First Impressions – AFTERLIFE WITH ARCHIE #1

Afterlife-With-Archie-no1

It’s still October, so once again we’ve got horror themed comics. From those wonderful people at Archie Comics comes AFTERLIFE WITH ARCHIE #1, a tale of desperation, black magic, and the undead. Not since The Punisher Meets Archie has the mood of Riverdale been so subverted.

Note: I bought the Collected variant, for the comics shop that bought up Lone Star Comics.

Archie Comics is one of those odd exceptions to the rule, namely that comic books survive in the Direct Market, where DC and Marvel maintain majority control between them. Archie Comics, meanwhile, never made itself home in the direct market. You can still find books published there – such as today’s work – but the company is almost unique in comics as still being sold through grocery stores or the like. It’s published comics since the Golden Age, and shows no sign of going under.

The Archie Comics franchise revolves around the eponymous Archie, a red-headed young man perpetually in high school, living in the town of Riverdale. He’s surrounded by notable secondary and supporting characters, like his two love interests Betty Cooper and Veronica Lodge, and his best friend/crown-wearing hamburger enthusiast, Jughead Jones. Riverdale is also the home of Sabrina Spellman, the Teenage Witch, and her eclectic cast of mystical and mundane supporting cast.

These last two, Jughead and Sabrina, factor heavily into today’s tale.

AFTERLIFE WITH ARCHIE #1 (a play on the title of “Life With Archie”) begins in the manner one would never expect of the series: with the death of a dog. Yes sadly, Jughead’s canine companion Hot Dog (the man is a voracious eater) gets run down by a motorist during the night. A distraught Mr. Jones takes the poor pooch to the only people possibly capable of saving him: the Spellmans.

Sabrina’s more experienced aunts Hilda and Zelda regretfully inform the lad that they could have healed Hot Dog had he been brought sooner, but their magicks cannot reverse death. Or, as we learn, they could have raised him, but that would require the use of Arts most Dark. Consorting with the dark powers, as it were, a task they refuse to do, though they don’t say why.

So of course a sympathetic Sabrina retrieves the Necronomicon and aids Jughead in spite of her aunts’ warnings. And thus the zombie apocalypse begins.

I’m not even kidding. The beginning of the book basically states that this leads to the end of the world, and by the end of issue one the dead are starting to shamble. Which just begs the question of why Hilda and Zelda didn’t tell Sabrina and Jughead why using necromancy is a bad idea. Jughead already knows about magic apparently, so hiding the very heavy consequences of using a particular kind of magic to try and solve his problem will only make things worse. Heck, using black magic gets Sabrina banished right after she does it – explaining why she couldn’t just reverse the spell like she’s known to do. And yet they apparently do nothing to fix her mess, or even ask what exactly she did.

AFTERLIFE WITH ARCHIE #1 in general relies on characters doing nonsensical things for it to work, but at least they usually have a reason for doing so. Jughead loves his dog and can’t let him go, so the actions that doom him and everyone else are understandable. Hilda and Zelda cut stright to punishing Sabrina without so much as a “Before we seal your mouth and banish you to the realm of magic, what exactly did you do?” This is the biggest flaw of the book: not stupidity on everyone’s count, but stupidity from the two characters who should know better.

In every other respect, however, this book is gold. Spooky gold kept by ghost pirates on the bottom of the ocean.

Writer Roberto Aqguirre-Sacasa does a fantastic job setting an atmosphere of dread, with characters that feel at home in a horror story. While also making them consistent enough with their main series counterparts; though I admit I can only surmise this from the single Archie digest I’ve had the pleasure of reading. The plot is one of errors that – barring the above idiocy – makes perfect sense given the emotional context of the story. People make mistakes when they’re driven by loss, or pity, or guilt. And when it involves deception and necromancy, the result is a downward spiral that leads to ruin.

But what really set the mood is the art by Francesco Francavilla, a massively talented artist with an aptitude for suspense and horror. I first encountered his work at the tale-end of the pre-Flashpoint Detective Comics, where he set the mood perfectly (helped immensely by him working with Scott Snyder at the time). In AFTERLIFE WITH ARCHIE #1, Francavilla’s style fits well with a plot of slow-building tension and zombie horror. It’s also massively at odds with the established art style used in regular Archie comics, bright and colorful works that fit teen comedies. Everything in this book is in shadow, with heavy reds, yellows, and oranges filling the space. It’s a true wonder to behold, and I don’t know how Archie Comics roped Francavilla into it.

Probably with money, obviously. In which case, whatever they paid, they should have paid more.

From a thematic standpoint, the book draws inspiration from a number of sources. Zombie movies to start, naturally, with an open reference to Night of the Living Dead. But it’s other great inspiration was clearly Pet Sematary. It openly lifts a line from that film – “Sometimes, dead is better” – and shares the premise of a man driven by loss to dealing with unnatural powers in an attempt to return a loved one back to life, only for it to end badly. Two background characters can also be found comparing notes about the Nightmare on Elm Street and Halloween film series.

Summarily a good comic. AFTERLIFE WITH ARCHIE #1 takes a macabre look at Riverdale and its characters in a story that wouldn’t otherwise work given the franchise’s premise. It’ll probably remain an Elseworlds story, though I can’t really tell if Archie Comics is even supposed to have a canon. After all, there was that time Jughead used a time-traveling crown to team up with himself and fight Morgan Le Fey in the future.

Because the 90s were weird as hell.

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