To be completely clear: I am English, so Archie Comic aren't a big cultural touchstone for me. I know the basics (Archie the everyman, Jughead the comedy bestie, Betty the girl next door, Veronica the rich girl, Reggie the sleaze, Kevin the gay one...) because they are a big cultural touchstone in the US. Penny & Aggie, one of my favourite webcomics ever, is massively influenced by Archie Comics, by Dan deCarlo's art in particular; there are endless jokes about the central love triangle in US sitcoms, which growing up in the nineties were the only sitcoms worth watching; and, of course, I remember a few years ago when the internet exploded in all directions at once when a gay character was introduced.
So I don't have a very deep understanding of these characters. I love that Betty Cooper is good with cars and “smells of flowers and motor oil” but for all I know that's just how she's always been. It feels new but that might just be me falling into a trap of seeing these comics as old-fashioned.
This doesn't mean nostalgia plays no part in me liking this comic. We open with a full page of Archie Andrews standing in front of Riverdale High introducing himself to the audience, who he'll talk to on and off for the rest of the comic. You know what that reminds me of? Saved by the Bell. The original, proper Saved by the Bell and Zack Morris explaining the episode's plot to the audience.
I loved Saved by the Bell as a kid. It has aged phenomenally badly but I have very fond memories. Student Bodies was better, anyway.
Anyway, Archie #1: opening situation is that Archie and Betty have been a couple forever and for some mysterious reason known only as The Lipstick Incident they have broken up. Everyone is gossiping and the romantics, here represented by Kevin Keller and two random girls, are in a dead panic because this completely implodes their views of the world and romance. Through it all Archie displays this somehow charming mixture of knowing he 's being talked about but being completely oblivious to how much and why it's happening.
And particular praise has to go to Mark Waid's Jughead. My view of the character from that one old Jughead Double Digest I read was of a harmless, burger obsessed goofball but here he's presented as the most emotionally intelligent person in the group. He's the lone voice of sanity urging people to let Archie and Betty hash things out themselves instead of pursuing a semi-zany and mildly convoluted scheme to force them back together. Of course, stopping that plot involves his own zany and convoluted scheme which is all to the good. Good, traditional hi-jinx.
Which I suppose brings us to the elephant in the room: what has been modernised and how? The art. The art has been modernised, the script has not. Waid's script, unaltered, could have easily run in this series decades ago. A break-up, school gossip, a homecoming dance, a scheme involving the homecoming couple vote and some crazy glue. One smartphone gag aside, this is not a 2015 plot, it isn't a specific year's plot at all, so long as teenage drama has been something people write this could have been published any year. Fiona Staples, meanwhile, modernises the hell out of Riverdale.
She doesn't change everything, most of the characters are on-model to a greater or lesser extent. Principle Weatherbee and Mister Lodge (in a stunningly well-framed cameo if I remember his relationship to Archie correctly) are almost perfectly their old selves moderated through Staples' style. Jughead's inexplicable crown survives intact because some signifiers are too important to jettison just because they make no sense. Staples modernises a lot of other things, though: the halls of Riverdale High are crowded with teens dressed in modern clothes and (I'm just going to say this) if there was a perception of the series being old-fashioned then it was a smart move for Staples and colourist Andre Szymanowicz to make such a big visual thing of the school's ethnic diversity. Whether or not it was a hugely whitewashed environment before, which I doubt but I know how perception trumps reality, this was a smart move.
And, my goodness, but Staples is great at facial expression. There's a lot of the script that's left for her to sell through artwork rather than dialogue and she knocks every emotional shift the characters undergo right on the head.
Not only am I looking forward to the next issue, which promises the introduction of Veronica Lodge, but I'm looking forward to the Jughead series advertised at the end of the issue.