Over The Edge: Gender, Disability, and the Future of Archie

Since 2015, Archie Comics has quietly become the industry name to watch. Whether it’s reimagining classic characters in horror settings, confirming a titular character as asexual and aromantic, or sweeping the Teen Choice Awards with a Twin Peaks-esque murder mystery series, Archie is taking risks and making moves that a lot of big publishers wouldn’t gamble. In two years, “New Archie” isn’t just a marketing label; the publisher really has done something new. Well, mostly.

Archie v4, Script: Mark Waid Art: Pete Woods, Jack Morelli Cover: Robert Hack

Coordinating with the edgy vibes of Riverdale’s success, the three-part “Over the Edge” arc (Issues #20-22, compiled in the Volume 4 book) promised that a major character would look death in the eye. According to writer Mark Waid, “Death doesn’t blink.” New Archie has taken a lot of risks, but a death in the cast of iconic young characters is a move I never would have predicted. And one that, to date, remains unfulfilled.

#20 kicks off with a full page of Archie telling readers that the only person he truly hates is Reggie Mantle. In the New Archie ‘verse, the once ultimately harmless, if self-important, trickster is a full-blown bully who’s no stranger to the police, and readers are told off the bat that he isn’t just Archie’s rival but his enemy. After that, the story begins with amicable exes Archie and Betty (read: Betty) putting the finishing touches on a classic car they’ve (again: Betty) been fixing up for years. Reggie shows up and goads Archie into racing for pink slips a la Grease, and Archie agrees because he’s afraid Reggie will tell new girlfriend Veronica that her “football hero” is one fumble away from water boy. Once Betty finishes fixing the car, Archie hops in the driver’s seat and ditches her. It isn’t until he’s gone that she learns about the race, and then, knowing Archie to be both a lousy driver and disaster magnet, Betty speeds after him.

Archie v4, Script: Mark Waid Art: Pete Woods, Jack Morelli Cover: Robert Hack

Long story short, the race starts, Betty rushes to stop it, everyone is going at speeds way too dangerous to brake, and the three-car accident pushes one mystery driver “over the edge” of the road.

Archie v4, Script: Mark Waid Art: Pete Woods, Jack Morelli Cover: Robert Hack

Except it’s really not a mystery which driver it is, because the fact that Betty will be the victim is telegraphed pretty plainly by the fact that (a) she’s the innocent party trying to help and therefore the most unfair sacrifice, (b) Archie kicked off the issue saying that Reggie was about to “go too far,” and (c) the promotional page right after the cliffhanger spoils that Archie is safe when his and Betty’s cars were the ones closer to the edge, with Reggie’s car behind them.

#21 chronicles other characters’ initially comical stories being cut short when they get The Call. Jughead abandons a burger, the Bee abandons dealing out an easy detention, Veronica abandons gushing over her brand-new custom car, and Dilton abandons a new invention. Every one of these scenes is another dead giveaway that Betty is in the hospital, but it’s Dilton who truly gives away the victim, because right before he gets The Call, he makes a bolded, emphasized point of reminding Moose (and the reader) that Betty spends every hour of the day that she can “volunteering,” “delivering meals,” and “reading to the blind.”

Waid really wants to drive home how impossibly good and pure Betty is. In fact, #22 is basically an issue-long montage of memories of how sweet, generous, and selfless Betty is. Betty is awesome, don’t get me wrong, but her being put on a pedestal in this arc is worrying. She’s a great character…in no small part because she has flaws. The key to writing a successful girl-next-door like Betty Cooper is make her the kind of character readers recognize and relate to, for better and for worse. The nonstop emphasis on only her goodness, kindness, selflessness, etc., diminishes the sense of Betty as a character, and emphasizes her as more of a plot device. When Betty wakes up from her coma unable to feel her legs, it became inescapably clear that the shocking twist was really just another trip down the tired road of hurting a female character to progress the story of a male character and give him a cause for confrontation.

Which is exactly what Archie does.

The most recent issue, #23, kicks off the “Heart of Riverdale” arc. This story introduces new lead artist Audrey Mok (Josie and the Pussycats, Heroine Chic), who nails readers with the very first illustration: a cold open on Reggie’s car, windows bashed in with a baseball bat, body destroyed, and hood emblazoned with a spray-painted threat: DIE.

Like the arc before it, we start with Archie speaking directly to the reader. Again, it’s a “Reggie is Bad” speech, but this time Archie is especially spiteful. He blames Reggie entirely. Archie admits that he knew the race was stupid, but argues that at least he hit the brakes Archie promises to “tear into Reggie with [his] bare hands the way students tore into his car. And that will happen” (emphasis mine). The only thing staying his anger for the time being is that he has “other things to worry about.”

Cue wheelchair.

Betty’s tragic accident isn’t exactly unfamiliar territory for women. In fact, New Archie’s story is centuries old. Young women having accidents and ending up in wheelchairs to drum up sympathy and teach a lesson about responsibility is practically a dead trope. In a fifty-year timespan in America alone, three children’s novels—Susan Coolidge’s What Katy Did (1872), Louisa May Alcott’s Jack and Jill (1880), and Eleanor H. Porter’s Pollyanna (1913)—all told the exact same story. These books are still in print and can be found on “Classics” displays in bookstores.

Each novel centers around lively girls whose behavior clashes with expectations of young ladies of their era. Katy and Jill indulge in then-male-coded sports and rowdiness, while Pollyanna foregoes childlike obedience to invite every adult she meets to play “the Glad Game,” where she points out the silver linings in even the worst situations. Each girl suffers a tragic accident—Katy falls from a broken swing set, Jill and her friend Jack crash into a fence while sledding, and Pollyanna is in a car accident—and loses the ability to walk temporarily. Katy exchanges roughhousing for housekeeping and looking after her younger siblings; Jill vows to be as good as she can be and accepts her fate patiently and without complaint; and Pollyanna decides she’s glad to have legs even if she can’t walk on them. In the end, having shed their boisterous behaviors of childhood, the young women regain the ability to walk. It’s interesting to note that the three novels were penned by women, and that they are meant as both instructions on how young ladies should act and cautionary tales should they diverge.

For a more recent and comic-related example, there are plenty of parallels to be drawn between Betty and Barbara Gordon, whose Batgirl days came to an end when the Joker shot her and damaged her spinal cord in The Killing Joke. Author Jeffrey A Brown cited this story in his book, Dangerous Curves: Action Heroines, Gender, Fetishism, and Popular Culture, when discussing the disproportionate amount of violence female characters in comics face compared to male characters. Brown points out that oftentimes male characters who suffer critical or even fatal injuries are eventually restored, while female characters are more likely to endure long-term or permanent effects.

The decision to put Babs in a wheelchair and take away her batcowl remains controversial even today, though her reintroduction as Oracle was praised as respectful and empowering representation of disabled heroes. This turnaround is largely thanks to DC writers/married couple Kim Yale and John Ostrander, who rallied for Babs after The Killing Joke. Yale experienced using a wheelchair firsthand when visiting hospitals for cancer treatment. She also researched and interviewed people who used wheelchairs to craft Babs’ story, not only as a superhero but in her daily life. The devotion the writers showed to the character and the accuracy of Oracle’s portrayal were so well-received that a new controversy arose when Babs’ mobility was later restored and Oracle became Batgirl again.

These stories have me concerned about where Betty Cooper is headed.

Archie #24, Script: Mark Waid Art: Audrey Mok, Kelly Fitzpatrick, Jack Morelli Cover: Audrey Mok Variant Cover: Thomas Pitilli
Archie #24

For instance, it’s significant that the “Over the Edge” victim is Archie Comics’ most prominent “good girl.” It’s not, after all, confident and adventurous Veronica or calculating and sexy Cheryl who gets to be the “Heart of Riverdale,” nor is it the kindhearted but plain Ethel. The Heart of Riverdale must be beautiful inside and out, relatable but with a little bit of wish fulfillment, well-liked in-universe and with readers. A car accident is sad, but a car accident that affects a beloved character is sadder. Betty is the perfect choice for maximum emotional impact with minimum effort.

It’s discouraging that, in order for a story arc to chronicle how important Betty is to Riverdale, she had to be hospitalized. The scenario hints insidiously that Betty, ever self-sufficient and capable, is now a weakened girl in need. Betty must be protected. Betty must be avenged.

Betty’s being the victim is also significant because she’s Archie Comics’ most prominent tomboy. Upon hearing that she may end up in a wheelchair, Archie argues that she can’t because her whole life is “baseball. And working on cars. And track and field” (emphasis in comic), all activities largely coded as male, even today. Betty’s being a cheerleader isn’t mentioned, despite its being her most iconic athletic participation in the comics’ run. Archie doesn’t mention her journalism or volunteer work, either. The masculine is emphasized because the masculine is compromised. Archie, who previously criticized Betty for trying out more feminine clothes and makeup (#LipstickIncident), counts her athleticism and proficiency with cars as “her life”—and as her losses. In Archie’s mind, disability has made a full life impossible for Betty.

Archie #24, Script: Mark Waid Art: Audrey Mok, Kelly Fitzpatrick, Jack Morelli Cover: Audrey Mok Variant Cover: Thomas Pitilli
Archie #24 (rude, Archie!)

One important note that gives me hope is that Waid’s script makes it clear that this is Archie’s take on her situation, not the overall narrative’s stance. It is exclusively Archie who talks about Betty’s disability as a direct result of his and Reggie’s “stupid” decisions and actions, as a punishment, as a cost. Though the Cooper family struggles with the news, they don’t equate Betty’s being in a wheelchair with her having no future. The last panel of Betty in this issue has her blinking away tears with determination. Regardless of what Archie thinks, Betty does not see herself as helpless.

Neither does her best friend. When Archie sobs that Betty is the heart of Riverdale and that now she’s “broken,” Veronica refutes him immediately: “I don’t think so.”

Veronica is the unsung hero of #23. Her intelligence and generosity, qualities not always highlighted in her character, are hard at work. She organizes their whole friend group to cover Betty’s volunteering, comforts and acts as a rock for Archie in spite of the fact that the accident has left her reeling as well, and shuts down his assessment that Betty is incomplete in any way. Perhaps this interpretation of Veronica is a nod to pre-reboot Archie. In 2014, shortly before New Archie kicked off, the comics introduced Veronica’s cousin Harper, who also uses a wheelchair after being in a car accident. She is a fashionista, author, and advice columnist whom Archie Comics specifically created in response to a fan letter critiquing their lack of disabled characters. The Lodges may have a greater role yet to play in the arc ahead.

In a lot of ways, the “Over the Edge” arc feels like a missed opportunity. It would have been interesting to see Archie himself as the one in the hospital. Since it is, after all, the Archie comic line, his being the one in the accident would’ve made the issue at hand feel less removed: Archie would experience instead of react. On top of that, isn’t Archie arguably the Heart of Riverdale? As much as he breaks things and drives people nuts, Archie is also well-liked and is at the center of a lot of Riverdale’s activity. Everybody knows Archie Andrews. What if everyone were coming together to support him? How would Riverdale react to Archie’s being in an accident, and how would he react in return? Alternatively, what if Archie put Reggie in the hospital? That would’ve presented an interesting role reversal, with Archie as the “bad guy,” and maybe even an opportunity for the boys to work out their bad blood. Either of these options would’ve avoided the gendered baggage of a wheelchair injury as well.

While I was reading “Over the Edge,” there was a third ‘what if’ in my mind, but #23 has me wondering if that option is actually the truth: that Archie was responsible for Betty’s accident. He repeats over and over that Reggie didn’t brake but Archie did, to a degree that I wonder if Archie is protecting himself from the truth. Maybe Reggie’s car hit Betty’s first, but Archie’s was the one to push her “over the edge.” Maybe it’s not just Archie’s fault that Betty was rushing in the first place, but also that she’s in the hospital.

Archie #24, Script: Mark Waid Art: Audrey Mok, Kelly Fitzpatrick, Jack Morelli Cover: Audrey Mok Variant Cover: Thomas Pitilli
Archie #24

Even if I’m not digging Betty’s not-so-shocking twist, Waid is laying a lot of solid groundwork that has me interested in where the story goes. The detail that started it all—the fact that Archie agreed to race Reggie to keep him from telling Veronica about Archie’s fumbling football career—is bound to come out. Waid promised that relationships would be damaged, and whether Archie’s car pushed Betty over the edge or not, Veronica will be horrified to learn the meaningless root of her best friend’s hospitalization. I’m predicting that Archie and Veronica are headed for a split.

Right now, Archie is rocking the “Never My Fault” look. He outright tells readers to hate and blame Reggie, and it’s all but stated that he throws Reggie under the bus as the sole responsible party when talking to the cops. He repeatedly tells other characters and the reader that he braked and Reggie didn’t. That he “let Reggie bully him,” but “at least [Archie] knew it was a stupid thing to do” (emphases mine). When told that he can’t come into Betty’s room because it’s family only, he tells the nurse “I don’t care” and barges in anyway. He mansplains to Betty’s parents and doctors that Betty can’t be in a wheelchair because her life is too active. He agrees to a drag race so his girlfriend won’t find out he isn’t the star of the football team, and after the accident he grunts and puffs up his chest, ready to punch Reggie on Betty’s behalf. He swears vengeance on Reggie, but not right now because Archie has other things to worry about. He makes Betty’s injury about himself.

Reggie’s sole post-accident panel thus far shows him, after cooperating with the cops, quietly asking how Betty is doing.

I was down with Waid’s #LipstickIncident, which called Archie out deliciously back in Issue #4. Right now, I actually have a lot of confidence that Archie is going to get called out again before “The Heart of Riverdale” is through. Nobody else is counting Betty out the way Archie is, including Betty herself. Hal Cooper spends every panel he shares with Archie side-eyeing him and even cuts off Archie’s wailing with a snarl that he and his wife know that Betty’s life will change.

The A+ speech bubble positioning of this particular panel leads me to an aspect of the new issue that must be discussed: the art.

Following Josie—which drew much of its enchanting comedy from rapid-fire snarking, leaning on the fourth wall, and pop culture references—Mok’s art is given a lot more room to breathe in Archie. Waid’s script allows generous storytelling on the artist’s part, and Mok delivers, both to the benefit of comedic and serious moments. The beat panel in which Archie’s friends realize that Archie—again, disaster magnet—is going to want to “help” cover Betty’s volunteer work (below) leads to a very serious moment…where they rock-paper-scissors to see who gets stuck with him. The following pages are full of how-did-this-happen cuts to Archie fouling up every attempt to help, showcasing Mok’s trademark cinematic energy.

On the flip side, the stark opening image of Reggie’s destroyed car will haunt me for years to come. A scene in which Archie comes running to be by Betty’s side when she calls for him makes great use of space and perspective to emphasize Archie’s urgency in getting to her. An entire page is dedicated to a single interaction between Dilton and Moose, and their expressions and gestures make one of the issue’s most powerful statements without a single speech bubble.

It would be wrong for me to dismiss the good moments of the issue along with the bad. I do want to see how this story plays out. The teaser cover at the back of the issue suggests that Reggie will return to the spotlight, which I am so here for.

There are two roads this arc could take. On one hand, Betty could follow in Katy’s, Jill’s, Pollyanna’s, and Babs’ footsteps and recover against all odds. The fact that her injury is psychological and not due to spinal cord damage makes this path seem likely, meaning that Death is blinking all over the place. My fear is that her injury isn’t an historic new direction for Betty’s character but a plot device to motivate Archie and drive the tension between him and Reggie. Even though #23 shows Betty as a fighter, it does also set up her arc not as adjusting to life in a wheelchair but fighting to get out of it.

Alternatively, Betty may not recover the ability to walk. Or, perhaps she will recover, but her arc will show its work in portraying her time in a wheelchair and recovery realistically, the way Yale showed her work with Babs. Maybe this arc will reintroduce Harper and bring Betty and Veronica even closer together. Betty is also Riverdale’s most active activist, and it isn’t hard to imagine her lobbying for accessibility all over town and training for the wheelchair division of marathons or the Olympics. If Betty’s experience gets attention and focus on the page, this story could absolutely rescue itself from making Betty a damsel casualty to teach Archie a lesson.

Perhaps above all else, the ideal trajectory for the “Heart of Riverdale” arc would be Archie’s accepting responsibility and facing consequences for his actions. And consequences won’t blink.

Paige Sammartino

Paige Sammartino

Paige reads, writes, and rallies for the power of kindness and optimism. She is a part-time superhero and full-time Slytherin.