Review: Afterlife with Archie, Vol. 1: Escape from Riverdale

by Andy Wolverton

Afterlife with Archie, Vol. 1: Escape from Riverdale – Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and Francesco Francavilla (Archie Comics Publications)

I’m not sure anyone really could’ve predicted this…

Maybe Francesco Francavilla’s variant cover of Life with Archie #23 was originally nothing more than a joke, or maybe it was part of a carefully devised plan all along, but I really don’t think anyone could’ve envisioned what Afterlife with Archie has become.

For over seven decades, readers have grown to adore the clean-cut, clumsy-but-lovable redheaded teenager, Archie Andrews, and his supporting cast of characters: his best Afterlife1friend Jughead Jones, his rival Reggie Mantle, and of course, the loves of his life, Betty and Veronica. Anyone even remotely familiar with Archie and his buddies might think Afterlife with Archie would emerge as a fun-filled, madcap zombie romp in the spirit of nearly 75 years of Archie comics. Nothing could be further from the truth.

It won’t be much of a spoiler to reveal that Escape from Riverdale — a story arc that features the first five issues of the Afterlife with Archie series– begins with Jughead’s dog, Hot Dog, being killed by a hit-and-run driver. With nowhere else to turn, Jughead takes Hot Dog to Sabrina the Teenage Witch. What happens next turns the whole Archie universe on its head, and it will never be the same.

Afterlife with Archie is the first title from Archie Comics to be rated “Teen +” and including a “Violence & Mature Content” statement. This is a horror title, after all, yet what amazes me is how writer (and now Chief Creative Officer at Archie Comics) Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa is able to maintain the spirit of the original comic and make it work in the realm of horror.

For example, the ever-present rivalry (or vindictiveness, if you will) between Betty and Veronica emerges early in the story as they fight over which one of them Archie will take to the Halloween dance. Veronica asks Archie, “Do you want me to dress as Sexy Witch or Sexy Gypsy? If I’m a Sexy Witch, I wear a pointy hat. If I’m a Sexy Gypsy, I wear–” to which Betty, who has just entered the scene, finishes, “– basically what Afterlife4you wear every day?” Such an exchange wouldn’t be too out of place in a typical Archie comic, but when you combine the scene with Francavilla’s pulp/retro art style and a color palette of fiery oranges and yellows, suggesting that everything’s about to go to hell… Well, let’s just say there’s trouble brewing in Riverdale like we’ve never seen.

While the first issue’s quotient of zombie mayhem is strong enough to draw us in, Aguirre-Sacasa elevates the rest of the arc to a level of poignancy and depth I wasn’t expecting. The creators understand both the emotional structures of these familiar characters and the core of true horror — not from cheap scares, but from connections to the things that really terrify us — such as the threat of dreams unrealized, of losing our friends and families, of regrets that may haunt us forever. One of the most emotionally-charged scenes involves Archie and his dog, Vegas. It’s a scene in which we get Vegas’s thoughts during a pivotal moment of danger, a scene that could’ve come across as manipulative or corny, but is instead powerful and unforgettable. Another involves Smithers, the butler of Veronica and her father, Hiram Lodge. We learn something of what Smithers has sacrificed for the Lodge family and to what lengths he’s willing to go to secure their protection.

Francavilla has emerged during the last several years as an artist who is clearly comfortable in noir/pulp settings with his run on Detective Comics a couple of years ago, and his recent creator-owned title, The Black Beetle. If horror isn’t a close relative of noir/pulp, it’s certainly a next-door neighbor, as Francavilla demonstrates throughout the book. His use of framing, pacing, chiaroscuro and color show that the artist has a firm grasp on what makes horror work, and man, does he know how to work it.

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With older comics like Archie, especially ones based on comedy, actions rarely have far-lasting consequences. Situations usually resolve themselves and rivals live to fight another day. Not so with Afterlife with Archie. Some of the characters, perhaps some of our favorites, die. Horribly. The ones who survive — well, we don’t really have any guarantees, do we? But isn’t that part of the horror, the struggle between despair over what’s been lost and the will to fight for survival? Maybe what makes Afterlife with Archie so powerful and compelling is that Aguirre-Sacasa and Francavilla have taken characters we’ve known and loved for nearly 75 years and have shown us that maybe they’re not as safe as we thought they were. And their dilemmas are indeed compelling. If you haven’t guessed it by now, Afterlife with Archie is a must-read.

This volume includes original covers, variant covers, and an amazing wealth of sketches by Francavilla.

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Check into Afterlife with Archie…and while you’re at it, see what else is going on in Riverdale:

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