Wednesday, August 11, 2010

To Melodrama And Back Again

I've been asked by a couple of people what I think of the new Life With Archie magazine, which continues the Archie "marriage" flash-forwards from last year's famous arc. (For more details on the first issue, see Albert Ching's review at Newsarama and Chris Sims' review.) I may not be the absolute right person to ask, since although I'm a genuine Archiephile, I haven't really followed much of the company's recent output.

From what I do know, I think their work has improved in the past few years -- they no longer ask everybody to draw like DeCarlo; Jughead is no longer being given personality makeovers to make him more appealing to girls -- but there still hasn't been much, in art or writing, to compare to the era when they had some of the best humor comics in the business. (As I've said elsewhere, if you compare Frank Doyle's scripts for Betty and Veronica in its prime -- the late '50s and early '60s -- and compare them to the Stan Lee scripts Dan DeCarlo was illustrating for Marvel at the same time, you'd conclude that Archie was a better company than Timely/Marvel. And for humor comics, it was.) It's partly about an inability to get the best people, or perhaps an unwillingness to pay for them. (Though I don't want to disparage some of the people who are there: at least two writers, Kathleen Webb and Craig Boldman, do fine work in the Frank Doyle tradition.) But mostly it's just that they're not funny enough.

Now, Archie has been getting genuine buzz in the last year for the first time in a long time, and it's a sign that Jon Goldwater's aggressive new approach is working. (The aggressiveness is all a means to an end, of course: trying to increase awareness of the franchise to the point that they can finally, at last, get that elusive movie.) But most of this approach is based on comics that aren't really humor comics. The marriage arc that started all this was alternate-universe melodrama. Archie's romance with Valerie from Josie and the Pussycats: more soapy melodrama. Tom DeFalco's current arc in Archie is solidly in the franchise tradition, but it's light tongue-in-cheek action in the style of the original Life With Archie title. The only pure comedy stunt was getting Robot Chicken's Tom Root to write an issue of Jughead, and that didn't make as much noise as the others. (Unfortunately Jughead under Craig Boldman and Rex Lindsey, which has been the company's best title for some time, hasn't sold terribly well -- proof, perhaps, that funny doesn't sell any more.) This is still a humor comics company, but it's less of one than it was.

Now, I think it's mostly the extreme restrictions they've put on themselves in terms of what the characters can do. When Dan DeCarlo was booted out, he was free to complain that Betty and Veronica had lost the distinctive personalities that made them fun to draw: specifically, it had been years since Veronica was allowed to act really mean. (This was an ongoing process; Betty had been getting nicer, sweeter and less crazy -- and less funny -- since the '60s at least.) Bob Bolling said in his 2004 interview in Comic Book Artist that "I get these scripts that are nothing but heads talking... I got two stories recently that were exactly alike." Which is a consequence of the limitations on comic violence, anti-social behavior, and so on. It's not just Archie; nearly all of children's entertainment now suffers from gigantic self-imposed restrictions on what you can do and say. But since a funny Archie story, like a funny animated cartoon, depends on behavior that is mean or anti-social if you really look at it carefully, it's not surprising that it's hard for the comics to be funny.

So, given the fact that it's hard for kids' comics to be funny these days, and that funny isn't a great sales proposition anyway, it may make sense for their output to move more toward drama and romance and adventure. Which is what's good about this Life With Archie magazine: unlike the marriage arc, which felt like a bit of a stunt and had a lot of sloppy drawing, this one actually sort of feels like a concept that could work and has something new to say about the characters.

A lot of this has to do with the art, by Norm Breyfogle. He's using an art style that feels right for this franchise: it's dramatic and atypical of Archie in layouts and angles, but the characters all look like themselves, and their physical personalities are as we've come to expect after 70 years. This is a much better "Archie as drama" approach than the realistic new-look stories (which Breyfogle also worked on). In the melancholy feel and specific sense of place, it sometimes has a Bob Bolling feel to it, though more polished and with a less tongue-in-cheek sensibility.

The influence of Bolling seems pretty strong in Archie lately, not surprising given that Mike Uslan is a big fan and Victor Gorelick has tended to champion his work. Bolling's Mad Doctor Doom and Chester are the villains in the current Archie story, and in a key moment in Life With Archie, Archie meets a grown-up version of Ambrose, illustrated with bits from the 1958 one-shot "Little Ambrose" comic.

(Incidentally, Ambrose says here that he met the Martians Abercrombie and Stitch; that would be a so-called continuity error except that Bolling himself did a story a month ago where he brought those characters back to meet the young Ambrose. I don't know if that was deliberately co-ordinated.)

Second, while the stories are crazy melodramatic, they are at least sort of plausible -- unlike that To Riverdale and Back Again TV movie (and Gene Colan's comic-book spinoff, done in a realistic style). The way the familiar characters develop, in both stories, usually fits what we know about them, and it's a way of thinking about how permanently-young characters might grow up, if they were allowed to grow up.

And finally there's the already-infamous device of tying together not only the two stories, but literally the entire 70-year history of the franchise, by suggesting that there are parallel universes and that every Archie world is "real" within its own universe. This is nutty, but it's also kind of brilliant, because it's got something for everyone:

- For people whose interest in the franchise is mostly historical, like me, it allows for lots of shout-outs to history from a company that used to want to downplay how old the characters are. (One of the new characters owns a banking firm called "Mirth of a Nation," a reference to Archie's old tag-line.)

- For comic book fans, who don't usually read Archie, it gives them something to talk and argue about. It also brings the franchise in line with the modern requirement that they have continuity (something that was never necessary in the classic comics, any more than in Looney Tunes cartoons) while not forcing them to disown any of the nine zillion variant versions.

- And for kids, it's potentially a way of guiding them to other titles or at least the concept that there are other forms of this comic to explore.

I don't know how any of this is going to hold up in future issues; Paul Kupperberg takes over the writing in issue # 2, but I don't know what he has planned or if this conceit can be sustained. But for now, it's the first comic of the new run that has the potential to justify the move to melodrama: it has certain similarities to Marvel's soap-opera retools of Millie the Model and Patsy Walker (and let's not get into Patsy's superhero makeover), but unlike them, it doesn't reject the original purpose of the characters and therefore has room to move without alienating existing readers.

All in all, it's pretty impressive that they've made something interesting of this, given how bad it sounded. It was originally announced as two separate comics, which sounded like a silly attempt to keep the marriage publicity alive. Then it was announced as two comics in one magazine, which just seemed like a way of avoiding the inevitable lower sales for an "Archie Marries Veronica" comic. But there actually seems to be method to most of the madness: the magazine format is getting them back onto news-stands where they belong, and the presence of Justin Bieber on the cover might be worth it. They may sort of know what they're doing, which would be the first time in a while that you could say that about this company.


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Snodge said...

As usual. Jaime. your astute commentary can't be faulted. I was dreading the "Marriage" arc, and find myself reliving the glory days with my 400+ collection of digests from the early 70's to the late 90's. When I pick up new copies (I just started collecting them again), I've been disheartened by some of the flabby drawing styles and uncomplicated storylines. But I think I am going to look for "Life with Archie" and see what it's like.