“Sometimes dead is better,” witches Hilda and Zelda Spellman tell Jughead Jones after their magic is unable to save his dog Hot Dog from a fatal injury. If only he had listened! Struck by his obvious pain, their niece Sabrina (i.e., the Teenage Witch) uses forbidden magic from the Necronomicon to bring Hot Dog back to life. Like the resurrections in “The Monkey’s Paw” and Pet Sematary, it doesn’t work out as planned: Hot Dog returns, but as a horrible undead monster with a bite that spreads a terrible infection. Soon, the town of Riverdale (home of Archie, Betty, Veronica, and the rest) is at the center of a zombie epidemic straight out of Night of the Living Dead.
Since last fall, the first comic I read when I get it home from the store has been Afterlife with Archie, an unlikely hit from writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and artist Francesco Francavilla. The bimonthly book recently finished its first five-issue arc, “Escape from Riverdale,” and with the promise of big changes starting in the next issue, this seemed as good a time as any to examine the series (and encourage anyone who hasn’t tried it to give it a look: the first arc was just released in a collection last week).
As its name implies, Afterlife with Archie is a spin-off of Archie and the series with which it shares a universe (including Sabrina, Josie and the Pussycats, and more), with the familiar kid-friendly characters run through a George Romero- and Stephen King-style wringer. As I wrote in my series on doppelgangers and copycat characters, writers often use thinly-veiled pastiches of familiar characters when they want to explore their darker sides; however, it is increasingly common for publishers to give writers free rein with out-of-continuity or alternate-universe stories starring their name-brand characters (Marvel has had a Marvel Zombies series for several years now, as an obvious example).
At least since the late 1980s, following the success of the dark, adult-themed comics work of Alan Moore and Frank Miller, it’s been known that “grim and gritty” sell. Fashions change, but it seems like every few years there’s another round of “Comics aren’t just for kids anymore!” stories and another slew of comic anti-heroes committing rape, murder, or whatever transgression it takes to get the spotlight in a competitive field. (I don’t have a problem with comics tackling adult themes, of course, but it’s often the titles that loudly insist on their “adult” status that seem the most adolescent.) Even without resorting to graphic sex or violence, “going dark” is a giant cliché, and obviously zombies have been trendy for years now, so it would be easy to dismiss Afterlife with Archie as just another fad book. Yet it’s become one of my favorites: what gives?
Why does Afterlife with Archie succeed where others fail? For one thing, the affection the creators have for both the horror genre and Archie Comics is obvious and infectious. Aguirre-Sacasa knows the characters of the Archie universe and respects them; the darkness isn’t something laid on top of the characters, it’s an artful drawing out of themes already present in their usual, more cartoonish depiction. Archie Andrews is still good-hearted and willing to go out on a limb for his friends and family; Reggie Mantle is still a selfish snob; Betty and Veronica still fight over Archie while trying to remain “BFFs.” Francavilla’s semi-realistic art, filled with expressionistic shadows and dramatic, off-kilter angles, is matched by dialogue that is by turns naturalistic—the teens don’t sound like overly-cool caricatures of high-schoolers—and appropriately heightened for the gothic excess of the book. (Veronica’s father Hiram Lodge probably wouldn’t call Archie an “insolent whelp” in one of his regular appearances, but the dynamic of overbearing patriarch to a young, unwanted suitor isn’t a stretch.)
Even the more ghoulish elements are incorporated in ways that play with well-known character traits: it might seem like a cheap joke that the voracious Jughead is the first infected and becomes a flesh-devouring zombie, but it’s just as equally the kind of twist associated with the EC Comics that are another point of reference. His first teen victim: “Big” Ethel Muggs, a character who has always made me cringe in the original comics with her slow-witted “hick” speech pattern and unrequited crush on Jughead. (Ironically, as horrible as her death is in Afterlife, her brief appearance has more dignity than the regular version of the character has ever had.)
Flashbacks fill in the characters’ history, making them three-dimensional: in issue no. 4, the most emotional of the five, Archie is saved from the undead Hot Dog by his own dog Vegas, and then is confronted by his own father, now an infected zombie. In both cases, the memories of happier times are intercut with the current struggle. (It’s the rare horror comic for which you’ll need a tissue!) Memory also weighs heavily on Hiram Lodge and his butler Smithers; it’s implied that Hiram was unfaithful to Veronica’s mother, and Smithers, as a second-generation servant of the Lodge family, is a discreet repository of all the town’s secrets. Along with the incestuous relationship of Jason and Cheryl Blossom and the down-low lesbianism of Ginger Lopez and Nancy Woods (both interpretations that are original to this series, obviously), the constant web of secrets and lies make Afterlife’s version of Riverdale resemble Peyton Place, even before the supernatural elements are introduced. The tone is very much like a contemporary teen soap opera.
The “Escape from Riverdale” arc ends with Archie leading the town’s survivors from the dwindling safety of Lodge Manor out of town. Sabrina, who was banished to another dimension for her actions in the first issue, is scheduled to return to Riverdale in issue 6, presumably introducing a more cosmic angle to the ongoing horror, but who knows what other characters will show up? Josie and the Pussycats are still out there, somewhere, so far unused, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Aguirre-Sacasa and Francavilla indulge in some deep cuts from the world of Archie: most of the weirdest Archie concepts are technically alternate universes, but so is Afterlife, and it’s clear the creative team know their stuff, so who knows? I’m hoping for Jughead’s Time Police, myself.
Or maybe they’ll take some inspiration from Spire Christian Comics (which licensed Archie characters to spread the Good News), and we’ll get the gritty reboot of The Gospel Blimp the world has been crying out for. Or a grown-up Hansi, the Girl Who Loved the Swastika? After the real-life horrors of that story, zombies should be no problem.
All kidding aside, I do give Archie Comics a lot of credit for remaining a comics company first instead of a “media” company: although many of the attention-grabbing developments of recent years, such as Archie’s marriage and impending death in Life with Archie (the series which Afterlife with Archie sprang from, initially as a joke) and the introduction of openly gay character Kevin Keller, could be seen as publicity stunts, they’ve remained dedicated to a medium that the Big Two comics companies have increasingly turned into ancillaries of big budget movies and little else. On the other hand: an Afterlife with Archie movie? I can think of less likely properties to adapt for film. In the mean time, I look forward to seeing what else Aguirre-Sacasa and Francavilla come up with. (And I just found out that Sabrina will be appearing in another, “much darker” ongoing series following the success of Afterlife; “much darker” than what we’ve seen so far? Wow.)