REVIEW: Big Ethel Energy is Fun But Fails to Innovate

Archie Comics Big Ethel Energy Webtoon Logo Feature Image

Ten years after having her heart broken by Jughead Jones in high school, Ethel Muggs is a successful journalist in NYC. Until she isn’t. Unsatisfied with her career and evicted from her apartment, Ethel returns to Riverdale in Webtoon’s Big Ethel Energy, its first collaboration with Archie Comics.

Big Ethel Energy #1, #2, and #3

Keryl Brown Ahmed (writer), Cathy Le (colorist), Maria Li (storyboards), Kielamel Sibal (letterer), and Siobhan (artist)
Webtoon
September 21, 2021

Archie Comics Big Ethel Energy Webtoon Logo

Alternating between a younger, thinner, paler, and shorter (with more pronounced front teeth) Ethel in flashbacks and an older, larger, tanner, and taller (not to mention more confident) Ethel in the present, the first few episodes of the Webtoon introduce readers to the creative team’s version(s) of Ethel. As a teenager, she’s desperate to fit in with the cool kids. As an adult, she’s a Columbia alumna who’s interviewed Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Tarana Burke — big names to drop when named characters of color are outnumbered more than two to one thus far — but she’s still not totally sure of herself. She is sure that she isn’t going back to small town life, even when the mayor has asked her to write a book about her hometown.

At least, she’s against going back until she gets a letter from beloved high school teacher Geraldine Grundy. Even then, she cannot be convinced unless Riverdale’s Mayor Glibb ups the offer. And agrees with her conditions. And guarantees an expense budget. All of which he does, and all of which — everything going wrong to go right — makes this feel very much like a Webtoon.

Panel featuring Ethel Muggs and Tim Franco from Big Ethel Energy by writer Keryl Brown Ahmed and artist Siobhan

As does the artwork, which could not be mistaken for the Dan Parent Archie House Style. It’s closer to the 2015 Fiona Staples reboot while being its own distinct thing clearly intended to make this adaptation appeal, as that reboot did, to a new audience. Siobhan’s linework is delicate, using thin lines for nearly everything but eyeliner and eyebrows, and it is complemented by the coloring. Le uses a combination of base color and shadow (or, for hair, base color and highlight) to create depth on bodies and make them pop on simple contrasting backgrounds. Her colors are soft, tending towards warm pastels and earthy tones, and sometimes inconsistent, but never over-rendered on characters like Ethel and Betty Cooper (below), who Ethel lives with after leaving New York and her newly introduced best friend Tim Franco (above).

Panel featuring Ethel Muggs and Betty Cooper from Big Ethel Energy by writer Keryl Brown Ahmed and artist Siobhan

Betty just so happens to live in the same building as Archie Andrews. While some of the appeal of adapting an eighty-year-old property to Webtoon is found in the use of existing characters, Big Ethel Energy’s cast could have looked less like the central, predominantly white cast of these early episodes — Ethel, Archie, Betty, Jughead, Veronica Lodge, and the yet-to-appear Moose Mason advertised in the banner — and more like the diverse stable of characters that Archie already has to offer (and the digital readership to which it should be appealing).

Formally, the episodes are almost unbearably long even when very little happens narratively. Swiping through the comic is both a metaphorical and literal drag even when the artwork is at its best. Dialogue is spread too far and too thin, and the creative team doesn’t manage to strike a balance between text and image along the vertical scroll. Still, I’m rooting for Ethel Muggs, and I’m hoping that she and the creative team find their groove.

One thought on “REVIEW: Big Ethel Energy is Fun But Fails to Innovate

  1. The part I found the most disappointing was that Ethel was so scarred by Jughead’s rejection and Archie/Betty/Veronica/Jughead’s refusal to include her in their social group that she refuses to date anyone as an adult. I understand social anxiety and what it’s like to deal with mental scars, but considering her growth everywhere else it felt reductive.

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