Afterlife With Archie
It may only be October 1st, but that makes it Halloween here at Longbox Graveyard, and I’m celebrating with a full month of monster-themed posts. So why — with a library of Tomb of Dracula, Swamp Thing, and EC Horror books to review — am I kicking off Halloween Month with an Archie comic?
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 …
… 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 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 two 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!
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.
hmm … I may have picked the wrong example!
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 is slated to star in a new Archie horror series herself) — a bit of forbidden magic that has immediate consequences for Sabrina, and lasting consequences for her friends.
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.
I was involved in the rocky relationship 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 via disagreement about who was going with with whom — and as what — to the Halloween Dance.
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 … and be sure to join me every Wednesday in October as Halloween Month continues at Longbox Graveyard!
- Title: Afterlife With Archie
- Published By: Archie Comic Publications, 2013-presetn
- Issues In This Collection: #1-5, September 2013-July 2014.
- LBG Letter Grade For This Run: B
- Read The Collection: Afterlife With Archie: Escape From Riverdale
NEXT MONTH: #139 The Song of Red Sonja