There are two common stereotypes of Archie Comics in the 21st century, both of which the publisher’s new zombie-apocalypse-in-Riverdale series Afterlife With Archie adhered to…and defied. One is that as keen as the publisher is to capitalize on the latest trends, they tend to hop on the bandwagon just as it’s coming to a stop; that is, by the time a trend makes its way into an Archie comic, it is officially over. The other is that Archie’s sales model has become stunt-driven, involving someone coming up with an attention-grabbing idea—President Barack Obama and Governor Sarah Palin visiting Riverdale, Archie marrying Betty and Veronica in alternate futures, the upcoming “death” of Archie, etc—that the mainstream media covers, pumping up sales of the comics.
In terms of zombies, Archie did come late, but, unlike other pop culture trends, zombies don’t seem to be going anywhere; sure, The Walking Dead comic book series may have launched way back in 2003, but The Walking Dead TV series is only a couple years old, and it still commands a huge audience. Nothing has been able to slow or stop that particular trend since its resurgence, and Afterlife sure won’t—if anything, it’s likely to prolong it.
As for stunts, well, the series did start with an unlikely variant cover by artist Francesco Francavilla, a “zombie variant” for a 2013 issue of Life With Archie, but it was such a potent and compelling image—it’s included in the huge cover gallery in the back of this trade collection—that it inspired writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa to pitch an Archie vs. zombies storyline that could wear such a cover. It was the sort of unlikely event story that Archie Comics gravitates towards, the sort with a high curiosity factor based on the clash of the wholesome, all-American, all-ages image of Archie and friends with a genre the usually comical characters are ill-at-ease in—straightforward, undiluted horror, told and drawn in a naturalistic style far removed from the coloring-book simplicity of the Dan DeCarlo and Bob Montana character designs.
It worked, and it worked well. And it kept working.
If hamburger-chomping Jughead growing dessiccated and suddenly hungering for the wholesome human flesh of the rest of the Archie cast was a stunt or gimmick, the fact of the matter was that Aguirre-Sacasa and Francavilla had truly excellent work waiting for anyone who took that bait. Afterlife With Archie is a really great comic book series, with no qualifiers or asterisks needed.
That it works has a lot to do with the fact that the publisher and the creators went all-in on this (note the T+ rating, for “violence & mature content”). Now, taking kid-safe, childhood icons and making their world into something adults would find compelling has been a trick that has kept DC and Marvel comics going since the 1980s or so; in fact, it’s pretty much their business plan at this point. But Archie’s never really indulged in that, certainly not to such a degree, which makes the book feel particularly subversive, and it’s hard to ever shake the excited, slightly agitated feeling that there’s something wrong with this book, that this is a comic book that shouldn’t be happening.
That’s a pretty appropriate feeling for a comic book about a zombie plague striking a small town to evoke, really. When Jughead’s dog Hot Dog is killed in a car accident, the distraught teenager turns to Sabrina, The Teenage Witch to help him Pet Semetary Hot Dog back to life. Hot Dog does indeed return, but he’s not himself; he bites Jughead, making everyone’s favorite funny-hat wearing glutton into patient zero for the zombie plague. Jughead shows up at the Halloween dance, all hell breaks loose, and the surviving teens retreat to Veronica’s fort-like, palatial home, in the hopes of waiting things out there—until it becomes clear that not even the Lodge estate is safe, and they have to, well, it’s right there in the sub-title of the trade paperback collection, isn’t it?
In addition to the horror elements, Aguirre-Sacasa is particularly, remarkably upfront when it comes to introducing adult themes that are usually nothing more than deeply, deeply sublimated in the rest of the Archie line. Some of the drama may seem soap-operatic in nature, but much of it is honestly, genuinely heartbreaking and gut-wrenching; Walking Dead (comic or show) has nothing on Afterlife With Archie #4, for example.
Francavilla’s artwork is about as far a departure from Archie Comics house style as we’ve seen in years. Not only is it very realistic, without a hint of the cartooniness that generally defines the characters, but it’s artfully, evocatively colored in Halloween oranges and blacks, with touches of lightning-hued blues. As much mileage as the book gets from mashing up the Archie image with zombie horror, Francavilla’s artwork is never crass or exploitive. Each panel, each page is carefully constructed to tell a super-scary story, but gross-out imagery is carefully avoided. The basic plot may be B-movie, drive-in fare, but it looks and is told like a Golden Age Hollywood classic.
This collection includes all five issues of the series published so far, and all of the many, many variant covers for the series, produced in large numbers not only because that’s how comics are sold these days, but also because the single issues kept selling out, meaning Archie Comics would have to go back to press with new printings, which of course generated more covers. The 38-pages of backmatter include a few short prose articles by Aguirre-Sacasa, the covers by Francavilla, Tim Seeley and Andrew Pepoy with a sentence or two of commentary on each, and a dozen pages of Francavilla’s breakdowns.
For horror fans, comics fans and horror and comics fans, it’s a must-have…although it will be interesting to see how it does in libraries, given the disconnect between “Archie” and the content of this particular Archie comic. It doesn’t seem like comic shops have had any real trouble with the Riverdale gang going so dark and mature for this series with the serially-published issues; hopefully libraries will similarly successfully thread that needle with the collection.