The Webcomic Overlook #29: Penny and Aggie

Does anybody still read Archie comics? Archie and his Riverdale pals haven’t really been relevant since they topped the pop charts with “Sugar Sugar.” I know that there are a bunch of Archie digests available at the grocery store checkout aisle next to the Disney Adventures, so somebody must be reading it. However, there’s something strangely anachronistic about the comic, you know? Some of the recent comics can still be entertaining in their innocence, like Betty’s temporary foray as a goth, but most of the time it’s a sanitized, kid friendly view on high school life that seems straight out of the 60’s.

Which is a shame, because there’s definitely room in the comics world for a lighthearted teen comedy. The manga shelves are filled with many entries into this genre, and readers are eating them up. When you think about it, they’re not too different from the Archie formula. Is the academic rivalry between Yukino Miyazawa and Maho Izawa of Kare Kano any different than the Betty-Veronica blood feud?

You have to wonder: what would Archie comics look like if it were written by someone, who, I don’t know, had at least some clue of how high school teens act in the 21st century?

Today’s Webcomic Overlook reviews Penny and Aggie, a comic that seems inspired by both Archie comics and romance manga. The comic was written by T. Campbell (is his first name just “T”? Were his parents letter-philes?) and illustrated by Gisèle Legacé.



“Oh, El Santo,” you’re saying right now. “Yet another one of your baseless introductory rants that have no relation to the comic at all. What makes you bring up Archie and romance manga, other than your pleasantly mercurial tendencies?” OK, smartypants … look no further than Legacé’s illustrations.

“Penny and Aggie” begins illustrated with the clean, cartoonish style similar to Dan DeCarlo’s. However, artistic styles evolve, and in 2007 Legacé’s style began to mimick the thin lines and solid, detailed layouts of a Japanese manga. (Oddly, at around the same time, Betty & Veronica went through its own manga-rific transformation*. Co-incidence? Or industrial synergy?) Both styles have their own strengths. The earlier style allowed for some fun cartoony asides. However, as the tone of the series started to get more serious — tackling adult topics like budding sexuality and personal independence — the somber manga style artwork felt more appropriate.

I feel I should point out, by the way, that unlike the Archie comics, “Penny and Aggie” features some mature themes and PG-13 nudity. So parents, think twice before letting your kid read this webcomic, hmm-kay?

“Penny and Aggie” is a story about the high school class structure. It’s a division that’s been true since John Hughes started making movies: the cliques versus the freaks-and-geeks. Our two protagonists represent girls living on the opposite ends of the spectrum. The webcomic may as well be retitled “Penny Versus Aggie,” since their antagonism toward each other has, so far, been the comic’s centerpiece.

Aggie d’Amour is your typical high school outcast, like Winona Ryder from Heathers — only without the whole accessory to murder thing. While some of her rebelliousness stems from a longing for her desceased mother, she remains a friendly person once you get past her sarcastic demeanor. Aggie is the kind of person who likes to hang around the AV Club and is more than a little socially inept. She’s the sort of student who gets called a teacher’s pet because she’s the one in class who raises her hand because she knows the answers. She dresses in vaguely gothic wear, espouses liberal idealism, and shuns the popular people on principle. Which means that, naturally, her greatest enemy at the school is …

… Penny Levac. The blonde, trend-setting Penny is Aggie’s opposite. She’s popular, rich, and the leader of her own exclusive clique. Her character profile on the “Penny and Aggie” site sums it up: “Boys want her, girls want to be her.” Aggie knows, though, that Penny is a far more intelligent and cunning person than she lets on, and it’s the thing that irritates her most about Penny. What Aggie probably doesn’t know, though, is that despite Penny’s circle friends (who are suprisingly genuine), Penny may be the loneliest character in the series. Although she’s usually prim and proper, when someone triggers her emotions — such as a hunky, goateed Sk8r Boi from the wrong side of the tracks — her outbursts are violent, irrational, yet precise and brutally honest. Penny may be a lot of things — distant, arrogant, thoughtless — but she’s no hypocrite.

Both girls surround themselves with an isolated circle of friends, and they say a lot about each character. Aggie’s friends are loopy types … outcasts like herself. They’re portrayed as free spirits who aren’t caged by the norms of convention, man. I can be a pretty big nerdy, but if I ever ran across their real life counterparts, I’d probably keep my distance from them. Listen, if you see four kids hi-jacking a dance by getting the band to play “Linus & Lucy” so they can re-enact that scene from the “Charlie Brown Christmas Special,” what would you do? If your response doesn’t include words like “stink-eye” or “spit on ‘em,” then away from my sight! And seriously, how am I supposed to like Lisa when, in every panel, she sports the world’s smuggest smile?

Aggie’s friends also reflect her confusion bourne from adolescence. Earlier in “Penny and Aggie,” she associated with another circle of friends. They were an oddball crew of the school’s biggest outcasts, including an overweight gal and a crazy Bible thumper. Aggie eventually found herself at odds with these kids during a moral crisis. Was there really friendship there? Or did Aggie just hang out with them simply because they were outcasts, nothing more?

As I mentioned before, Penny’s friends are the real thing. Two girls — Sara and Michelle — are initially seen as Penny’s henchwomen. Yet Campbell begins to spend more and more time writing about these girls. Sara becomes a studious girl with a stone cold knack for theorizing interpersonal relationships, while Michelle becomis a giggly yet very approachable friend. Two things become apparent: they have wills of their own, and they chose to hang around Penny because they like her. When more girls join Penny’s clique, they seem to be doing so because of genuine camaraderie. And what gets to me about Penny’s clique are that its members are often portrayed as being less stuck up than their peers.

So, in an inversion of the natural order as portrayed by Disney Channel and Nickelodeon preteen sitcoms, I’m rooting for the princesses. Don’t take no crap from anyone, Penny! You go kick their asses! Woo!

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that not everyone is a Penny-holic. You Aggie-philes might be out there thinking, “Screw you, El Santo! You have no idea what it was like to be an outcast in high school, what with your smoldering eyes and your luchador good looks. May termites feast on your brain!” Au contraire, mes amis. When I was in high school, the only clubs that I could ever boast being in were the school newspaper and chess club. However, I will admit that several of my nerdy quirks have been tempered with age. (Note to kids out there: don’t believe the player haters. Being an adult is awesome!) After you reach a certain age, you start to develop a jaded, realistic outlook where Penny’s “survival of the fittest” perseverence makes a lot of sense.

To Campbell’s credit, Aggie never descends into the pits of terminal despondence like you find in many sadsack characters nowadays, like Homestar Runner‘s Strong Sad and Achewood‘s Roast Beef Kazenzakis. Out of all the characters in the series, she’s probably the one the exhibits the most personal growth. She re-evaluates her own stances, gradually coming the realization that she’s not so different from cliques that she hates. She discovers she doesn’t hold a higher moral ground just because she likes to dress in second-hand clothes. In one of my favorite scenes, Aggie comes to the shameful realization that she, not Penny, is the bigger cause for racial strife in her school. I didn’t like this scene because Aggie was cast as the enemy of mankind; I liked it because she was learning and evolving.

And there’s an inkling that, despite her outward hostility toward Penny, there’s an ounce of affection. Oh, not the lesbian affection that some characters suspect. (Though that suspicion does lead to the funniest 8-panel shocked expression I’ve ever encountered in comics.) Rather, the reader speculates that if Penny and Aggie hadn’t arrived at the school with preconceived notions about each other, they’d probably be the best of friends.

Who knows? Maybe that’s where this comic is headed after all.

The stories fluctuate from light humor to serious subject matter. Recurring themes are heartbreak and unrequited love. This only works if we care about the characters, and Campbell succeeds. I felt my heart sink during the break-ups, and I felt my anger rise during betrayals. There were times that I rooted for a couple to last, even though I knew it wouldn’t happen. Campbell knows how to paint a touching portrait of the joys and sorrows in human relationships.

However, not everything works. Campbell stumbles when he tries to parlay things that were initially phenomenally goofy jokes into serious dramatic plot points.

For example, take the events that lead up to Sara’s outing. It seems that an earlier incident was a major clue to her lesbianism. She once concluded that Aggie and Penny were closeted lesbians, and that makes her (Sara) a closeted lesbian. Seriously, what the hell? I was halfway convinced that Aggie and Penny were crossing a bit into slashfic territory myself, and last time I checked I was a raging hetero. I suspect nearly half the characters came to the same conclusion as well. Does that make me and half the cast of “Penny and Aggie” homosexuals? I understand the need to diversify the cast, but the convoluted rationalization here smacked of pure BS.

My biggest issue, though, is how Nick (Aggie’s Dad) and his girlfriend, Charisma, are handled. We can start with how they seem to be thrown together from the start, having happy time at Charisma’s gym and macking on each other when they’re alone. However, there’s a slight flaw: the two don’t seem to exhibit any chemistry whatsoever. None. (I’ll give Campbell some credit here: he might be setting up a development where Nick and Charisma are just desperate adults, and they are fooling themselves into believing that a relationship is there. If this isn’t how the story turns out, forget that I ever said anything.)

Everything comes to a head in the underwhelming “Dinner for Six” storyline. It a plot that wouldn’t seem out of place in a terrible sitcom. Nick and Charisma want to meet each other’s children at a mall hang-out. However, Penny and another girl start to meddle, and hi-jinks ensue! There’s pitfalls and pratfalls and someone gets bonked on the head after having closet sex and it’s all confusing and rather unlikely and in the end everyone thinks that everybody else is someone who they’re not. In a way, it’s a typical Shakespearean comedy. In another way, it’s really, really stupid. It’s supposed to be played for laughs, I suppose, but I found it very annoying and ridiculously contrived. Worse, the story managed to worm its way unpleasantly into better storylines.

For example, one “Dinner for Six” after-effect was that Charisma believes Penny is Nick’s daughter, and Penny thinks her dad is having an affair. It’s a typical screwball development in a screwball storyline. However, this particular plot point rears its ugly head again some 100 pages later … and in a superior storyline. Penny had just made a major decision to run off with the man that she loves. It’s a highly charged story where we get a glimpse of Penny’s inner turmoil, and we sorta smile as the most popular girl in school steps out and takes a huge risk. Eventually, her parents track her down. During the confrontation, she accuses her dad of having an extramarital affair with Charisma.

Gah. How come no one in this series has ever even thought to sit down and talk? You know, the way normal people clear up misunderstandings? Roger Ebert had a word for this kind of thing. He called it an Idiot Plot: “Any plot containing problems which would be solved instantly if all of the characters were not idiots.”

But these aren’t really major quibbles, and the only reason it bothers me so much because I really love the characters. I want Penny to break out of her inflexible destiny. I want Aggie to end up with the guy of her dreams. I want super-bitch queen Karen to finally get her long awaited comeuppance. And I want the gradual stratification of the student body to reach the inevitable high school version of a small scale Ragnarok. “Penny and Aggie” succeeds because it’s bold and because it’s fun, wich makes it a breezy read. That’s a lot more than I can say about Archie comics nowadays, by the way.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

* – For another fun take on Archie and his Riverdale pals, check out their cameo appearance in an issue of Gen13. Scott Campbell illustrates them in both Don DeCarlo’s style and his own West Coast Image style. Betty and Veronica look especially great. This concludes my agreement to sell every member of the Campbell clan. Note to Pa Campbell: please ship me a package containing a custom tartan and a plate of haggis. Thank you.

About El Santo

Somehow ended up reading and reviewing almost 300 different webcomics. Life is funny, huh? Despite owning two masks, is not actually a luchador.

Posted on January 30, 2008, in 4 Stars, dramatic webcomic, manga style webcomic, romance webcomic, slice-of-life webcomic, The Webcomic Overlook, WCO Big Review, webcomics and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Just found your review, and liked it a lot – accurate, funny, a good read.

    I have to disagree with you on one tiny thing…maybe you’ve guessed already, it’s about liking Penny. Penny is…waaaay too perfect for all of us, normal little ducklings. Blonde, perfect body, smart, wealthy, popular…most of the people don’t get _all_ of these things. Reason for envy, of course.

    Whatever Penny does, turns out to be for the good. Even when she runs off with Rich, nothing really bad happens, Penny gets rescued by parents, gets over it, life goes on. Probably even now, when she’s practically defeated by Karen, she’ll just wipe the dust and move on without a scratch.

    Meanwhile Aggie seems to get the bad part of all. The only life-changing event that could have happened to her – falling in love – turns out to be a mistake, Mr. Perfect worships Miss Sneaky Bitch, aka Karen. This means, Mr. Perfect happens to have really bad taste in women, and he appreciates all the things Aggie isn’t.

    Perhaps Marshall’s mother, as Aggie’s stepmother, could have been a good thing in her life. Some motherly love, some women-to-women advice. But no, can’t do, wannabe-stepmother wanishes.

    While Penny has everything, she has so much no real person could and would ever have or deserve, Aggie only gets a bunch of weirdo friends, and the never changing role of the school freak. I think Aggie deserves more then she gets. And this is what happens to most us as alive. And this is why I think Aggie is the more human character out of the two, and this is why I never, for a moment could like Penny and why I _love_ Aggie! :-)

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