“Sure you’re ready for this kind of responsibility, son?”
This is tragedy.
When we first learned about Afterlife with Archie, it sounded like high camp, a way for the squeaky-clean Riverdale gang to get its hands dirty with the latest pop culture trend. It hasn’t turned out that way, because writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and artist Francesco Francavilla understand that in order to make a horror story scary, you have to love the people in peril. Archie comics have existed since the early 1940s, and by the nature of familiarity, the creators don’t have to work hard to generate affection or sympathy for these characters; it’s already there, ingrained into our collective consciousness. It’s to Aguirre-Sacasa’s and Francavilla’s credit that they do work hard to earn that affection, treating Afterlife as a reader’s first exposure to these people.
Four issues in, and we’re now at the point where the deaths stop being fun and start being devastating. As with the last issue, we start off in the past, delving into the endless extended universe of Archie comics (the art evoking the Little Archie stories and the dialogue offering a sly wink to the Archie alternate universe “Captain Pureheart” comics; later, we get a glimpse of Archie’s vintage jalopy). It’s a quiet scene packed with gravitas and foreshadowing, Francavilla’s sepia-toned panels setting the stage for the violent blues and reds of the present. In a clever Cujo moment recalling issue #1, Aguirre-Sacasa lets us see into the thoughts of Archie’s dog, Vegas, springing to Archie’s aid without a thought for himself. Words run together in half-coherent dog-speak as we are forced to look into Vegas’ loyal, pleading eyes. It’s rough. Compelling but rough.
There’s a shift in tone to the queasy, potentially incestuous relationship between Jason and Cheryl Blossom, trapped in their house and afraid. Strike that – Cheryl is afraid; Jason’s got some Flowers in the Attic intentions. People deal with tragedy in different ways, it seems. One of the most interesting aspects of Afterlife, as it is in the grownup alternate universe comic Life With Archie, is that we’re able to get nuances of character that spring from the archetypes laid out in the regular Archie comics. The stronger, self-sufficient version of Cheryl Blossom that has emerged in Life seems ready to show herself here. The quiet, lowercase, “no,” accompanied by a single tear rolling down Cheryl’s cheek, speaks volumes about her shifting priorities in the wake of disaster.
The unexpected and unnerving final panels suggest similarities with George Romero’s Land of the Dead, playing with what we’ve come to expect from recent zombie fiction. I won’t spoil it here, but if the title of the next issue is any indication, things are about to get very, very nasty.
As usual, Afterlife is paired up with a classic 1970s Chilling Adventures in Sorcery story, another dark little Gray Morrow tale in the Tales from the Crypt vein. There’s also a blood-splattered variant cover by Tim Seeley that ties into Afterlife’s origin. As we head in to the penultimate issue of the first arc, it’s good to remember that this road to hell began with the best possible intentions.
Afterlife with Archie #4, “Archibald Rex” written by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and illustrated by Francesco Francavilla and was released to the world in comic books stores everywhere on March 5, 2014.
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 a book on comics and Stephen King, Drawn Into Darkness, as well as 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.