Story by: Mark Waid
Art by: Annie Wu
Colors by: Andre Szymanowicz & Jen Vaughn
Lettering by: Jack Morelli
Archie #4 is a landmark issue in a couple of ways; for one thing, it’s the first issue in the title not drawn by Fiona Staples, and it’s also where we finally get to see the facts behind the anticipated “lipstick incident.” It can’t be easy being the first new artist on the line, but Annie Wu creates magic with her art – her work is warm and inspiring and at the same time full of fluid motion, capturing Fiona’s picture of Riverdale beautifully without at all being derivative; Wu keeps it faithful while still very much making it her own.
Betty in particular is especially adorable, from to her outfits yo her expressions and hairstyles, which also work well for the conflict of this issue (which we’ll get to more in depth momentarily) centering around her relationship and break-up. Betty and Archie’s interacting body language and the physical, visible distinctions of their behavior both together and apart are subtle but important, and Wu does a truly spectacular job visually contrasting carefree flashbacks with the tension of Archie and Betty’s final date… but while I have more to say about the art it’s hard to go on without first talking about the story, so I’ll pause and do that now.
Mark Waid’s Archie is incredible, there’s no arguing that. The way the #lipstickincident has been woven into the fabric of the story already means this issue was one to anticipate, because though a name like that makes it sound like something petty or, perhaps, like Archie was caught with some on his collar – would we be too surprised? – we also know it had to be something important enough to break up a relationship that has lasted for years as they’ve grown up together. What could do that? I want to say I was pleasantly surprised, but that isn’t quite right; I expected it to be good, I have faith in Waid’s Riverdale and I knew under Annie Wu’s pen it would be incredible no matter what. But I still wasn’t expecting it to be all that it was.
The Breakdown: Betty and Archie have been a couple since childhood, so they are comfortable with each other in ways their peers can’t quite understand. Betty is “befriended” by Sheila and Maria, who at first find the casual sloppiness with which they encounter her to be off-putting but are persuaded by Archie to make amends and get to know her, and proceed to give Betty a makeover. At this point I will say I did have a little trouble getting my head around Sheila and Maria’s cattiness toward Betty combined with knowing the three of them are still friends – they are pushy about her makeover, dismissive of her interests and tastes (and even her name) and at no point do we really see the three of them actually connect, but that may be something that’s being saved for any flashback, break-up, fallout we may see in the next few issues. As it stands, it feels as if Betty’s makeover has been forced on her, and her own feelings on the results are difficult to pinpoint… although we can assume by her expressions that she doesn’t dislike them – her hair is down and she’s in a cute rose-colored dress with a subtle floral pattern and lipstick in a matching tone, she does look great. Whatever the case, it isn’t Betty’s new look that causes the break-up: it’s Archie’s reaction to it.
The entire date scene is an incredible example of storytelling through silences; Archie and Betty go to a movie and barely talk at all. The layouts are split between the two of them, their individual discomforts, the movie on the screen (a Jekyll and Hyde-esque horror film), and flashbacks of them together during happier moments. When the awkwardness is finally confronted, Betty questions why Archie should have any issue with how she looks, given that he looks at girls dressed like her all the time; Archie counters that lipstick doesn’t belong on the “Betty he knows,” which brings us to strongest (in my opinon) visual sequences of the issue: Betty, swiping her lipstick across Archie’s face with a cold “Funny. You’re still you,” before running off in tears, and Archie, trying ineffectually to get her to text him back as he obliviously jaywalks, walks through wet cement, a kite string, and pane of glass in a brilliant series of visual gags. But it’s a powerful moment, and Waid handles the nuance of it well – that moment in a long relationship where one partner pigeonholes the other in a role, when they think they know a person so well they instinctually reject change or anything else that might contradict that impression. It’s hurtful, insensitive, and a bit cruel – which is not uncharacteristic of Archie, either, at least his classic self, making this also a great way to introduce that thornier side of him. Archie can be a jerk, but it’s usually thoughtless rather than malicious, and Waid hits the nail on the head with that balance.
The circumstances of the break-up are pitch perfect; I only wish we could have seen a little more into Betty’s brain (yes, yes, I know the book is called Archie). She’s clearly not into a “high femme” sort of look for herself based on her regular fashion choices, but that doesn’t mean she’s opposed to experimenting with it, or wearing a dress now and then – but is her current look based on her own preferences alone, or has Archie dissuaded her from dressier indulgences before as well? Hard to say, but maybe these questions will be answered in future issues; I look forward to seeing Betty’s perspective, past and present, though it’s also clear we’ll be seeing more development into the Archie/Veronica relationship (!) next, as well Betty, Jughead, and Reggie (!!) scheming to derail it. I could not be more sold.