"This is how the end of the world begins," warns the first issue of AFTERLIFE WITH ARCHIE, scrawled in blood across story's first page. In case you believed this was all a dream, hoax, or an imaginary story, this ill portent leads the reader directly to a scene showing a crying, broken Jughead Jones holding the corpse of his pet, Hot Dog.
And then things get much, more worse.
If I were a gambling man, I would have bet against AFTERLIFE WITH ARCHIE. Archie Comics has barely been a blip on anyone's radar since the 1960s, and has managed to hang onto thin shreds of life by virtue of its valuable rack placements in grocery stores across the country. You'll get those racks when you pry them from the company's cold, dead hands, but Archie Comics has otherwise shown little interest in taking advantage of this valuable real estate.
Until a few years ago, that is. Having a Come to Jesus moment worthy of BREAKING BAD, the company figured out it had little to lose by shaking up the book's hoary status quo. The most notable of these experiments has been the introduction of the book's first openly gay character, Kevin Keller. Since then, the company has produced some of the most fun, innovative titles on the market ... which is no small feat, given that it wasn't too long ago that people were using Archie comics as a cheaper alternative to packing peanuts.
Also making the creative success of AFTERLIFE WITH ARCHIE more than a little dubious is the over exposure of zombies. The meme was tired before the first copy of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES hit the shelves, and its only grown more boring since then. Combining the world of Riverdale with a George Romero plot seemed like a one-note joke, something that should wear out its welcome before the end of the first issue.
Luckily for us, the company put some incredible talent on the book. Creators Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and Francesco Francavilla have decided to pursue the subject as explicitly humorless, which has the affect of making all the more hilarious.
Aguirre-Sacasa wisely uses the world to destroy itself. When the first zombie makes its appearance, it's not because of a Biblical prophecy, bullshit superdisease or alien radiation. Distressed by the death of his dog by reckless driver, Jughead turns to teenage witch Sabrina Spellman for help. When Sabrina's creepy aunts decline to intervene in the natural order of things and resurrect the animal, Sabrina takes matters (and a copy of the Necronomicon) into her own hands. Things quickly go PET SEMATARY when poor Hot Dog returns with a taste for human flesh. Sabrina is exiled to hell for a year by her aunts, while zombie Jughead crashes the Halloween dance at Riverdale High ... murdering Principal Weatherbee on his way into the building.
The dialogue and characterization are all spot-on, and never falls into Joss Whedonesque hipsterism. None of the kids are too clever to ever sound anything other than fairly real, and the book has genuine pathos. It will be interesting to watch the title character evolve in coming issues, though, because he's the most thinly drawn of the bunch. Archie Andrews has always been a doofus, but he's going to have to step up his game if we're expected to give a shit about him. By the end of the first issue, two of the book's three most interesting characters have been taken off the game board. This leaves us with smug asshole Reggie Mantle, who spends most of the book agonizing over having hit Jughead's dog with his car the night before. He's about to confess his guilt to Archie in the book's final pages, when the undead Jughead interrupts him.
It goes without mentioning that Francavilla's art here is incredible. He's the best kind of old-school artist, and does more with a few simple lines than most artists can do with an entire bottle of India ink. As the cover artist to Dynamite's DARK SHADOWS comic, he's been mentioned on this site a few times, but his talent extends beyond the ability to create bold, amazing cover art. He's also got real skill as a storyteller and knows how to not only construct a good panel, but also how to layout a page to best carry a reader though a story.
Had the book ended there, it would have been enough. AFTERLIFE WITH ARCHIE is slated to be an on-going series, though, which is one of the ballsiest moves I can imagine for such a premise. Drawing out the concept indefinitely will create a legion of opportunities and challenges along the way, and it's hard to imagine the book doing anything other than collapsing under the weight of its own premise. Had you told me last year that the most exciting comic of 2013 would be published by Archie, I'd have called you a fucking liar. Like the book's own teenage witch, Aguirre-Sacasa and Francavilla have done the impossible with AFTERLIFE WITH ARCHIE, and we're all going to have to live with the dire, blissfully nihilistic consequences. Frankly, the end of the world never looked so good.
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