Written and penciled by Tania del Rio, inked by Jim Amash
Archie Comics, $10.99
In 2004 Archie Comics hired up-and-coming artist Tania del Rio to reinvent their Sabrina character, who at that point had been appearing in comics for over 40 years and had already generated a popular live-action TV show and cartoon adaptation. Del Rio did so by turning Riverdale’s resident witch into a manga-style magical girl heroine, and her book into one boasting the then-ascendant style most popular with the publisher’s traditional young girl audience.
Archie is now collecting Del Rio’s five-year run on Sabrina’s comic book into trade paperbacks, and the format is one that only furthers the manga-like feel of the work— tankōbon-style, digest-sized black-and-white books, with the once full-color comics now appearing in gray-scale. Sabrina, The Teenage Witch: The Magic Within (as Del Rio’s Sabrina comics are now called) are now perfectly suited for being shelved alongside the the sorts of manga that inspired Del Rio’s take on the character.
At first, what’s unique about that take is largely visual. Sabrina no longer resembles her original Dan DeCarlo design or the DeCarlo-influenced Archie Comics house style design, nor does she look much like her television version. Del Rio draws her with shojo-style elongated limbs, neck and torso, and the designs of the rest of the cast follows suit. The adult characters don’t look any older than the teen characters, the pretty boy character is as pretty as the girls, and Salem, Sabs’ talking cat companion, now has a Sanrio-sized head and is cuter than ever before (his super-cute design is even the subject of one of the stories, when a Japanese toy designer sees him and turns him into a merchandising phenomenon to rival that of Hello Kitty).
The story-telling and lay-outs are a mixture of Eastern and Western comics influences, and it looks and reads very much like an OEL manga; it’s a hybrid approach that makes Del Rio’s Sabrina read like neither one nor the other, but it has the advantage of allowing her to pick the strengths of each mode of comics-making and avoiding the weaknesses.
Sabrina is still a teenage witch living with her two aunts and Salem, the once-powerful and fairly evil wizard who is now trapped in the body of an adorable house cat. Sabrina still goes to a pretty normal mortal high school—in Greendale rather than Riverdale, no other Archie characters appear in the first volume save Josie and The Pussycats near the end—and a charm school for young witches in the magical realm at night.
She still has a crush on her best friend Harvey, although Del Rio teases out a romantic triangle involving Harvey, Sabrina and her fellow magic-user Shinji, the aforementioned pretty boy character. That makes Sabrina the Archie of this particular Archie Comics love triangle, which Del Rio plays for drama (or, at least, melodrama), rather than laughs.
That’s probably the greatest and most notable deviation from the traditional take on the character, and the traditional mode of the publisher’s teen comics. While there is a great deal of humor in these comics, Sabrina isn’t gag driven, and the narrative gradually becomes less and less episodic. Rather, Del Rio’s Sabrina boasts a continuity that stretches from issue to issue, with sub-plots and pay-offs.
Re-reading these older comics in their new format today, they still stand-out as strikingly fresh compared to much of the Archie line, and the gradual evaporation of OEL manga from bookstores has helped make these comics stand out as strikingly fresh compared to a lot of other publisher’s offerings as well.