Comics have been a fertile ground for experimentation over the years, but Archie Comics’ bold foray into the horror genre is surely a step too far for the classic wholesome publisher? Erm, no actually. Below I examine what might be the best comic of the last twelve months…
It starts, as many good horror stories do, with a reckless act of desperate love. And an act of compassionate rebellion. And a dark terrible secret. When Reggie Mantle accidentally runs over Jughead Jones’ dog, Hot Dog, he inadvertently sets in motion a chain of events that leads to the sort of moment more commonly seen in a George Romero film, as a newly undead Jughead arrives at the Riverdale High hallowe’en dance, his entrance greeted by admiring comments from his unsuspecting classmates. How we get to that moment is a deftly handled masterclass in comic book storytelling from writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and artist Francesco Francavilla.
Aguirre-Sacasa weaves a story whose key moments spring from the characters and their motivations. Of course, Jughead would do anything to save his dog. Of course, Sabrina would do anything to help her friend – even if that help means opening up the infamous ‘Necronomicon’. (I’m not sure which edition this one is, but it certainly packs a punch…) The pace is assured and unhurried, which means that there’s plenty of time for that sense of inevitability so important to good horror fiction to build up. And, boy, does it build up! Aguirre-Sacasa makes Jughead (and us) wait for the appearance of the re-animated Hot Dog and, halfway through the issue, he teases us with a confrontation between an infected Jughead and Archie which doesn’t, thankfully, end the way it might.
While the formal conventions of horror writing are duly (and skilfully) observed, Aguirre-Sacasa imbues his tale with a considerable amount of heart. During the aforementioned encounter between Jughead and Archie, you genuinely feel Archie’s concern for his friend and the later banter between Betty and Veronica is witty, waspish and perfectly naturalistic. Throughout the issue, Aguirre-Sacasa’s writing is faultless: his dialogue, along with Francavilla’s artwork (more of which in a moment), breathes life into the characters, fizzing and crackling with arch humour at one moment, replete with warmth and pathos the next; his pacing is deliberate but never slow; and, his understanding of both the characters and the horror genre in which he’s placed them is spot on. Even given those strengths, though, the comic would not be quite so impressive without the considerable talents of Francesco Francavilla.
Francavilla’s artwork is, quite simply, gorgeous. His lines are simple and clear; his muted colour palette possesses a haunting luminosity. He’s capable of portraying incredible tenderness between characters in one panel and ominous silhouetted horror the next. He’s perfectly suited to the horror genre, but, as I suggested earlier, he’s adept at the quieter character moments and his facial expressions are both varied and natural. Even with an averagely written book, his art would pull you into the story. Here, in expressing Aguirre-Sacasa’s writing, it’s utterly compelling.
On paper, Aferlife With Archie probably shouldn’t work. The mix of clean-cut, all-American Archie Andrews with brooding, visceral horror should be too jarring to be entertaining. To be brutally honest, Archie comics have never particularly interested me, but, after hearing the guys on the Comic Vine podcast rave about this title a few months ago, I decided to give this a look. I’m very glad I did. This is not a gimmick. Nor is it a knowing exercise in post-modern comics irony. This is comic book storytelling at its finest and this is now a title I’ll be picking up regularly. (And catching up on.) I highly recommend that you give it a look.