Break from the Bat #15: Archie, Vol. 2 review

Welcome back to Break from the Bat, your monthly dose of the wide world of comics outside of Gotham! A little over a year ago, I took a short look at Mark Waid’s first volume of Archie. I shouldn’t like Archie—who wants to revisit high school and all of those silly emotional crises that come with it? And yet I absolutely loved Waid’s punchy, authentic dialogue, and the characters that it painted.

The busy life of a comic critic has taken me into all sorts of territory since then, but when a friend mentioned the recent release of Archie’s third volume, I knew I had to catch up. So come with me once more to the town of Riverdale, where a lovable, red-headed klutz named Archie Andrews forever finds himself wrapped up in hijinks and heartache.

Art by Veronica Fish

After messing things up with his life-long best friend Betty, and making a less-than-favorable impression on the father of his new love interest, Archie begins Vol. 2 in a bit of a jam. Hiram Lodge has forbidden Veronica from seeing Archie, and Betty has moved on to another young man.

I cannot list all of the good things Waid does with the dialogue, because there may not be one bad word in the entire volume. But at a high level, the two things that initially sold me on this series remain strong selling points: perfectly-timed, flowing conversations between characters; and an unmatched ability to not only understand, but also articulate, the subtle-yet-severe pains of being human.

Stories compress time out of necessity. To maintain interest, a writer must keep feeding the reader. Leave us in a lifelike lull and we may stop reading. But you can’t just throw all sorts of disparate elements one after the other—it has to flow, too. And in all of it, the reader still needs time to savor the big moments. Waid is a master of balancing all of these things. There is a rhythm to Archie that comfortably ushers you along—not too fast, not too slow. At a high level, crisis blends into crisis, sometimes with a brief respite. The drama comes naturally, not forced, so that you never question the authenticity of a character—even one like Ronnie whose personality operates outside of the real world. It’s a remarkable thing for Waid to be able to write her in such a way that we can question her (Veronica’s) decisions without ever questioning his (Waid’s).

At a lower level, jokes and gags effortlessly flow into new jokes and gags, always after you have time to enjoy, but also before you have time to look at your watch. Here’s a great early example:

Art by Veronica Fish and Jen Vaughn

Look at those last three balloons—each one has a fresh joke. They aren’t the sort that would make you slap your knee, but they just pop in the dialogue in a way that propels everything forward, making you laugh a bit in the meantime. They all convey meaningful information, too—Archie’s desire to apologize, Veronica’s need to finesse things with her dad, and Reggie’s skeevy scheming. But we also get a strong sense of Archie and Ronnie. That they banter—rather than drearily commiserate—is far more important a feature in the story than the particulars that have brought them here in the first place.

But as I said before, Waid’s ability to sell these characters goes even deeper than characterizing them. Archie and his friends are more than their interactions with each other. There are real human feelings dealt with in this book, culminating in what I think is a masterful analysis of the complicated nature of relationships, courtesy of Betty Cooper:

Art by Thomas Pitilli, Ryan Jampole, and Andre Szymanowicz

You can easily read this volume in small doses, because the issues themselves stand well enough on their own, and each one is subdivided even further, providing obvious bookmarks if you don’t have much time. But don’t let that fool you into thinking that Archie is nothing more than a light snack. All of the fluff and fun and teenage drama in this book gets you to lower your guard, and then when you’re least expecting it, Betty hits you with some profound truth.

The line art is split, with Veronica Fish handling pencils and inks for the first four installments, and Thomas Pitilli providing finished over breakdowns by Ryan Jampole for the last two. Colors come from Andre Szymanowicz (with help from Jen Vaughn on the first installment). Jack Morelli letters the entire volume. Aesthetically, I prefer Fish to the team of Pitilli and Jampole, but both styles nevertheless excel at displaying the wide range of emotions covered by our teenaged protagonists. There’s nothing especially flashy, and even visual gags are fewer than you might expect, but what it lacks in pizazz, it more than makes up for in solid storytelling. Pages scan well, and there’s plenty of plot in the imagery itself, before you even look at the balloons. Szymanowicz does an outstanding job with the colors, enhancing both the overall playfulness of the story and the more emotional moments of intimacy between characters. It’s a great-looking book.

If you think you have no interest in reading about high school kids being high school kids, I encourage you to give it a chance just the same. Archie features some of the best writing in the business, paired up with a superb rotation of talented visual storytellers. If you’re taking a break from Batman, why not spend it in Riverdale?

That’s it for my look at Archie, Vol. 2. I’ll probably take a look at the next volume soon, so stay tuned for that. In the meantime, have a look at some of the other stuff we’ve been reading, and let us know about you in the comments. Until next time.

Black Bolt #1

Art by Christian Ward

How do you launch a series about a character who can’t talk, lest he level everything around him? That’s a good question, and writer Saladin Ahmed and artist Christian Ward provide a compelling answer with Black Bolt #1. Strong narration and vibrant, imaginative artwork drive the first half, and a rude awakening for our hero leaves me wanting more by the end. Some of the impact will be lost on the uninitiated, but Black Bolt nevertheless demands to be read.

– Brian

Brave Chef Brianna

Art by Bridget Underwood

Look, I’m a big guy. I like food. I like watching cooking shows because I find them soothing for…whatever reason.
Apparently, I also like food comic books.
Brave Chef Brianna is an all-ages book from kaboom! that follows Brianna, the youngest of 16 children whose father is a legendary celebrity chef. Their father is sick, so he gives all of them a challenge: whomever has the most successful restaurant will earn the rights to the family name.
Brianna, being the youngest, has the least experience. On top of that, she has almost crippling anxiety. Still, she wants to do her father proud so she packs up and heads to Monster City to open a human restaurant.
Sam Sykes’ scripts are simple and fun, funny when they need to be while providing decent insight into anxiety issues. He doesn’t beat you over the head with it, nor does he play Brianna’s weaknesses for laughs. Most of the humor comes from the “fish out of water” situation Brianna finds herself in, along with some of Selina Espiritu’s great designs for the monsters (the skeletons are my favorite, because THEY YELL AT EVERYTHING AND JUST LOVE LIFE IN GENERAL AHHHHHHH).
Plus there’s a recipe at the end of each issue (the most recent one was for a buffalo chicken tater tot casserole that sounds AMAZING), so it’s a winner all around.

– Jay

Bug! The Adventures of Forager #1

Art by Michael and Laura Allred

This one might have made a bit more sense had I read Cosmic Odyssey first, but no big deal. Bug!, the latest book in DC’s Young Animal imprint, is massively entertaining weirdness at its finest.

It tells the story of Forager, a bug from New Genesis who has been all but dead since the ’80s. He wakes up in a cocoon in a strange basement, argues with a teddy bear, gets rescued by the Sandman (not the one you’re thinking of… and not that one, either), and begins an interdimensional journey. I haven’t read much Forager stuff in the past, but I’ve always loved his design, and any exposure for the Fourth World is always a plus.

The superstar Allred family (husband and wife duo Mike and Laura, and Mike’s brother Lee) are the creative team behind the series, and I can’t think of a better fit. Mike and Laura’s retro art style makes the Kirbyesque designs pop, and the Brothers Allred’s writing is quirky and fun. I wouldn’t say it’s an all-ages title per se, but unlike the other Young Animal books there isn’t any bad language, sexual content, or graphic violence. It’s just a crazy, fast-paced good time with a likable protagonist.

Plus Batman shows up for like two panels and punches Orion in the face. Good times.

– Jay

Little Archie and His Pals

Art by Art Baltazar

Given that this is an Art Baltazar/Franco joint, you probably know what to expect: bright colors, charming character designs, and a lot of silliness and in-jokes. Indeed, that’s exactly what you get, except this time it’s Archie. Ultimately, this is part one of a three part story that well continue in Li’ll Sabrina, The Teenage Witch and Li’l Josie and the Pussycats. It mostly follows Archie throughout the day as he gets into all sorts of trouble, like shocking everybody thanks to the static electricity charge in his sweater. I only have a passing familiarity with the Archie franchise but I still followed along well enough, thanks in no small part to the wit and charm of Baltazar and Franco’s storytelling. It’s not my favorite thing they’ve put out, but it’s still plenty of fun and I can’t wait to read the rest.

– Jay