By Harper W. Harris
Among his lauded superhero comics, Mark Waid is also writing the highly publicized Archie #1, which relaunches the flagship title of the publisher, featuring art by the 2015 best penciller Eisner winner Fiona Staples. I had a chance to speak with him in between signings and panels to get his take on everyone’s favorite comics love triangle.
Harper W. Harris: What is your history with Archie? Have you been a fan of the characters for a long time, and how did you get involved?
Mark Waid: I mean, like everybody, I read Archie comics growing up. But I worked on staff for a brief time as an editor in the early ‘90s, and at that point did a deep dive on the character for the first time, went through the library and read all that stuff, and that made me an aficionado for life. Just looking at the the beauty and the variety and the bounce of the artwork in the ‘40s and ‘50s, and watching the character dynamics, and realizing that these characters are much deeper than we give them credit for. There’s much more to them than we tend to see. So when they called me a few months ago and asked me if I wanted to jump in on this, my first instinct was, you know, I’m a 53 year old man, why are you asking me about 16 year old teenagers. But then I thought about it, and you know what, I’m willing to step up to the plate and take a swing at that because I love these characters and I’m very protective of them. Whenever I take on something like Daredevil or Superman or Archie or something, I’m very protective of characters who have existed since before I was born, because I think that there’s clearly something about them that makes them perennial, vital characters, that makes people still want to tell stories about them after all these years. And that fascinates me, like what is it about those characters? Drilling down and then trying to figure out what that nugget is that makes those characters something where, as opposed to like Betty Boop or Woody Woodpecker or Andy Panda, that are nostalgic, nobody’s telling stories about them. So that’s what fascinates me. So with the Archie characters, when they gave me that opportunity, I thought, okay, clearly my high school experience is different from your high school experience is different from my 15 year old stepdaughter’s experience, but there are certain things about being a teenager that, I swear to god, are universal. The idea that you don’t know who you are yet and you’re trying to figure out your identity. Or you remember what it’s like to be flustered and embarrassed in front of the opposite sex. That feeling that everything you do is the end of the world and every bad thing that happens feels like its going to last forever. Those are the things that are universal to every teenager that ever lived, so those are the things you concentrate on. You don’t concentrate on Snapchat and Instagram and Twitter and hashtags and stuff like that, you don’t cram that into the story; that’s window dressing. The stuff that makes it timeless is the emotions.
HH: One of the interesting things about this new Archie book is that you are tackling the “origin” of Archie. You usually think of an origin in comics as when somebody got their superpowers or stopped their first crime or whatever–how did you go figuring out where the starting point should be for the character?
MW: I really started thinking about the Betty/Veronica/Archie dynamic, because the things is, and this is going back to the original DNA of the strip: the whole idea of will Archie choose Betty or Veronica is actually a fairly recent construct, that’s more of an ‘80s or ’90s thing. While it served the comics well at the time and it’s certainly one of the questions that people still ask, you know, will he choose Betty or Veronica, it kind of makes the girls like property to be owned. It makes them feel like they’re competing–it’s weird too that they’re supposed to be best friends and yet they’re dating the same boy all the time. So I stepped back for a minute and I thought, let’s go back to the original DNA of the strip which is that Betty is the tomboy underdog who is attracted to Archie but can’t get his attention because of glamorous Veronica and Archie being a dumbass about that. That just made more sense to me. With that in mind, the other thing that sort of makes it feel like an origin is that I needed it to be a more diverse cast, I desperately needed it to be a more diverse cast. The five main Archie characters–Reggie, Jughead, Archie, Betty, and Veronica–are traditionally white characters, white Cis characters. I needed a little more variety. Luckily, Archie has a very deep bench in the last ten years of very diverse supporting characters in the Archie Universe. So the first instinct was, let’s leave Veronica off the table for a little while, let’s leave Reggie off the table for a little while, let’s make room for Raj and Kevin and some of the other characters who are not your typical whitebread Archie characters. So I think that also sort of helps it feel like an origin in that you’re still sort of introducing some of these characters.
HH: You talked in a panel earlier today that your approach to Betty is that she’s in a sort of awkward stage where she’s not one of the boys anymore. Do you plan on exploring a lot of the characters in that way and giving them a point of view as opposed to the book just being about Archie?
MW: Oh yeah. Here’s the thing: Archie is the hub of the wheel, he’s the guy that has to be, in a way, the most unremarkable character in the book, because everyone else is sort of “Archie but he’s a foodie,” or “Archie but she’s a tomboy” or “Archie but she’s glamorous.” Everybody is a variation on the typical American teenager, so he has to be at the center. But the problem with that, of course, is that the typical American teenager is not a terribly glamorous or interesting in and of itself, and I’m not sure what that means in the 21st century either. So what I’m doing is using Archie as the lens to look at all those other characters. Issue two deals more with Jughead and why he’s an iconoclast and why he wears a hat and why he is the way he is. Issue three deals a lot more with Veronica–she could just be a stuck up rich bitch, but first of all we hate her that way and secondly that’s not very interesting. Instead, we’re treating her more like it’s Kim Kardashian coming to your high school. She doesn’t think she’s a bad person, and most of the time she’s not a bad person. It’s still that she doesn’t really connect well with the little people. That’s the trick, really drilling down on them and making them interesting and making them all relatable. Nobody invents a time machine, nobody has such a wacky adventure that it could never really happen to a teenager. We push the envelope a little bit, but by and large I want to keep those characters pretty well grounded.
HH: One of the other interesting things about starting this new series is that in the past, Archie stories have had little to no continuity from issue to issue. Is your approach more to tell the stories as arcs, one long story, or in short one-off stories?
MW: It’s sort of in the arc format, but every issue still stands on its own. Every issue has a beginning, middle, and end, and then the soap opera is what brings you back from issue to issue. In terms of continuity, look, if the other artists and writers doing the Archie stuff want to play off what I’m doing, that’s awesome. If Chip Zdarsky instead wants to do Jughead in space, that’s fine too, that’s going to be awesome. The Archie stuff really does adapt itself really well to whether it’s continuity or not continuity. All the stuff in the ‘60s–there’s this great book that just came out called 12 Cent Archie by Bart Beaty. It’s an examination of Archie comics in the 1960s, and how continuity didn’t mean anything and that was its strength. Like in one issue Betty can be a master chef, and in the very next issue Betty can burn everything down in the kitchen. It didn’t matter because it served the plot. Archie can be a football hero in one issue and in the next issue be a scrub, it didn’t matter because it’s funny and that’s the plot. So there’s a part of me that likes doing the arch stuff where there’s a continuity to it, but I have no problem at all if the other guys want to run off in a different direction. I mean, Chip Zdarsky and Adam Hughes, I just want to see them do their thing.
HH: Alright, I’ll let you go on an easy one: Team Betty or Team Veronica?
MW: Hmmm…Team Betty, but I’m beginning to soften on Veronica a bit as we get into that very shellacked head of hers.
Archie #1 is on shelves now, with the second issue due out on 8/19!