Today, Drew and Taylor are discussing Archie 12, originally released September 21st, 2016. As always, this article contains SPOILERS.
Story basics #19: coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating. #storybasics
— Emma Coats (@lawnrocket) April 26, 2011
Drew: In 2011, Pixar storyboard artist Emma Coats tweeted out 22 “story basics” she learned at Pixar. Every one of them is useful (and I encourage any storyteller to check them out, even if I cringe at how Coats’ list of lessons became “rules” as they were compiled by various bloggers), but #19 has always caught my eye because of how fickle audiences can be with coincidences. I suspect Coats is generally right, but I can’t help but think the magnitude of the coincidence is important, as well. Small coincidences that help characters get out of trouble (say, that the villain’s dropped weapon fell near enough to the hero to reverse the fortunes of their battle) would be more palatable than big coincidences that get them into it (say, that the dropped weapon landed on a button that began the self-destruct sequence on the ship just as it was hurtling towards the hero’s hometown). And, of course, these rules only apply when we’re concerned about verisimilitude — nobody ever complains about the outrageous coincidences in a Wile E. Coyote cartoon because those coincidences are precisely what make those cartoons so entertaining.
All of which is to say I think there are a few more variables in play than helpful/unhelpful in determining the success of a coincidence. Moreover, the specific profile of the coincidences in a narrative might help define it’s tone; an action thriller might allow for bigger, more unhelpful coincidences than would be appropriate in a parlor drama, for instance. In this way, a coincidence that strains credulity might not be a problem with the narrative so much as a sign that you’ve misjudged the tone of that narrative — different stories require different levels of credulity. As you may suspect, Archie 12 contains a few big coincidences that threw me for a loop, and while it would be easy to cry foul, the fact is that Archie has always been a bit cartoonier than I’ve been giving it credit for.
The drama of this issue really hinges on the coinciding of several unlikely factors. In the wake of his loss of the mayoral race, Hiram Lodge opts to move his entire family out of Riverdale immediately. Veronica calls Archie, but his phone quickly dies, and with his car also dead, Archie no way to reach her. Betty swoops in to save the day (just as she’s getting an untimely “show up now or we’re done” ultimatum from Sayid), rushing to take Archie to the airport, but they’re too late.
On the first read, these coincidences drove me nuts, mostly because none of them actually change the dramatic outcome of the issue. Actually, there’s an even bigger culprit, an event so aggravatingly and unnecessarily coincidental, I was annoyed with it before I even knew what the repercussions might be:
I defy anyone to find a teenager who could possibly leave home without their phone, let alone one who is anxiously awaiting word from his girlfriend. If he’s too groggy to think straight, then the phone falling off the table is simply unnecessary. It didn’t feel believable, and what’s worse, it didn’t seem to accomplish anything. Archie eventually does find his phone, and hasn’t actually missed anything at that point. It’s only the phone dying that causes any strife, but given that he’s in his home when it happens, also has a solution that would be obvious to any phone owner.
And, as I suggest, none of the coincidences ultimately change the course of the narrative. Even if Archie and Ronnie had reunited the second she texted him, even if his phone hadn’t died, even if he had been able to drive himself to the airport, there’s nothing either of them could have done to prevent Mr. Lodge from forcing Ronnie onto that plane. These coincidences do conspire to bring Betty to Archie’s aid (at the expense of her own relationship), but they were on good terms again, anyway.
That’s an aggravating fact, if you’re concerned about the plot. If, however, you’re concerned about the coincidences themselves — the same way you would in a Wile E. Coyote short — then this issue is a blast. The impossible piling-up of misfortunes isn’t a weakness if its impossibility is the very point of the story. Archie isn’t just about a guy and his relationships, it’s about how things regularly go hilariously wrong for our beloved doofus. He doesn’t just forget his phone; he knocks it off the table because he’s a clutz. He’s not just stranded at his house; he can’t use his car because it’s a hunk of junk. He doesn’t just fail to make it to the airport on time; he mistakes a stranger for his girlfriend because of course he does.
This series is at times very earnest, which I think allowed me to forget that it’s ultimately a cartoony teen comedy. Goofy, impossible things are going to happen from time to time because goofy, impossible things are one of the joys of reading Archie. Getting mad about that is the same as wondering why Bugs Bunny can talk, and who wants to be that joyless twit?
Taylor, did you have to reorient yourself to enjoy this issue, or were you more on board with the goofiness from the start? Also, what did you think of the new art team of Ryan Jampole and Thomas Pitilli? I thought they fit into the style established by Staples/Wu/Fish beautifully, but I’m hoping you have more to say than that.
Taylor: The new art really does compliment the storytelling of Archie, and that’s perhaps especially true of this issue. Thinking about the comedic pile-ups you describe, Drew, makes me look at this issue in a new light. Taken strictly as a comedic adventure it’s actually quite entertaining because I can overlook some of the things that seem a bit unrealistic and therefor troublesome. Considering this, I find the stylized drawing style of Jampole and Pitilli a wonderful compliment to the action because it heightens the absurdity of the events taking place in issue 12.
The prime example of the absurdly comedic in this issue is Hiram Lodge, loser of Riverdale’s mayoral race. We all know that Mr. Lodge is a grump, but that caricature is taken to new heights in this issue. When news breaks of his loss in the election he does not take it well, to say the least.
He explodes and yells at everyone within earshot before eventually storming off claiming that he’s “too angry to speak.” Aside from the current presidential election, it would be hard to envision any real candidate, much less a mayoral candidate, taking the loss so hard. Read straight, this episode would seem silly because no one acts this way, but read as a comic farce, it’s much more entertaining.
A big part of making this issue strictly comedic is the artwork. Jampole and Pitilli go all out in stylizing the epic unraveling of Lodge in defeat in the panel above. What I first notice is the manga-style action lines emanating from Lodge’s head. These at once focus our attention on Lodge’s face while at the same time hilariously showing his surprise at losing the election by such a wide margin. I can just image the way this panel would play out in animated form and that adds to the over the top humor of Lodge predictably losing the election because he’s basically terrible in every way. Moreover, the features on his face are drawn with exaggerated proportions that belie any of the actual anger I may feel from Lodge in this scene. His eyes are huge and off-kilter and his mouth takes up the lower third of his face. This makes him look more like a Daffy Duck drawing than a real human being and the result is nothing but hilarious to me.
It’s not just Lodge who gets this cartoonish treatment. Several characters throughout this issue have outrageous reactions to bad news and in every case it’s funny. Like Lodge, the characters in these reaction panels are looking directly at the viewer and are very stylized. Here’s one of Archie:
The similarities are striking between the two panels and that explains why both are so funny. Again, we have the manga style reaction lines, oversized facial proportions, and a character freaking out. The added bonus in this panel that adds to the humor is the inclusion of Archie’s phone. As he furiously types we see his frantic fingers ricocheting off his phone screen. Again, this is a huge exaggeration of this motion that in more realistic issue would be out of place, but it works here. I’m used to seeing these embellishments in comedic comics and not titles like Archie which tend to skew toward realism. But thinking of the events in this issue as a comedy makes everything work. For me, this humor works primarily because of the art.
This is all a long winded way of saying that yes, I did have to reorient myself to this issue and the way it’s being told. Upon first read it seemed like average faire — crossed lovers, low-stakes political intrigue and what have you. But the more I think of this issue and Archie in general as being primarily comedic as opposed to dramatic, the more I like it. It’s actually really funny thinking that Lodge’s reaction to losing the election would be to skip town virtually overnight, and when I think about this issue and that image of him sitting up all night, angry, arms crossed in bed, it’s all just so rich. In the end this change of position has made me come round to this issue. Much like the humor of a Wile E. Coyote cartoon where characters react to danger with bug-eyes and dropped jaws, this issue sustains itself on showing its characters reacting to terrible, coincidental events and that’s what makes it fun.
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