Archie at its best: Zombies, BFFs and the girl next door

By Andrew A. Smith

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

Jun 17, 2014 -- Who would guess that happy, frivolous Archie Andrews and violent, bloodthirsty zombies would make a good mix?

According to the afterword in the recently released Afterlife with Archie Book One (Archie, $17.99), at least three people did: Archie CEO Jon Goldwater, his son Jesse and Chief Creative Officer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa. Goldwater gave the green light to an Archie-meets-zombie series, Aguirre-Sacasa started writing it and fan-favorite artist Francesco Francavilla started penciling it. The result was a surprisingly good – and an instant hit.

Afterlife with Archie launched in October 2013, and reached #42 on the Diamond Comics Distributors Inc. Top 300 list for that month. That’s phenomenal for Archie Comics, which rarely cracks the top 100, and AwA #1 instantly sold out at the retailer level, necessitating a second print run. In fact, most of the early issues of Afterlife with Archie have gone back to press, with combined print runs that routinely double or almost triple Archie’s next-best-selling titles, Sonic the Hedgehog, Sonic Universe and Mega Man. And it remains firmly lodged in the top 100 of Diamond’s monthly list, as it approaches issue #6.

Why all the fuss? Because it’s very, very good.

Here’s one reason why: Aguirre-Sacasa hasn’t veered from the fundamentals of the Archie series, but he has sharpened them considerably. For example, the teen-romance triangle of Betty-Archie-Veronica is not only still in evidence, but turned up to 11. After all, in regular Archie Comics, tomorrow is always another day. In Afterlife, there’s no guarantee of a tomorrow at all, which makes the girls’ rivalry all the more consequential.

And you know how Mr. Lodge has always sputtered and fumed amusingly about Archie’s antics for decades? Well, in this more realistic setting, his attitude is simpler – and harsher. Mr. Lodge thinks Archie isn’t worthy of his daughter, and is therefore a threat to her happiness, which means he really, really doesn’t like the red-headed lad. As for Archie, he’s no clumsy goof in this series, but a serious and almost heroic young man, who sticks up for himself and for others – someone, in fact, that both a Betty and a Veronica could find attractive and admirable.

Take that approach and apply it across the board, and you get an idea of the strength of Aguirre-Sacasa’s writing. From Archie’s mother to the Lodges’ butler to a pair of closeted lesbians, the entire Riverdale gang has never enjoyed such surprising depth and dimensions.

Wait – I shouldn’t say the entire Riverdale gang, because a lot of them are turning into walking dead at a pretty rapid clip! I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by saying the first zombie is Jughead, who ends up on the wrong end of a resurrection spell by Sabrina, the Teenage Witch. I suppose oddball Juggie is the least realistic of the Archie gang, and therefore the most disposable in a serious setting. But taking Archie’s best friend out of the equation also changes the dynamics of the entire gang right from the start. I have to admit that even though Jughead has been my favorite Archie character for decades, turning him into Archie’s most dangerous adversary at the outset was a smart – and daring – creative decision.

Meanwhile, the artist’s contribution is equally impressive. Francavilla employs a deceptively simple, retro style that doesn’t hide behind rendering, which requires unusually strong fundamentals to work. And it does, thanks to Francavilla’s mastery of composition, lighting and storytelling.

To tell you the truth, a lot of comics fans reacted really negatively when they heard the premise of  Afterlife with Archie. But the series – and Book One, which reprints the first five issues – has proved so successful that Archie Comics is planning a second horror title, starring the aforementioned Sabrina. Hey, when you’re hot, you’re hot.

Speaking of which, Archie Comics has another unusual book coming in a few weeks. Diary of a Girl Next Door: Betty ($13.99) uses the “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” format to tell a charming tale about everyone’s favorite over-achieving blonde.

Set at the beginning of Betty’s freshman year, the book follows her diary entries as she goes through the sort of “crises” a teenage girl is apt to have in ninth grade: not being popular with the cool kids, finding a part-time job, learning BMX stunts, choosing a Halloween costume, getting that certain red-headed boy to ask you to prom …

And it’s really charming. Betty is instantly likeable, of course, and is constantly – and amusingly –  imagining great futures in different fields. She is also constantly battling (and making up with) her BFF Veronica. And yes, we do get a little insight into how this partnership of opposites can possibly work.

The diary entries are by cartoonist Tania del Rio, who was responsible for a manga take on Sabrina a few years back. The art – doing its best to look like the doodles and stick figures of a tweenage girl – is by veteran Archie artist Bill Galvan. I think quite a few young ladies – and maybe a few lads as well – will recognize themselves in the hopes and dreams of the girl next door.

Speaking of Betty & Veronica, these two polar opposites have been friends, and friendly rivals, going back to the 1940s. They’ve been the stars in thousands of great stories by some of the best artists in the business – all of which is on full display in The Best of Archie Comics Starring Betty & Veronica ($9.99).

This thick, cement block of a digest – more than 400 pages – reprints the best of B&V going back 70 years, separated  by decade and with introductions  by various artists, writers, editors and other pros explaining why a given story is a favorite, or how it illuminates some aspect of the girls’ personalities or relationship.

It’s a wonderful reading experience – and a long one! Plus, many of the stories are so timeless that it’s easy to imagine reading it again in a few years. That’s a lot of fun for 10 bucks!

Reach Captain Comics by e-mail (capncomics@aol.com).

 

 

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Count me as one of the ones who didn't expect to like Afterlife with Archie. But it was good and as I think I mentioned the matching of the art to the storyline was the best I've seen since Tomb of Dracula. It reminded me in a way of the history biographies I used to read in elementary school. All of them were heavily sanitized and it wasn't until I grew older and read different biographies that I realized how human some of the historical figures I'd been idolizing were.

I read the first issue for free on my tablet from Comixology, and really enjoyed it. I already knew I liked Francavilla's art, but seeing how well this story worked was a pleasant surprise. I definitely plan on reading the collection as soon as the library gets it.

I read AwA last weekend. I had heard it was good but was hesitant, for two reasons. First, I haven't really read or been interested in Archie since I was a kid. Second, I have zombie fatigue. Anyways, I'm glad I read it anyways. Everything Cap said is spot on. It's a great book. It is very much edge of your seat entertainment and at times very heart wrenching.

Agreed, that balance is important, and so far Aguirre-Sacasa is walking the line.

Also, thinking about this further, it occurred to me that most writers would have made Reggie the first (and chief) zombie. But Aguirre-Sacasa went with Juggie, which is not only heart-breaking, but throws the usual status quo into the air. It was not an obvious decision by any means, but in retrospect the right one.

Also, update: Afterlife with Archie Book One is the #1 TPB for June, according to Diamond.

Again, agreed. We do know these characters inside and out -- and yet, everything that happens from this point on is virgin territory for both characters and readers. Another balance, between the familiar and the unknown.

One other good stroke was taking Sabrina out right away, without her there really isn't an end to this. No last minute save of the characters.

I sent in a suggestion for a similar story back in the 90s. They said they'd never do something like that. Guess I was too ahead of my time there.

Darn. I could have had a hit series...

On tonight's Late Show, Letterman spent a few minutes talking about Archie comics.

I've read Archie was terrified when Disney bought Marvel and went over everything they owned trying to decide if something long cancelled might work today.

I just read the library's copy (suggested for purchase by yours truly!). Great fun, and I agree with everything that was said earlier about why it works so well. I've never been an Archie fan, but I don't think you can grow up in the U.S. without having a basic familiarity with the world of Riverdale. This book manages to retain most of what makes the series work, while adding significant amounts of both realism and fantasy. I find myself wondering if there won't eventually be some kind of reset, maybe when Sabrina returns? But it's an Elseworlds kind of story, so maybe not. I also note that it read really fast: I got through the whole collection during a single dinner hour.

Awesome. Shows that competition does bring out the best in all parties. And it looks like it's working, too. I'm excited to see what they do with the Black Circle books. Seriously. Not in the !mpact Comics way or even the more recent Red Circle versions of the books. I think this one may hold water, assuming editorial is smart. (Thus far, they have been...)

Ron M. said:

I've read Archie was terrified when Disney bought Marvel and went over everything they owned trying to decide if something long cancelled might work today.

I feel serious tension when I'm reading this book. This comes from years of familiarity with the characters. This was brilliant. I am not sure I would have gone in the same direction they did with Reggie, but then again I would never have thought this would work so well. I guess with realism, you have to face some realities you don't really want to confront.

Mark Sullivan (Vertiginous Mod) said:

I just read the library's copy (suggested for purchase by yours truly!). Great fun, and I agree with everything that was said earlier about why it works so well. I've never been an Archie fan, but I don't think you can grow up in the U.S. without having a basic familiarity with the world of Riverdale. This book manages to retain most of what makes the series work, while adding significant amounts of both realism and fantasy. I find myself wondering if there won't eventually be some kind of reset, maybe when Sabrina returns? But it's an Elseworlds kind of story, so maybe not. I also note that it read really fast: I got through the whole collection during a single dinner hour.

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