Having finished work restoring his grandfather’s 1969 Mach 1 Cobra Jet, perennial teenager Archie Andrews gives in to his id and accepts a challenge to a drag race from rival Reggie Mantle. The only voice of reason to speak out against the idea of the race comes from Archie’s lifelong friend Betty Cooper. Unfortunately, her advice is ignored and the race went on… to disastrous results.
I found myself reaching (figuratively, as my review copies all come in pdf form) for an Archie Comic for something different from the last few comics I’d read. A pallette cleanser, if you will. I’ve gone from heavy sci fi, to classic superhero, to slightly disturbing Sunday comic strip tribute, to pulp crime. I thought to myself, “self, how ‘bout we take a look at what that whacky goofball Archie’s been up to lately,” and away I went.
The first page of Archie #21 shows a thrown tire, a broken road barrier looking out over a sheer drop into a canopy of trees, with a pair of taillights shining up out of the greenery.
What follows is a series of Archie vignettes, each just a few pages long, featuring other characters from Riverdale, U.S.A. There are mischief and whacky hijinks involved, as the high schoolers are all going about their Sunday afternoons doing what they do. Each short ends with a phone call and expressions ranging around the range of horror and shocked disbelief. While these snapshots of life in Riverdale did at first look more like what I’ve seen before in Archie’s world, my head kept coming back to the image of that first page. Maybe I’m a little slow, but it took a second for it to occur to me that the phone calls were all spreading the news that there had been an accident. Jughead, Veronica, Raj, Moos, & Dilton… all of Archie’s friends and extended family are being given the news that something very, very bad has happened.
Wow… this doesn’t really look like the Archie Comics I remember reading when I was a kid.
Which is kind of the point, isn’t it? Archie has been around in one way, shape or form since 1941. While I hesitate to fall into the old guy “back in my day” trope (and no, I haven’t been around quite that long…), I would have to say that kids these days definitely live different lives than they used to. Things happen faster now, the world is much smaller, and access to information that we used to spend hours in a library trying to find is one quick Google search away. One thing that hasn’t changed, however, is the apparent belief in the indestructability of youth. I remember the attitude, and if you’re in this demographic I’m not trying to be insulting, but there’s a mindset that bad things only happen to other people.
“I know what I’m doing, so I do what I want.”
What I think was handled perfectly by Mark Waid in this comic is the sense of comfortable normalcy, followed by shock, and ending in terror as everyone’s very stable, constant, safe world is flipped. Things like this just don’t happen in Archie’s world, and yet here we are, facing consequences that read as jarringly real even though we know it’s all just a story in a comic book. Waid has taken the “daily snapshot” story, showing everyone doing everyday things, and then yanked the world out from under them all. This is what happens, folks. This is what it’s like when bad things happen to people you know and love. Everything is fine, normal, safe… until it’s not. Waid’s storytelling is supported by the art from Pete Woods. He’s followed the tone of the story by rendering all of the comic beats in classic Archie fashion, and then captured that kicked in the stomach moment of horrified disbelief. Anyone who’s ever gotten that phone call is going to recognize the expression, the pause as the impossible is processed, and then the chaotic dash to the hospital.
As far as comic books go, I don’t think you could expect more fully realized characters reacting to terrible news in believable ways. Waid and Woods have taken Archie’s long-running title and elevated it from a good comic series into what I would sincerely consider an important one. Showing fictional characters reacting to real life situations brings a level of legitimacy to what people go through as they’re processing news that they can’t un-hear. By bringing that kind of “what if” scenario into the popular culture, it gives the blessedly uninitiated a much safer way to experience that very bad day with a sense of distance, and maybe shows those who have experienced this kind of gut-churning news that they aren’t the only people who’ve ever felt that pain.
Mark Waid and Pete Woods are creating next level comics.