'm not going to tell you if or how the plan succeeds at bringing Archie and Betty back together, but in terms of setting the stage using well established characters and settings, Waid and Staples have accomplished something really amazing with this, well, let's not call it a reboot; howzabout 'refreshing' of the title.

Archie #1 is well worth checking out for a number of reasons: history, nostalgia, reference, permanence, but mostly because it is a well written and well drawn story that is entirely relatable, regardless of whether your memories of high school see you wearing Archie's letterman jacket, Jughead's beanie, Veronica's bangs, or Betty's ponytail.


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