Big Ethel Energy Vol. 1 | Review
Big Ethel Energy Vol. 1
Writer: Keryl Brown Ahmed
Artist: Siobhan Keenan
Archie Comics; $17.99
Keryl Brown Ahmed and Siobhan Keenans’ webcomic-turned-graphic novel series Big Ethel Energy is a winning romantic dramedy based around perhaps the most unlikely of Archie Comics’ extensive cast, the character formerly known as Big Ethel.
Ethel Muggs was, upon her 1962 introduction, a one-note joke character. Tall and gangly, with buck teeth and a messy hairdo, she was the polar opposite of the curvy, fashionable, snub-nosed Betty and Veronica; as she was designed by cartoonist and creator Samm Schwartz, she was presented as a girl no one would be fighting to share a milkshake at Pop’s with. She was also depicted as boy-crazy, with the target of her affection being one Jughead Jones, who of course wanted nothing to do with her. Her chasing of him was often literal.
Big Ethel Energy, in keeping with the spirit of the “New Riverdale” era of Archie Comics, tones down the depiction of high school Ethel, who the publisher has stopped calling “Big Ethel” a while ago. She, like all the characters, no longer looks like a refugee from a newspaper comic strip, and she is drawn far more realistically; now she just has a slightly crooked smile and messier hair than Betty and Veronica. She’s not the caricature she was.
She’s also not literally chasing Jughead Jones, who is not literally running away from her. Although she still has an unrequited crush on Jughead, here she’s merely presented as outside the in-group, her attempts to befriend Jughead rebuffed. (As to why Jughead would be at all desirable give that he was once a joke character just like Ethel and hardly depicted as a hunk, well, Keenan draws him as gorgeous…in fact, everyone she draws looks beautiful, even the supposedly-dorky teenage Ethel isn’t as much of an ugly duckling as the script makes her out to be.)
Seven years after Archie’s class has graduated high school, Ethel has moved far away from Riverdale to New York City, where she has a successful career as a journalist (“Not Everyone Peaked In High School” is the tagline on the cover). She’s still never dated, having been scarred by her attempts to date Jughead, but other than that she has a fun, fulfilling life far away from her hometown. And then two things happen at once that all but force her back to Riverdale: Everyone in her building gets an eviction notice, and the mayor of Riverdale asks her to write a book about the history of the town.
So now a big-city success, and, according to everyone else’s reactions, having blossomed into a beautiful young woman, Ethel Muggs finds herself Betty Cooper’s roommate, living in an apartment just below one shared by Archie and Jughead, and constantly running into the people from her past, people she tried to forget in her new life.
A great deal of the fun of the book is seeing the grown-up versions of the perennial high school students. It’s a riff that’s been done before, of course, but not in quite the same way, with an outsider viewpoint character with a more-than-healthy skepticism of the usual stars. And certainly not with character designs as strong, handsome and realistic as Keenan’s.
Ethel soon realizes she’s not the only one who has changed, and that the kids she wanted to fit in with in high school are all now more complicated adults, and some of them have new interest in her. Not Jughead though; he remains aloof, and mysteriously so. In fact, what’s up with Jughead is one of several mysteries running through this first volume of the still-ongoing webcomic.
To that end, the first volume ends with all sorts of dangling plotlines, but then, that’s probably how a good serial comic should end, making the reader eager to find out what happens in the next volume.
Filed under: Reviews, Young Adult
About J. Caleb Mozzocco
J. Caleb Mozzocco is a way-too-busy freelance writer who has written about comics for online and print venues for a rather long time now. He currently contributes to Comic Book Resources' Robot 6 blog and ComicsAlliance, and maintains his own daily-ish blog at EveryDayIsLikeWednesday.blogspot.com. He lives in northeast Ohio, where he works as a circulation clerk at a public library by day.
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