Splitting the World into Pre and Post Tragedy in Archie 21

by Ryan Mogge

Archie 21

This article contains SPOILERS. If you haven’t read the issue yet, proceed at your own risk!

When something awful happens, priorities immediately change. Trivial pursuits are rendered meaningless when real loss is pending. Memories can be categorized as “before” and “after.” In Archie 21, Mark Waid and Pete Woods build toward one such loss by showing several characters in their “before” mode.

Waid gives us four short stories that end abruptly with news of Betty’s condition. These short “gag” stories are mainstays of Archie Comics and Waid uses this convention to build suspense about the fallout of the accident. Each story gives us characters in their natural lives, having the kind of silly adventures that we’d expect. In fact, each of the stories is almost too predictable, making the moment that the characters find out about Betty stand in contrast.

Each time, the news comes via cell phone. Each time, the character drops their schtick and immediately leaves for the hospital. Jughead leaves a fresh burger behind, for goodness sake!  Here are the things that mattered one moment before these calls: the burger, the movie, disciplining students, a brand new Purple Tesla, teasing Dilton, a new invention. Here are the things that matter afterwards: Betty.

If the abandoned hamburger is the first sign that things are majorly wrong, Dilton’s invention is where Waid decides to reinforce Betty’s role in Riverdale. In addition to having my favorite bit of the issue in Moose’s performance, “Brain Drain” is the most heartbreaking of the stories. In addition to that title feeling ominous on a second read, the story of Dilton testing a helmet for the sorta-girlfriend who may never get to wear it is dramatic irony that hurts. Dilton lists out her volunteering and excellent school work just to make it feel that much more unjust when Archie in his flip flops and Reggie with his anti-social scowl are okay while she lies in a hospital bed.

The issue ends with Betty’s heart flatlining and her parents watching as the darkness creeps in to take her away. It’s a shocking sequence, especially given the prototypical Archie Comics style of the preceding issue. Woods stages the final 5 panels such that you can’t help but focus on Mrs. Cooper’s horrified expression.  This may be where “before” ends for this series. I have no idea what “after” looks like.

The conversation doesn’t stop there. What do you wanna talk about from this issue?

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4 comments on “Splitting the World into Pre and Post Tragedy in Archie 21

  1. My favorite webcomic is called “Dumbing of Age.” It’s a story about a group of characters entering college and adjusting to life there, and its first volume ended with Joyce — the closest thing the strip has to a “main” character (it’s got a cast of dozens) — nearly being sexually assaulted by a boy she met at a party before her friends rescue her. It was serious business and the repercussions are still being felt now, over five years later, but an interesting thing the cartoonist did was that he specifically never ended a strip in that storyline by using Joyce’s safety as a cliffhanger. There was no strip that ended, say, with Ryan about to hurt Joyce — any moves of that nature happened by panel two, so that they could be resolved within that same strip. While the cartoonist wanted to put Joyce in danger, he didn’t want to use that element for cheap thrills or shocks.

    Unfortunately, that’s the feeling I get from Archie 21’s cliffhanger. I legitimately enjoyed most of the issue — it captured the old-school Archie spirit much better than that Dilton story I criticized a few months ago — but the cliffhanger feels cheap to me. Not because I don’t care about Betty, but because Mark Waid is NOT going to kill off Betty Cooper in the main-continuity Archie book. So why dangle the possibility in front of us at all? Just for the shock of the possibility that he might? It left an uncomfortable feeling in my stomach. There’s a lot of thoughtful, legitimately moving ways to explore her accident without resorting to cheap drama (the scenes leading up to the cliffhanger worked fantastically) — can we stick with that, please?

    • Never noticed that in that sequence of Dumbing of Age. The nature of doing an archive binge means you can forget to treat each comic as a discrete entity.

      But yeah, I remember reading the foreword to one of the Alias books, I think, that mentioned Bendis’ great cliffhangers. And the trick was that the cliffhanger wasn’t around physical danger, but around a shocking reveal of new information. And yeah, the very first cliffhanger is Jessica accidentally discovering Steve Rogers is Captain America, and the third is that Jessica’s problems are connected to a candidate for president. Great cliffhangers that completely chagne the shape of the story. But so many cliffhangers fail to do that. Sometimes, how are they going to get out of this? cliffhangers work if they have a satisfying payoff, but I also remember getting pissed off at RTD era Doctor Who for having these cliffhangers, then resolving them in disappointing ways (although ‘Go to your room’ in An Empty Child was a fantastic example of a perfectly satisfying conclusion to a cliffhanger).

      So many cliffhangers end up disapponting, and it is undurprising how many of the best ones don’t use danger as the cliffhanger. In fact, the last storyline in Dumbing of Age had a massive cliffhanger, but again, Willis had the chance to use the threat of danger for shock, but wisely chose to use Dorothy’s response to the threat being resolved as the cliffhanger instead. Therefore, the tension isn’t a fake ‘is Willis going to do something we know he will never do?’ but a real ‘What happens after this?’

      That sort of stuff is how you do a cliffhanger. Pretending to kill Betty? Utter crap

      • Amazingly, Willis has gone close to, what, a month now without resolving that cliffhanger? I love all the Danny strips we’re getting, but MAN it’s tough waiting to see what happened. And actually, Matt, I’ve been reading Dumbing of Age daily from the very first strip (I was a huge fan of Willis’ previous webcomics as well), but I wouldn’t have noticed how Willis was handling the cliffhangers myself either if he hadn’t pointed it out (I forget whether it was on twitter or on his blog or in the commentary in the books). I was very impressed when I first discovered it, though.

        • I have a habit of drifting away from Willis every so often and coming back, so I read his stuff before he started Dumbing of Age, but came back one day to realise that he started a brand new comic. He has a lot of talent, but I feel he often gets crippled a bit by the gag a day structure which too often has the effect of having not a lot happen. With so many characters, so many storyline and the gag a day structure, I find a lot fo Willis strengths get hurt by the fact that everything takes so, so much time (made worse by the fact that there is never a particularly clear way to know a storyline has ended without looking at the small note below the comic. More and more, I respect webcomics like Guilded Age that give their chapters actual title pages. And Order of teh Stick, which makes sure its update feel meaningful by itself, even if that means realeasign three pages at once). This stuff is a problem for many webcomics, but I think it hurts Willis a lot. I’d love to see what he’d do if he changed his format a bit.

          But yeah, I think those elements also make it harder to notice the cliffhangers, regardless of whether you archive binge of read day by day. But it actually makes a lot of sense, especially in approaching sensitive comics in a respectful manner. If you want to write a comic that is safe for women, especially those that have survived similar experiences, it is much better to end the comic with Sarah coming in to save the day. No exploitative shock beign wrung out of a sensitive experience, and it actually works better. The fact that it also avoids falling for the usual cliffhanger traps makles thigns better. And yeah, leads to things like the current cliffhanger, which is excruciating in the best way. Really looking forward to seeing how that resolves.

          (Oh, and by the way, the right answer to Favourite Comic is always Order of the Stick. No exceptions)

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