Feature Review: 'Afterlife with Archie' #1 is more Stephen King than Archie ComicsA comic review article by: Jason Sacks, Keith Silva
“In order to stay viable, we have to be contemporary… The stories have to remain relevant to the year we’re publishing or else we’ll start losing readership.”
- Former Archie publisher John Goldwater, quoted in The Best of Archie, 1980
Jason Sacks: I don’t know about you, Keith, but this comic was high in my list of things that I never expected to see: an Archie-style take on the contemporary cult of zombie zaniness, told straight and bizarre and surprisingly awesomely.
Afterlife with Archie is one of those rare WTF comics that’s way better than you’d expect it to be, a surprisingly cool, interesting, spooky and weird version of the zombie trope. Ably told by the always wonderful Francesco Francavilla, this oddball comic brings the end of the world to the previously happy world of Riverdale, with writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, Archie’s favorite crossover king (he’s previously written books like Archie Meets Glee), delivering a tale that’s not completely off-model.
While there are a handful of scenes that play off of the famous Betty-and-Veronica dichotomy, and characters like Jughead, Dilton and especially Sabrina are on-key, what’s most striking about this book for me is how much it’s played straight. Rather than have the tropes of the zombie apocalypse defer to the tropes of the Archie universe, this book puts the fear and strangeness up front, with moody earth-toned colors, black panel borders and spooky moments like Sabrina’s mouth being zipped up by witches enforcing their rules.
It’s a weird-ass comic, more Freddy Krueger than Melissa Joan Hart, but it perfectly fit John Goldwater’s command to his company. The kids these days want zombies, and Archie delivered. How was the delivery to Vermont, Keith?
Keith Silva: [Vermont: Full Contagion Imminent] This is an Archie Comic, Sacks? Really? My reading was a little different. For me, this was the best homage to Stephen King I've read in an (after) lifetime.
The way I see it an idea like Afterlife with Archie breaks in one of three ways. The first, it's stunt-casting, a way to revive a flagging property, charge a higher ad rate and initially move more product before it shrivels up and dies due to its own boney concept. The second, it's a neutered 'what-if' scenario, all sizzle, no steak (or stakes, since we're talking horror here). The third scenario is the one Francavilla and Aguirre-Sacasa choose to shamble after: play it straight, make it a pastiche and put these characters in a well-known (and popular) situation and find out what happens.
Afterlife with Archie is less Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein … damn! I'm I dating myself. Scratch that, let's see, how about Afterlife with Archie is (a lot) less Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and more Scream or Buffy the Vampire Slayer -- subversion done well and with heart.
I understand Goldwater's dictate for the Archies to keep up with the Joneses. For Chrissakes zombies hock texting plans nowadays, a crystalline sign the apocalypse is imminent. Afterlife with Archie eschews this sanitized, toothless and popular zeitgeist and gets down into the wormy and fecund peat of horror. A self-described ''pretty messed-up'' Reggie runs down Jughead Jones's faithful mutt, Hot Dog, with his car and before anyone can say Mamaroneck Village, Jughead is consulting with a coven of witches to bring his dead dog back to life. C'mon, Sacks, Afterlife with Archie should come with spoiler warnings for Pet Sematary, Carnival of Souls E.A. Poe's 'The Black Cat' or, at least, Macbeth.
Since you yourself, Sacks, have echoed Jeff Smith's declaration we now live in the 'Age of the Cartoonist,' do you agree Afterlife with Archie makes its bones on the Suspiria-like colors and lurid EC-centric cartooning of Francavilla? The man is a monster when it comes to (well, monsters) and the look of desperation as it appears on the walking dead.
When Archie checks in with his sick friend Jughead, his offer to play nursemaid instead of going to the Halloween dance with Hitchcockian-blonde-Betty or sexy-French-maid Veronica is slightly homoerotic and all about keeping up appearances. Archie tempts Jughead and suggests they ''order some pies from Vito's, and watch the 'Creature Feature' marathon on AMC.'' Sweet, innocent Archie, long may your flag fly. Francavilla draws an expression on Jughead's face that is a mask Prince Prospero might have worn as he tried to staunch his own unavoidable demise from the Red Death. Good cartoonists convey; great cartoonists scare the ever-loving Chok'lit Shoppe milkshake outta' ya'.
Afterlife with Archie isn't for the Riverdale gang. This is horror; scary made plain and simple. Aguirre-Sacasa comes by his love of horror and terror honestly and he means to make these kids hurt. Tabbed as an on-going series, I'm skeptical this title is sustainable (no pun intended, honest). Here's hoping Francavilla and Aguirre-Sacasa will do for Archie et al. what Dave Gibbons and Alan Moore did for the Charlton gang. Given this first offering, it's possible they have the juice to shoot for such lofty heights, but what I really want to see is Aguirre-Sacasa and Francavilla die trying. It's a zombie joke, Sacks. Get it?
Sacks: Of course there's no way of knowing if this series will pull a Romero or at least a Kirkman as it shambles its way towards its apparently infinite run – or at least my brain lumbers forward at the thought of trying to predict how Sabrina might pull this magic out of her hat and somehow keep this series going. It would take a lot of magic to make Afterlife with Archie take more than the Watchmen route, but no worry because especially in October an unexpectedly amazing new horror book is tremendously welcome.
Maybe ironically, Archie has been doing some fairly innovative comics work lately, with some experienced comics creators. They've gotten a lot of deserved good press for their wonderful Kevin Keller comics and the Glee book was awesome in a very strange, square way. As the one newsstand comic company that never sold out to a bigtime comics publisher, Archie is able to take chances with their characters and allow some real auteurs to work on their comics.
So it's kind of no surprise that Aguirre-Sacasa and Francavilla are set free to send Riverdale to Hell, at the same time that it's a complete surprise. This company that we think of as being very conservative is actually pretty liberal-minded with its characters. They have to be: they're small and feisty and need to stay in step with readers.
So when we get auteur cartoonist Francavilla on a completely unexpectedly amazing Archie comic, or Dean Haspiel and Mark Waid on Archie's upcoming Fox, we're both surprised and not surprised.
Archie has braaaaaiiiinnnns!
As a teenager Keith Silva was such a Stephen King fanatic he went to see Graveyard Shift on its opening night in his small Massachusetts mill town. He was the only one in the theatre. Follow: @keithpmsilva
Jason Sacks thought he had a frightening run-in with flesh-eating zombies once, but they just turned out to be his bosses. Software is a cruel business He's the publisher of Comics Bulletin. Follow: @jasonsacks @comicsbulletin