"This is how the end of the world begins…"
If readers needed any indication that Afterlife with Archie was going to be a different sort of Archie experience, that warning on page one – in horror movie font, dripping bloodily across a black void – is promise enough. From there, writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa (2013’s Carrie) and artist Francesco Francavilla (The Black Beetle, and an incalculable number of pulp-style comic-book covers) waste no time getting into the story. A few trope-heavy establishment shots – a creepy old house, an owl with glowing red eyes, feet pounding the ground, panels awash in lurid red – set the scene for the devastating splash page: Jughead, clutching his bloody, dying dog, at Sabrina Spellman’s door, begging her to save his life.
From there, things go to hell, and quickly. Sabrina can’t save Hot Dog’s life … but she can try to bring him back to life. Even before Hot Dog comes back, we’re treated to Sabrina’s horrifying punishment at the hands of her aunts. This underscores one of the best aspects of Afterlife with Archie – this isn’t just a zombie coming, it’s a full-on horror comic. The creators know the field intimately, and pay due homage. There’s no shying away from Stephen King; besides the obvious Pet Sematary allusions, we also get an oblique shout-out to to The Stand (a neat callback to Aguirre-Sacasa’s stint at adapting King’s novel as a comic series). Horror and thriller movie references abound, from fanboy arguments about which slasher movies are the best, to which of Hitchcock’s blondes are the sexiest, to a poster of Nosferatu on Jughead’s wall; venerable Mr. Weatherbee brings up Night of the Living Dead. Sabrina consults the Necronomicon. Veronica dresses up as Vampirella. Aguirre-Sacasa and Francavilla are working in deep traditions and they are more than willing to share their knowledge.
One of the reasons Afterlife with Archie is so immediately gripping is in the assumption that you already know these characters. Archie, Betty, Jughead, Veronica, Reggie, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Dilton Doiley, Mrs. Grundy, Waldo Weatherbee: these characters have been part of the shared American psyche for seventy years. As in Life with Archie – the near-future alternate universe title that imagines the Riverdale gang as young marrieds – we get interpretations of classic Archie gags, but now with real-world consequences. The Archie/Betty/Veronica love triangle is still mainly played for laughs (and it’s a hoot seeing Archie dressed up as his superhero alter-ego, Captain Pureheart), but Moose’s quick temper when it comes to his girlfriend, Midge, has dire repercussions. Friendships feel deeper and more heightened. While there’s an inherent playfulness here (how can there not be, with at least one beloved character going all zombie and one getting brutally slaughtered), but the tone is more serious, allowing readers to treat the story as more than just a Riverdale body count.
The writing is uniformly excellent. Aguirre-Sacasa knows horror and Archie; his terrific comic-book adaptation of The Stand was widely praised, and his work on Archie Meets Glee was weird and fun. He’s got a knack for foreshadowing and dialogue; at one point, Reggie admits to doing something “fully next-level terrible” and it feels like real teenagers talking. It’s Fracovilla’s art, though, that really makes Afterlife the rich success it is. His vintage pulp style works equally well depicting the Riverdale gang as all-American, timeless teenagers and as characters in an increasingly terrifying horror movie. Deep reds and blues project danger long before the gang knows they’re in it. Early on, we see Jughead’s face almost constantly in shadow, allowing for a visual hint of things to come. Houses loom in tilted panels, feeling isolated and rural. Fog, wind, and especially rain are used to chilling effect. His zombie work is especially frightening, all distorted faces with blank eyes and clutching claw-hands.
The entire concept for Afterlife with Archie comes from Francavilla’s one-off variant cover for Life With Archie #23. After some really cool retro alternate covers for Archie Meets KISS, Francavilla got weird with this one, cramming it with zombies and playing with the title, changing Life to Afterlife. It worked as a one-off cover, but as Aguirre-Sacasa later said, “I was bummed when the interior of that comic book [Life with Archie #23] wasn’t about zombies,” he said, “and … we all thought it at the same time: ‘Holy crap, a zombie apocalypse in Riverdale would be an awesome story!’” If Afterlife with Archie #1 is any indication, he was right.
There aren’t many ongoing mainstream horror comics on the market right now, but the biggest successes are among the best: Kirkman and Adlard’s The Walking Dead and Snyder and Albuquerque’s American Vampire are fantastic and high-profile, and you could make an argument for DC’s Swamp Thing and Animal Man. Readers can now easily add Afterlife with Archie to that list. In just one issue, it transcends its possibly gimmicky origins to become one of the most thrilling and exciting new titles of 2013.
Afterlife with Archie #1 hits comic-book stores and news October 9th, with either Francavilla’s regular cover, or alternates by Tim Seely, Andrew Pepoy, and Francavilla.
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Kevin Quigley is an author whose website, CharnelHouseSK.com, is one of the leading online sources for Stephen King news, reviews, and information. He has written several books on Stephen King for Cemetery Dance Publications, including Chart of Darkness, Blood In Your Ears, and Stephen King Limited, and co-wrote the recently released Stephen King Illustrated Movie Trivia Book. His first novel, I’m On Fire, is forthcoming. Find his books at cemeterydance.com.