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Afterlife With Archie

It’s all-Halloween, all-the-time this month at Longbox Graveyard. So why — with a library of Tomb of Dracula, Swamp Thing, and EC Horror books to review — am I writing about an Archie comic?

Francesco Francavilla, Afterlife With Archie

I’ll come clean — I don’t get the Archies. Before Afterlife With Archie, I’d never read an Archie comic (and judging by sales numbers, neither did many of you). That this zombie reinvention of a seventy-odd-year-old teenager inspired me to splash out for a graphic novel collection is itself a noteworthy achievement … that the comic is genuinely creepy and compelling is moldy icing on the undead cake!

Afterlife With Archie isn’t coy about its ambitions …

Afterlife With Archie

… but I suppose that makes sense. If the audience wasn’t interested in the way the Archie world was, maybe the best approach is to bring that world to an end, and that’s just what creators Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and Francesco Fracavilla are doing in the theoretically-ongoing Afterlife With Archie series. I don’t know how long they can keep this premise going (and my most substantial criticism of this collection under review is that it is largely a prelude to a longer story as-yet untold), but based on this volume, I will continue to purchase the collections as they are released — I find I am eager to return to this tale, unlike, say, Walking Dead which I’ve never revisited after banging through the first forty-eight issues several years ago.

I think this is due to Afterlife With Archie’s sense of fun — something absent from the dour Walking Dead. This is not to say that Afterlife With Archie is played for laughs. Far from it! This is actually one of the more sophisticated comics I’ve read in awhile, with meaningful characterization, affecting character deaths, intriguing romantic relationships, and a frank and believable look at how young people might behave when placed under the unimaginable pressures of a zombie holocaust. The series has an up-to-date art style and delivers everything you would expect from a Direct Market title. But the iconic foundations of the series can’t help but lend a sense of fun to the proceedings — after all, these are Archie, Betty, Veronica, and Jughead that we’re talking about!

Afterlife With Archie, by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and Francesco Francavilla

And therein resides the thematic judo-flip that makes this series work. The reason I never read an Archies comic before now is that I didn’t care about a bunch of 1950s kids hanging around the malt shop. As long as Archies was about the kids of Riverdale High, my opinion was never going to change. But even if I wasn’t interested in the Archies, Afterlife With Archie had the advantage of three-quarters of a century worth of brand equity on their side — compared to some entirely new series, at least I knew what the Archies were.

Here’s the judo flip. If you are publishing the Archies, are you limited to telling stories about malt shop kids? Or can you reinvent those characters as archetypes — keep the names, the relationships, the essential nature of the characters, but throw them into a whole new world? By casting the Archies at the center of a zombie story, the publisher has instantly turned their disadvantage into a gigantic asset. By deciding that Archies comics were about iconic characters having adventures together — rather than central-casting teenagers that haven’t changed in decades — they’ve suddenly opened up a whole universe to explore. By embracing archetypes rather than continuity, I can see these characters at the center of horror stories, science fiction epics, historical dramas … just about anything, really. And rather than being a hindrance, all the built-in “baggage” of the Archies becomes an asset, giving us a running start at the new story because we are already familiar with the characters. To explain in even more geek-centric terms, it’s as if the creators of Star Trek decided their series wasn’t about exploring strange new worlds, but instead transplanted the relationships and conflicts between a headstrong captain, an emotional doctor, and a soulful outsider scientist to some other place in the past, present, or future.

Star Trek: Patterns Of Force

hmm … I may have picked the wrong example!

Brilliant!

Or brilliant, at least, for this first set of stories. Inspired by a variant cover artist Francesco Francavilla drew for Life With Archie, Afterlife With Archie has flowered into a series worth reading. This first collection focuses on the outbreak of Riverdale’s zombie infestation, with the flashpoint the unwise resurrection of Jughead’s dog (by Sabrina the Teenage Witch, who stars in a new Archie horror series herself) — a bit of forbidden magic that has immediate consequences for Sabrina, and lasting consequences for her friends.

Afterlife With Archie, by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and Francesco Francavilla

Afterlife With Archie, by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and Francesco Francavilla

From there, things rapidly go from bad-to-worse, and if there’s a sense that we’ve seen it all before, that’s part of the fun — the familiar trope of characters refusing to believe their first contact with the supernatural is heightened by the characters themselves representing such well-known tropes. We know that our heroes are going to underestimate the danger; we know that some supporting character is going to get turned or eaten; we know that the impregnable fortress where the gang wants to wait out the trouble will prove anything but … these are iconic situations, and seeing equally iconic characters wrestle with this stuff just adds to the fun. It’s kind of like Cabin In The Woods — if Cabin In The Woods played it straight, and its archetypal heroes weren’t self-aware or exploited as-such.

All of which is a middlebrow way of saying that it’s cool to watch zombie Jughead run amok at the high school costume party, and then take his place as the general of the zombie army threatening Riverdale. But this book is more than just a zombie romp. I felt genuine pathos when young men lost their childhood pets, or had to confront family members turned monstrous by the undead plague.

Afterlife With Archie, by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and Francesco Francavilla

I was involved in the rocky romance between Ginger and Nancy, concerned what will happen if their lesbian relationship is made public, and I was intrigued by the torturous teasing and implied incest between the blue-blooded Cheryl and Jason Blossom. Heck, I even enjoyed watching the Archie/Betty/Veronica love triangle play out through disagreement about who was going with with whom — and as what — to the Halloween Dance.

Afterlife With Archie, by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and Francesco Francavilla

Obviously I can’t speak for how lifelong Archies fans will enjoy this series. There’s no telling if they’d consider this a fun reinvention, or a callous exploitation of cherished comic book creations for short term gain. Judged on its own, Afterlife With Archie is a superior series, and after imaging how this formula might be employed by other property I value — like the classic Star Trek I mentioned above — my sense is that existing Archies fans will find much to like here. But for the vastly larger portion of fandom — with no particular attachment to the Archies — this series provides fun reading: stylish, scary, emotional, surprising, relatable, exciting, and fun. Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa has an easy way with dialogue and plotting, and I love the October palettes of Francesco Francavilla’s horror show art. Afterlife With Archie is nostalgic and fresh at the same time, a creepy good time with a sneaky emotional punch.

I did not expect to like Afterlife With Archie, but I came away a fan — how about you? Let me know what you think in the comments, below …

Originally published as Longbox Graveyard #138, October 2014.

MONDAY: Tournament of Terror!

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Marvel Value Stamps 41 – 56

Well, it’s all been leading up to this.

Really, the only reason to discuss Marvel Value Stamps is because of Shanna the She-Devil.

No, not because of this fetching cover:

I love a good jungle pulp as much as the next guy … but, no, we’re not really talking about Shanna as her own character here.

We’re actually interested in her appearance on the lower-right side of the image below, as the fifty-fourth entry in Marvel’s diabolical Value Stamp series:

Yes, we care about Marvel Value Stamps — and arguably, we care about poor Shanna the She-Devil — because that stamp was sourced from this comic …

… which marks probably the most significant Marvel Comics character introduction of my lifetime.

If you’ve read the article that kicked off Halloween Month here at Longbox Graveyard — First Cut — then you’ll understand the significance of that dreadful stamp in my own personal comic book history.

There’s not much more I can say!

Let’s total up the butcher’s bill …

  • #41 Gladiator: Amazing Spider-Man #138 – $25
  • #42 Man-Wolf: Amazing Spider-Man #139 – $25 (1st app of Grizzly)
  • #43 Enchantress: Jungle Action #11 – $14
  • #44 Absorbing Man: Defenders #16 – $16
  • #48 Kraven: Ghost Rider #38 – $6
  • #51 Bucky: Werewolf by Night #22 – $14
  • #52 Quicksilver: Captain America #179 – $9
  • #54 Shanna the She-Devil: Incredible Hulk #181 – $2100 (1st full Wolverine story)
  • #56 The Rawhide Kid: Marvel Team-Up #26 – $8

That Hulk #181 balloons the replacement cost of my cut-up Marvel Value Stamp comics to $2592. Which would have been quite a shock to twelve-year-old me, who bought these books at a news stand for a quarter each. Comics cost a quarter! Why not cut them up? Isn’t that what kids were supposed to do?

I mean, it all seemed so … innocent.

TOMORROW: Afterlife With Archie!

Swamp Thing

I’ve already afforded Swamp Thing a place of honor in my Top Ten DC Characters list, but the full Bernie Wrightson/Len Wein run on this book merits a column of its own. It seems like Swamp Thing has been with us forever … and he’s going on four decades of funny book adventures … but that such a seemingly shallow and exploitative character is still a vital part of the comic book landscape speaks to the inherent quality and intrigue of the creation. Swamp Thing wasn’t comicdom’s first significant swamp monster (that would be The Heap), and he didn’t even beat Marvel’s Man-Thing into print, but Swamp Thing is unquestionably the best of the muck monsters, and I think one of the more underrated characters in comics.

Swamp Thing #2, Bernie Wrightson

Much of Swamp Thing’s present appeal owes to his many reinventions, first by Alan Moore in the 1980s, in what is arguably the finest run of comics of all time, but more recently from creators like Grant Morrison, Brian K. Vaughn, and even Scott Snyder in Swamp Thing’s “New 52” book. But at the root of all these reinventions are the original issues of Swamp Thing, by co-creators Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson. These worthy tales provide a foundation for a character still vital nearly half-a-century later, and they remain greatly entertaining comics in their own right. Not bad for a shambling mockery of a man in mud monster form!

I enthuse at length about Swamp Thing’s origin issue in my Dollar Box column, so I won’t repeat myself here, aside from noting that Swamp Thing #1 is a top origin issue, creepy and entertaining as a stand-alone story while still delivering all the meat-and-potatoes expected of an origin tale. Swamp Thing’s genesis is iconic and likely familiar to all readers by now — the story of scientist Doctor Alec Holland, set afire by a bomb while working on his “bio-restorative” formula in a remote swampland laboratory, the poor devil plunging into the swamp to put out the flames only to rise later as the monstrous Swamp Thing.

Swamp Thing #1, Len Wein & Bernie Wrightson

Later creators would re-spin the tale, with Alan Moore most famously turning the whole thing inside-out in “Anatomy Lesson,” but when Swamp Thing debuted in his own book in 1972, the origin was on-the-nose — yep, that was poor Doctor Holland trapped in that muck-encrusted body, a character purpose-built to be a misunderstood monster, with a human soul yearning to reverse its hideous physical transformation.

Swamp Thing #2, Len Wein & Bernie Wrightson

well before Alan Moore, Wein & Wrightson did an “anatomy lesson” of their own

That straight-ahead story style continues in the following three issues of Swamp Thing I review here, but this isn’t intended as a criticism. Rather I see it as a case of clear and deliberate storytelling, standing apart from other, more embroidered Silver Age tales in that it is so bare bones. These stories are simple and they recycle monster movie tropes but they do it so well that everything old seems new again.

Swamp Thing #4, Len Wein & Bernie Wrightson

I’ve seen this tale many times before, but with Wein & Wrightson I’m happy to see it again

Much of this is down to Bernie Wrightson’s tremendous artwork, but before I spin off in rhapsodic praise for the pencils I want to offer a few words for Len Wein’s scripting. Wein is easy to marginalize in any team that includes Bernie Wrightson but the exhaustive ten or fifteen minutes I spent on Wikipedia doing background for this piece indicates Swamp Thing emerged from a close collaboration between Wein and Wrightson. While it is difficult to extract at this late date who did what, exactly, we can look at Wrightson’s post-Swamp Thing work and see that he definitely benefited from his partnership with Wein. For the most part, Wein’s scripts are content to set the scene and establish tone and then let Bernie do what he does best, but in this it is possible to laud a writer for restraint, and also to recognize a case where a comics author contributes so perfectly to a piece of visual storytelling. I’m not the kind of comics fan who thinks pages must be swarming with clever word balloons to feel a comics writer has done his job; quite the opposite, in fact, and Wein’s work on Swamp Thing is this better sort of comics scripting, hand-in-glove with Wrightson’s art, fully a part of the piece and better for leaving unsaid what those Wrightson images so clearly communicate.

Swamp Thing #4, Len Wein & Bernie Wrightson

Ah, and those images! Wrightson’s art is as startling today as it was all those years ago, a beautiful blend of horrific character designs, expressive faces, perfectly-composed set pieces, and rock-solid storytelling. Greatly benefiting from silky Joe Orlando inks, Wrightson’s pencils transport us to all the gothic locales you’d expect of a 1970s horror book — murky swamps, creepy European castles, fog-bound Scottish moors — they’re all here, they’re all exactly what you’d expect, and they’re all jaw-droppingly wonderful.

Swamp Thing #4, Len Wein & Bernie Wrightson

For the most part, Wrightson breaks little new ground here, though I was was taken with the weird designs of Arcane’s Un-Men, particularly that talking hand mastermind …

Swamp Thing #2, Len Wein & Bernie Wrightson

… but it isn’t invention but reinvention that’s the point. I loved seeing Swamp Thing face off against Frankenstein’s monster, and the Werewolf too, and it didn’t matter to me that they were monsters by some-other-name. Copyrights be damned — Swamp Thing is a kick-ass monster and I want to see him fight other kick-ass monsters! Frankenstein vs. The Wolf Man can never compare with Bride of Frankenstein, but in his heart of hearts you know which one a twelve-year-old prefers.

Swamp Thing #3, Len Wein & Bernie Wrightson

It’s not all central casting monsters, either. Wein wrings some pathos out of the reveal of which brain resides in that Frankenstein form (and how he got there, too), and there’s even a bit of emotion in the Werewolf’s inevitable demise, a doomed child more than ready to move on but held on this mortal plane by parents all too unwilling to let go of their little boy, however murderous he has become. Wein’s around-the-gothic-world in eighty pages plotting does require some leaps of logic — the pontoon plane at the center of Swamp Thing’s transports does not withstand close consideration, unless we want to believe that hand-for-a-head Un-Man was somehow at the controls — but these are forgivable sins in service of a fast-moving and delightful plot, no more jarring than Indiana Jones hanging on the periscope of that Nazi sub for a thousand nautical miles. In a world filled with swamp monsters and a body-hopping arch nemesis such things can’t rightly be called ridiculous.

Swamp Thing #4, Len Wein & Bernie Wrightson

And by keeping the tale moving along and refusing to apologize for or dwell on its inconsistencies, we have that much more room for the main events, the monster versus monster fighting, the pathos of the twisted human souls stuck in those monstrous forms, and the minimal but emerging subplot of the human characters who misunderstand Swamp Thing, and are doomed to hound him to the earth’s end (among whom is Abigail Arcane, introduced in the second issue as a not-quite-damsel in distress, who will loom large as one of the most complete female characters in comics under Alan Moore’s eventual tutelage).

Swamp Thing #4, Len Wein & Bernie Wrightson

Abigail Arcane, in black & white (boots and hair!)

There was an era when superhero books weren’t afraid to be superhero books, with big-shouldered muscleheads striking wide stances and smashing each other through the sides of skyscrapers — and this is a monster book in the same vein, full of crazy Dutch angles and reaching shadows, and contriving to hang Swamp Thing on a cross in a cart because, well, it’s just looks so damn cool.

Swamp Thing #2, Len Wein & Bernie Wrightson

This whole run is like that … you can ignore the words and appreciate the art, or you can delve into the narrative and enjoy the whole package even more. Plus there are some places where words-and-pictures come together in ways that the comic form does best, as when Swamp Thing surrenders his recovered humanity to thwart the evil designs of Arcane …

Swamp Thing #2, Len Wein & Bernie Wrightson

… or when our hero tumbles down into the roots of Arcane’s castle.

Swamp Thing #3, Len Wein & Bernie Wrightson

However you slice it, this is a superior comics run, and I’m affording it a top grade, dented only slightly by a very minimal lack of originality, and that tiny bit of storytelling slight-of-hand that catapults Swamp Thing back and forth across continents on the wing of a pontoon plane, in service of a location-driven plot. Even then, I am picking nits — this is a series to be cherished and enjoyed.

So why am I restricting my review to four issues? That’s all the reprints I have! I am now on the lookout for the remaining six issues of Wein and Wrightson’s run, but perhaps a more seasoned hand can tell me if I should bother. Like the Silver Surfer, does this original Swamp Thing series peak in its forth issue, going into a painful decline, or do the remaining issues build on this very strong start? Let me know your opinion, in the comments section below!

Either way, I remain tremendously impressed with Wein & Wrightson’s Swamp Thing. Long may he shamble!

  • Title: Swamp Thing
  • Published By: DC Comics, 1972-1976
  • Issues Reviewed: #1-4, November 1972-May 1973
  • LBG Letter Grade For This Issue: A-minus
  • Own The Reprints: DC Special Series

Originally published as Longbox Graveyard #81, January 2013.

TOMORROW: Marvel Value Stamps!

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