Was there ever a more promising set-up than the blithe, goofy team of Chip Zdarsky and Erica Henderson let loose on teenaged oddball, Jughead Jones? The hype for Jughead #1 may have been mostly in my head, but it was a strong and rising drumbeat. It was fueled by the winningness of Mark Waid and Fiona Staples on the all-new Archie comics. It was stoked by the charming tagline “More than just burgers. But mostly burgers.” And then I got it, the comic itself, a floppy full of color and pop-pop-pop playfulness. But whether this Jughead run will live up to its own promise is another question, as Zdarsky and Henderson monkey with basic Jughead physics.
Zdarsky and Henderson are at their gleaming best on the two pages when Jughead discovers that you can make food, and that there are classes in his high school where useful things can be learned, such as making food. This is funny both for commitment to a gag, and for Henderson’s visual storytelling. In one panel, Jughead has his back turned to Betty and the home economics teacher (and us)—his hands are up, he’s casting a dramatic shadow on the wall, and he says “—SO, if this a class… can you teach me to make…” and then the next panel zooms in ridiculously close to his face as he looks over his shoulder slyly, cocks an eyebrow, and says “…Hamburgers?” It’s laugh out loud funny and probably makes the whole issue. Jughead turns out to be a prodigy in the kitchen, prompting the line “It was a ballet of ground beef” by a stunned onlooker, but when he’s done he just doffs his apron mic-drop style and leaves. Jughead doesn’t give a damn. He has his own agenda.
The problems of the new run are also inherent in this nicely executed moment. Betty Cooper seems like a total dud. Jughead is more excitable and wide-eyed than we’re used to seeing him. The storytelling is dancy and flirty, but the story flirts with being flimsy and tinny.
The other denizens of Riverdale High have always been straighter than Jughead. All of Riverdale is Jughead’s straight man, so the other characters and their concerns have to have a little weight to them for it to work. With the focus wrested off normal high school drama and placed on Jughead hijinks, Jughead is in danger of sucking all the air out of the room. The other kids seem pale, vapid, pointless. Waid and Staples preserved the old formula more easily, because their series is called Archie, not Jughead. In Archie, Jughead strolls through the mundane halls flinging one-liners over his shoulder like casual hand grenades. Jughead is on the edge of things and part of his magic is that he is also at the center of things. But there has to be this pass at earnestness that the reader buys into—in order to set a Jughead-worthy stage for the contrast that Jughead provides. Jughead doesn’t shine when all is Jughead. This is the problem in giving Jughead his own series, and maybe Zdarsky and Peterson will mellow their way into a solution in future issues.
Another problem is that Zdarsky’s Jughead immediately betrays his Jughead nature by getting worked up about something. He’s theatrically upset about the food in the cafeteria changing because there’s a new principal. That’s the whole plot line of the issue, and it’s both more mature and less mature than the Waid and Staples All-new Archie run. It’s less mature because it’s more bright and kiddish, without the teenage concerns of love, money, and saving face taking center stage. But it’s more mature because it streaks through thumbing its nose at that banal stuff, saying “We’re too smart to be anything but dazzlingly child-like! This is what it looks like when something is deceptively simple but actually quite sophisticated!!” Just like Jughead, but with more oomph.
And oomph is a lot of this. Zdarsky’s writing is energy-packed, funny, and full of verbal Easter eggs. Erica Henderson’s art is very much in line with the chipper, wide-eyed enthusiasm of her Squirrel Girl. But Squirrel Girl is a wide-eyed character, and Henderson’s stylistic tendency to draw people with tons of white showing in their eyes (and pin-prick pupils) doesn’t fit as well with Jughead. Jughead is famous for barely keeping his eyes open. That’s part of his running gag. We see it in the Jughead strip by Samm Schwartz in 1949 (included in the back of this issue), which is full of physical humor. Schwartz keeps Jughead heavy-lidded and bored-looking even as Jughead flails and pinwheels through emergency situations. It makes everything funnier.
Other ways that Schwartz showcases slapsticky comedy in the historical strip is that he holds the panels steady in size, shape, and organization. He holds the size of the figures steady within the panels (no panning in and out, camera-style), and the background colors are muted and held steady in the scenes. This lets the funniness flicker along like a flip book. The old strip is wordy and clever too (like Zdarsky’s writing), but the restraint shown both in Jughead’s facial expressions and in the visual story-telling of the panels lets the right things pop. I realize that comics storytelling has evolved since then, but there is still a need to manage energy, detail, and attention for maximum effect.
If it seems lame to pick at this frothy confection of a comic book, well—yeah, I can see that. Zdarsky and Henderson do have chemistry, and they have come up with something fun. Zdarsky’s cozy letter to readers in the back does make it tempting to just be like “Oh Chip! Everything you do is amazing!” But I think most of the real fun of re-booting Riverdale (whether by Waid/Staples or Zdarsky/Henderson) is that it is a big experiment. And we should be allowed to get in on that by taking Riverdale apart and figuring out how it works, and how it works best.