We start with sequences of birth: a pregnant Hermione Lodge, the proud Hiram Lodge, promising a new home and a new life in Riverdale. It’s the past, the panels awash in telling sepia. Then, a mystical scene involving the aunts of Sabrina, the Teenage Witch; we haven’t seen them since issue #1, and not only does this bit of continuity lend verisimilitude to the expanded supernatural Archie universe, it also reminds us that we’re looking into the past. Artist Francesco Francavilla cleverly shades these panels in half-dark, half-light tones, keeping readers off-kilter. Suddenly, jarringly, we’re back in the present, and it’s death again. So much death. This is “Sleepover.”
We’re three issues into Afterlife with Archie, and the tone has entrenched itself. It’s grim, but not unrelentingly so: these characters were created as light comic archetypes, and it’s not hard for writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa to mine that pit to give us breathing room. There’s a sense, too, that Aguirre-Sacasa has paid close attention to the recent success of the alternate-universe title Life With Archie; we get a lot of unexpected depth in the standard bickering and bantering between Betty and Veronica. Some unexpected heroism by way of Archie, too – though Afterlife wisely keeps him in character by making his bravery an extension of his impetuousness.
There are a couple of love stories here, too; romance in the apocalypse. There’s a scene with Moose and Midge that mirrors one of the most potent panels in issue #2; it’s not silent in “Sleepover,” but the undertones are just as disturbing. We’ve come to expect the unexpected from this comic, and here our expectations are subverted. The couple in the clear from issue #2 suffer a tragic downfall here; the one we thought was definitely doomed speeds away on a motorcycle – a fantastic subversion of 50s monster movie imagery. It’s one of the cooler images in a comic packed with cool images: Pop’s Diner in flames, Archie spelunking the Riverdale sewers, a writhing pool of zombie tragedy.
The deeper we travel into Afterlife with Archie, the more it emerges as a traditional Gothic horror story, with a modern/postmodern twist. There’s doomed love – not just in the current catastrophe, but also in a scene between Betty and Archie; it’s played for laughs, but Archie’s inability to commit to Betty feels like foreshadowing. Mr. Lodge’s dream may prove portentous, and Lodge Manor acts as the Gothic castle, a stand-in for every such home from Castle of Wolfenbach to Manderly. Even Smithers gets to play a Jeevesian twist on Renfield/Mrs. Dudley, providing necessary backstory and exposition in his role as caretaker. Afterlife is all mood, pace, and character, both writer and artist knowing the emotional strings to play while infusing a near-century’s worth of backstory with sharp, honest terror.
There are bonuses, even if you aren’t getting the Tim Seely variant cover. The heavy cardstock cover gives a great heft and feel to the issue; something closer to a trade paperback than a “floppy” monthly comic. As with the last issue, we have a backup story from Archie-owned Chilling Adventures in Sorcery, this a 1973 EC-flavored vampire tale from Don Glut and Dick Giordano. There’s also an ad for the new Afterlife with Archie app (with original script info, variant covers, and more). It’s a nifty free addition to one of the Archie franchise’s most popular – and best – comics in years.
After a long hiatus, Afterlife with Archie #3 hit comic-book stores and newsstands on January 8, with either Francavilla’s regular cover, or the retro variant by Tim Seely.
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.