If you’d heard the name Archie three years ago you were most likely in a grocery store line waiting longer than expected and spotted the dated exploits of childhood comic book every man Archie and his friends. More recently, the hit TV show Riverdale, with its dreamy and dark take on the Archie crew is how most people know them now.
The real darkness of Archie was unleashed several years prior. Blame writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and artist, Francesco Francavilla. They delivered a limited comic book run that shook Archie fans, and comic fans, and, most assuredly, horror fans to their thumping hearts.
The first edition of Afterlife With Archie begins with the death of a dog. From there, it descends to necromancy followed by...well...it’s not sunshine. Jughead kicks the story off by showing up on the doorstep of Sabrina, and her aunties, all of whom are noted good witches. His love for his pet, Hotdog leads Sabrina to defy her aunts. She guides Jughead to a dark swamp — a stand in for the River Styx — where she casts her necromantic enchantment as Jughead buries his dog in the soft soil between life and death. Soon, Hotdog returns to a surprised and excited Jughead — but he’s not the same. No, this pet craves flesh. And the moment of joyful reunion between Juggie and his dog turns to bloody death as Hotdog bites Jughead, kills Jughead, and gives rise to Zombie Jug.
The rest of the first arc follows the outbreak of zombies across Riverdale as the fear continues to set in, and bodies begin piling up. However, it's not until a rotted, flesh-fiending Jughead shows up at Ethel’s costume birthday party that Archie and his pals learn what nightmare is taking over their world. Veronica, narrating the tale in flashback, delivers the final nail to their old lifestyles. She explains, what any human might witness if faced with this seemingly impossible reality: the group’s collective laughter. First, at Jughead lumbering around, then even more so when he bites Ethel. They all think it’s just such a great costume Jug’s got on. He’s just so committed to it. Veronica describes those first thirty seconds as “a scene from some asinine horror movie...I think that’s why we started laughing“, before the moment’s weight sets in and, in reflection she turns to vengeful hope, “that all those people get what they deserve for those first thirty seconds when Jughead Jones ate Ethel Muggs right in front of us and no one did anything but stare.”
The dreadful potency of remorse is explored in several facets throughout the remaining arcs of the first Afterlife With Archie collection. As the zombie horde grows Archie and friends continue to run from home to home for safety, and for each other. Further and further from their comfort zones of home, school, and eventually leaving the safety of Riverdale itself. Not everyone survives, and among those that do — comes the guilt and wishes to have been sacrificed instead. Aguirre-Sacasa is determined to use the power of this horrible premise to dig deep within these classic archetype characters. Betty recounting her near death, but also taking a moment to realize if she died Veronica would get Archie all to herself now. Heroes rise, vixens fall, love defines some, others reap much more than they’ve earned. This isn’t just the fate of Archie and his friends, it’s about the birth of Riverdale, how those who now have land and means for safety first took it. The seeds of the unforgiving take hold on some, where others wish only to save another life. To put it simply, this is a brutal tale of a newly dangerous world — and hot damn is it beautiful.
Francesco Fancavilla’s art doubles down on the horror as he creates a modern riff on classic EC comics aesthetic. It’s like reading the best Hammer Horror film. All sharp, emotional close ups cut with wide, action driven panels of terror. He works with a black background and bold, almost Giallo driven colors to deliver the zombie gore and wrenching loss endured by the survivors. The panel design leaves no room for the reader to escape, there’s no scanning ahead to see if happiness is around the bend. Skip ahead and you’re likely to stumble on a one-page panel of a hand grasping a detached eyeball with blood filling all the corners. For us, like Archie, the only way out is through — and the fear that comes with is palpable with every turned page. Like losing your headlights when you know there’s a curve in the fog ahead: danger looms, and there’s no way to be ready.
This first collection is a perfect 5/5 for me as it delivers the horror, the story, and surprise moments that comprise everything I love about the genre. Just as the book ends on the hope of surviving one more day despite and in spite of the prevailing danger closing in, the reader too is filled with hope — because the final collection of the comic run is out in early September. Until then, catch up on the hell of Afterlife With Archie and see what nightmares come.
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