Who is This For? Breaking Down Adam Hughes’ ‘Betty & Veronica’ #1
When the Betty & Veronica solicits came out weeks ago, I had a lot of concerns. Like, a lot of concerns. Mostly that Adam Hughes, a man known for drawing pin-ups, was going to be both drawing and writing a series about the best frenemies of the Archie Universe in their biggest fight. It certainly didn’t help that this was going to be yet another book in the new Archie line-up written by a man. But hey, I love Jughead, written by Chip Zdarsky (especially how it confirmed Jughead as ace), and Archie, written by Mark Waid, has been going strong. I tried to keep an open mind, waiting to pass judgement until it came out this month.
I’ve read the issue. And it has some major problems. So let’s talk about it.
I’ll start with the positive, because there are a few positive things I can say for the book. For one, the art is not upsetting. Much of it is quite good. Hughes can be hit or miss for me when it comes to his pin-up work --- sometimes he gets it right (his upcoming Supergirl variant cover is great), and other times the characters are too posy and overly performative. Most of that is avoided in the book, which I can appreciate (though there are some odd facial expressions that pop up throughout). Plus, José Villarrubia's colors for the autumn setting are quite pretty.
I worried about Hughes drawing the two protagonists too womanly (his cover for this issue edges that line), but his character designs on interiors are age-appropriate. I even thought the outfits more or less worked for each character, especially when mainstream comics can be so bad at portraying fashion that teenagers would actually want to wear.
The other positive? The catalyst for Betty and Veronica's fight doesn’t have to do with Archie. So much of the Archie brand is about the two girls competing for Archie’s affection, and this issue sets up their falling out as totally unrelated to the aforementioned redhead. I'll give it props for not going there.
The overarching problem is that the book is not actually about Betty and Veronica, to the point where I hesitate to call them the protagonists. A good chunk of the first half of the issue features a friendly and lengthy discussion between Jughead and Archie. It’s only after this that we see Betty and Veronica in the same scene, with Betty doing chores and Veronica “supervising.” Why should we care about the girls fighting if there’s no real sense of their friendship's dynamic, or that they are friends at all?
In the rest of the issue the two girls barely talk to each other before Veronica leaves for plot reasons, and finally comes back in the last scene as an antagonist for Betty’s new project. The two title characters get talked about more than they talk to each other.
And who talks about them? Why, that would be Hot Dog, Jughead’s dog. He’s the narrator. And I learn more about the dog's personality than I do about Veronica's in this book. There's even a part where Hot Dog introduces the teens to us (in the middle of the book, in a really awkward scene that pauses the characters mid-fall), and when he eventually gets to Veronica? “I have no information about her. Nothing.”
What was the point of stopping the story dead in its tracks to tell us no new information, instead of using those pages to actually show the two female characters being themselves around each other?
And while the art mostly offers appropriate designs for the teenage characters, there are a couple of bizarrely creepy moments coming from the script. First we have Betty letting her MeeMaw know she’s going to town, and her MeeMaw warning her to take a jacket because “boys can see that you have breasts now.”
Then there’s the truly baffling two blank pages where Hot Dog claims he ate the art. So instead of seeing the next pages of the story, we get Betty and Veronica “gratuitously agreeing” (the book’s words) to read what the pages would have been while wearing bathing suits. “In case that was the kind of comic you were expecting,” the narrator adds with a wink. The narrator that is, remember, Jughead’s dog. Jughead’s dog thinks the Archie readers want to see teenage girls in bikinis, is what I’m saying.
Which makes me question... who is this for, exactly? It’s not for old fans, since the book makes a big point of directly introducing the characters to the readers. It’s not for new fans, since we barely get to know the title characters anyway. It doesn't even seem to be for fans of Hughes’ art, since so much of the art is hidden under walls and walls of dialogue anyway (despite letterer Jack Morelli's noble attempts at dialogue placement).
But most of all, Betty & Veronica is not for teenage girls. If the lack of focus on the girls’ relationship didn’t prove that, the full page of them in bikinis certainly makes the point. Here was the perfect opportunity for the new Archie to introduce its iconic lead female characters to the next generation of eager comic readers, the ones who have embraced Ms. Marvel and Jem and the Holograms, and so many other female-led books.
The Archie reboot has been about redefining Riverdale for the 21st century. This was the time for Archie Comics to say, "Hey, young female readers, meet Betty and Veronica! They're two very different kinds of girls, and flawed, and they sometimes butt heads, but their friendship always comes out on top!" To waste that opportunity to open new doors is disappointing.
I hope that future issues can improve on this debut, and that this can become the great book for girls that it always could have been. But if that's not the case, we have the new Josie and the Pussycats series from Marguerite Bennett, Cameron DeOrdio, and Audrey Mok, to look forward to in September.