The After Life with Archie

Archie and his gang were my first introduction comics. As a young child, our local shoe store used to have a stack of Archie comics for its young customers. While waiting for my sister and brother to get their new shoes, I would immerse myself in Riverdale and its funny denizens. I was a particular fan of Jughead Jones. These comics contained a wonderful sense of innocence, timelessness, and humor.

Unfortunately, the bucolic mythic suburbia of Riverdale over time paled and became less relevant to Gen X, and Y and then the Millennials. These generations having grown up with the edgy teen dramas on the WB and the dystopic YA novels, Archie and friends became not merely passé but utterly irrelevant.

Just as Frank Miller re-imagined of Batman as the Dark Knight, it seemed that the time had come to give the world of Archie that harder edge, and thus the After Life with Archie was born.

Author Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa explained that the impetus for the idea came from the cover of Life with Archie, number 23, by Francesco Francavilla, which showed a retro-Archie being confronted by zombie versions of Jughead, Betty, and Veronica. “The little kid inside me was a little disappointed that the comic underneath Francesco’s cover didn’t have any zombies in it.” And so, the zombie, or should I saw the “Walking Dead” version of Archie was born.

As anyone on this website should know the modern zombie movie was born with George A. Romero’s classic and still scary Night of the Living Dead. Sequels and remakes will come and go, but this movie is the classic and original deal.

Robert Kirkman revived zombies with The Walking Dead back in 2003. Taking a concept rarely handled well Kirkman made zombies as popular with the mainstream as vampires were with teenage girls.

Surprisingly, Marvel then took a chance and allowed Kirkman into the Marvel Universe with his outstanding Marvel Zombies. Using the Ultimate universe as his jumping point, Mark Millar sent the Fantastic Four into an alternate universe where the Avengers and the other Marvel Heroes were zombies. This was quirky and strangely satisfying. The feedback was so positive that the Marvel Zombies got their own mini-series and Robert “Walking Dead” Kirkman penned it. The series worked because Marvel heroes had seen their share of strangeness and becoming zombies were not that much of stretch.

But, this dark zombified Archie is as discordant as when we heard the horrifying allegations against America’s Dad, Bill Cosby. Sure, we love to huddle under the covers pretending to be afraid of monsters, but we also need to bathe in the light. We don’t really want to have the light turned suddenly dark where the friendly and safe are transformed into the dangerous and deadly. Archie, like Julie Andrews, represents that light. This dark, grim and horrific comic drains all the goofiness out of Archie and the gang at Riverdale. This is a true nightmare world.

Aguirre-Sacasa has written an outstanding and riveting story. Jumping off from our beloved characters, he re-imagines them along more realistic lines before dropping them into this living nightmare. Without breaking their original comic characters, Aguirre-Sacasa deftly grafts the inhabitant of Riverdale into the heart-breaking world of the Walking Dead.

Francavilla is credited with the artwork, but there is no listing for the inker or colorist, so I’ll assume he did triple duty. There is no question he is a master. The art and the colors blended with this top-notch story create a pervasive atmosphere of horror and dread.

The question is would this comic have been as compelling if Aguirre-Sacasa had created original characters? Or is the power derived from placing familiar characters with whom many of us have grown up with, and placing them in this dark place? Perhaps the power does come from seeing these familiar friends in this horror. Stephen King always started his books with realistic situations populated by people we come to care about before turning their lives inside out.

Which brings me this point: I wanted to hate this comic. I didn’t want to see the beloved characters from my childhood tore apart. But, Aguirre- Sacasa and Francavilla created such a phenomenal work that I was compelled not to hate it. Like King, they understand the essence of horror. When the bad guy is killed we cheer when the good guy is killed we mourn.  Horror comes from seeing people with whom we like and identify with placed in peril.

But, in the end, I am torn by this comic. As much as I was captivated by this masterful work, I felt a deep disappointment in watching the light being extinguished in Riverdale in this dark and humorless world.