January 5, 2017

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Love and Archie and Rockets-- a look at Archie Volume Two


There are ways of looking at Mark Waid’s career and see a large chunk of it as almost being a dress rehearsal for his work on Archie. His Flash, the red-headed Wally West, explored a lot of Wally’s childhood and the way it impacted his role of being a speedster and a hero. The post-Zero Hour Legion of Super-Heroes was the “Archie Legion,” rebooting those characters with a 31st-century optimism and wide-eyed sensibility that seemed right out of the Silver Age and even more specifically, out of Archie’s own Riverdale. Even his current trademark-ensuring work on Marvel’s The Champions is trying to mine that gee-whiz-isn’t-it-great-we’re-heroes sentiment even as he horribly fails to capture what makes Kamala Khan, Sam Alexander and Miles Morales great new Marvel characters. But for as far off the mark as his well-intentioned but misguided Champions is, Archie Volume Two is the perfect comic to express his own Silver Age longings applied to 21st Century teenagers.

If the first volume of this series focused on the Archie/Betty relationship, this second volume focuses on the third part of that triangle, Veronica, and her affair with Archie. And it really only focuses on her so much as it focuses on the complications she causes in Archie’s life with his friends, his family and most importantly, with Betty. The world revolves around Archie Andrews but of course, it’s his name on the title of the book and in the publisher’s indicia. Archie Andrews is the hero that Mark Waid has been looking for all of his life because with Archie, he can write about the lovable loser without having to get bogged down in things like the Speed Force or whether Hulk or Thor is stronger. But let’s be honest, Waid still loves to think about that kind of stuff but now he gets to ponder just how many hamburgers can Jughead eat in one sitting or who’s a better musician, Veronica or Betty? And yes, that last bit is actually a plot point in Archie Volume Two.

It feels like Archie could be Waid’s Love and Rockets or his Scott Pilgrim. Those books are so much about the worldview of their creators so how great would it be if Archie was that for Waid? It could be like Archie is the Rosetta Stone for understanding Waid’s career, just without the punk aesthetic that lived in the Hernandez Brothers or Bryan Lee O’Malley’s stories. While Love and Rockets and Scott Pilgrim are such extensions of their creators, Archie Volume Two feels like just another gig for Waid, with him trying to tap into teenage culture, love, and heartbreak without really understanding what any of those are in the 21st century.

Breakdowns by Ryan Jampole, Finishes by Thomas Pitilli, Colors by Andre Szymanowicz

Moving beyond the setup of the classic love triad in the first volume, Archie Volume Two is about Archie Andrew’s relationship with these two girls. Waid focuses so much on Archie that everyone in this book, particularly Betty and Veronica, are there only to provide people for Archie to interact with and play off of.  Part of what makes Love and Rockets and Scott Pilgrim sui generis is that the casts of all of those worlds are so rich. And Waid’s Archie actually resembles O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim with the way that their stories revolve around their eponymous main characters. Both Archie and Scott Pilgrim are the centers of their own worlds but where O’Malley has all of these other characters caught in Scott Pilgrim’s gravity pull, Waid has everyone in his story existing merely to tell Archie Andrew's story. Everyone from Ramona Flowers to Knives Chau has their own lives, separate and independent of Scott but caught up in his life.  But outside of their relationship to Archie, rich characters like Jughead, Betty, and Veronica barely have any depth to them or their own personal stories.

Waid’s Archie is not just the center of the world but he’s the center of the book’s existence. Jughead only exists when he’s with Archie. Likewise, Archie’s parents, his classmates and his two loves, Betty, and Veronica are just around to tell his story. None of these characters have any life when they’re not on the page with Archie and that makes Waid’s writing feel so small and shallow. As he tries to capture that 1950s sensibility in these teenagers, Waid creates caricatures and not characters. His Archie is an update of Archie Andrews but it is empty of anything beyond that.

Waid’s biggest swing-and-miss in Archie Volume Two is Sayid, Betty’s post-Archie boyfriend who exists only because he isn’t Archie. At least Betty and Veronica are rivals, each with a role to play in the life of Archie. But Sayid is his rival only Archie barely notices or cares. And really, the audience barely notices or cares either because like everyone else, Sayid only matters as much as he matters to Archie. If the character only had a hint of personality independent of his relationship (or lack of) to Archie then maybe he would exist more as a character. Look at Jaime Hernandez’s Vivian “Frogmouth” Solis. She’s one of Maggie’s many rivals in Hernandez’s Locas stories but she’s a fully developed character that has her own story and baggage. Maybe Sayid will develop that as Waid’s story continues to develop but since none of the other characters have any of that, why should we expect Sayid to be any different?

Art by Veronica Fish, colors by Andre Szymanowicz

But even with those weaknesses, Archie Volume Two is some of the most fun and loosest writing that Waid has ever done. By having a character who is in a no-win situation (he can’t have both Betty and Veronica,) Waid embraces Archie’s lovable loser aspect. It’s fun to see how Waid and the universe conspire against Archie, throwing up one roadblock after another on his path to happiness. Thanks a lot to the wonderfully character-driven artwork of Veronica Fish, Thomas Pitilli and Ryan Jampole, the story has a rich life to it that the characters lack. Through the artwork, Waid’s story and characters develop their personalities.

Through just two volumes, Archie is on its third art team. Following up on Fiona Staples’ opening chapters in the first volume, first Fish and then the team of Pitilli & Jampole’s playful art help keeps the tone light and breezy. Even when the story takes a slightly darker direction as Archie continually runs afoul of Veronica’s father, the artists hold on to the fun atmosphere of the book, taking the edge off all of the heartbreak and anger that gets tossed around in this story. By playing to the comedy of Waid’s writing, the art creates the relationships of the characters and their misadventures as Archie tries to navigate the romantic waters with both Betty and Veronica.

Archie Volume Two displays the best and worst of Mark Waid. From his sunny, optimistic viewpoint to the shallowness of his character work, this book is so good thanks to the tone of the writing and the wonderful artwork but so frustrating because it has this really strong and well-established cast and yet does nothing with them other than have them react to Archie’s goofiness. Archie Volume Two continues to be the ultimate Mark Waid comic, embodying everything that’s great about his storytelling while also never doing anything new or unique with this old cast of characters.

Archie Book Two
Written by Mark Waid
Art by Veronica Fish, Thomas Pitilli, Ryan Jampole
Colored by Andre Syzmanowicz
Published by Archie Comics