Oct 19, 2010

Comics Cube! Reviews: Life With Archie

If there is any one comic book right now that I would absolutely recommend to someone who doesn't read comics but is interested and used to read comics as a kid, it's LIFE WITH ARCHIE.

Archie Comics gets a bad rap. To hardcore comic book fans, it's "that comic that people who aren't in the comic book-reading club read." To superhero fans, it's "that comic that's no good, because it's all about tired, recycled jokes and a cartoony art style." It's not "honest" or "grim" enough to be independent, and everyone knows that when you talk to anyone who doesn't read comics, you're probably going to get an "Except I used to read Archie when I was little," as a disclaimer.

Which is why, I bet, a lot of people aren't noticing LIFE WITH ARCHIE right now. They've all formed their opinions, and they all believe that Archie is a stagnant property. This is not true.

Last year, in what can really only be called a publicity stunt, in a six-part storyline, Archie Andrews went to two alternate futures. In each future, he made one of his impossible choices. In one of them, he married Veronica Lodge, spoiled daddy's little rich girl; and in the other, he married Betty Cooper, the girl next door. The stories in which they were told were very loose - it was basically "this is what happens when Archie marries Veronica," and "this is what happens when Archie marries Betty," told in structures that were just a little more detailed than a montage. At the end of the day, Archie is a teenager again, unable to choose between Betty and Veronica again.

But here's the thing. As with almost every big event that doesn't give much in the way of a story (e.g., DEATH OF SUPERMAN, ZERO HOUR), this gives way to a smaller story that is more substantial (e.g., WORLD WITHOUT A SUPERMAN, STARMAN). In this case, LIFE WITH ARCHIE: THE MARRIED LIFE, a magazine that contains two comic book stories of regular length, for $3.99 (meaning two comics for the price of one) - one that delves into Archie's life with Veronica, and one that delves into Archie's life with Betty. Both stories are written by Paul Kupperberg (with issue 1 being written by Michael Uslan), a prolific writer, and drawn by Norm Breyfogle, best known for his work on BATMAN and DETECTIVE COMICS. If you think that's an odd fit, wait till I show you how well it actually does fit.

You would not believe how serious and captivating these characters can be the moment you age them a bit and put them out in the real world. You wouldn't believe how new they feel in a new situation, a new environment, not just one where Archie can't choose between Betty and Veronica, and Jughead wants to laze around eating hamburgers, and Reggie wants to make trouble. These are two worlds both populated by people in their mid-20s, learning about the hardships of life and just how hard it is to follow your dreams, especially in these tough economic times. This is something I personally can relate to, and I'm sure I'm not the only one, as indicated in this very personal review of issue #2 and the comments about it on my Facebook Fan Page.

For example, in the Archie Loves Veronica story (hereafter referred to as "the Veronica story"), Archie and Veronica are working for Veronica's dad, Hiram Lodge. Lodge wants to buy out the entirety of Riverdale, starting with Pop Tate's Chocklit Shoppe, the gang's lifelong hangout, and he sends Archie and Veronica to seal the deal. This puts Archie and Veronica on uneven ground with their friends, with people not wanting to deal with them for taking part in the entire matter. Look at this exchange with Jughead, Reggie, and Pop, and tell me when the last time was that you saw a face like the one Reggie is making show genuine concern and worry in an Archie comic.

And that's part of what makes it so powerful. Because it's an Archie comic book, there's that whole superficial level of silliness that makes something that real even more powerful than it would be in, say, a comic book by Chris Ware where someone is sad all the time. Similarly, because it's an Archie comic, you can get away with the downright silly stuff, like Moose running for mayor to fight against Mr. Lodge:

And then show the implausibility of it in the next two issues, with Moose getting slaughtered in his first-ever press conference. It's a great setup - show him aspiring to something so beyond his capabilities, staying true to that good old Archie spirit of how "anything can happen if you put your mind to it," take him down a whole notch by injecting a dose of the real world into the equation, and then have him claw his way back up and really, really earn it. The hope is still there, but like in the real world, these characters are learning that it's not so easy to hold onto.

In the same story, Betty Cooper feels like a loser, having failed at everything in New York City and moving back to Riverdale. How jarring is it to see in a book like Archie, where everyone always gets their just desserts, that the hardest-working and nicest girl in school is a failure at finding a career?

It's powerful stuff. And to find herself, Betty decides to leave Riverdale. I'm going to show you a sequence now that just emphasizes what I said about Norm Breyfogle. This is when Reggie finds Betty outside her house, ready to leave.

Keep in mind that these are all long shots - you don't and can't get close enough to see what's on their faces. But look at the body language, and you read it perfectly. The third panel, in particular, where Betty puts her left arm on her right shoulder, is very powerful, since it just captures her uneasiness, her unwillingness to talk about it, and her uncertainty. I can't remember the last time a pose was so incredibly subtle and effective.

The Betty story is of a different tone, and Archie's life takes exactly the kind of turn it does when he doesn't marry a rich girl: he and Betty live in New York, in a decent apartment in an apartment building full of cracks, and Archie is a struggling musician, unable to cope with the fact that his wife is far more successful than he is, and his friends are presumably so, as well. Little does he know that in Riverdale (one big difference between the two stories is that Archie and Betty are removed from everyone in their story, as opposed to Archie and Veronica who interact with everyone in theirs), everyone's pretty much going through the same thing - Jughead doesn't have money to buy the Chocklit Shoppe from Pop Tate, Veronica can't get over Archie, and Reggie seems to have peaked in high school, jumping from job to job, wondering what's happened to his life.

It all sounds bleak and depressing, but then Archie meets an old pal, Ambrose (Little Ambrose of Little Archie fame), and the two of them strike a deal.

The message is clear: you can dream, and the world will try to come down on your dreams. But you shouldn't give up, you should never give up, and you should never stop trying. Even if you never make it, you dreamed, and that matters. It accentuates that idea and theme of hope that is prevalent in Archie and in the most time-tested and iconic of characters so much better in this day and age than a simple feel-good story.

For those of you who read Archie Comics as a kid and don't really believe they had anywhere else to go, this series is a treat. You won't believe how new these characters feel. And for those of you who don't have an attachment to these characters and don't believe they can say anything significant, this series is still a treat. You won't believe, honestly, how real they'll feel.

LIFE WITH ARCHIE #3 just came out last week. Go reorder the back issues and then pick up issue 4, out November 15.

For more Comics Cube! Reviews and Recommendations, click here.

See how it all started!


Peachy said...

I loved this run. Quite a pleasant surprise to see so much character development, especially in a comic that's been known for sticking to a particular narrative style over the decades. Kudos to the team that brought this out!

Duy Tano said...

Yep, I think it's safe to say that we're going to be getting the next several issues!

PIG said...

Damn you REAL WORLD! You always get in the way of my DREAMS!

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