Comics can be a great field where childhood dreams come true. Geoff Johns, for instance, wrote into DC comics in his youth with story ideas he later used when he began writing them. Chip Zdarsky, on the other hand, may not be able to lay claim to what Warren Ellis dubbed The Most Disturbing Submission Letter Ever to cement his legacy, but he’s definitely had some great conversations with the Applebee’s Twitter account and unofficially run for mayor of Toronto in 2010. So Zdarsky’s story, really, is far more inspiring than Johns’. Just like Jughead has always been more compelling than Archie.
While I never really got the appeal of a monthly Archie title, when Jughead was announced, there was a glimmer of hope. He’s the outsider character, typically inscrutable, frequently possessed of an almost Zen or Taoist outlook, and always concealing talents he rarely makes use of. Pairing him with Zdarsky, whose writing and public persona are crafted around fixating on the most banal topics possible, deadpan delivery, and creating a vague sense of unease, struck a chord with readers because their nebulous sense of otherness seem very complimentary. Throw in Erica Henderson, who is in the midst of a gigantic breakout hit with Ryan North on Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, and all of a sudden you have everyone’s attention.
Still, until Jughead I just couldn’t click with Zdarsky as a writer. I dug his Extremely Bad Advice column for the National Post, but couldn’t get into Kaptara or Howard the Duck. There’s flashes of brilliance in both, but they just feel like they’re on someone else’s wavelength. It could just be that Kaptara didn’t work for me because I don’t care about Masters of the Universe and Howard misses because I’m too attached to the Gerber conception because Jughead is very clearly a Zdarsky book, his fingerprints are all over it, but I absolutely love it.
Zdarsky’s Jughead has the same core sensibilities as the conception of him in the newsstand digests over the last twenty years or so. He adds to the character rather than rebuild from the ground up, which is a smart call. What struck me initially is that while my hazy recollection of the character from the digests that have been sitting in dusty boxes in my parents’ basement since the late 1990s recalled him as being detached yet benevolent, the Jughead Jones we initially meet is far more nihilistic.
When he and Archie get to school and Betty asks them to sign a petition trying to block Mr. Lodge from selling local forest land, Jughead earns himself a beating with a clipboard by suggesting she give up with a sarcastic joke about Lodge sitting in front of the fire reading the signatories and having a change of heart. “Fetch me my limo Smithers, so I can go flood downtown with Christmas turkeys,” he deadpans, producing the first laugh out loud moment a Zdarsky script has ever gotten out of me. He further ribs Betty in class when they discover that Mr. Weatherbee has been replaced under mysterious circumstances by a much sterner corporate looking guy by telling her she has something new to protest.
But the other shoe drops on the very next page when the changes to Riverdale High hit him where he lives. Instead of lasagna, he’s served some kind of gruel by the lunch lady and his outrage is probably the funnest cafeteria scene since Skins lampooned Jamie Oliver’s overhaul of England’s school food programs. He flies into a rage and disrupts Betty’s protest over the forest to scrawl “FOOD” on one of their placards and waves it around until he passes out. It’s an odd bit of Archie lore that his brain shuts down if he isn’t constantly eating. This segues into an amazing dream sequence not far off from the ones that Conner and Palmiotti employ in Harley Quinn, transporting Jughead into a fantasy world informed by the video game he’d stayed up all night playing. The basic jist of it is that he’s sent on a fetch quest to retrieve an infinite cheeseburger, and the internal logic of the situation is brilliant.
When he comes to he has an epiphany after Betty inadvertently educates him that you can make food, or rather, that cooking is a thing. (Betty’s cooking being what they typically bond over.) Which sets up the gag that he’s a cooking prodigy the first time he steps into a kitchen for longer than it takes to rummage through the fridge and is utterly uninterested in pursuing it further than making the cheeseburgers he needs to enact his scheme to undermine the new principal. It’s the first real glimpse of the classic Jughead that I had no idea I actually had any solid opinion about whatsoever until I read this comic. One old story that stands out in my mind as following that pattern revolved around his aversion to mowing the lawn spiraling into his becoming an expert in growing different varieties of grass. Google tells me there’s a few different Jughead stories about him mowing lawns and selling hybrid grasses to Mr. Lodge, so with any luck Zdarsky and Henderson will get there in time.
Where Zdarsky ties the first issue all together is the execution of Jughead’s scheme and how it unites all the threads presented in the story into a brilliant gotcha moment. It’s somewhat ambiguous whether Jughead regains his classic altruism or simply throws in with Betty to further his own ends, but the end result reveals Jughead’s most enduring and entertaining trait, that his mind is far more active than it appears. This constantly astounds everyone around him, and in this case has made him a nemesis in the new principal. It’s the tightest and cleverest script that Zdarsky has turned in to date, which from my point of view, is pulling a Jughead of his own.
With a comedic writer like Zdarsky, the reception to him is going to vary pretty wildly based on the reader’s sense of humour, but he does take a perceptible step back in his idiosyncratic dialogue, which is a major part of why I connected so easily with it. On Howard the Duck he has the tendency to take in jokes and self awareness too far, but he strikes a nice balance on Jughead. It’s most noticeable when he effectively uses Archie to satirize and diminish himself, which is somewhat typical of his self deprecation, but feels more like Zdarsky tilting the axis that their world turns on just enough to put Jughead at the center of it and bring him to the forefront. Which is an intent that he communicated pretty clearly in promotional art that had Archie standing uncomfortably close behind Jughead, staring ominously towards the viewer.
Erica Henderson, on the whole, is a far more disruptive figure than Zdarsky on the title, which is a bit of an unexpected thing to say, but Archie has been kept to narrow design specifications for decades. So that was kind of bound to happen no matter how iconoclastic Zdarsky set himself up to be. Henderson is far more stylized overall than Fiona Staples, who draws the main title in the line, but the two favor sharp, angular lines in their work so there’s an interesting sense of continuity between them. Henderson’s increased stylizing also helps to set the tone as being utterly discreet from the main title and define it as being Jughead’s conception of the world, as opposed to stories that focus on Jughead in Archie centric stories.
Zdarsky is, as this issue conclusively proves, an ideal collaborator for Henderson and visa versa. The off kilter, self aware humour that Zdarsky prefers is not substantively different from Henderson’s Squirrel Girl collaborator Ryan North, both of whom have won Harvey and Eisner awards. For her part, Henderson’s illustration style plays incredibly well with Zdarsky’s dialogue, creating animated, charming characters who deliver his zingers with their whole bodies. What she does especially well that plays into the tone Zdarsky wants is her ability to render utterly frivolous situations with tongue in cheek seriousness in an even more pronounced way than she does on Squirrel Girl. The dramatic close ups she uses for the staredowns between Jughead and the new principal are definitely where that dynamic shines through the strongest.
She also makes incredible use of the space given to her, as the layouts typically use a minimum of six panels. Henderson may draw in a way that’s intended to evoke a louche sensibility, but she’s very intentional in how she places her figures in the panels to maximize dramatic effect. There’s a very clear sense that both Zdarsky and Henderson are excellent cartoonists in their own right because they use inventive page layouts that are somewhat surprising for their complexity in a book that I would have previously assumed would be carefully positioned for ease of reading to encourage new readers who aren’t as fluent in reading comics. Instead, what we get is a comic that flows incredibly well without drawing immediate attention to its panels and is clearly targeted to highly literate comic readers. While I wouldn’t say that Jughead is impenetrable to new readers, I will say that it looks to me like it would hold up just fine to any formalist critique.
Where Henderson really stomps the yard, which ought to come as no surprise to anyone who follows her work on Squirrel Girl, is her figures. She doesn’t have a stock body type of any kind, which is pretty astounding for mainstream comic book artists. There are repeating patterns in how she abstracts certain facial structures and body types, but no two characters anywhere in the book bear much resemblance to each other. Her Betty is an absolute treat who nearly takes the book right out of Jughead’s hands and probably deserves a Nuts About That Booty Award.
All the characters have had the same basic look since the 1940s that have been allowed to deviate and mutate in very narrow ways, but breaking away from those standards is most powerful for the female characters. Henderson’s adorable chubby cheeked Betty who comes equipped with a vicious death stare may not be a substantive change from her work on Squirrel Girl, but it’s downright revolutionary for Archie given that she’s had the same weird triangle nose and stick thin figure since I was in elementary school. Seeing Henderson’s Betty for the first time recalls seeing Patrick Stewart as Charles Xavier or Robert Downey Jr as Tony Stark for the first time. She has depth, emotion, and weight and oh my god I’m 31 years old and getting emotional about an Archie comic. Which is exactly what this rebranding and targeting the direct market is all about.
Another really great part of the issue, maybe even my favourite, and this is one of the things that is most purely executed as a partnership between Zdarsky and Henderson, is Veronica. Archie is deliberately downplayed and first appears completely external, walking by outside the window. His next appearance is getting jumped by Jughead’s dog Hotdog, who began life as Archie’s dog and bounced between them until finally settling in with the former. Jughead is the outsider book (I desperately want Cheryl Blossom to get her own book as the alternative to Betty and Veronica the way that Jughead is constructed relative to Archie here) but that means that we get the inside view of the outsider, pushing Archie to the periphery which is where Jughead lives in Archie’s world.
Veronica is the character he has the most friction with, so she lurks even further on the periphery, but unlike Archie who jobs to Jughead, she makes her presence felt, choosing when and where she appears very carefully. Outside of the dream sequence we only ever see her in profile, and her first appearance is to clap back with a tart “No,” when Betty poses a rhetorical question about her father having enough money to Archie. Presumably she will continue to circle like a bird of prey until the opportune moment, but it’s hard to choose whether that’s preferable to her simply remaining a looming presence.
The most ironic part of the whole enterprise is that Zdarsky introduces a Jughead comic from 1949 (follow his instructions, trust me) which is oddly dark relative to not just Zdarsky’s vision but anything else in recent memory. What stands out the most about the comic is that Jughead isn’t the oddly nihilistic slacker he appears as in Zdarsky and Henderson’s conception or the more zen like product of the 1990s, but something much more akin to Ditko’s Peter Parker who seems to crave the validation that later versions completely disdain.
The humour also basically, well, sucks and isn’t really even aimed accurately at a youth audience. Reggie calls Jughead “Gunga Din,” which is a bizarre reference to the Rudyard Kipling poem of the same name. The common interpretation of the poem is that the eponymous water carrier died heroically despite the abuse he put up with and is characterized as being a better person than the narrator, his abuser. So it’s perhaps a very sly metafictional joke that implies Reggie aimed the insult poorly and is revealing that Jughead is of stronger character than him. Which seems to reinforce the Parker by way of Ditko vibe.
What Archie, the company, have given Zdarsky and Henderson in Jughead isn’t a job at a carwash, buffing a vintage car. This isn’t a fenced in, calculated attempt at reviving a flagging property. It’s the creation of a space to make a comic for people who love comics first, and a vehicle for people undergoing a completely surreal bout of total recall as their childhood memories of these characters come flooding back second.
Written by Chip Zdarsky
Drawn by Erica Henderson
Lettered by Jack Morelli
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Emma Houxbois is a fiercely queer trans woman from the wilds of Canada, most recently spotted in the Pacific Northwest. She is a two time IWC Women’s World Champion and has written about comics for the web since 2005 for sites including Playboy, Bitch Media, and Graphic Policy.