Archie #23 – “The Heart of Riverdale” and Disability in Comics

Archie #23, Waid & Mok
Archie #23, cover via Archie Comics

Archie Comics Is Revamped

Archie Comics has made a lot of bold moves in the last few years, from a TV adaptation (Riverdale) that has more in common with Twin Peaks than classic Archie, to a trio of pitch-black Horror AUs that take classic characters and put them in situations straight out of EC Comics (Afterlife With Archie; Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, and the new Jughead: The Hunger), but it all started with the critically acclaimed Mark Waid reboot of the main Archie series.

Waid kept the core characters’ personalities intact but added a lot of new flourishes that made the series stand out. Archie, Betty, and Veronica’s constant romantic complications have actual emotional stakes now. Jughead’s “girl-hating” routine gained new context when the character came out as Asexual. Comedy antagonists like Reggie Mantle and Hiram Lodge had a bit more edge than they used to. The town of Riverdale, which often felt frozen in time and place, now felt like a real, living place again – and a place where actions have consequences.

That was never more clear than in the recent “Over the Edge” storyline, where Reggie baited Archie into a drag race, and when Betty tried to stop it, she was critically injured in a car crash. Although early hype indicated that someone will die, in reality, Betty pulled though – although without the use of her legs, as indicated by the last issue’s cliffhanger. This is obviously a massive, game-changing status quo shift for Archie Comics, as the worst injury that a main character sustained in an Archie comic prior to the reboot was a broken leg mostly played for comedy. So how do Mark Waid and new artist Audrey Mok deal with the fallout? Archie Comics was generous enough to add me to their press list so that I could get an advance look at Part One of “The Heart of Riverdale”,

On a larger scale, this issue is a very significant one in terms of an issue that’s been talked about a lot in comics – representation.

Disability representation, to be specific. It’s been about six years now since DC Comics reversed Barbara Gordon’s paralysis to bring her back as Batgirl, and one could argue that Betty Cooper is the most significant case of a major comic book character becoming disabled since then. After an advance review of Archie #23, I’ll be looking at the history of disability representation in Archie Comics – as well as how DC and Marvel Comics are doing post-Oracle.

The Issue Itself

Archie #23
Archie #23. Image via Archie Comics

Archie #23 – Mark Waid, Writer; Audrey Mok, Artist; Kelly Fitzpatrick, Colorist

Grade: 8.5/10 (Great character work. Not sure about the science.)

This issue wastes no time into throwing us into the aftermath of Betty’s devastating car crash. While the last two issues took place in the immediate aftermath of that night, this story picks up five days later. Archie narrates the issue, and we see how the angry students of Riverdale High took their anger out on Reggie’s car (the man himself is still locked up for hitting Betty’s car, which will be dealt with next issue). Betty’s parents, meanwhile, are still waiting for a diagnosis. The thing that stands out this issue, more than anything else, is the emotion. Mok is a master of conveying barely contained anger or awkwardness with only a few words (or in some cases, none). Case in point, Betty’s parents. Archie didn’t hit Betty’s car, and he’s been cleared of all charges. But while Betty’s mom seems glad to have him there, her father is a very different story and I expect that to be followed up on. Same with the awkward glances students give each other when they see him. And of course, even though the police aren’t blaming Archie, you can tell how much he blames himself. Archie’s over-the-top clumsiness and bad luck has been a recurring joke during this season, but as he tries to pick up Betty’s responsibilities and botches every one of them, you can see how this breaks him down over the course of the issue.

Where the otherwise excellent issue has some issues, unfortunately, is in its initial treatment of the medical issues involved in Betty’s condition.

She was brought in with a head injury and an inability to move or feel her legs. Despite all evidence to the contrary, the doctor says that she doesn’t have a spinal cord injury – her paralysis is the result of the brain injury. Which has resulted in zero cognitive impairment, to the point that she was lucid and talking minutes after waking up from near-death, but has resulted in total loss of feeling below her waist.

That’s, at the very most, an extremely rare medical outlier. Paralysis can result from brain injury, yes, but not combined with loss of feeling below the affected area. That’s a textbook symptom of spinal cord injury. From the dialogue afterwards, where the doctor doesn’t slam the door on Betty walking again, but makes it clear it’s a long shot, you can see why it was portrayed this way. It’s possible, if even likely, that this will be reversed at some point. Thus, they definitely wouldn’t want a situation like with Barbara Gordon, where there was no medical way for her to walk again and it necessitated a miracle cure. But not all spinal cord injuries are the same, and a bruised spinal cord that wasn’t severed or crushed would have likely had the same effect and been more scientifically accurate. (Your writer may be researching these topics for an upcoming novel.)

Overall, this is a very strong issue. It’s just a bit hard to say how it’ll work in the larger context of representing a disabled character, given the ambiguity over Betty’s injury, and the fact that she only has a few lines this issue.

I’m hoping that her character would be centered in this storyline in future issues. She may be the heart of Riverdale, as this issue powerfully shows, but her adjustment isn’t going to be easy and I’m hoping the title doesn’t shy away from that. My issues with some of the scientific facts in this issue aside, the fact that I’m this invested in an Archie comic is a testament to the work Waid and his artists have done on this book over the last two years.

On Representing Disabilities In Archie Comics

This isn’t Archie Comics’ first time representing characters with disabilities, but the earlier attempts were a bit hamstrung by the fact that Archie Comics’ tone didn’t really allow for in-depth representation. The first attempt, in the late 1980s’ Jughead series, introduced a blind boy and a paraplegic girl to Jughead’s distinctly non-threatening skater gang. The characters, who had a distinct “after school special” vibe, faded into obscurity along with the rest of that status quo.

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A stronger attempt was made in 2014 with the introduction of new character Harper Lodge, a fashionable wheelchair-using cousin of Veronica (inspired by the late disability activist Jewel Kats). Although she only appeared a few times, Harper went over well and her introduction (along with that of their first gay character, Kevin Keller) led the way to the eventual Archie reboot. While the character very much fit into the traditional Archie vibe, I actually think the way her disability was portrayed was very well-done and important. How often do you see a wheelchair-using character who is shown as being able to walk with assistance at times? The only other example I can think of is Frankie Charles at DC.

Harper Lodge
Harper Lodge, ready for a comeback?

Could the Nu!Archie version of Harper Lodge show up to help Betty with her own adjustment in this version? It feels like a prime opportunity to work her in.

Other Comic Representation of Disabilities

Of course, Archie isn’t the only company that has a history of incorporating characters with disabilities, so this seems like a good time to examine how DC and Marvel are doing!

DC:

Obviously, it’s impossible to discuss DC and disability representation without addressing the Oracle in the room. It’s been six years as of next week since DC cured Barbara Gordon and returned her to the role of Batgirl. Gail Simone’s decision, as Oracle’s most trusted writer, to stay on board and guide that transition is still controversial. Her refusal to wholly erase Barbara’s disability, instead having her cured by an experimental procedure but maintaining the history and the PTSD from her shooting, helped take the sting out of it a bit for some but not all. Since then, both follow-up writers Fletcher/Stewart and Larson have done interesting things with that era of Barbara’s past.

Birds of Prey
Birds of Prey. Image via DC Comics

The legacy of Oracle is another thing. For a while, it seemed like Fletcher and Stewart were grooming Barbara’s friend Frankie Charles (who uses a wheelchair part-time due to a chronic condition rather than injury), but Frankie went on to take on a similar role with the code-name Operator. The attempt to create a new Oracle in the form of Gus Yale over in the Batgirl and the Birds of Prey title did not go over nearly as well, as an able-bodied stalker of Barbara Gordon wasn’t what many people wanted in the role. (Though Gus did provide some representation of those who struggle with mental illness–unfortunately his overall character was inconsistently written.)

Aside from Oracle, DC tries for a good balance of realism and superhero trappings when it comes to their disabled heroes. Unfortunately, that often leads to the latter taking over. Cyborg was initially created as an allegory to amputees, with several scenes in the cartoon emphasizing that. However, recent developments since his induction into the Justice League turned him into more of a human computer, with his very humanity called into question at times.

Other times, disability is used as a temporary dramatic turn, such as Superman’s barely explained blindness in a recent storyline, or Aquaman losing his hand only to get a magical one made out of water. One exception to this that I really appreciated, though not in the main line: Alfred from the Batman: Earth One series being reinvented as an amputee war veteran was a very effective twist.

DC’s best move with disability representation in recent years, actually, has nothing to do with physical disability. The creation of Jessica Cruz, and her struggles with a severe anxiety disorder that essentially turned her into a shut-in is one of the most compelling story arcs of the Rebirth era. Geoff Johns set a good foundation there, and Sam Humphries built on it to turn Jessica into a fascinating character who is about to make her mainstream debut when she’s introduced in a new DC Superhero Girls TV series next year. Characters like Ryan Choi, Ray Terrill, and Lana Lang are also shown as struggling with anxiety, depression, or other emotional-spectrum disorders in recent comics.

Jessica Cruz
Jessica Cruz, Green Lantern. Image via DC Comics

While DC still lacks any representative on the level of Oracle, unfortunately, there’s no doubt they’ve come a long way.

Marvel:

On the surface, Marvel seems to have it all over DC when it comes to disability representation. After all, they’ve got:

– A blind superhero

– A deaf superhero

– A superhero who started out as chronically ill

– A superhero with nerve damage and chronic pain

– Arguably the most iconic paraplegic superhero

– The first major superhero with a diagnosed mental disorder

And what’s more, four of these five have been featured prominently in major motion pictures or TV productions.

So what’s the problem? Simple – in almost all of these cases, the disability is either forgotten, erased, or becomes the source of the superpower.

– In most depictions, Daredevil’s radar vision essentially allows him to see.

– Hawkeye’s deafness is generally erased or forgotten and has never been used in a media depiction

– Captain America becomes the after picture in a Charles Atlas ad (although I’d like to say his disabilities are yet another reason why he would NEVER be a Nazi)

– Doctor Strange’s injuries are really just a way to set him on the path to learning magic and are rarely referenced after.

– Professor Xavier is in and out of the chair constantly (that is until he was seemingly permanently killed off)

– Moon Knight’s multiple personalities are more often used as a storytelling device, with him even choosing new personalities of fellow superheroes at one point (although the recent, brilliant Jeff Lemire run depicted a more realistic, grounded version of DID and remains the best run for the character)

Outside of these a-listers, what is Marvel offering in the way of representation?

There was a strong recent storyline involving Flash Thompson, a double-amputee veteran, becoming the new Venom and taking the classic Spider-man villain in a more heroic direction. Writers, including Remender, Bunn, and Thompson, did a good job with not ignoring his disability while having him become an active superhero, but sadly the run was cut short as Marvel brought back Eddie Brock as Venom, and Flash seemed headed off to limbo.

Aside from that, Marvel’s history with disabled characters has a lot of minor characters (Hornet, Silhouette) making appearances and then heading off to limbo. Several recent titles like Occupy Avengers (Wheels Wolinsky) and Unstoppable Wasp (which introduced a teen genius with cerebral palsy, as well as dealing with Hank Pym’s mental illness) made a game effort, but sadly Marvel’s recent sales troubles have made it hard for smaller titles like this to get an audience.

Ms. Marvel #18
Ms. Marvel #18, image via Marvel Comics.

I will give a brief shout-out to G. Willow Wilson for a recent one-shot issue of her acclaimed series Ms. Marvel, featuring supporting character Bruno Carrelli. Bruno sustained injuries that partially disabled his hand and leg in the Civil War II story arc, and the issue, set in Wakanda, showed him adjusting with determination and ingenuity.

Unfortunately, much like The Killing Joke remains controversial to this day and taints the concept of Oracle for some, the Civil War II tie-ins remain easily the low spot for the title, and, as such, Bruno’s storyline may not be embraced by association. Bruno is mainly outside of the main title right now due to a feud with Kamala, so let’s hope that changes soon.

Like with all things Marvel right now, they appear to be making a push for diversity on the surface when it comes to disability, but that representation is often skin deep. You need to look at some of the smaller books to find their gems.

In Conclusion: Some Good but Vast Room for Improvement

So clearly, all of Archie, DC, and Marvel are making an effort when it comes to disability representation right now, as are smaller companies.

I’d particularly recommend Lion Forge’s Catalyst Prime: Superb and Boom’s Brave Chef Brianna on that front.

Let’s hope they continue to build on their successes.

Archie Comics provided a review copy of Archie #23 for this article.

Reviewer, comic book writer, and the author of Alex Actonn, Son of Two Seas - novel available on Amazon now! DC superfan who is loving everything about Rebirth. Feels very strongly about Cassandra Cain, Stephanie Brown, and Young Justice. Can also be found on Graphic Policy doing sales analysis with Glenn Matchett, and on the Rabbitt Stew Podcast with Glenn and Brandon James.