Pull List: Thrills and Chills with Afterlife with Archie

It may only be September, but the Halloween season has already begun for me. The Nightmare Before Christmas soundtrack has moved up in rotation and the stack of horror movies is piling up on my DVD player. Afterlife with Archie has been out since 2013—counting a few breaks—and yet for some inexplicable reason, especially given my vocal and undying love of the Archie and Jughead reboots, I hadn’t gotten around to reading it until recently. Now I wish I’d been reading it all along, but at least I got in when I did. Pop culture is oversaturated with zombies as of late and where most new content comes preloaded with diminished returns, Afterlife with Archie soars with refreshing originality.

 

Origin Story

Afterlife-ArchieAfterlife with Archie tells the story of how ancient gods, family curses, musical vampires, and the walking dead conspired to destroy the quaint little hamlet of Riverdale and eradicate all life on earth. When a terrible accident leads to the death of Jughead’s beloved Hot Dog, he seeks the help of teenage witch, Sabrina Spellman (yep, that Sabrina—she’s from Greendale, the next town over… no, not that Greendale). Sabrina uses her aunts’ forbidden necronomicon to reanimate Hot Dog, but the magic goes terribly wrong. Instead of a lively pup, Hot Dog is a bloodthirsty zombie. Jughead is the first to be turned, and soon Riverdale is engulfed in blood, screams, and flames.

Archie, Betty, Veronica, Reggie, the Blossom twins, Kevin, Nancy, Ginger, and a handful of adults barely make it out alive, but even their escape is not without its terrors. Friends and family are lost along the way, but if they stop the undead horde lead by Jughead will surely catch them. Meanwhile Sabrina is trapped in her own personal hell, one constructed before she was born and from which she may never escape. Enter Josie and the Pussycats, a band of eternally youthful musicians with a thirst for blood and a keen interest in the goings-on in Riverdale.

The first issue of Afterlife with Archie released in October 2013, although technically it first appeared as a variant cover for Life with Archie #23 a year prior. The story is written by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa (writer for the stage, small and silver screens, and comics) and art by Francesco Francavilla (The Black Beetle, Detective Comics), with letters by Jack Morelli (Captain America and tons of Archie comics). The first 5 issues are collected into volume 1. Issue #10 released August 31, and #11 is scheduled for October 19.

 

To Pull Or Not To Pull

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It’s very easy for a project like Afterlife with Archie to go spectacularly awry. Archie Comics has done a spectacular job of relaunching Archie, Jughead, and, most recently, Betty and Veronica, yet all those titles came nearly two years after Afterlife with Archie was born. In effect, it was the series that proved not only was Archie Comics still creatively relevant but that it could also put out one helluva story.

There are several plots unfolding in Afterlife with Archie, all of which intersect in increasingly complicated ways. Sabrina is trapped, quite literally, in a Lovecraftian horror epic. She sacrifices everything to aid a friend, is betrayed by her family, stripped of her magic and memories, and handed over like chattle to an ancient evil of incalculable power. Jughead, driven to recklessness by grief, makes a tragic mistake and dies before he can live to regret it, thus setting off the zombie plague and becoming king of the undead. Archie becomes the defacto leader of the Riverdalians, first gathering everyone together in the safety of Lodge Manor then guiding them out of town and on the road.

Although the series is produced by Archie Comics, this is not kiddie material. Aguirre-Sacasa and Francavilla take horror seriously enough to create a frightening, suspenseful, macabre tale. Not only are the scares visceral—Archie bludgeoning to death a person he loved and watching another loved one give their life to save his are especially chilling—but psychological as well. This isn’t just a story about the undead. Afterlife with Archie deals with the emotional fallout of terror and brutality, of unintended consequences, of growing up and the loss of innocence, of unrequited love, of the high cost of betrayal and secrecy, of those who deserve what they get and those who do not, of sexism, racism, homophobia, and “nice guys.” Horror, like SFF, is at its best when using the medium to Trojan horse in social commentary, and Afterlife with Archie is no exception.

What makes this series work is entirely thanks to Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, Francesco Francavilla, and Jack Morelli. Aguirre-Sacasa has a long background of working in horror and adapting complex, detailed stories, and it shows. H. P. Lovecraft, Stephen King, and B monster movies are etched into the bones of Afterlife with Archie. He didn’t just take the Riverdale crew and drop them in a zombie story. He crafted a world where the existence of zombies, necromancy, and primordial gods actually makes sense, then told an honest story about how the Riverdalians would react, engage, survive. Aguirre-Sacasa remains true to the original versions of Archie, Betty, Veronica, Reggie, Jughead, Sabrina, and all the others while also honoring the necessities of the horror genre. For example, in issue #9, the teaser page is a Goofus & Gallant-style comparison between Reggie and Archie that both introduces new readers to their long-standing rivalry and plays into Archie’s old-school roots.

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Francavilla brings a noir-ish flourish to his art, a trick well used here. He favors thin lines with thick inkwork and bold, dark colors like bright orange, blood red, and misty gray. The palette shifts add to Aguirre-Sacasa’s textual suspense, making it a one-two punch of exquisiteness. Put simply, his art is breathtaking, every panel a pleasure to behold and every splash page a marvel of talent and skill.

Morelli’s lettering is clear and well-executed. He deftly manages the narrative switches through unique scripting that never overpowers the images while simultaneously adding a richness to the narrative. And his sound effects are so evocative and expressive that I could practically hear Undead Jughead knock the arrow out of the air. Not that I ever had any doubt about Morelli’s prowess. The dude’s famous for having his lettering being the model for the font used by Eisner Award Hall of Famer John Byrne.

Afterlife with Archie is a sensational collision of EC Comics-style classic horror, literary monsters, and adolescent fears. It is whip smart, devilishly charming, gorgeously rendered, and reverently referential. Aguirre-Sacasa and Francavilla twist Archie and the horror genre back in on themselves with inside jokes tapping into the vast Archie back catalogue and cuts so deep even the biggest fans of horror might miss a few. Snob all you want, but this is a series that begs to be read and adored.

Alex Brown is a teen librarian, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter and Instagram, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.

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