Ask Chris #306: In Praise Of Jughead Jones
Q: Why do you think Jughead is such a great character? -- @hurgling
A: Every now and then, I'll bring up the idea that I have a definite, immutable, and 100% official list of the five greatest characters in comic book history. When I do, people are usually pretty understanding of the characters you'd expect to be there --- you know, Batman and Scrooge McDuck --- but Forsythe Pendleton Jones III is always the one that throws people off. I stand by it, though: Jughead's great. And the reason why goes far beyond just the hamburgers, the crown, and the sleepy eyes that all come to mind when you think of the character.
I'm not gonna lie, though: The crown is a pretty big part of it.
To really understand why Jughead's so great, though, you have to understand how the entire Archie Comics Universe works, and the good news is that this isn't a particularly difficult thing to do. The entire franchise is built to be as accessible as possible, with characters that have been sanded down over the years into archetypes that can be pretty thoroughly explained with just a handful of adjectives. It's one of the reasons that over the past few years, the characters have proven to work equally well in comedy and horror --- you can drop them into any genre, any situation, and those archetypical traits will play themselves out.
Jughead's the same way. Where Archie Andrews himself is Girl-Crazy, Klutzy, and Generally Well-Meaning, and Reggie Mantle is The Literal Worst Human Being Alive, you could pretty easily sum Jughead up to a new reader as your garden-variety Hungry, Lazy, Sarcastic Slacker. That's all you need to know about him, and in a lot of ways, that cleverness, sardonic attitude and aversion to work makes him feel like much more of a modern protagonist than Archie --- at least for those of us who grew up in a post-Zack Morris world. That's probably why he was one of the first Archie characters to break out of the ensemble and into a solo title, with Archie's Pal Jughead debuting in 1949, a few months before Betty & Veronica.
Weirdly enough, Reggie got his own title in 1949, too. That thing, however, only lasted fourteen issues, presumably because there was a hard limit to the sins an unrighteous man could commit on the page, even before the introduction of the comics code. But anyway.
For Jughead, it's less about the way the characters are built than the world that's been built for them. Everything in Archie Comics is built around, well, Archie, something that I probably didn't even need to point out because it is literally the name of the entire company. But that's an aspect of Riverdale --- and occasionally the wider world around it --- that can never really be understated.
In that respect, it's no different from any other setting. Gotham City, for instance, is built entirely around Batman, a character who looks good set against a sky that's always either midnight black or blood red, spends a lot of time brooding on gargoyles and swinging from skyscrapers, and who needs villains that are well-suited for his particular brand of deductive karate. Riverdale's the same way, but it's build to highlight that same handful of broad quirks that define Archie.
It's a world of slapstick comedy that comes from Archie's klutziness, and it's a world of mostly friendly rivalries that never quite get to the boiling point because everyone involved is a generally decent kid, or is at least frightened by the fear of Moose Mason into acting like one. It's a world that purports to be grounded in some kind of relatable high school reality, but that still has room for stuff like time machines, garage bands that go on world tours, teen witches, and whatever else the kids are into these days. But more important than all that, it's a world of romance.
Even if it doesn't all come together until Veronica shows up in 1942, the very first page of the very first Archie comic --- back when he went by "Chic" for some reason known only to Bob Montana --- is essentially a romance page. It's Archie trying to get a date with Betty by doing something impressive and then failing spectacularly, which is the foundation that the entire rest of the universe is built on.
That said, keep in mind that I'm using a "romance" as a very broad term to define a genre, rather than the way you'd use it to describe a candlelight dinner and a long walk on the beach. Even if there's very rarely anything that's particularly romantic, these are comics about relationships, about attraction, about dating. Everyone in the main cast is related through that idea: Archie, Betty, and Veronica in the primary triangle, Reggie as the scheming interloper who also forms a tertiary triangle with Moose and Midge, Sabrina and Harvey. Even Kevin Keller's introduction is initially shaded through the lens of Veronica's crush on him, before he moves on to his own relationship-based stories like his first date and first kiss.
It's all about romance, albeit a version of romance that's filtered through the klutzy, slapstick comedy that leads to things like constantly booking two dates on the same night and streets where people are literally chased by the people who are attracted to them:
But here's the thing about Jughead: He exists almost entirely outside of that dynamic.
Whether it stems from his original interpretation as being just completely uninterested in girls, or the more modern interpretation of Jughead as canonically asexual, he's removed from the central conflict of the universe. So far removed, in fact, that for a long time, the closest thing he had to a love interest was Trula Twyst, an amateur pop psychologist whose interest in Jughead was less about dating him and more about figuring out just what exactly is his deal. In this world, Jughead is canonically an anomaly that exists in direct opposition to everything around him, to the point that other people who live there are occasionally compelled to take action to stop him:
And again, part of that is so that he can serve as a foil for Archie. That everything about him is a contrast --- Jughead's disinterest in romance compared to Archie falling in love with every girl he sees, Archie's earnest go-getter attitude set against Jughead's slacker laziness, and even the fact that their signature shirts are one letter apart - gives Archie exactly what he needs in a sounding board.
But because that's his primary function, it means that he's part of a world that he interacts with in a completely different way than everyone else does. He's defined entirely by his status as someone who can observe and react to the central conflict of his universe as an outsider.
It's the flipside to Jimmy Olsen, another character in my illustrious top five. The thing I love about him --- well, one of the things I love about him, Jimmy's appeal is of course vast and universal --- is that he can only exist as a product of the strict and bizarre storytelling rules of the Silver Age DC Universe. He's perfectly made for that world of signal watches and bizarre transformations, and it's why he has such a struggle as a character fitting in once Comics decided to reject that idea and move onto something else. But Jughead, while he's created as the perfect product of a universe, isn't mean to exist within, he's meant to exist outside. And that's amazing!
For one thing, it gives him this kind of zen-master sensibility that comes from just not having a horse in what is, by and large, a pretty stupid race. But it also allows him to exist outside of every other conflict too. Jughead's the character who's more manipulative than Reggie, who slips around the punishments that Weatherbee hands out to Archie, and who can take a side in the eternal conflict between Betty and Veronica. Jughead's problems are completely different from everyone else's, both dependent on and apart from the rest of Riverdale.
And not unrelated, he's also the one who gets recruited to save the space-time continuum itself while everyone else is trying to figure out who's going to the homecoming dance.