This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on July 20, 2016.
The first page of Betty and Veronica #1 is not very promising. It features the two women six weeks in the future, screaming curse words and ready to tear one another’s hair out by the roots. A dog rambles on describing the scene as a catfight in so many words, so many words plucked from an hour long trip to a thesaurus. This one page features the most overused of comics tropes (e.g. a flash-forward to build tension, gratuitous exposition from an outside party) and painful of stereotypes (e.g. young women as catty rivals); it’s a poor start. But could this be the set up for something greater? Is it possible that writer and artist Adam Hughes intends to subvert the banal tropes and lack of craftsmanship on display here.
The answer is no. Betty and Veronica #1 is every bit the vapid, over-written, careless hackery the first page would lead you to believe it is.
Hughes style as an artist has defined his career and brought him well-earned success in comics. He does what he does exceedingly well. That’s what makes it so striking that the defining factor of this issue is the text. Hot Dog’s extended monologue in the very first splash page reads as sparse compared to what follows. Every page is coated in text as dialogue is only interrupted by the briefest of pauses to shout a single word or allow a punchline to drop. Glancing across the book a very noticeable area of space is covered in the white backgrounds of word balloons.
Not only does this cover and distract from the art of the page, but it makes the reading experience an absolute slog. The balloons swell and are noticeably large within many panels. They fill so many as to dominate the flow of the page. Each element is so large in comparison to the image it juxtaposes that it insists on its own importance. Parsing the text takes a considerably longer time than consuming the artwork, a majority of which only serves to show the slow action of characters walking or talking. It’s a testament to letterer Jack Morelli that the action in each panel is still clearly visible and most pages read naturally.
The process of reading is painful though. Characters say so much and have so little to say. They manage to banter about nothing at all for multiple pages without revealing any element of character or plot. That wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing if the banter were enjoyable in and of itself. It is not though. Hughes drops jokes like a nervous comedian doing his first standup gig in front of an unresponsive audience. They roll out fast with no consideration of how they might land or work together. Punchlines are trampled by set ups. They fly so fast that instead of allowing for the tension and release necessary in comedy, Betty and Veronica #1 keeps the volume cranked and it all becomes noise.
That’s too bad because there are a few enjoyable jokes scattered throughout the comic. One bit about clowns would be laugh out loud funny, if it were not buried mid-way through a comic unwilling to allow readers to even inhale. Pacing is non-existent as ideas are thrown at the wall so quickly, no one could be bothered to see if any of them might stick.
There is no better (or rather, worse) example of this than pages 19 and 20, which are left blank besides a small drawing of Hot Dog’s doghouse and Betty and Veronica in swimsuits. The rest of these two pages is left white and covered in vertical strips of word balloons that cover them from top to bottom. It is offered as a joke about how comics readers hate exposition and may have expected more cheesecake. Hughes is too clueless to recognize that he is pranking himself, as the “meta-commentary” lacks any real sense of self-awareness. The sins he seeks to mock on this page are those that dominate this issue and border upon making it unreadable. When Veronica ends the unknowingly self-flagellating sequence by saying “I hate comics like that”, you’re ready to shout, “So do I!”
Hughes art is hardly a mitigating factor in this debacle, as it fails to push his panels or character work in any interesting directions. The painterly aesthetic of these pages is still beautiful, but pales against Hughes massive catalog of much more lush and detailed covers and interiors. A few passing, detailed shots of rustic Riverdale cannot do enough to salvage an enjoyable reading experience. José Villarubia’s soft colors make what there is to see inviting, but also preserve the lackadaisical pacing of the issue ensuring it remains just as hard to muddle through.
Even if one were to remove the enormous failures of craft on display in Betty and Veronica #1, to tighten the scripting and expand the artwork, it would not do much to improve the comic. At the center of the first issue lies an unanswerable question: Who is this for?
The comic’s title is inspired by two women, but it is hardly a comic for women. Betty and Veronica are barely characterized within the course of issues. Attempting to describe their personalities with no previous knowledge of Archie Comics (and keep in mind this is being marketed to new readers) is impossible. Betty might earn the adjective “spirited”, while Veronica is simply categorized as “rich”. Hughes’ script spends more time with Archie and Jughead than this pair and gives supporting cast members like Moose and Midge more to say than Veronica. Yet the entire cast is a teenage wasteland of dialogue that does not distinguish and actions that do not define.
Although they are all young people, their mannerisms and actions read like caricature. Repeated use of “Double-you Tee Eff” and other slogans read as forced. Much of the banter is some odd combination of an imagined 50s soda shop and a modern chatroom. None of it has the feeling of being true to life as a teenager or even a facsimile of that. The disconnect between creator and the characters he aims to portray could not be more evident.
Betty and Veronica’s relationship is so ill-defined as to not even be apparent. They hardly speak to one another throughout the course of the issue, and are quickly made out to be enemies at the end. There is no sense of mixed feelings or conflict, but only opposition forced by plot. The complexities of female friendship and the “frenemy” concept are cast aside in order to reinforce the cat fight stereotypes seen on the opening page.
Betty and Veronica #1 is a comic about young women that has absolutely no idea how they act, speak, think, or look. The titular characters are idealized versions of a “girl next door” bombshell designed for older men. They are defined by the gaze and ideas of someone outside of their world, and who appears to have no interest in understanding their experiences. At best it is a terrible misunderstanding of the subject matter. At worst it is an insult to anyone who might have found a rare form of kinship in a comic supposedly about young women.