Afterlife With Archie #1
writer: Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa
artist: Francesco Francavilla
If this had been done by another company as a parody of Archie, Afterlife With Archie would have been redolent with sarcastic humor and probably a lot gorier, because, well, it would have been a book meant to rip on the characters and their all-American status. That might have been fun, but then that book wouldn't have been nearly as good.
Instead, Archie publisher Jon Goldwater took the bait when Aguirre-Sacasa threw this concept at him as a joke. And as often happens when the company takes on something that shouldn't work (Archie Meets The Punisher comes to mind), the result is something special.
There's little humor to be found here; instead, Aguirre-Sacasa takes the Riverdale Gang and makes them very real teens. (Maybe that's the way the books have been for a while -- I keep meaning to check in but haven't.) While they still retain their trademark behaviors, they don't quite have the veneer of innocence people associate with them, just basic decency.
With an upcoming Halloween dance, Betty and Veronica try to lure in Archie with the promise of cool costumes -- Betty trying to decide on which Hitchcock heroine, and Veronica which outrageous "sexy" archetype to be. If she chooses witch, she gets to wear a pointy hat, of course.
Yet somehow they also know that Sabrina is a real witch, or at least Jughead does. When his beloved pooch Hot Dog has been fatally hit by a car, he knows to go to the magical blonde's house in hopes that something can be done.
This version of Sabrina echoes the popular sitcom, but not once does the tone veer into goofiness. Aguirre-Sacasa uses enough of the familiar that new readers can recognize these characters, but they all have sadness about them -- deftly portrayed by the art of Francesco Francavilla, who makes even Jughead both recognizable from the regular cartoony design and strangely real. These aren't teens full of youthful hijinks; instead they're wrestling with the beginnings of adulthood.
Jughead can't deal with loss, and as I often remember from Sabrina stories when I was a kid, Sabrina can't stand to see her friends in pain. And elsewhere, other characters are learning that their actions have consequences, while trying to stave them off. But what we all also remember from Sabrina stories is that she herself, while meaning well, often causes more harm than good... so opening that Necronomicon (against her cat Salem's advice) cannot be good.
Thus we have this so wrong it's right book. Afterlife With Archie uses familiar characters not to mock, but to make the horror all the more real. We know them, we understand them, and there's not a one of them we would want to see in real peril, not even Reggie. Putting them in a zombie story, one which improbably but effectively refuses to wink at the situation, works like a charm.
That's not to say it's without humor. Aside from the Hitchcock references, Aguirre-Sacasa leavens the story with bits from other great horror works, and in the credits acknowledges the debt to Sam Raimi, Stephen King and of course, George Romero, all of whom have pushed the edges of graphic horror.
Francavilla refrains from making things too gory (at least in this first issue), leaving things suggested through the right balance of light and shadow. One character's gruesome end is rightfully left to the imagination; the silhouette of the zombie attack is far more disturbing than actually seeing it would have been.
Likely you're not going to find this one on the grocery store magazine rack, and yes, you should probably keep it out of the hands of a pre-teen reader (The publisher rates it Teen+). But that's not a judgment toward kids handling zombies, because that undead cat is out of the bag. This one is for more sophisticated readers because it's surprisingly deep.
I'll take the risk right now and say it -- if Afterlife With Archie can maintain this tone and quality, it may already be a classic, and already falls right alongside Saga, Lazarus and East of West as one of the best books of the year.
Where to find it? We recommend Earth-2 Comics in Sherman Oaks and Northridge (where it is their Pick of the Week), as well as our home store, Illusive Comics & Games in Santa Clara, both of which have links elsewhere on this page. Support your local comics shop!