by Ryan Mogge
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?