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Thursday, April 24, 2014

The Pull List: Afterlife with Archie

Posted by on Thu, Apr 24, 2014 at 10:27 AM

click to enlarge alwarchie4.jpg
Afterlife with Archie No. 4
by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and Francesco Francavilla
Archie Comics


As an elevator pitch, it must have sounded unthinkable: “It’s Archie meets The Walking Dead!” That’s just a hair less outrageous than, say, Care Bears meets The Killing. (Okay, that actually might rule.) Our carrot-topped klutz has had some unusual crossovers before—remember when he met the Punisher?—but those were still cheesy gags that conformed to Archie’s bright, cartoonish world.

It’s hard to imagine how post-apocalyptic zombie horror could ever dovetail with the squeaky-clean teenage fantasyland of Riverdale, and harder still to imagine that its copyright-holders would ever sign off on it. Then you read Afterlife with Archie, which blends them so effectively that the insane premise winds up seeming like a no-brainer. (To be clear, The Walking Dead is shorthand for this zombie style and is not actually affiliated with the title, but the Archie license is official.)

Right out of the gate, Afterlife with Archie announced that it wouldn't be pulling any punches with a first-issue cover featuring a rotting Jughead Jones wearing his classic crown-shaped cap. By committing fully to a world of jet-black noir, the creators have produced something beyond a gimmick—a truly chilling horror comic that stands on its own without using the license as a crutch.

But they also stay faithful to the character archetypes and relationships that those of us who grew up reading "Double Digests" from supermarket impulse-buy racks know so well, adding wrenching sentimental layers to the scares. The modern zombie craze has gotten us used to people eating each other, but Jughead devouring Big Ethel? That’s just sick—and awesome.

Afterlife with Archie No. 4 alternates between flashback sequences of a young Archie acquiring his faithful mutt and that same mutt fighting to the death with an infected Hot Dog, Jughead’s classic pet. In an example of how ingeniously the creators tweak Archie’s world for this context, the outbreak began when Hot Dog got hit by a car and Jughead entreated Sabrina the Teenage Witch for a resurrection spell, which of course went horribly wrong.

While most of the gang—those who are still alive, anyway—take refuge in Lodge Manor, Archie has heroically lit out for his house to check on his parents. What he finds there is so abominable that you might forget this is an Archie comic until he whisks the drop-cloth off his iconic jalopy. It’s a relic of the series’ 1940s origins, a time period that aligns with the waning era of the pulp comics from which this book takes its style. Reprints of lurid, EC Comics-like strips in the back of each issue reinforce the association.

An experienced comics scribe, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa is also an award-winning playwright and a TV writer for the likes of Big Love and Glee—which is to say he knows his way around teen melodrama. He brings a more mature psychological complexity to the characters, which plants them firmly in this grim world without adulterating their essential cores. For example, the writer draws out the callousness of Archie's endless flip-flopping between Betty and Veronica, who are barely frenemies here, much less besties. Francesco Francavilla, a modern master of the pulp style, fills the pages with ominously canted perspectives, stark illustrations and a crepuscular Halloween color scheme, rendering the action with a terrible clarity and emotional grit.

Together, the pair extracts a flawless tone of queasy dread from authentic-feeling character beats.

Afterlife with Archie is evidence of how avidly the institution, formerly rooted in reliable comic strip conventions, is tearing up its rule book to stay relevant. Though they're still firmly kid-friendly, Archie Comics have been considerably modernized from their conservative origins, especially in recent years. Riverdale now includes a variety of racially, ethnically and otherwise diverse characters, and gay teen Kevin Keller has proven very popular—though of course, "gay" is tricky to treat in a series that still largely turns a blind eye to teen rites of passage such as drinking and sex. 

The franchise's storytelling, which once amounted to short puns and Vaudeville-style gags, has also gotten bolder and more contemporary. Life with Archie magazine, which is now more like an ongoing serial drama than a comic strip, has Archie split off in two parallel realities, one where he marries Veronica and one where he marries Betty. If you think Afterlife with Archie is dark—well, at least it happens outside of continuity. But Life with Archie, first published in 1958, is canon, and sneaking a peek at upcoming events there, it looks like the worst is yet to come.

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