Just an all-American boy living the all-American nightmare.
If like me you were raised in a terribly small town in England during the 80s and had very limited access to American culture save for whatever early Saturday morning cartoons were shown on ITV, then you’ll have no reason to have read or even heard of Archie Comics and its supremely apple pie vision of a sanitised American high school.
However right now in the mutating, shiftless teen-years of the 21st century, Archie Comics is providing some of the most gruelling, captivating and deeply nihilistic horror in any form of media.
So what the hell happened?
The titular Archie began his career as the embodiment of ‘squeaky clean US teen’ in the risibly titled Pep Comics #22 in 1941, before moving on to his own series of comic books. Archie Comics saw the ginger-haired, well-mannered 17 year-old attend Riverdale High School, with his best friend Jughead, and Betty and Veronica. Two high school crushes who will spend the next seven and a half decades inexplicably fighting for Archie’s affection. Think Happy Days but with fewer laughs and zero sense of irony.
The Archie series of comics would also give birth to other perhaps better known characters in the UK, Sabrina and the Teenage Witch and Josie & the Pussycats, while publishing a vast array of titles of varying quality. Life With Archie featured slightly more dramatic story arcs, Archie’s Pals ‘n’ Gals focused on the other members of Archie’s gang and Jughead’s Time Police was a short-lived science fiction spin-off which predated Van Damme’s similarly themed Timecop by three years. Yeah that’s right.
It’s this latter comic that embodies a surprisingly bold sense of experimentation in Archie Comics. In its 75 years of existence, the publisher has never been afraid of putting its beloved characters in often bizarre, non-canonical situations. The Man from R.I.V.E.R.D.A.L.E. saw Archie become a secret agent (although the acronym was never explained), Archie Meets the Punisher was the “crossover you’ve been dreading” and Jughead’s Pal Hot Dog saw Jughead’s faithful dog become highly anthropomorphized, live in a high-tech dog house with a robotic butler named Bertie and travel through time and space.
So far so stupid. However in 2013 this all changed. The wholesome tableaux of romantic triangles, shared ice cream sundaes and never-ageing youth would be torn apart by horrors previously unimaginable. Somewhere between H.P. Lovecraft’s cosmic horror and the grim nihilism of The Walking Dead came Afterlife With Archie and its spin-off publication, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, taking the misanthropy of EC’s most macabre comics from the 40s as its lead,
Issue one of Afterlife with Archie came out in September 2013 and defied all expectations. Rather than being a one-joke ‘Archie Meets the Night of Living Dead’ with painful levels of self-awareness (see the recent Archie Meets The Predator for that sort of thing), Afterlife with Archie is a beautifully measured horror comic, Furiously paced, heartbreakingly cruel and gorgeously illustrated by Francesco Francavilla who using a limited palette manages to create absolute terror throughout his expressionistic layouts and expertly delivered giallo-style garishness.
Issue one hits the ground running with Jughead racing to Sabrina’s house carrying his dog Hot Dog, who has been fatally hit by a car. Unable to help in any other way, Sabrina does what Sabrina does best and breaks her coven’s rules by helping to resurrect the deceased pooch. Sabrina’s meddling leads to the creation of a monstrous blood-hungry hound, who bites Jughead giving him a nasty looking infection which leads to.. well, you know how zombie stuff works by now.
The idea for an alternate universe Archie Comic where literally all hell breaks loose came from the writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa after spotting a limited variant cover of the otherwise non-zombified Life With Archie in 2012. As Aguirre-Sacasa explained to Den of Geek in 2013:
I was obsessed with Archie and I was obsessed with horror. I was in my local comic book shop in L.A. called Golden Apple, and I saw Francesco’s cover for issue 23 of Life With Archie and said “oh my God, Archie’s doing a zombie book!” So I bought it, and then when I got home I saw it was just a variant and that the issue on the inside was a Life With Archie comic, which I love, but I thought there might be a zombie fantasy sequence or something.
The writer would be disappointed at the non-zombie content, but it wouldn’t be long before he persuaded the editors of Archie Comics to let him write a new series, at the time tentatively titled Crypt of Archie.
What sets Afterlife With Archie apart from every other zombie apocalypse tale is the sheer quality of Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s writing. While traditionally Archie, Veronica, Betty and the rest of the gang are formed from the very broad tropes of American high school teens, here we get to see fully rounded, brilliantly realised teenagers who are put through extreme, nightmarish situations but still battling with their everyday teenage bullshit.
Yes, the slouching beastly elephant in the room is of course The Walking Dead, but what differentiates Afterlife With Archie from that long-running ordeal is a sense of style and a skew towards genuine terror instead of sadistic shock.
The zombie apocalypse isn’t just where this particular horror dwells however. The strongest issue of Afterlife With Archie is issue six, where we pick up on what’s been happening to Sabrina the Teenage Witch since her punishment for causing the apocalypse.
Sabrina has been banished to a mental asylum in the netherworld, staffed by tentacled monsters straight out of a Lovecraft story, whose bedside manner is to utterly fuck with her mind. By the end of the comic she will be forced to marry the part-octopus abomination known throughout the occult world as Cthulhu. (Pronounced as it’s written).
What makes this the most unsettling comic book I’ve ever read is the juxtaposition of Sabrina’s ambiguous fate at the hands of this wholly evil monster with some flashback dialogue where Sabrina is thinking of her boyfriend and saying “oh wow, I’m gonna marry this boy and be happy for the rest of my life.” It’s heartbreakingly cruel stuff.
With issue six, Afterlife With Archie suddenly became more than a standard zombie endurance horror. As the great Cthulhu is finally freed, Archie and the gang will eventually have to deal with far worse than some shambling zombified former pals in the future.
What little is left of the future.