Mark Waid and Brian K. Vaughan have been two of the most rock steady comic writers for a long time now. Whether it’s Flash, Daredevil, Ex Machina or Saga, Waid and Vaughan both have a consistently high level of craft and professionalism that comes through in most of their work. But both are also just either restless enough or rebellious enough that, particularly lately, their books feel slightly ahead of the curve when it comes to mainstream comics. A couple of years ago, Waid’s Daredevil and Vaughan’s Saga were at the cutting edge of comics and its fandom, earning praise from the usual sources even as those titles had a reach out towards the casual fan. They were mainstream comics that were really mainstream and not just mainstream for comics. With their latest work in Archie Volume 1 and Paper Girls Volume 1, Waid and Vaughan are working on some of their strongest comics yet with characters both old and new.
Archie Volume 1 is a good old fashioned romance book featuring the very familiar love triangle of Archie, Betty, and Veronica. And it's a book that continues to show how much you can bend, twist and play with this cast of characters without them ever losing their shape or their heart. In recent years, there have been Archie stories that were horror comics and even various tales of Archie as an adult, married to one of his two high school loves. No matter how much they can twist the plot, these stories remain at their center Archie stories. Waid’s vision of Archie Andrews is the purest of these; a popular and well-liked high school kid who has two very different girls fighting for his attention and affection. More than a bit of a klutz, Archie has his entire school looking out for him, from his best friend Jughead to many classmates who genuinely love Archie. He’s a good kid and Waid’s writing of him makes Archie Andrews a character that you just want to see happy.
Waid’s Betty and Veronica follow the standard template as well as the girls in Archie’s life; the girl next door and the rich girl who’s new in town. Archie and Betty are so alike that they should be together but the “Lipstick Incident” (hinted at and then shown in a great Annie Wu drawn chapter,) damaged this lifelong friendship leaving the perfect opening in Archie’s life for him to become infatuated with someone new. These characters come to life thanks to artists Fiona Staples, Annie Wu and Veronica Fish. Waid’s scripting of Betty and Veronica leaves something to be desired as their lives revolve almost completely around Archie, barely giving them any story that isn't central to his conflicts. Overcoming that weakness (which honestly exists as part of the greater Archie mythos,) Staples gives these characters a fuller life through body language and fashion that Wu and Fish continue.
In Paper Girls Volume 1, Cliff Chiang does the same as his artwork over Vaughan’s story as his artwork and Matt Wilson’s sublime colors really creates the world of these characters. In both books, the visuals of the story, what the characters wear and how they carry themselves through the books, gives all of these kids an inner life that extends beyond what they say and do. Thanks to the precedent that Staples sets in Archie, Betty, Veronica, Jughead, Reggie and all of the kids in Riverdale are so much more than just extensions of Archie’s world. Even though Archie is the focus, the stories of the rest of these kids are at least hinted at in how they are presented throughout the book.
Chiang has a bit of a harder task because he has to show who his characters are through a 1980s lens. The story of a subdivision’s newspaper delivery girls in the mid-1980s, Chiang’s artwork in Paper Girls both distances the story from the reader but also acts as nostalgia for a period that many still remember (everything old is new again.) But more than through what they wear, Chiang creates this world of disparities as the girls are thrown into the middle of an alien invasion that seems to be happening on their very streets. From its paneled walls to its high-school lettered jackets, Chiang’s artwork reminds us of who people were in the era of Reagan and the Challenger disaster.
Vaughan’s story in Paper Girls exists within an era of fear and uncertainty. Waid’s Archie is full of bubblegum optimism for the world but Paper Girls spirit is murkier. The book opens with one of the girls having a semi-religious dream about Christa McAullife, the teacher who caught America’s attention by becoming an astronaut on the fated Challenger space shuttle. After waking up to run her early morning paper route the day after Halloween, Erin meets other tough paper girls even as some cross between the rapture and an alien invasion from the future happens.
The great thing that both Archie Volume 1 and Paper Girls Volume 1 do is opening up these worlds and characters in ways that are familiar but fresh. And so much of that comes down to the art in both books. You can know these characters so much from the art and pages of these comics. Staples imbues so much personality into her characters without ever getting too exaggerated. Fish uses cartoony expressions more in her artwork but it all comes from the character first and then the situation secondly. Chiang’s artwork is more realistic in a simplified manner, grounding the audience is a very recognizable world while Matt Wilson’s blue and pink hued colors amplify the emotional drama of the story.
Waid and Vaughan are both writing about the kids in America, in the towns, neighborhoods, and subdivisions where they really learn who they are. One’s doing a rom-com and one’s doing an 80s-era sci-fi monster film (more JJ. Abrams than Spielberg though,) but both Archie and Paper Girls are as much throwbacks to older stories as they are showing comics a new, or at least forgotten, path that they can follow. With artists like Cliff Chiang, Fiona Staples, Annie Wu and Veronica Fish who can really capture these characters personalities through the details that they draw, Archie Volume 1 and Paper Girls Volume 1 both tell stories that are great kids stories and great stories about kids.
Archie Volume 1
Written by Mark Waid
Drawn by Fiona Staples, Annie Wu and Veronica Fish
Colored by Andre Szymanowicz and Jen Vaughn
Published by Archie Comics
Paper Girls Volume 1
Written by Brian K. Vaughan
Drawn by Cliff Chiang
Colored by Matt Wilson
Published by Image Comics