First things first: if you’ve never heard of Archie, it’s probably best that you stop reading this review, go find the childhood that you seem to be missing, and join the rest of us red-blooded American types (special exemption to our overseas readers, although you may very well be familiar with Archie as well!).
Second things second: I know that 2013 is a little “recent” for a “Throwback Thursday” piece, but Archie himself has been around since 1941, and the recent release (and great critical success of) another Archie-centric horror series, the Netflix-produced TV show “The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina,” makes me want to put a big spotlight on this other series as well.
Archie Andrews is the fictional, prototypical “all-American” teenager, first appearing in comic-book form all the way back in 1941, in Pep Comics #22. (Fun fact: the Pep Comics series has several other claims to fame in addition to the first appearance of Archie, including: the first “patriotic” hero, The Shield, who predated Captain America by over a year; and the first superhero to die, The Comet.) Since his debut, the perpetual-seventeen-year-old has starred in over 10,000 newspaper strip and comic issues (seriously – with over 2 billion total copies sold!), six animated television shows, a radio show that ran for 10 years, and a live-action TV movie (Google it, it’ll blow your mind). He’s been a super-hero (Captain Pureheart, natch), sang a Billboard #1 hit song (believe it or not, the 1969 song “Sugar, Sugar” was an original creation for his band, The Archies), and has “met” such other pop culture icons as President Obama, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, KISS, the cast of “Glee,” and even the ultimate Marvel Comics vigilante killing machine, the Punisher.
And of course… he also fights the undead.
That’s right, true believers: the vanilla-as-all-get-out, 7-plus-decades-as-a-do-gooder Archie is now stuck in a world of reanimated corpses. At least, he is in the “alternate reality” existence of “Afterlife with Archie,” a side-series of ongoing monthly comic issues that is, interestingly enough, the first title in the 70-odd years of publisher Archie Comics’ existence that not only was sold only in comic shops and not on newsstands, but is also their first-ever comic to feature a “teens and up” rating. Keen!
And what about the story itself, you ask? It’s serious fare, your age-old tale of love lost, really. Hot Dog, the faithful mutt of Archie’s best pal Jughead, gets hit by a car and dies. Jughead asks his neighbor Sabrina (of fellow Archie-published comic book Sabrina the Teenage Witch) if she might be able to do anything to help. As luck would have it, the angsty sorceress and her two pagan aunties just happen to have the Necronomicon laying around their house, so Sabby goes against her aunts’ wishes and reanimates the pup. (Sabrina’s aunts banish her to the nether-realms as disciplinary action for disobeying their orders; who says corporal punishment doesn’t work?) Wouldn’t you know it, something goes wrong: Hot Dog is just not his former happy-go-lucky self, and after getting a sizable bite taken out of him, Jughead becomes the King of the Zombies and starts to infect the humble residents of Riverdale. All on the same night as the big school dance, darn the luck!
In a nutshell: when you take a wholesome icon and throw him into the typical setting of a horror movie, the juxtaposition alone is going to make for some wildly entertaining moments. “Afterlife with Archie” – much like my all-time favorite comic in my personal collection, “Archie Meets the Punisher” – definitely does not disappoint. I actually put off reading this book for a few weeks after I bought it due to the sheer terror I had that the story wouldn’t – couldn’t – live up to the ridiculously high expectations in my head. Whether it was my expectations confirming reality or reality confirming my expectations, I had a blast reading this book.
Let’s be honest here: where else are you going to see the iconic citizens of Riverdale making their last stand against the flesh-eating hordes? If done with the appropriate balance of respect for the original material and appreciation for the genre being dabbled in, I’m a huge fan of these crossover/mashup type of tales, and it seems to me that even though Archie and the gang have had their fair share of genre-bending adventures over the years with varying amounts of success, writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and artist Francesco Francavilla have pretty much nailed it here.
In the context of the frozen-in-time burg of Riverdale and its residents, the action and plot points actually do a fairly decent job of staying consistent and reasoned. I credit a lot of this to writer Aguirre-Sacasa’s knowledge of and focus on what can truly make a zombie outbreak scary: less a thought of our personal survival and more of an emphasis on the safety of those we care about. There are some matters of convenience that I felt detracted from the storyline – the most glaring being the handy inclusion that the butler for the Lodges (Riverdale’s token wealthy family) is somehow a borderline survivalist/secret agent type, even though he’s been nothing but a servant for the family for the last few decades. Overall, though, the quibbles are fairly minor in a story of this nature.
Tons of credit has to go to artist Francavilla for absolutely nailing the retro-horror vibe in his designs throughout the book. Gone are the usual bright-and-cheery color palettes and pop-art-esque character designs to which Archie comics have held steadfastly for decades; in their place are dark and foreboding color schemes mixed effectively with artwork reminiscent of the old EC Horror comic books. While I personally enjoy this style of art, I can see, however, how it might be off-putting to the “average” comic reader these days, as it is a style that doesn’t depend on the artist filling in every little detail. “Afterlife with Archie: Escape from Riverdale” is the first five issues of the ongoing comic series, and while it is definitely cool to see a ton of characters from the Archie universe get their moment in the apocalyptic spotlight, at times the story does feel a little rushed and hectic in an attempt to squeeze everyone in.
All in all, not too shabby for an ongoing comic series that sprung to life pretty much on a whim from an editor after Francavilla delivered a “zombified” alternate cover for an issue of “Life with Archie.” I’m particularly interested to see where the series goes from here and how long it can viably sustain not only a coherent storyline but also the readers’ interests. If “Afterlife with Archie, Vol. 1” is any indication, they should have plenty of rotting leg on which to shamble forward.