Cheryl Blossom is having a bad year. Over in the Betty & Veronica fairytale storyline, she’s been turned into the evil sea witch octopus from The Little Mermaid. In Life with Archie, the alternate-universe continuity that presents the Riverdale folk as young adults, Cheryl is struggling with breast cancer and the implications of ongoing healthcare. And now … well now, her quasi-incestuous schemes with her brother are about to be torn asunder by a bunch of townie zombies.
There’s a lot going on in Afterlife with Archie #2, with writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa working to not only forward the story, but also to deepen the world of this version of Riverdale. As in Life With Archie (in which the subtext beneath the squeaky-clean “Earth One” Archie universe surfaces to create real pathos and tension), here the subtext is used to shade the town’s hidden passions and terrors. Even before the bodies mount, Riverdale reveals itself as a timeless teenage Peyton Place.
Cheryl and her borderline psychopath brother Jason – dressed as Raggedy Ann and Andy and making deeply unsettling overtures to each other – are just the beginning. Aguirre-Sacasa makes work of criminally underused second- and third-tier characters like Nancy Woods and Ginger Lopez, giving them a relationship whose secret nature is fascinating in the wake of Kevin Keller’s matter-of-fact gayness. Perhaps most interesting is Veronica, whose ongoing rivalry with Betty has been more vicious in this comic than elsewhere, who uncovers hidden depths (and some of the awesome take-charge kick-assery she used to save Betty’s life in last year’s Betty & Veronica #257).
And of course, there are zombies. Dear God, are there zombies. Artist Francesco Francavilla outdoes his work of the inaugural issue of Afterlife, his panels drenched in black and red and midnight blue, and the tragic fates of more of our beloved Riverdale friends keep piling on. He’s terrific at shock panels (you might have forgotten about Jughead’s family, but the creators haven’t; Francavilla uses the jump-cut nature of comic-book panels to great effect as he follows a shambling, hungry Mr. Jones), but it’s in the quieter moments that he really shines.
Subtly referencing the fairytale stories going on in the regular Archie and Betty & Veronica continuities, Ethel Muggs appears as a Snow White awaiting her Prince Charming (complete with crown). A graphic splash page playing on the original story’s deadly apple is at once gory and heartbreaking. But it’s a single panel near the end of this chapter, once the gang finally realizes what’s going on with Jughead, that nails the deep tragedy of Afterlife With Archie. Zombie Juggie is trapped in the Riverdale High locker room, trying to get out, while his confused and scared friends try desperately to figure out a game plan. One panel is silent but for Jughead’s mindless bangs against the door, while Moose Mason – his arm around his sweetheart Midge Klump – can only watch. It’s a startling moment of despair before the story cycles back into action again.
At the end of the story, we’re treated to a sidebar panel featuring the smiling faces of our heroes; in goofy Scooby-Doo font, we’re asked, “Next: One of these kids is already infected … but which one?!?” It serves to remind us that we’re having our brains and eating them too: sure, this is a fun story in which somewhat corny characters are being turned into zombies … but there’s also some real emotion and story going on here, too. It’s a neat balancing act that, so far, keeps holding up.
There’s a creepy back-up story included, 1973’s “…Cat!” written and drawn by Gray Morrow, taken from the classic horror/fantasy publication Chilling Adventures in Sorcery, edited by Morrow under the Archie imprint Red Circle Comics (in creepy black & white). By including a story like this, Afterlife With Archie proves that attention to the wider world of characters and storylines is just the beginning of what it’s attempting: namely, to honor the history of both Archie and horror comics, while continuing in both traditions to attempt something new.
Afterlife with Archie #2 hits comic-book stores and newsstands November 20th, with either Francavilla’s regular cover, or the retro variant by Tim Seely.
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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 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.