I’m still not sure if my connection with ARCHIE comics is just yet another example of my crippling arrested development, but I honestly think the series does a better job illustrating the complexities of youth better than the countless novels and movies that have tried. A CALCULATED RISK is one of my all-time favourites, a rich, dramatic story about male relationships, being honest with yourself, and of course, that unique time where you’re almost an adult, and the future is looming like a horrifying, monstrous threat.
The story begins with Archie having his car taken away after Pop decides that his son’s habit of driving his friends around town, as opposed to studying, is what’s causing his slumping calculus grade. Archie is heart-broken to have his car taken away, but surprisingly, no wacky hijinx ensue in an attempt to get it back. It’s a moment of stark honesty, and illustrates why Archie is actually my favourite character in the books – as the gang reverts to their trademark behaviour, with Jughead cracking wise and Betty and Veronica fighting over who gets to be the tutor, Archie is downright melancholic. There isn’t anything funny or charming about the predicament he’s in – he really is lost. Calculus just doesn’t make sense to him, and he can’t find anyone to turn to who could understand that. This may sound obvious, but that feeling of isolation is the most important part in a story about adolescence, even one about a popular student who has two beautiful women fighting over him. Archie sulks away, and finds himself feeling desperate.
That’s when Reggie offers him a proposition. Failing at calculus just as spectacularly as his rival, he’s gotten a hold of the answers to the calculus final. Though Archie holds strong initially, his failed trips to the library, his continued difficulty with the homework…it all adds up to a climactic moment. Late to class, rushing to school in the rain, Archie is soaked wet when a car drives by and covers him with puddle water. Deflated and hopeless, he tells Reggie he’ll do it. He’ll cheat. And this is when the story really hits into high gear.
As Archie lays awake at night, his brain refuses to turn off, as his thoughts keep racing back to the immorality of cheating, an old memory comes back to him. “I JUMPED!” he shouts out to Reggie’s window in the middle of the night. When the two were young boys they used to spend time in a treehouse in Reggie’s backyard. Archie had his first broken bone when he shattered his arm, accidentally falling out of the tree. At least, that’s the way he always remembered it, and the story Reggie always supplied. But suddenly, Archie remembers: he didn’t fall, he jumped. Lil’ Reggie proposed the idea that they both jump out at the same time, but held himself back at the last minute, watching Archie jump straight into danger. To Archie, this symbolizes everything about their relationship, and it’s why he can’t possibly trust Reggie’s answers – he’s probably given Archie a false copy, forcing him to fail.
Of course, what’s really interesting about this is that Archie could very well be unreliable in his memory. We’re not told in the story that his recollection of events is correct; in fact, I think it’s implied otherwise. I think we’re supposed to understand that not only is Archie the kind of guy who just can’t do something as wrong as cheat on the final, Reggie isn’t either. Life someone preordained that there needed to be some sort of cataclysmic event to get the two to realize this, and to get them to understand what was at the heart of their rivalry all these years. “That TRAITOR!” Reggie thinks as he drives after Archie, who’s made off with the answers to the test, “He’s going to rat me out so he can look like the good guy!” To Reggie, Archie’s sudden remembrance of events represents everything he hates about the guy – he has to be the well-rounded, smiling kid, the perfect all-American who won’t even cheat on a test to save his future.
Speeding after Archie in complete desperation, Reggie accidentally smashes his car into a pole, breaking his arm. “If I were smart, I wouldn’t need to cheat on a calculus test!” he screams at Archie. It’s a tense, unforgettable scene, as neighbours and an ambulance come rushing to rescue the young boy. This scene, to me, reveals how a lot of Reggie’s behaviour comes from a place of deep self-loathing. Whether or not you see this scene as an admittance on Reggie’s part, as an act of poetic justice, it’s definitely the moment where he realizes he has to change his behaviour if we wants to start getting new results. If he’s really the guy that people can imagine forcing his friend to jump as a child, if he really is the guy who can’t even be trusted to cheat honestly, there must be something wrong with him.
And what about Archie? Is it Reggie’s past behaviour that makes Archie come to his realization? Or is Archie just painfully insecure? It will come as no surprise that I imagine it to be the latter. Because that’s the thing about having it all – you just can’t believe it. Though Reggie may hate himself so much that he resents others for being happy, Archie just can’t comprehend that he has everything he does. A loving family, beautiful, intelligent girlfriends, a loyal best friend, dozens of close relationships…he really has no reason to complain. But he does. Again and again and again, because he knows he’s really a pretty dim-witted klutzy guy. He may always try to do what’s best, but look at what he does when things get tough – he decides to cheat. He may think he hates Reggie for making him jump, but I think deep down, he understands why he needs his rival so much. Reggie reminds him that he’s not perfect, reminds him that he makes as many mistakes as Reggie does.
In a closing scene, Reggie and Archie meet the next day, both infinitely wiser. It’s a quiet, down-played scene, but it’s a great look at the place of two young men right on the cusp of beginning their adult lives. “I didn’t want to go to Strathmore University. I wouldn’t have cheated if they didn’t put so much pressure on me!” Reggie says of his parents, also making mention that they’ve cheated on their income tax. Cheating is often a goal to be rewarded in the adult world, and Reggie is perplexed by the ‘do as I say, not as I do’ moral his parents are telling him. Archie has also told his parents he’s been feeling far too much pressure in his life, and the two boys bond in a stark and intensely personal scene.
A CALCULATED RISK doesn’t give us a clear ending, but we really shouldn’t get one. It’s a complicated story about two boys entering a world where there aren’t really winners and losers, heroes and villains. Really, all there is, is honesty, being honest with yourself and being honest with others, and maybe making some sort of deep connection by understanding the pain others are going through. Archie and Reggie leave A CALCULATED RISK understanding each other a little more, and feeling a little braver in entering a scary new world.
A CALCULATED RISK first appeared in ARCHIE #582, and was recently reprinted in ARCHIE DOUBLE DOUBLE DIGEST #238. Written by Angelo Decesare, penciled by Stan Goldberg, inks by Bob Smith, lettered by Jack Morelli, coloured by Barry Grossman.