Thursday Comics Hangover: Refreshing and cool

I couldn't make it to the comic book store last night because I was too busy celebrating at the launch party for California Four O'Clock, the debut novel from Seattle Review of Books co-founder Martin McClellan. It was a big new comics Wednesday to miss; a ton of Marvel Comics relaunched yesterday with all-new first issues and status quos, including Spider-Man, Iron Man, and Doctor Strange. Of those three, the only one that I'm at all interested in is Doctor Strange; writer Jason Aaron is often pretty good, and artist Chris Bachalo's noodly illustrations seem perfect for the baroqueness of the character as created by Steve Ditko. Spider-Man has been devalued in recent years by too many iterations of the same character — Marvel Comics will soon be publishing a ongoing comic book starring Spider-Men (and -Women) from across multiple dimensions, watering the brand down even further — and Iron Man is now written by Brian Michael Bendis, who has stretched himself way too thin in recent years.

And frankly, I'm finding it hard to believe that any of these relaunches are going to be as exciting as the Archie relaunch. I've already written about the first issue of Mark Waid and Fiona Staples's reimainging of Archie Andrews and his Riverdale gang. The third issue of the book is out, and it unbelievably keeps getting better as it goes along.

The third issue of Archie reintroduces the relationships between these characters in new and interesting ways, twisting the love triangle inside out. Archie is following new-to-town rich girl Veronica Lodge around like a hungry puppy, Jughead is trying to figure out what the hell is going on, and Betty is upset about the mysterious event that led to her breakup with Archie. It's packed with interesting characterization. Jughead is portrayed as ridiculously wise, with a keen sense of focus that grants him almost mystical properties. Veronica demonstrates great vulnerability at just the moment when we expect her to become a super-villain. Betty is so profoundly decent that the reader can't help but land on her side. Only Archie lacks a distinctive personality here; he may be the front man of this particular band, but he's doomed to only react to things happening around him. He's such a straight man you could use him as a ruler in a pinch.

The biggest potential problem with this version of Archie is that Fiona Staples has not signed on as an artist for the long haul. This is a visually dynamic comic that rewards re-reading. The characters' body language is vivacious and evocative. The fashions are fun — clothing hangs on bodies realistically — and the big, moony eyes of our main characters seem full of aspiration and disappointment and, you know, life. In three short issues, Archie has transformed from a smart retooling of an ancient brand into the best high-school comic on the stands today. Marvel Comics should be taking notes: this is how you refresh an old idea.