Remember “Saved By The Bell”? It was goofy fun fondly referenced by fans who grew up in the late ’80s/early ’90s. If you do, and you loved it, you’ll probably dig “Betty & Veronica” #1 by comics veteran Adam Hughes. The book is the latest in Archie Comics’ linewide relaunch, started last summer with Mark Waid and Fiona Staples’ “Archie.” And while I’m aware that this series precedes “SBTB” by literal decades I still feel the pull of that show, as well as some manga influence, on this book.
None of that should read as judgmental; I think these are all good things even if there are some hiccups in the execution. Let us, however, start with the good. Fun is the name of the game here — the comic book is narrated by Jughead’s dog Hot Dog, AKA J. Farnsworth Wigglebottom III. He’s omniscient and verbose, able to stop and start the story as needed. I’m now convinced life would be better if it were narrated by dogs. Lots of goofy slapstick, too; Betty isn’t afraid to get her hands dirty and doesn’t take crap from anyone, not even Jughead, who she smacks around a few times. Veronica plays a Machiavellian role in the story, staying in the background most of the time until the end. The pair play the opposites attract combination, Betty representing blue collar DIY spirit and Veronica the upper class overseer.
The plot revolves around Pops having his Soda Shoppe shut down — I’m familiar with this device — and Betty vowing to save the restaurant with the help of the community. Pop’s is the original The Max but it’s doubtful that Richie “The Big Bopper” Belding is going to show up to help save the restaurant. Hughes employs themes familiar to a filmmaker who shares his last name; fear of change, wanting to stay young forever, the rich coming to town to take over. The pacing is a little slow for American comics, with the writer/artist lingering on the introduction scenes for a while. The story actually opens with Archie and Jughead, which would be fine if this were the ’90s but feels weird in an era of female-forward entertainment where the women are the title characters. The slice of life scenes set tone and mood but once Veronica began slinking to the back of the panels it was clear where it was all headed. This isn’t bad — the ride is entertaining — but once I’m able to guess ahead of the story I want it to get there faster. The old series, Bechdel test failures aside, would have told this story in eight pages with room for ads to spare.
The gem of the series, though, is the art. Hughes is doing his first interior art since “Before Watchmen: Dr. Manhattan” in 2012. His character work is Bayside High School gorgeous. Betty and Veronica are showstoppers, no longer the desperately wide-eyed character models your parents were used to. These days he rarely does anything other than pinups and covers so it’s amazing to see his page composition once again. Here’s a little lesson in subtle comics storytelling — check out how Hughes uses framing, panel breaks and negative space to guide your eye across a page. Letterer Jack Morelli accentuates this; page three is a master class in dialogue and art going hand in hand. As leaves fall down the page toward Archie and Jughead, colorist Jose Villarrubia making them just pop enough to attract your eye, so fall the word balloons, leading the conversation down to the focal points at the bottom. The art tells a full story on each page. Hughes also dials in on emotional moments, exaggerating and repeating panels like great teen comedy manga.
Much like “Saved By The Bell,” there are some dialogue issues; what should be cutesy comes off less so, some of the pop culture references are anachronistic for teenagers in 2016, and I can’t tell if Moose is doing a Hulk impression or if he’s incredibly learning disabled.
These are problems that can be overcome; “Saved By The Bell” started as a completely different show, after all. If Hughes can dial in on these personalities then the writing could shine just as much as the art. Focusing more on Betty and Veronica will help too. We hear more from the men and the dog in the book than we do one of the title ladies. It suffers from the same issues of many pilot episodes, and this being the opening chapter and not a full story I’m willing to give it time to develop.
This probably won’t get you ready for “Riverdale” to premiere on The CW as that series is rumored to be a dark drama. But the characters are adaptable enough to tell pretty much any kind of story. I like the teenage comedy approach. More playful than “Archie” but not as ridiculous as “Jughead.” And the art is incredible. I’ll be checking in on this series again once the first arc is complete for a clearer look at the bigger picture.