At this point, pretty much everyone familiar with (American) comics knows that the main titles in Archie comics have adopted a much-lauded contemporary, new look that was ushered in by Mark Waid and Fiona Staples (soon joined by many other creators) in 2015, to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Archie’s first appearance in Pep Comics #22 (Dec. 1941). But almost a decade before that, starting in 2007 and concluding in mid-2010, Archie Comics released a number of stories that were also touted as a ‘new look.’ The subject matter was more serious, with none of the goofy antics or general silliness one usually associates with Archie stories, and the art was more ‘realistic’ than the usual cartoony Archie house style. I suppose you could say that it was a sort of a dry run for the current updated Riverdale, although that might be giving it a bit too much credit.
First some background. They were originally published in installments in various digests, beginning with “Bad Boy Trouble” in Betty & Veronica Double Digest #151-154 (Jul.-Oct. 2007), followed by “The Matchmakers” in Jughead’s Double Digest #139-142 (Apr.-Aug. 2008), “Break-up Blues” in Archie’s Pals ‘n’ Gals Double Digest #125-128 (Oct. 2008-Feb. 2009), “My Father’s Betrayal” in Betty & Veronica Double Digest #170-173 (May-Aug. 2009) , “Goodbye Forever” Archie’s Double Digest #200-203 (Jul.–Nov. 2009), “A Funny Kind of Love” in Archie’s Pals n’ Gals Double Digest #135-138 (Sept. 2009-Feb. 2010), and, the last one, “No Baseball for Betty,” in Betty & Veronica Double Digest #180-183 (May-Aug. 2010).
Recently I read a bunch of these, basically all of the ones collected in five TPBs: Betty & Veronica/Bad Boy Trouble, Jughead/The Matchmakers, Moose & Midge/Break-up Blues, Veronica/My Father’s Betrayal and Archie/Goodbye Forever. The Jughead volume is the only one I have as a physical book, which I purchased on the cheap from BetterWorld Books; that one got me curious about the rest, which I then found on Comixology.eu last month when they were have a line-wide sale on Archie books. The last two listed above (with stories that focus on Reggie Mantle and Betty Cooper, respectively) were never reprinted in trade collections, and most of the original digests in which they were originally published are hard to come by – they’re not available in digital format, and physical copies are surprisingly hard to find at any of the major online comics dealers.
All of these stories, by the way, are adaptations of a series of prose YA novels written by veteran Archie scribe Mike Pellowski and published in the 1990s. The comic book versions are all scripted by Melanie Morgan, while the art credits in most of these – as we’ll see below – are reminiscent of any number of Marvel or DC comics from the 1980s.
I wish I could say I enjoyed these more than I did – as it is, I’m glad I didn’t spend too much money on them. What follows is a bit of a rundown…
Betty & Verconica: Bad Boy Trouble (script: Melanie Morgan, pencils: Steven Butler, inks: Al Milgrom, letters: John Workman, colors: Stephanie Vozzo).
This one starts with an exposition dump, apparently just transcribed from the original novel, as Betty has an inner monologue about her best friend Veronica while she waits for her to get ready for a night out at the movies. At the theater, they meet the new kid in town, Nick St. Clair. He’s devastatingly handsome and charming, but also a bit of a snarky slacker, who – quite ominously – wears a leather jacket and rides around on a motorcycle. The girls take a shine to him, and Veronica in particular becomes quite smitten. The two start dating, but there’s trouble brewing, as Nick is kind of a jerk to most of the other kids, aggressively flirts with Betty behind Veronica’s back, and has a tendency to not do any school work and mouth off to the teachers. Veronica, meanwhile, is either blind to these flaws or thinks she can change him… This one very much has the feel of an after-school special, in which we learn about the dangers of associating with ‘bad’ kids and succumbing to the siren call of youthful rebelliousness. The art is also really stiff for the most part, as the various characters often seem to be standing around and posing for department store catalogues.
Jughead: The Matchmakers (script: Melanie Morgan, pencils: Joe Staton, inks: Al Milgrom, letters: John Workman, colors: Stephanie Vozzo).
Here, Betty, Veronica and a few of the other girls at Riverdale High want Jughead to start dating, and eventually, using a little subterfuge, set up an impromptu date between him and high-achiever classmate Sandy Sanchez – and things actually end up working, perhaps too well. Jug and Sandy apparently hit it off and become a virtually inseparable, lovey-dovey couple, much to the girls’ delight and the horror of his befuddled best pal Archie. There’s a ‘surprise twist’ ending – that was basically telegraphed in the first chapter. This is my favorite of the lot, although it’s not really a masterpiece, either. I think it’s partly because the story mostly fits into the Archie tradition of light-hearted and mostly humorous entertainment, and also partly because the art is the best in all of these. I’m a fan of Joe Staton’s work in general, and his style really works well in the Riverdale milieu, although it looks very little like the familiar Archie house style exemplified by artists like Dan DeCarlo or Al Hartley, or Dan Parent or Stan Goldberg.
Moose & Midge: Break-up Blues (script: Melanie Morgan, pencils: Tod Smith, inks: Al Milgrom, letters: John Workman, colors: Stephanie Vozzo).
Long-time sweethearts Midge and Moose part ways after Midge becomes exasperated with Moose’s lack of romance and also lack interest in anything she likes to do (like dancing). They both start seeing other people, and Midge even joins a dance contest with Riverdale High’s resident prankster and conceited jerk, Reggie Mantle (who’s long had the hots for her). This upsets some of the gang, especially Betty, who spends most of the story trying to devise ways to get them back together – and having her plans backfire most of the time. At times, there’s hints that the story will actually confront the fact that people sometimes grow apart and realize they’re not suited for each other. However – as one might suspect – here everything works out in the end, and this one is mostly forgettable across the board.
Veronica: My Father’s Betrayal (script: Melanie Morgan, pencils: Rick Burchett, inks: Terry Austin, letters: Teresa Davidson, colors: Glen Whitmore).
Environmental issues come to the fore, as Veronica is shocked to learn that a forest on the outskirts of town where she loves to take nature hikes was purchased by her father, the wealthy Hiram Lodge, who intends to build a factory at the site. When she can’t convince him to change his plans, Veronica organizes a campaign to save the forest, enlisting the aid of the other kids at school. It soon gains adherents among many adults in town, but also draws opposition from just as many Riverdale denizens who want the construction to go forward because it means jobs and growth. The town is split down the middle, and at one point there’s an interesting scene when a march by the pro-environmental group runs into a counter-demonstration and violence breaks out. This one, I think, did the best job of using the Archie gang to engage with real-world issues, although it never gets past that kind of contrived, after-school special vibe that seems to run through most of these ‘New Look’ stories.
Archie: Goodbye Forever (script: Melanie Morgan, pencils and inks: Norm Breyfogle, letters: John Workman, colors: Stephanie Vozzo).
Archie’s father gets a promotion at work, but it means the family has to move to another town a few hours away from Riverdale. Archie (and his mom) have serious misgivings, but decide not to voice them, because they realize how important the job opportunity is to Mr. Andrews. As the family goes house-hunting in the new town, Archie seriously begins to grapple with the fact that his whole life will be uprooted, while his friends similarly have to confront the fact that they’re going to lose him and things will never be the same. Again, here there is some consideration of very real aspects of life that most people have to confront at one point or another, like change and separation, but ultimately everything works out in the end (i.e., and *spoiler alert*, the status quo is restored).
The problem with most of these is that in the attempt to give the Archie universe a makeover and have them tackle more serious themes, much of its charm was lost. All of the stories, except The Matchmakers, lack humor, which is, I think, another vital component of the world of Archie. I’m not saying you can’t tell really serious stories with these characters (apparently that’s whole premise of the Riverdale TV series) but then you really have to commit to it. Otherwise, you get the watered down, neither-here-nor-there result we see in most of these.
As an aside, I have to say I was mostly disappointed with the art as well – excepting, again, The Matchmakers. The last two in particular were an unpleasant surprise: you’d think that with Rick Burchett, Terry Austin and Norm Breyfogle working on them, the art at least would have been spectacular. However, while it’s technically fine, it all just looks rather bland.
So I can’t really give this “first-wave” New Look a thumbs up. If you’re a diehard Archie fan, though, they might be interesting to read as a sort of Elseworlds take on these familiar characters.
There’s a 1990s TV pilot Archie: Riverdale and Back which tries a somewhat more serious take on the group than the usual comics and tanked badly.
While the current Waid/Staples stuff doesn’t grab me (I’ve never been much of an Archie fan) I did love Waid’s discussion of why people might be nervous about this take (“They imagine my scripts say things like ‘establishing shot: Jughead’s meth lab.'”).