How do you weave modern stories about a group of 75-year-old teenagers while still remaining true to their roots? That's the challenge writer Mark Waid and artist Veronica Fish, the creative team on the rebooted "Archie," face every month
The Archie Comics reboot has brought some profound changes, all of which were discussed during the publishers C2E2 panel. Archie has never had continuity -- the stories are self-contained, and Betty might be a master chef in one story and incapable of boiling water in the next, Waid pointed out. Now, the stories continue from issue to issue and there's a bit more drama. "I need, sometimes, for the readers to come away from an issue not liking that person as much any more," he said. "Whether it is Archie or Betty or Veronica or Jughead, and to have that freedom where not everybody makes all the right choices all the time and everything is resolved by the end of the issue, as long as on the whole they are good kids and you like them."
On the other hand, there were things he couldn't do -- at least not yet. For instance, Waid flirted with bringing divorce into the story and giving Archie a stepmother. "That was interesting to me, and I liked that idea a lot," he said. "The Archie guys, who had been nothing but supportive, came back to me and said, 'That's great, but Archie, in our minds, should be the most vanilla... he should be the character without anything really unusual or remarkable about him because he's the lens through which you view all our other characters. He's the hub of the wheel.' And that made a lot of sense to me."
The editors also vetoed another story twist, in which Reggie tries to enlist in the Army to get away from a bad situation at home. "When I read that in the script, I was so moved by that," said Fish. "For me, that instantly elevated everything evil Reggie does: His goal in life is to get out of this town. He hates his life, but he purports to be, 'I'm so rich, I'm so cool, you guys can just deal with it' -- but in fact, that's a total ruse." However, she thought the hint of abuse was too disturbing for the editors.
Waid was philosophical about the change. "There is something to be said for, sometimes characters are jerks just because they are jerks," he said. "I don't need to know why the Grinch stole Christmas, I just want to see how he stole Christmas. I left it open enough that maybe there's room for that later, now that we have a little more texture to his life."
Overall, the editors have been supportive, Waid explained, because he had demonstrated he could be trusted with the characters. "If you are dealing with characters who preexist you as a writer, there is a reason these characters have been around that long, and you don't necessarily know what that alchemy is," he said. "For every Archie, there are a thousand teenage characters who have been forgotten... I'm very protective of that. It's the Hippocratic oath, which is 'First, do no harm.' Go in there first and try to figure out what makes the characters work. Drill down deeper on them, but don't just go, 'I don't like Veronica, so we're just going to do this with her because it's cool and hip.' 'Oh look, Betty failed her pregnancy test!' There might be room down the road to do a story like that, but you don't lead with that because that's not what those characters are."
The tension between drama and comedy is part of the challenge for both creators. Fish said her work varies between more realistic and more cartoony. "I am trying to decide am I doing this because I want the comedy to be the focus of the body action or am I doing this because in a dramatic situation it helps the drama if they look very realistic," she said. "I try to make them look consistent, but at the same time, I like pushing how much they can move, and the physical comedy comes in."
"I wanted there to be at least one big set piece of physical comedy in every issue, because the easiest thing for me to do is to write clever badinage between teenage characters -- but that's not what comics does best," said Waid. "What Veronica does such a great job with is swinging the pendulum back between, on one page you have the characters having a very serious, very emotional conversation, and on the very next page, Archie is imagining setting the school on fire -- by accident. It's drawing the drama with some sense of realism but being willing to cut loose in more fanciful moments. If an Archie comic isn't funny, you're not doing it right."
The trinity of Archie, Betty and Veronica has always been at the heart of Archie Comics, but when Fish read Bart Beaty's "12 Cent Archie," a series of short essays on the comics, she came away with a new realization. "It's not technically a love triangle for most of the Archie canon," she said. "Archie exclusively dates Veronica and only dates Betty when Veronica allows it or is trying to make him jealous by dating Reggie. Betty pines for Archie." That's not something she sees today's female readers going along with.
Indeed, Waid is giving Betty more freedom. "I do want Archie and Veronica, and I do want Betty and Archie, and I do want them to bounce back and forth, but in a more natural way," he said. "I have to be extraordinarily super clear that in no way am I knocking 75 years of Archie. It is that everything is a product of its time, and I think that Betty having more on her mind than, 'How do I get Archie?' makes her a better character."
Waid said he is still struggling with the characters of Dilton and Moose -- especially Moose. "I think there are great stories to be told with them, and I have at least four half-written Dilton and Moose stories on the computer that aren't quite there yet," he said. Part of the problem is that Moose has always been portrayed as dumb. "When you talk about that friction between comedy and drama, Moose is at the absolute vector of that," he said. "You don't want to take his stupidity too seriously, because then he's not a cartoon any more, but at the same time, there's only so stupid he can be without it being tragic."
On the other hand, some things never change. Jughead's crown, for instance. "Everyone's first question when you told them you were going to relaunch Archie is, 'Are you going to get rid of that dumb crown?'" Waid said. "It's a cool crown. You lean into it... and you write Jughead as the kind of character who would wear a crown."
"He wouldn't care what anyone thought," Fish added. "That's what makes him so righteous. He knows who he is, and he has no issues with it."
And some things are eternal -- including what it feels like to be a teenager. That's why, Waid said, he can write about being a teenager even though he isn't one any more.
"Fashions date, slang dates, but the emotions of the characters, that's the stuff that doesn't date, no matter how old you are," he said. "Everybody remembers what it's like to be in high school. Everybody remembers your first kiss, your first disappointments, the fact that when something goes wrong, it's the most horrible thing in the world, and when you achieve something it's like you're the first person in the world that's ever done it. High school is like an opera, where the fat lady sings every day."
"Archie" vol. 1 TPB is on sale now; "Archie" #7 goes on sale April 6 from Archie Comics.