May 11, 2018

We Better Make the Best of It: Tania del Rio’s Sabrina the Teenage Witch

Back in the Bush era, starting in 2004, at a time when the Archie Comics had, essentially, become a repeat, wash, rinse, repeat loop — and found strength in that mode — Tania del Rio reinvented the entire visual aesthetic, new character designs, new visual codification and signaling. While the traditional Sabrina story had been only a few pages long, ending on a gag, the new stories could last a whole issue or more, running subplots and developments over several issues at a time. It was Erica Sakurazawa’s Sailor Moon, with some Neon Genesis shoutouts and guest appearances from Josie and the Pussycats.

We Better Make the Best of It
Tania del Rio’s Sabrina the Teenage Witch
Travis Hedge Coke

The past few years, there has been a wave of restyling in Archie Comics. The horror books. The ones where they age and have adult lives. An alien predator from the Predator franchise came to town; murdered almost everybody. The television show has taken a more salacious and dramatic turn than the comics or earlier TV spinoffs. Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and Dan Parent get a lot of credit, deservedly. But, somehow, del Rio refined the Betty/Veronica dynamic into something that isn’t male-gazey at all, and because it was in an illustrated children’s book (or prose-heavy comic, if you like), aimed at young girls, it went without comment. And, before that, we have her forty-two issue run on Sabrina, the Teenage Witch.

Most delightfully, to me, the characters were, at least initially, aware of these changes, wrought as they were, by Sabrina’s magic. She changed her own character design and magicked the world into one where people get chibi when emotional, sweat-beads appear on the side of your head when you’re nervous, and Salem stops looking like a normal cat, and appears to be a mobile stuffed toy.

The positive alterations and additions of the long-running live action adaptation,  anime and manga cues, and embracing an ongoing urgency that the shorter, one-off stories could not provide gave the comic a huge boost into modernity and made the comic a must buy. Prior to this, literally across all the ongoing Archie-universe comics, there were no instances of “I must know what happens next” that extended past two issues, or more likely, two short comics contained in one issue. Now, we have serial!

Things were flowering so full and beautiful, that the first interracial kiss in an Archie comic goes by with no splash except for a note of woo woo! kiss! And, it is a good kiss.

Traditional Archie sexuality is girls-are-hawt. That has lasted decades and still is the engine of the great Archie Comics flying machine, and the air through which it flies. Archie Andrews, himself, has slid into superior attractiveness over the years, making a good leap in the 70s, another in the 90s, and a few years back. But, Archie is never going to be displayed the way the girls are. The girls who aren’t comedy goofy-looking. The two problems that arise immediately from that, being that it is super-skewed and specifically heterosexual male gaze time, and that, if you are an adult reader, the comics pretty much demand you ogle these teenage girls right now!

With this run, there is range. Range in who we can find attractive, range in whether we have to find them attractive or not. Sabrina regular, Harvey, the boy on whom she crushes, had his traditional chased-boy reluctance shifted into something that can easily be read as gay, or as asexual. Or, just not ready. While earlier Archie books, even in the 90s and others in the 00s, would treat a boy being disinterested in a girl as distaste or dislike, Harvey likes Sabrina. He’s very cool with Sabrina. He might not like like her, and that should be okeh.

It was, and remains on rereads, a very conscientious comic.

Even the magic, which had traditionally been kept on the down-low almost out of shame or oddity, became a responsibility. The title character’s traditional waffling on romance, on using magic, on life, came directly under critique, by the narrative, by her friends and family, and her own conscience. Magic was not something momentarily helpful or an embarrassing aunt you can’t push in a closet. If it wasn’t Archie, at this point, I would be typing it magick.

“I am a witch, myself. (Not Wiccan, but pagan),” says del Rio, “Back then I was in the ‘broom closet,’ so to speak, but as I've gotten older, I'm much more open about my beliefs. Anyway, I wanted some of that authenticity to come through in the way magic was dealt with in the comic.”

Like the burst of Christianity that shot through the veins of Archie decades before, I’m more than ready to give this medical injection credit for enlivening the subject and for reaching new, untapped avenues and forgotten side streets (how’m I doing for mixed metaphors?). An author or artist’s cosmogony, their sense of causality has to affect what they create and the directions they move their subjects in. Let’s acknowledge it! Did I know, that del Rio was a witch, reading these comics the first time, in old ’04? Nah. But, magick and comics go together like chicken and waffles. It’s better to run with it.

Knowing it, I can see where it may inform. I can appreciate what it contributes, the same way I can appreciate what del Rio’s awareness of manga tropes and techniques contribute, what having a woman writing and drawing, steering the whole vessel, adds to these comics. Combined, along with her sense of humor, a then-contemporary mid-evening television feel, a naturalistic sense of justice, makes this Sabrina run, its own, definite animal.

And, that animal might be a cat, who was once a warlock, who now looks like a stuffed toy.

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