Michael Uslan has a simple way to prove the iconic status of “Betty & Veronica.”
The film producer and comics writer asks audience he interacts with while teaming with Archie Comics whether they’re a Betty or a Veronica, and the results not only prove instant recognition — they also helped give him the idea for his latest Archie event. Best known at the company for spearheading the “Archie Marries” series of future-looking stories and the subsequent “Life With Archie” magazine (which just wrapped with the character’s death), Uslan starts writing “Farewell, Betty & Veronica” in this month’s issue #272. The story sees the eponymous pair leave Riverdale on a year-long exchange student program and explores the changes their absence creates.
Uslan told CBR News that the only way to take on a comic property with decades of history is to turn it on its head, and for “Betty & Veronica” he and artist Dan Parent are looking to break the girls up, bring some new international ladies to fill their Riverdale roles and challenge how the characters and fans see the pair. In addition, the producer gives his take on comic book deaths in the wake of “The Death of Archie.”
CBR News: Michael, the last time you told a big story for Archie, it was the “Marries” story that took place in a possible future. But this “Betty & Veronica” arc is supposed to be in the core Archie world and impacting the other monthly books as it goes. Was that the big draw for you here, or was it more about exploring Betty and Veronica on their own terms?
Michael Uslan: It really was about shaking up the dynamics in Riverdale and pushing the envelope a little bit. We wanted to do something that could impact Betty, Veronica and all the characters in a new way. And it gives Betty and Veronica a chance to explore an issue that I always wanted to explore further.
The heart of it comes down to this — and I’ve done this at the Archie panels at all the big comic cons which are usually jam-packed — I go, “How many women here are Betties?” And you get a showing of hands. “How many women here are Veronicas?” And you get that instantly everyone has an opinion, and everybody knows what a Betty is and what a Veronica is. That’s pretty unbelievable that each of their names evokes such a clear, sharp character description in their mind. They know what a person is who’s a Betty and what a person is who is a Veronica.
I really wanted to explore that and for the girls to explore that in the book. So I thought the best thing to do was take them out of their environment and out of their comfort zone. We make them fish out of water, and in the process of doing that, we see what happens to the boys, the girls, the teachers and the families back in Riverdale. What do they do when they’re gone. The immediate response is that is sucks the energy out of the school and the town. That’s all part of the original energy that made me want to do this.
On B & V’s journey, were there specific parts of the world that you wanted to send them to in order to help that story develop?
Yeah. The whole concept of this is that they’re going off on a one-year student exchange program. They’ll be visiting other countries and other cultures, and you have Veronica who’s been around the world with her parents on one hand, and then you have Betty who’s never been anywhere really. Veronica is more worldly, and Betty is more of a homebody. Veronica is a risk-taker, and Betty is really risk-averse. And so they’re going to be traveling to different countries where we can see them react to places as different as Korea and India or across Europe and other places. You’ll see them moving around quite a bit.
So much of their interpersonal dynamic over the years has been defined by fighting over Archie. How does it change as they’re on their own for so long?
It changes completely. Without revealing too much, the two girls get into with each other on this trip. Betty is going to accuse Veronica of partying too hard, not paying any attention to her studies and only being concerned with meeting new boys. But Veronica is going to turn around and let her have it right back when Betty says “You’re not representing Riverdale or America the way you’re supposed to.” Veronica says, “Me? What about you? You never leave the host family’s house. You’re afraid to go outside, and you haven’t experienced anything. This isn’t all about book knowledge.” So the two of them really get into the mix, and as a result a big game-changer ends up happening to the two of them.
Meanwhile, you’ll be focusing on adding a few new girls to the cast back in Riverdale. What’s it like trying to create something that can replace Betty and Veronica?
I don’t think they can be replaced, but since this is an exchange program, you’re going to have two girls coming in from foreign countries. One is coming from India, and one is from France. When they show up, everything starts to change in Riverdale. Certainly, everything begins to change with the boys, but it also creates some changes for the girls who where Betty and Veronica’s friends. Again, the dynamics shift, and we find that a lot of the people in Riverdale have some stereotypical views on foreign citizens. But you can’t generalize. So this becomes an eye-opening, awareness-increasing situation for a lot of people in town.
You’re working with Dan Parent here who not only writes and draws so many of Archie’s prime books, but he also seems to take point on how different events like Archie and Valerie’s relationship impact the rest of the line. How have you approached the task of changing Riverdale together?
For me, it’s a full and complete partnership with Dan, and it’s been an absolute joy. Besides being one of the nicest guys in the world, Dan is very smart and very perceptive — very willing to be bold and to go where no one has gone before. He’s great to work with. We have back and forths about everything and make sure we agree on how this story will go. It’s a full partnership.
Over the course of the year, what kind of impact do you hope to have on the characters and their world?
Any time you’re dealing with a property that’s almost 75 years old and you can shake it up and make people see things from a different perspective, that’s great. Traditionally in comic books, it takes an event to do that. Sometimes those events are imaginary. Sometimes they’re “What ifs?” like what we were able to do with “Archie Gets Married” where he walks up Memory Lane into his own futures. That opened wide a door that was explored through to this day. That gave people a new perspective on Archie and brought in some new readers. It also brought back a lot of old readers who hadn’t been around in quite some time. I think this is capable of doing the same thing.
Sometimes you have events like the death of a character — whether it’s Captain America or Superman or breaking Batman’s back — where you know within a year there will be a resumption of the status quo. Here we’re not pulling anyone’s leg when we say this is a one-year exchange program, and then the intent is for Betty and Veronica to come back to Riverdale. But with the new characters coming in about life, about each other and about themselves, it’ll be significant. It’s going to carry weight and have a long-term impact.
Speaking of death and the “Life With Archie” project, I couldn’t let you go without asking your take on Archie ending the story you started with the death of Archie. Did that feel like a finale that fit with your original idea?
I’ve been reading comics since the 1950s. As a kid, I remember being incredibly moved by the death of Superman, which was followed up maybe seven issues later by “The Last Days of Superman.” I remember that doing those stories from a certain perspective gives the reader a chance to experience some emotions relating to characters that have become a part of their lives and in a sense a part of them and their experience. As a result, those stories tend to have a personal, emotional impact. Years later — probably starting with the “Death of Superman” Doomsday issues — it became something where it’s done as a stunt. It attracts some summer sales and gets the attention of the mainstream press.
Other times it’s organic to a storyline. The most organic one I can recall was in Wally Wood’s “T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents” in a story Wood drew with Steve Ditko just a few issues in where they killed off one of the main characters Menthor. And that character never, ever returned. Other people donned the helmet of Menthor, but bringing back that character never happened. That’s rare. I thought it was going to happen with Captain Marvel, and their handling in the old days was very poignant and well done — though I think he has reared his head a bit in recent years.
So I think if the story is organic that can be great. If there’s a point to it and it’s not just about sensationalism and sales, that’s great. I’ve not read the issue from Archie yet, but I do know a little bit about it. And in the hands of people who really care about that character and those comics — people like Jon Goldwater and Paul Kupperberg who’s done a great job following me on “Life With Archie” — I know they’ll handle it tactfully and emotionally and really give a damn and make a point with it.
“Betty & Veronica” #272 ships later this month from Archie Comics.