Review: Archie Comics Big Ethel Energy

I recently found myself with an hour to kill before catching a train, so I went to the public library to read graphic novels, which I assume is what everyone does in such a situation.

I was intrigued by Archie Comics: Big Ethel Energy, so I picked it up and read the first volume.

If you’re not familiar with the Archieverse (and I have to say I read Archie comics a bunch as a kid but haven’t read much as an adult except for the thing where Jughead inadvertently starts the zombie apocalypse), Big Ethel was sorely abused for decades. Here’s the gag: she’s tall! And ugly! And she’s in love with Jughead, who loves only food!

Wikipedia tells me she’s been treated more kindly in recent decades, but still.

So the concept of Big Ethel Energy is that Ethel bears a lot of scars from how she was treated in high school even though she’s grown up and become a successful writer who seems to charm every man who comes into contact with her. She returns to Riverdale to write a history of the town, and everyone else is still there but grown up and dealing with the scars of high school in their own way.

After 12 episodes in the first trade paperback volume, I was hooked enough to download the Webtoon app so I could read more on the train. I believe this makes me the oldest Webtoon user by at least 20 years.

There’s a lot of really great stuff going on in this comic. Ethel has become fabulous but doesn’t believe in her fabulosity due to the scars that high school left on her self esteem, which feels like a level of psychological realism you don’t often see in comics. And everyone is facing difficulties with young adulthood: Betty is trying to get into med school though she clearly has a passion for horticulture; Jughead made an app that made him famous and has become a huge dickhead; Veronica is an influencer haunted by some mean girl stuff she posted online years ago who is trying to become a better person; Moose is the assistant football coach and also terribly insecure because Midge dumped him for a smarter guy when she first went away to college; Archie had to drop out of college when his mom got sick and is scared to go back…etc. etc. (Only a brief glimpse of Reggie—still an asshole!)

All of this is great, and makes for incredibly compelling reading. Especially on Webtoon, which is optimized for phones. So instead of the endless click pinch expand of other comic apps, it’s just an endless scroll.

So: a fun read, and I like the fact that Archie comics is kind of atoning for the awful misogyny that was the foundation of this character. A few quibbles: in the world of this story, Ethel is not only tall, but also fat, or fat-adjacent, but she’s drawn as sort of mildly curvy. Which is admittedly huge by the standards of most comics, but still. If she’s fat and as fabulous as the writing suggests, then draw her that way!

Also, the Webtoon “episode” format ultimately sinks the comic, as by episode 37, we’re into endless will-they-or-won’t they bullshit with Ethel and Moose, featuring Three’s Company-level misunderstandings, and the exploration of how you become an adult in spite of who you were in high school has largely been jettisoned. But, I mean, I’m not the intended audience for this thing, and I have to assume Webtoon is giving their power users what they want here. And, obviously, if you’re a fan of endless will-they-or-won’t they bullshit, you’ll probably dig it even through episode 37.

And how cool is it that you can download this app and read comics on your phone for free?