In re-imagining Archie’s sidekick Jughead Jones for the digital age, Chip Zdarsky inserts himself into Riverdale.
Chip Zdarsky is late. Half an hour late, leaving me cooling my heels in Pages & Panels, the Toronto Comic Arts Festival store tucked inside the Toronto Reference Library. When he finally does arrive, he jokes, “I’ve been behind these shelves for the last 30 minutes, isn’t that crazy—you didn’t see me? I didn’t see you?” and then turns hugely apologetic. “I am so sorry, this never happens, I’m never late for anything. My family, my girlfriend, everyone talks about how early I am for everything. I’m the guy who gets to the airport gate while the flight before mine is still boarding.”
Knowing Toronto cartoonist Chip Zdarsky (a.k.a. Steve Murray) on a social level, I’m aware of his reputation for punctuality. Also his diligence, generosity with his fans, and his freelancer’s penchant to say yes to everything. The latter is part of the reason why he eventually made the break from National Post illustrator and newsroom cut-up to become a full-time comic book writer and artist on such projects as sci-fi adventure Kaptara (with artist Kagan McLeod), Marvel cult favourite Howard the Duck (with artist Joe Quinones) and, most famously, the smash hit series Sex Criminals (with writer Matt Fraction). So I’m just a little surprised when Zdarsky explains his latest how-I-got-this-gig story: “What? I am Jughead!”
Jughead, of course, is Jughead Jones (born Forsythe Pendleton Jones III), the laid-back, low-energy, burger-munching best friend of Archie Andrews, whose modern reboot Zdarsky is writing and launches on Wednesday, October 7. There is some similarity around the nose, but that’s the only resemblance I see.
With Sex Criminals going full-speed and Kaptara and Howard the Duck underway, Zdarsky heard that Archie Comics was planning to re-imagine the Archie series with a modern look and sensibility, with the all-star team of writer Mark Waid and artist Fiona Staples on board. “I felt I had reached a level where I could ask to be involved somehow,” he says.
“So I wrote and asked if I could do a variant cover and was told ‘Sure, and we might have something else for you as well. How do you feel about Jughead?’ And I said, ‘What? I am Jughead!’ So after that I was called by the president of Archie—it’s crazy to say it, but I was on the phone with the president of Archie—and we talked about the character and his history, my particular take on it, turning the alternate-universe stories from Archie‘s past into Jughead’s fantasies and daydreams. And he seemed to like where I was coming from, so I wrote up a pitch and sent it in. And he’d call me back every once in a while, to ask my opinion about whether a particular artist would suit another project, or some other totally different thing.”
“Finally my girlfriend Jessica said ‘Listen, just ask him if he got the pitch and how he feels about it.’ So I did exactly that, and he wrote back and said ‘I’m sure Jughead will be great no matter what happens’—which could’ve meant anything! Then one day he called me and we were talking about something else to do with Archie, and he said ‘I was just talking to Mark about the fact that you’re writing Jughead and he was really excited!,’ and I said ‘I’m writing Jughead?’ and he answered ‘Oh, I didn’t tell you?’”
I note that the Archie comics of my childhood, while not mean-spirited, were not especially kind to older or less attractive people like Miss Grundy, Big Ethel, and Jughead himself—so named because of the shape of his nose. Much of the humour was derived from the physicality of these characters—but how do you address that while still remaining true to the spirit of the originals? “Mark Waid and Fiona Staples actually did a great job of laying the ground work for us by revisiting Jughead’s ‘origin story’ and his nickname in the second issue of the new Archie,” explains Zdarsky. “Our series starts with Mr. Weatherbee’s forced retirement and the arrival of a new principal with a new tougher agenda. A more modern Miss Grundy is there when Mr. Weatherbee says his farewell, and Moose shows up briefly.”
As for Jughead himself? How is he different? “He’s less of a clown than we’ve seen before, and more of an outsider looking in. He might be a bit more cynical. He could be the smartest guy in the room, but he doesn’t feel the need to show it. He’s comfortable with himself, he has his own way of looking at the world.” And for a moment, I think: Hmmm, this does sound a bit like someone I know.
Jughead’s low-key attitude in the Archie comics of old made him a great sidekick, but not necessarily the most dynamic protagonist. Is that the reason for Mr. Weatherbee’s replacement—to give Jughead someone to bump up against? “Yes, definitely,” says Zdarsky. “Even a modern Mr. Weatherbee wouldn’t pose much of a challenge to Jughead or the other kids. So we gave him an early retirement and brought in someone who will shake up their world. For Jughead, that starts when the new principal does the worst possible thing: he changes the food in the school cafeteria. And that changes everything.”
And with that, our own meals arrive. I will say this: Mr. Z sure can put it away.