The Life, Afterlife, and Rebirth of an American Icon: A Q&A with Archie Writer Mark Waid

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On Wednesday, Paste published a feature by Steve Foxe chronicling the reinvention of Archie Comics. Foxe interviewed CEO Jon Goldwater, upcoming Jughead scribe Chip Zdarsky and Archie writer Mark Waid. Here is the uncut, full interview transcript of Paste’s interview with Mark Waid.

Mark Waid is not easily intimidated by new projects. The prolific writer has worked on every powerhouse property under the sun, with celebrated runs on The Flash, Kingdom Come, Daredevil and now Princess Leia and the flagship Avengers title. And yet, reinventing a nearly 75-year-old cast of typical teenagers gave the veteran creator reason to pause. What happens if you mess up a property that’s been largely unchanged for nearly a century?

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Portrait courtesy Mark Waid

Luckily for Waid, his first issue of the relaunched Archie was a hit with critics and fans alike, praised for smart updates of core character traits and a vibrant, contemporary teen voice. Brought to life by Eisner-winning Saga artist Fiona Staples’ punishingly hip art, Archie #1 is easily one of 2015’s biggest buzz books and a killer start to the Archie Comics’ “Riverdale Reborn” initiative.

Prior to the first issue hitting stands, Paste chatted with Waid about the great power and responsibility of taking over America’s Favorite Teenager, making Archie a character in his own right and working with the inestimable Staples.
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Paste: Not to over-simplify, but a lot of Archie’s appeal for a considerable part of the company’s life span has been consistency. Paste recently did a feature in which we asked our parents to review comics, and several mentioned that the last comic they could recall reading was Archie, 30 or 40 years ago. As a writer, how do you balance expectations for the Archie brand against a desire to move in a contemporary, fresh direction?
Mark Waid: It’s really a hard part of the job, to be honest. As anyone in the entertainment industry knows, balancing the expectations of the audience is always a precarious thing to do, so what I really focused in on is that I’m the audience too. I love Archie comics. I’ve been reading Archie comics all my life, so I was the canary in the coalmine, to make sure we hadn’t gone too far. I think I’m actually a little conservative about change, and change for change’s sake, than some other creators might be in this situation.

All I really wanted to do is get back to what the characters were. There’s still a consistency in the sense that the characters are very much the same in how they relate to each other and what their personalities are, and how they fit into the overall landscape of Riverdale, so that was the important thing to keep. It would have been really easy to do sweeping change for change’s sake. It would have been easy to say, “Oh, Jughead’s on heroin now.” [Laughs] That’s the cheap way of getting attention, that’s the cheap way of ginning up controversy, but it’s not true to the characters.

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Archie #2 Cover Art by Fiona Staples

Paste: You’ve written just about every character in comics. How does this responsibility stack up against some of the other properties you’ve handled in your career?
Waid: It’s a huge responsibility. The character’s been around for 75 years. I’m terrified of screwing this up. Let me rephrase that. Maybe this is because I’m a comics historian as much as anything else, but I really have a deep-seeded respect for the characters that have been around since before I was born and are probably going to outlive me. My feeling is that it’s not really about me or any other creator coming in to impose his own ego or voice on the comic, it’s about respecting the reason these characters have existed this long. And part of that is that they’re good, strong characters, and you just have to dig in there sometimes and discover what makes them contemporary and 21st century, that’s all.

Paste: What were some of your non-Archie inspirations for this new take on the franchise? The fourth-wall breaking narration has invited a lot of comparisons to Saved By The Bell, for instance.
Waid: You know, I have heard that a couple times. Not to date myself hideously, but that goes back to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and the Dobie Gillis TV show too. There’s a long history of teenage characters breaking the fourth wall and telling you all about their lives. It wasn’t really that I was inspired by those, it was that my first and foremost job in this first issue was to make you like Archie, and really let you get inside that character’s head because he’s the lynchpin. But what’s really interesting about the dynamic of how these characters are set up, because Archie is sort of the hub of the wheel around which everything else spins, because he’s the center of that universe, he actually has the least distinctive voice, the least outrageous personality.

You know, Reggie is a bully to the extreme, Veronica is the insanely rich girl, Jughead is the really weird kid. So everyone else is little more…not outrageous, because that sounds like an’80s buzzword, but all of the other characters have a really strong flavor to them. Archie, by his nature, there’s no one specific thing about him that’s really weird or unusual. The reason I did the fourth-wall breaking, the reason I used Archie as the point of view character, is that he’s the hardest to outline in one or two panels. He’s the character who’s hardest to define with a couple of sentences or one gag. In a sense, he’s a more mellow character than a lot of these characters. If I want to show you who Betty is, I can show you in one or two panels. If I want to show you who Veronica or Jughead is, I can show you in one panel. With Archie, you can’t really do that in one or two images because he’s the All-American Boy. So the fourth-wall breaking, that’s why I did it.
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Archie #2 Interior Art by Fiona Staples

Paste: Archie is America’s Favorite Teenager and you’re about to debut an Avengers team stacked with inexperienced young heroes. What’s the draw of writing teen characters, and how challenging is it to jump back into that mindset creatively?
Waid: I wish it were more challenging, but I think it speaks to my inability to grow up that perhaps it’s not as hard as you’d think. [Laughs] What’s interesting is that younger characters just have a more vibrant, exciting point of view on the world. They are more emotional, they are more dramatic and they are just electric. If I wanted to write a bunch of comics about 50-year-olds sitting around having a conversation about politics, that would be realistic, but it’d be the dullest comic in the world.

Paste: Music has played a role in Archie comics before, but this first issue really focused on it, and it feels like we’re seeing a small boom in music-related comics with Spider-Gwen and Black Canary. Will Archie’s rockstar aspirations be a bigger plot thread in your new take?
Waid: Oh yeah. To be honest, that wasn’t one of the things I came to the table with, because I don’t normally think of a silent medium like comics being reflective of music, but it’s something that was pointed out to me by the Archie gang. [Archie Comics President] Mike Pellerito and [CEO] Jon Goldwater and [editor/PR executive] Alex Segura suggested that perhaps the music angle of Archie wasn’t something I should overlook. And when we saw what Fiona could do with the images she drew in issue #1, the way she so beautifully portrayed Archie using his guitar and the crowd reacting to it—in a way that I don’t think I’ve ever really seen in a graphic format before—I knew we were onto something. So yeah, we would be foolish for that not to be a bigger part of Archie’s reality growing up.

Paste: We meet a lot of the cast right away, although the focus is really on the core characters, and Kevin, who has become a core character in the last few years. Are you aiming to elevate any of the characters? Is there anyone who’s really going to break through to become a more regular cast member than we’ve seen in the past?
Waid: Yeah, I think Raj [Patel] definitely is, and Trev [younger brother of Josie and the Pussycats’ Valerie] definitely gets elevated. Without making a big deal out of it or breaking our arm patting ourselves on the back, we are trying to make a point that Riverdale is more than five white kids. Archie’s been great about that in past years, especially the last 10 years, about diversifying the cast, and I really want to keep that momentum going because I don’t want to run the risk of a whole potential side of the audience looking at the comic and going, “Oh, that’s not my world,” and turning off of it.

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Archie #2 Cover Art by Fiona Staples

Paste: In the last few years, Archie has grabbed headlines by introducing openly gay Kevin Keller and killing off a future version of Archie. Are you building these sorts of flashpoint moments into the new book or is it going to stay focused on interpersonal drama and take its time breaking the internet?
Waid: [Laughs] There are Internet-breaking moments coming up, and we’ve sort of scheduled them in and planned them in, not from any opportunistic stance, but as a way of building the drama. I can’t promise you the end of the world in every issue, because that isn’t an Archie story. It would be really easy to get caught up in the stunt work of it and forget the character stuff, the human moments, but what makes these stories memorable, and what makes readers want to come back month after month, is a sense of being invested in who these kids are and what they want.

Paste: Archie is Fiona Staples’ first long-form work since beginning Saga, and your first collaboration. How has it been working together so far? What is she bringing to the book?
Waid: It’s stunning. Honestly, I didn’t know what to expect. I’ve known her work from Saga. I knew she was a brilliant storyteller. And I knew she was an Archie fan, which is a big part of why the book looks so good under her pen. She is deeply, emotionally invested in this world. She’s been an Archie fan since she was a kid. I didn’t know what to expect, but oh my god, the way she makes these kids look real, the way she has these kids interact… It’s one thing to sit here and write clever dialogue back and forth between the kids, but unless the characters on the page are interacting with each other, unless they’re visually appealing and you want to be in this world because of how cool these characters are, nothing I do matters. What matters is her—every panel Fiona draws is like an invitation to come visit us in Riverdale.

She’s a pretty smart historian of the Archie stuff. We’ve talked at great length about some of the Archie artists of the past, like Harry Lucey, who we are both fans of, and what lessons can be taken from that. She’s not aping anybody else’s style, but she’s coming to it informed very smartly by Archie artists from the past that she’s a fan of.

Paste: After a bit of rabid Twitter speculation, Fiona clarified that she’s only doing a few issues of Archie before returning to Saga full-time. How long are you planning to steer the town of Riverdale?
Waid: The Archie guys have made it abundantly clear to me that I’m welcome to stay as long as I’ve got stories to tell, and I’ve got dozens of stories to be told, so I plan on sticking it out for the good long haul. I have no plans on leaving.

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