"The Summer Before: Freshman Year: Part 1 of 5"
One of my favorite writers takes on the task of telling the tale of Archie and the others' first year in high school. Batton Lash, best known for the fantastic Supernatural Law, is no stranger to the Riverdale gang, being responsible for the infamous Archie-Punisher meeting and the House of Riverdale crossover. In this first chapter of "Freshman Year" he shows he has a good grasp of what makes these characters tick, while adding some twists of his own.
The story begins the August before school starts, with the five teens pondering not only the coming school year, but also their future careers. This sequence pays tribute to not only Archie's past adventures as a spy and superhero and Veronica's travels, but also sets up their characters immediately. Some commentators have taken exception to Archie indulging in these fantasies, but it is the kind of thing a naïve, optimistic, over-imaginative boy of his age would indulge in.
One of the new twists Lash presents readers with is Betty's dislike of Archie. Again, this is perfectly in character for the age. Archie never appreciated her; she's moving on to high school and putting all that junior high and elementary school stuff behind her. "It's all in the past now—I'm over Archie! I've matured! After all, I'm entering ninth grade! Let's be real! I'm practically grown-up now!" That little bit of interior monolog nails the thought process of tween and early teenage girls. Even though they'll laugh because they know Betty will never give up Archie, readers will still understand her thought process and empathize with her.
The issue's big twist involves Jughead and Lash handles it with style. Everyone acts entirely within established character and yet the emotional content is ratcheted up enough to give it impact without getting sappy.
One of the book's best scenes is the Labor Day picnic. Not only are the kids reacting to the change in Jughead's status, but we see how their parents interact with one another. While we've seen all the parents before, it's unusual to see them together. The scene gives some necessary information on the Jughead situation, reinforces the fact that these kids have known each other forever, introduces school principal Mr. Weatherbee into the plot and fleshes out his history with Archie. That's a lot for a three and a half page scene to accomplish, and Lash achieves it without ever making the conversation sound overly clunky or unnatural. The three panel sequence showing Archie's father Fred appealing for support from Betty, Reggie, and Jughead's fathers is humorous and life-like. The timing of it reminds me a bit of classic Jack Benny.
Bill Galvan does an exceptional job matching his art to the script. Though de-aged, the kids are recognizably themselves. The tributes to Pureheart the Powerful and Veronica's travel comics are spot-on. They could have been lifted from the pages of those earlier magazines and dropped here, they're so close to the original look. The parents and Mr. Weatherbee especially have all had some tweaking done on their appearances, but it adds a realistic diversity of looks to the neighborhood.
There are two exceptional panels in the book where script, art, inks, and colors come together in a way that couldn't be surpassed. The first is quietly beautiful and shows Jughead heading off into the sunset with a "Catch you guys later!" as the gang watches. This foreshadows what's coming as well as finishing off the previous scene. Colorist Glenn Whitmore has tinted Jug in yellow-orange and black, while the others are colored in off-cream and blue, giving the effect of evening shadows and separation between the characters. The second is similar in that it also occurs at sunset. We see tiny indistinguishable figures heading uphill against a dull orange sky. In the foreground are Riverdale and the sky. A dark cloud hangs over both as Archie declares "I'll be kicking off a new year, at a new school with a clean slate!" Like the former panel, this one closes out the previous scene, sets up the next, and hints at ominous developments. It's beautifully done.
While retconning stories into an already established timeline is difficult (it's hard to build suspense when everyone knows how it all turns out), Batton Lash and the rest of the team are off to a strong start, deepening the characterizations and providing a good jumping on point for new Archieverse readers.
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