Monday, November 10, 2014


It’s unlikely you’ll read another mainstream horror comic this year as f*cked up as CHILLING ADVENTURES OF SABRINA.

The teenage witch of Archie Comics has been reinterpreted here for a straight-up horror story that finds inspiration from sources as diverse as Stephen King, Ira Levin and J.K. Rowling. It would be unrelentingly bleak if not for a streak of dark wit running throughout. But “fun” is a subjective word, especially when you’re talking about horror stories. And, despite its flaws, CHILLING ADVENTURES OF SABRINA is a pretty fun book.

As with AFTERLIFE WITH ARCHIE, the new SABRINA series relies only on the character’s most basic ingredients. Our heroine is still a witch being raised in a suburban community by her aunts. Her cat, Salem, is also present, as are a few recognizable names and faces from Riverdale. But that’s where the similarities end. Here, Sabrina and her aunts have more secrets to keep than mere witchcraft. And, while we’ve been privy to a few of them in the first issue, there are quite a few more lurking off panel.

When the story begins, Sabrina’s mother is trying to rescue her from an uncertain fate at the hands of her father. Unable to bear children, she’d made a pact to surrender her firstborn to the family coven, only to get cold feet at the last minute. She is banished to an asylum and lobotomized; not long after her husband meets an even more grotesque fate, leaving the infant in the care of her aunts.

As Sabrina’s powers begin to grow, the aunts remove her from a private school for witches, opting instead to give her a public school education in a quiet town where the child’s heritage won’t be questioned. There are a few allusions that the family might be cannibals (the aunts comment on the advantages of living next to a funeral home, where they’ve got access to an “unlimited” food supply), and Sabrina gets her first familiar in the form of a “cat” named Salem.

Salem is a former warlock being punished for trying to destroy the world. Sabrina’s British cousin, who has also taken up residence with the family, is even more unsavory: Even Alistair Crowley has taken issue with the lad’s behavior.

It’s a pretty good set up, but writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa makes a critical error. There are a lot of ideas jammed into this first issue, but its linear nature leaves little room for character development. Sabrina spends much of the first issue as an infant without agency, while characters are introduced (and dismissed) at breakneck speed. It’s hard to invest much in Sabrina because we don’t know anything about her. Sure, we know her history (something even she doesn’t know), but we’re given little opportunity to see her behave as a person. While the opening scenes of Sabrina’s family self destructing are effective, I’m not sure we needed to see these moments unfold this early. It’s a problem that will likely right itself quickly as the series progresses, but it makes this issue less than essential.

Also: Robert Hack’s art here is terrific. His style is a welcome breath of fresh air for the medium, and rejects the traditional linework and digital color palettes that makes comicbook art so faceless these days. This guy’s good.

I’m not sure how CHILLING ADVENTURES OF SABRINA relates to AFTERLIFE WITH ARCHIE, which is also written by Aguirre-Sacasa. Archie Comics is doing a lot of crazy things these days, and it’s always hard to tell which books — if any — are related. For those of us bored with the “continuity management-as-story” policies at Marvel and DC, it’s nice to see a company putting creativity first. It’s possible AFTERLIFE WITH ARCHIE and CHILLING ADVENTURES OF SABRINA aren’t related, and I don’t really care if they are. The books don't need each other to work.

Despite its violent tone, Sabrina actually comes across much better in this story than she did when introduced to the Archie line back in 1962. Her first appearance is included as a back-up in this issue, and it’s going to come as a bit of a surprise to fans of the Melissa Joan Hart television series. I’m not sure what the original intent was for the character, but she comes across in her first appearance like a raging sociopath.

While Sabrina doesn’t outright kill anyone, she’s not exactly above hurting people. One panel shows her casting a spell on teenagers to ruin a dance … by giving them back pain. She also brags to the reader about meddling in high school sporting events, causing her own school’s team to win or lose at whim. Sabrina also casts spells to force teens to fall in love, makes students fail tests … she’s kind of an asshole.

The last panel raises the possibility that there might be hope for our junior super-villain, as she wonders if there might be some secret appeal to muggle life. I hope these early Sabrina stories are included in future issues of this series, because they’re kinda fascinating.

1 comment:

gtolle said...

I agree that this is a very well done comic. The art nicely compliments the text (though it's a little murky in places) and the text is a nice development of much of the traditional anti-witchcraft lore.

The problem of the comic is with its use of anti-witchcraft lore. In simplest terms, it is bigoted, discriminatory, and potentially dangerous. I won't go so far as to say that anti-witchcraft lore is racist (though it certainly was in many instances). It was far broader than that. Anti-witchcraft lore was useful against anyone that you didn't like and it was used to kill, torture, and dis-enfranchise thousands of people.

Would you enjoy a comic book that, without obvious parody or debunking, depicted the Nazi view of Jews and Negroes as subhuman animals as accurate; claimed that the anti-jewish blood libel (that Jews stole and sacrificed christian babies at High Holidays) were completely true; or showed the '70's and '80's Satanic Scare with its human sacrifices and repressed memories was faithful to a world-wide satanic conspiracy - and named names?

Presumably not.

Oh course, you might say that all the witchhunts are in the past. Using the anti-witchcraft lore in a "serious" manner couldn't offend or endanger anybody. You would be wrong. Witchcraft is actively pursued and "dealt with" in many parts of the world (Uganda, Nigeria, Malaysia, Mexico, Iraq, Pakistan). Children as young (if I remember correctly) as four years old have been beaten and killed for being witches. Women are regularly tortured for it.

This even happens in the US and Europe though we tend to call it "exorcism" here. The accusations are similar. The beatings, torture, and death are nearly identical. Worse, it is fed, in the US, by gullible viewers watching exorcism movies and believing them.

"The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina" is a good book and I doubt that the writers even realize what they are promoting but it is discriminatory and wrong. I ask that you think about this and consider not purchasing the comic.

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