It’s been months since the first issue of Adam Hughes’ Betty & Veronica came out, long enough that some of my bitterness toward the title has washed away. Maybe, I thought, this issue would find Hughes settling in with a deeper understanding of the characters, discarding all the framing devices he buried the first issue in, and moving the plot forward with alacrity. Well, things did happen in this issue, but it’s difficult to say that the plot moved forward. It’s impossible to say that he’s any more comfortable in Riverdale or that the title feels any more resonant.
What is this comic, and who is it for? As in the first issue, the second issue is presented by a dog who interjects occasionally, with faux grandiosity, with comments on the the pace and significance of the comic’s increasingly anti-social plot. Occasionally he seems to leer at the wide-mouthed protagonists or even bark at them.
Betty and Veronica, meanwhile, are caught up in a fight over the fate of Pop’s Choclit Shop/Mr. Lodge’s future coffee shop. Betty wants to save the diner for a “vanishing America.” Veronica wants to bury Betty and prove that one of the inviolable rules of the universe is that she will always win. Neither is especially interested in any of the people they draw into the conflict or the harm they do to each other. Neither is, even, particularly interested in the cause itself, the dog–Adam Hughes–reminds us, with a page of the girls decked out in boxing gear. If it wasn’t Pop’s Diner, it would be something else. Betty and Veronica look sexy while catfighting–it’s just what they do.
I read this comic with a sense of creeping dread. I’m not worried about Pop’s shitty diner or about Mr. Lodge’s even shittier coffee shop. I’m not worried about the side characters, who from Jughead and Archie, to Midge and Moose, are no more than poorly scripted set-dressing; their every utterance and gesture optimized for a Stars Hollow effect. I’m not even worried about what may happen between Betty and Veronica–inevitably humiliations, friendly fire, and a “lesson” learned by Betty alone as Veronica peels off in her new car to go shopping–but more the ideological downward spiral that is its simply going through the motions.
Betty’s quixotic defense of a “vanishing America” is not neutral. Neither is Veronica’s campaign, seemingly a response to Betty’s fervor. She is mad that Betty assumed that she would be on her side; that Betty thinks herself morally superior. For Veronica it’s a game she was always meant to win. For Betty it’s a quest. They’re both disconnected, caught up in a fight that Pop himself doesn’t care about and that Mr. Lodge barely spares a glance for. It’s all of it meaningless and they, the main characters, aren’t even centered, even less so than non-playable characters in the dog’s game. A blonde girl builds an action team to defend a “vanishing America,” shouting down everyone who finds this risible. Another girl yells that she is a winner, you a loser; when she wins, Riverdale wins with her. Each recruits an army of followers, either bought off or youthfully naive. The dog, meanwhile, sits back and watches this with glee. Both sides are ridiculous, it’s true, but they sure do look nice when they’re gripped by emotion, heaving inside athleisure wear. Both sides are self-serving, says the dog, a confidence scam played out merely to let them score points on the other.
Riverdale has as much magical realism and as many funny characters as does Stars Hollow, but Gilmore Girls makes no claim to “all-Americanness.” Riverdale is an “ideal America,” but silly, and in recent years Archie has staked much on this small town’s commitment to diversity as an American value. But the Riverdale of Betty and Veronica is less progressive fantasy, and more inane battleground. Hollow economic arguments about keeping things great and/or winning through pirate-capitalism, advanced by two morally compromised white people in a very white town. Please note: of all the Archie reboots this Riverdale is the whitest, the straightest and the only one overtly contemplating a bygone America. Echoes of Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump folding in on themselves until it’s a shrieking morass under the skin of two foolish kids fighting over an echo of an echo of an echo. Political rhetoric invoked for an inside joke that’s never fully expressed, just a wry nod, a smirking, leering chuckle — it’s farcial, isn’t it?
What is this comic, and who is it for? The plot-matter of this issue–Betty tries something and Veronica does better; Betty experiences a semblance of human emotion, exaggerated to Vaudevillian proportions and Veronica smirks–could have been summed up with a one-page montage, and in a traditional Archie comic, it would have been with a pratfall in every third panel. In this deconstructed, more “naturalistic” approach to the characters, it’s dragged out and lovingly detailed. But the shift from gag comic to cheap Gilmore Girls knockoff falls flat, because there is no emotional substance added, just more space between pratfalls, more dialogue that somehow reads more artificially than a Double Digest.
I keep asking, what is this comic, and who is it for, because that’s the rotten core of this mess. Why is a YA comic for girls narrated by an actual male dog who leers at them in bathing suits and workout gear? Why is it trying so hard to be in on the joke–what joke?–and ironic? I don’t think there’s a big market among teen girls for stories about how pretty they look while being ridiculous and selfish and generally soulless. At least, not without a healthy dose of sex, murder, and sincere human emotion.
Ultimately, this is a comic by Adam Hughes for Adam Hughes, our dog narrator. So here’s a new question: Why did Archie Comics accept this pitch for its revamped Betty & Veronica?