July 20, 2016
This comic opens with a talking dog and transitions to two talking teenage boys. It’s not a great way to start a comic that’s devoted to forever frenemies Betty and Veronica, and it’s one too many framing devices for a story that’s simple as can be.
Betty and Veronica and pals want to help Pop save his always beleaguered diner from being taken over by corporate overlords. They also want to plan a great school dance. And of course, most importantly, their always unsteady friendship is constantly rocked by competition and Veronica’s Iago-like drive to cause trouble (#TeamBetty).
It’s a lot of NOT Betty and Veronica for a first issue that’s meant to sell new readers on the frenemies. A lot of NOT fashionable fashion for a comic that’s traditionally been fueled, in part, by sartorial oneup(wo)manship. And a lot of NOT deep emotions, which should at least be suggested. Betty & Veronica Double Digests aren’t still being devoured by kids (and adult kids like me) because they lack feeling for each other–their complicated, but mutual disdain, affection, loyalty (and maybe sexual tension!) is what makes them interesting. Archie’s position, ostensibly at the top of the triangle, is beside the point–at least it should be in their comic, in Betty & Veronica, the book about their feelings for each other.
I compare Veronica to Othello‘s Iago and not Mean Girls‘ Regina George because that’s about the speed of this comic, with cultural references skimmed from all over–not carefully set and polished in the script, but jammed inappropriately, carelessly together. So Jughead’s dog talks. So he talks in ye olde fake Shakespearean voiceover. So why is he talking here, Riverdalians? What does this noble canine add, but a kind of vague grasping towards the great teen Shakesmovies of the ’90s, several generations out of date? I guess it’s an interesting art choice that our first glimpse of Riverdale is all two story houses on rolling hills, tall pointed roofs and gently drifting autumn leaves. Invoking both–maybe, I think–North Eastern Americana and classic Willy Shakes set designs of old. There are second story windows and balconies one could “Oh Romeo” from and wraparound porches one could quietly make out on late at night.
Beyond the presence of the dog narrator–an unnecessary framing device that sets the scene wrong–there are cues that do not match the later content, dated references, and stilted dialogue. Dialogue is hard, especially teen dialogue, as teen slang is specifically designed to reveal us olds for the losers we are. But it’s better, I think, to hit a general note of youth than to try to sound like The Youths and come off like an awkward undercover op. Instead, Hughes is trying to maintain “aw shucks” Archie-isms while also sounding of the moment. Let me give you some examples:
“Joo gah sum ‘splainin’ to do Loosy,” says Jughead to Archie, like anyone who could get this reference doesn’t already know how Ricky’s voice sounds.
“Santa has lil minions with mad crafting skeelz,” says Jughead to Archie, arguing that Santa could beat the Easter Bunny in a fight. Because of all those “skeelz” he and his elves have picked up over the centuries.
These teens. So Youth.
Pops, meanwhile, doesn’t know what espresso and paninis are.
Look, I love Archie comics, and I love Riverdale. I love that the town exists in some kind of space-time anomaly, not quite a part of our world and always reflecting a gently progressive form of the American Dream that never experiences crisis, only shenanigans and occasionally kerfuffles. And I like that this new line of Archie comics, from Mark Waid, Chip Zdarsky, Fiona Staples, et al., maintains elements of Archie’s nostalgia and updates it by making it a nostalgia-of-now, an America with its edges planed off–a kind of Degrassi without very special episodes where all the learning-to-tolerate-difference is done and characters simply know-to-love, while still, somehow, being kind of shitty teens. I am here for that, generally speaking. It is satisfying in a particular, mostly toothless way. Just as Archie Horror is satisfying in a particular, too toothy way.
But Betty & Veronica doesn’t manage nostalgia-of-today. It’s dated. It’s, well, weird in its self-conscious artificiality and self-parody. And it doesn’t believe in what it’s selling. It’s Archie, man. At least a part of you reader, creator, critic, has got to be here for the corn roast–moar, moar, put another cob on the barbecue–or else, what’s the point?
And that dog. T H A T D O G. Not just Shakesfilms, but also Masterpiece Theatre references–for relevance, right? Hotdog’s narration adds nothing necessary in terms of framing the plot or the characters, serving only to comment on them from remove. Hotdog is us, readers–some of us–and Hotdog is Hughes. And we see this most clearly when he takes over the comic for pages 19 and 20 for a lengthy aside. Betty and Veronica have given him permission to take over their book, to smother their voices with his own, and then to display them at the end of page 20 in bathing suits, dolled up in full makeup. Finally, they get to comment on their own story! All the meta turned on its head–that’s great, right? But all these pages in, after being framed by Hotdog, by Archie, by Jughead, by Hughes, what do they, these two characters, have to say for themselves? Mostly they are a vehicle for Hughes to talk about the Bad Comics These Days, those books that have too much exposition and meta, ha ha. They serve, too, to demonstrate the book’s approval of itself, of Betty and Veronica, the characters, rubber-stamping their non-adventure. “Hey fellow kids, this comic is so droll. SO DROLL.”
This, to go along with character designs that are fine, insofar as their clothing is ordinary enough, not designed to overtly objectify, and their hair and eye colours are correct. Point of order though: Betty & Veronica is traditionally a fashion comic as much as it is a frenemies comic, so where, where, where is the fashion? Veronica isn’t a tastefully dressed rich girl; she’s the rich girl who dresses to excess, in part because she gets a kick out of us knowing how rich she is. Betty isn’t just an absurdly talented girl next door; she’s the girl who turns ordinary into an art form in order to take Veronica on. Normcore meets Project Runway: Betty’s Bedroom Edition. Girl on girl (and I do mean GIRL, not “barely legal,” not “soon to be on Tinder”) class warfare erupting out of every crack in a never easy friendship; that, I think, is Betty & Veronica, for most of us.
And then, do these characters look like Betty and Veronica, or do they look like Adam Hughes’ everywoman? Not everygirl, because nothing in the design suggests teenage awkwardness. Betty, Veronica, and Midge all have the same face, body, hair, makeup and lightly glossed skin, but in varying shades. Hair shorter or longer. T-shirts or pullovers or hoodies. Lovingly rendered, calculatedly lovely, but devoid of character. Who are they but a checklist of traits? Betty is athletic. Veronica is vain. Betty cares about social causes. Veronica cares about money and being mean. Every exhortation, either from Betty or Veronica (or Midge!) comes from a wide open mouth. Every joke comes from a wide open mouth. Listen, this is Hughes at his most restrained, and yet those lips keep opening wide, wide, wider as if waiting for something to pass between them. It doesn’t work. It’s inexpressive and unfortunately suggestive, though never outright dirty.
Is this how humans fall? Is this how cartoon characters of humans fall or yell or express emotion? Sometimes, I guess. But it doesn’t work; it doesn’t hit its mark. It doesn’t, the comic, have a mark that I can detect. Who is this new Betty & Veronica for? I simply cannot tell.