Very bad things are happening to the students of Riverdale High in “Afterlife with Archie, Vol. 01: Escape from Riverdale”, a book that plays for straight horror while staying true to the characters who have inhabited Archie Comics for the last 70 years.
Written by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and drawn by Francesco Francavilla, “Afterlife with Archie” utilizes familiar characters such as Archie Andrews, Betty Cooper, Veronica Lodge, Reggie Mantle, Jughead Jones, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, and even the more recent Archie Comics phenomenon, Kevin Keller. Aguirre-Sacasa and Francavilla invite us back into a familiar world, but the tone of this story is distinctly darker than what current and former readers of Archie Comics will remember.
Francavilla, who has been delighting comic readers on several projects with a handful of publishers over the last few years, is a natural fit for the appalling nature of Aguirre-Sacasa’s supernatural tale. Francavilla’s visual style is simple yet arresting. Beyond the horror, and there is plenty of that, the artist is called upon to illustrate scenes involving massively dramatic elements. Francavilla is equipped for such a task as he understands how to make his characters “act”, whether they are having a quiet conversation or tearfully confessing their darkest secrets.
Things start off bad when Jughead shows up at Sabrina’s home with his beloved canine, Hot Dog, deceased and dripping with blood. Though the teenage witch is unable to revive the animal using practical magic, she employs forbidden spells to do the trick. Unfortunately Hot Dog is not quite himself when he returns from his freshly dug grave site. With a single gnarly bite from his former pet, Jug Head is turned into a zombie and heads straight for the Halloween Dance where his classmates unknowingly await contagion.
Aguirre-Sacasa plays everything true to who these characters are, but they are all given a few additional strokes of dimension to flesh them out. Betty and Veronica are still pining away for Archie’s affections, Archie is still dumbfounded as to which of these young beauties has his heart, and Sabrina is still a witch in training. For even the most casual of Archie Comics fans, there will be little in the way introductions required to recollect the cast of “Afterlife with Archie”.
Francavilla presents a nightmarish Riverdale, where the gruesomest of acts take place in vibrant oranges, reds, and purples. While this is the artist’s signature palette, the scenes of horror are reminiscent of something you’d find in a Dario Argento film. The opening pages feature Jughead racing to Sabrina’s home with his dying dog in his arms; Jughead is colored in oranges and black, while everything around him is shaded in gray tones. When Sabrina opens the door to find a shattered Jughead, he is illuminated in an impossible orange light that makes the splash page exceptionally intense.
All hell breaks loose when a zombified Jughead appears at the dance and kicks off the infection that will run rampant through Riverdale. Veronica takes Archie and their closest friends to stay within the protective walls of Lodge Manor. At this point, Aguirre-Sacasa’s story grows into something significantly more epic as he and Francavilla expound upon how the Lodge’s first chose to settle in Riverdale, the passing of Hermione Lodge, and “Upstairs Downstairs” style sequences in which Hubert H. Smithers’ recounts an unregretful life of servitude to the First Family of Riverdale. By the midpoint, “Afterlife with Archie” goes from being a twisted take on the familiar to a grand scale story featuring three-dimensional characters caught in the middle of a horrifying nightmare.
In an unexpectedly stirring moment late in the book, Archie finds himself cornered by Hot Dog. The boy’s own dog, Vegas, jumps between Archie and Hot Dog in an effort to protect his master. Aguirre-Sacasa translates Vegas’ simple yet heroic thoughts. This scene is preceded and then intercut with flashbacks of Archie first getting Vegas and then scenes of the two growing up with one another. In one heartbreaking panel Francavilla illustrates a close-up of Vegas’ doughy eyes as he implores Archie to run to safety. Perhaps you need to be a dog lover for this scene to resonate with you, because if you are you will likely experience a tight lump in your throat.
“Afterlife with Archie” opens like an entertaining Elseworlds sort of spin on the world of Archie Comics, but Aguirre-Sacasa and Francavilla begin building something that becomes more substantial with each succeeding page. The light is exposed on characters you might not expect to come into the forefront of this story while more familiar characters take on surprising traits. As readers we finds ourselves totally enveloped in the bloody proceedings not because we are simply fans of good old fashioned gore. We’re enveloped because we’re simply fans of good old fashioned storytelling.
“Afterlife with Archie, Vol. 01: Escape from Riverdale”
Written by: Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa
Art: Francesco Francavilla
Letters: Jack Morelli
Publisher: Archie Comics
Original Publication Date: June 4, 2014
Pages: 160 pages