New 'Sabrina' TV show lifts elements from character's long comics, TV, cartoon history

Copyright Archie Comic Publications Inc.

Kiernan Shipka is the star of Chilling Advetures of Sabrina on Netflix, premiering Oct. 27.

Andrew A. Smith

Tribune Content Agency

Netflix’s Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, premiering Oct. 27, seems like a very new take on the veteran character from Archie Comics. But it lifts elements from throughout the teen witch’s long history.

The idea of Sabrina Spellman being a restive, modern spellcaster in a magical society with ancient, restrictive rules goes back to her first appearance in Archie’s Madhouse in 1962. Created by two Archie A-listers, writer George Gladir and artist Dan DeCarlo, it was an upbeat intro with a hip Sabrina who nevertheless couldn’t cry, couldn’t sink in water and couldn’t fall in love. And she had a familiar, a (non-talking) cat named Salem.

Art by Dan DeCarlo. Copyright Archie Comics Publications Inc.

Sabrina first appeared in Archie’s Madhouse #22 in 1962.

Head Witch Miss Della was also introduced, a taskmistress who was training Sabrina to be a good witch by doing bad things. While only implied in this first story, later episodes would make clear that Sabrina wasn’t much into doing evil (much to Miss Della’s exasperation) – she was much more interested in hanging with friends, listening to records, dancing the Twist and exploring this whole “boyfriend” idea.

This tension has remained the heart of Sabrina’s stories (and appeal) ever since. It’s not the most original idea, with precursors such as the 1950s movies I Married a Witch and Bell, Book and Candle. The “reluctant modern witch” concept was also used to great effect in the TV series Bewitched, which premiered two years after Sabrina, in 1964.

Meanwhile, as the ‘60s continued and Sabrina got groovier, she began picking up more elements familiar to today’s fans. Various pre-existing bit characters (primarily horror host Hilda the Witch and busybody Greta the Fairy Witch Mother) gradually morphed into Sabrina’s aunts Zelda and Hilda. A romantic rival, a Baxter High student named Rosalind, or “Roz,” began to appear, although in later years she was presented as Sabrina’s friend. Sweet-natured boyfriend Harvey Kinkle and fashion dandy Cousin Ambrose (who owed a lot to Dr. Bombay and Uncle Arthur of Bewitched) arrived in 1969.

Until that year, Sabrina had appeared in fewer than two dozen stories, primarily in Archie’s Madhouse. But she gained greater exposure when that title was replaced by Archie’s TV Laugh Out – a play on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In – an anthology that usually starred our teenage witch in the lead story, followed by yarns featuring the Riverdale cast. Sometimes the Archie gang would guest in the Sabrina tale (without knowing she was a witch), establishing at long last that Sabrina’s Greendale and Archie’s Riverdale were adjacent.

Sabrina had also been showing up in the Archie cartoons on Saturday morning, and she must have been popular – because 1971 was the year of Sabrina. Not only did she get her own cartoon, but her first solo comic book, with the soon-to-be-familiar title Sabrina the Teen-Age Witch emblazoned across the cover.

Sabrina had arrived. In one form or another, Greendale’s teen hexer has remained a staple in the media landscape ever since. Later highlights would include:

  • Chilling Adventures in Sorcery: This short-lived 1972 horror anthology is significant for its title, which inspired the current comic book and Netflix titles. The first two issues featured Sabrina as host of various horror stories, drawn by Archie stalwarts like DeCarlo and Stan Goldberg in the typical Archie style (although the stories were serious). Alas, Sabrina disappeared from the title with the third issue – but so did the cartoon style. Grandmasters like Gray Morrow, Dick Giordano and Vicente Alcazar illustrated the stories in the more realistic style for the nine issues that were left.
  • Sabrina the Teenage Witch (TV): Most people probably know Sabrina by this charming TV show, starring Melissa Joan Hart as the titular star. Its popularity established three new ideas as canon. One, that Salem can talk, which was picked up by the comics very quickly. Two, Sabrina didn’t come into her powers until her 16th birthday, whereas previously she’d have them all her life. And three, Sabrina is only a half-breed: Her father was a warlock, but her mother was human. The series ran seven seasons and spawned three made-for-TV movies.
  • Animation: After her appearances in 1960s Archie cartoons and her own 31-episode series in 1971, our Teenage Witch had three more animated sojourns. Sabrina: The Animated Series (1999-2000, 65 episodes) and Sabrina’s Secret Life (2003-04, 26 episodes) featured a pre-teen Sabrina. Sabrina: Secrets of a Teenage Witch (2013-14, 26 episodes) starred a sort-of superhero Sabrina who battled magical enemies. While containing a lot of the usual Sabrina elements – Zelda and Hilda seem mandatory – neither were set in the “mainstream” Sabrina world established by the live-action show.
  • Manga: In 2004 Archie Comics tried an experiment: a Sabrina series drawn in the big-eyed Japanese style. It surely had its fans, and has been reprinted several times, but it’s hard to find an Archie reader who will admit to liking it.

Which brings us to the biggest influence on Chilling Adventures of Sabrina TV show, which is the comic book of the same name. Launched in 2014 as a companion series to Afterlife with Archie, it’s written by Roberto Aquirre-Sacasa, who is not only the chief creative officer at Archie, but also the Sabrina showrunner at Netflix.

Cover art by Robert Hack. Copyright Archie Comic Publications Inc.

The first five issues of Chilling Adventures of Sabrina have been collected in trade paperback.

The comic book lives up to its name, and surely Netflix will try for the same vibe. But the show will almost certainly veer from that blueprint. For one thing, the comic book is a period piece, set in 1962. The TV show appears to be set in the present.

For another, Harvey Kinkle is killed and eaten in the fourth issue of the comic book, and then in the fifth resurrected as a host body for the spirit of Sabrina’s dead father. (Feel free to take a minute to digest that.) That’s not likely to happen on the TV show, where Harvey (Ross Lynch) is listed as a regular on the 20 episodes of the first two seasons.

Also, Betty and Veronica play a key role in the first few issues of the comic book. That won’t be the case on TV, where no crossover with The CW’s Riverdale is in the cards (yet).

So what does the TV show lift from the comic book?

Well, both feature the huge problem facing Sabrina on her 16th birthday, where she is expected to decide between staying human or embracing her magical heritage. In the comics that means a “Dark Baptism,” in which Sabrina must eat a sacrament (made of crushed spiders, crickets and flies), sacrifice a live goat with a machete and sign Satan’s book. You know, the usual.

Another major element is Cousin Ambrose. Prior to Chilling Adventures the comic book, he was a portly man with a handlebar mustache who seemed to be the same age as Zelda and Hilda. But Aguirre-Sacasa re-imagined Ambrose as a contemporary of Sabrina’s, a British teen (with a Liverpool accent) confined to the Spellman attic by “High Priest Crowley” for revealing his powers in public. He is accompanied by his two familiars, talking cobras named Nag and Nagaina. Chance Perdomo will play a similar Ambrose on TV.

Ambrose isn’t alone in suffering a punishment from the higher-level witches. In the comics, Salem is a witch who has been turned into a cat because, he says, “this is what happens when you try to enact the Book of Revelations.” That element stretches back to the TV show, where Salem was a former witch being punished for trying to take over the world.

Another bit inspired by the comics is Sabrina’s chief antagonist, teacher Mary Wardell (Michelle Gomez).  In the comics her name is Miss Porter, but in both show and comic book, this ancient witch pretends to be a friend and mentor for Sabrina, when actually working toward the teen’s destruction.

Here are a couple of odd twists:

In the comics, Miss Porter’s real name is Madam Satan – an actual character from 1941 Archie Comics, when it was called MLJ Comics. She was an evil, beautiful woman who died and went to Hell in Pep Comics. Then Satan sent her back to Earth to tempt good men into evil for five more stories, although she was always thwarted somehow. Yes, that was a real series that really happened. But her strip was canceled to make room for a new humor series starring a red-headed teenager in a fictional town named Riverdale. No wonder she hates teenagers!

Anyway, TV’s Miss Wardell should play much the same role, but isn’t necessarily Madam Satan. In the credits, Jenna Berman plays that character for one episode. A disguise, maybe?

Regardless, it appears one can enjoy both the comic book and the movie without being spoiled by either. Ditto previous iterations of Sabrina, which didn’t involve Dark Baptisms at all. I hear some people even like the manga version.

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Interesting. Most recently, Michelle Gomez played Missy, a female incarnation of the Doctor's ancient frenemy, the Master, in Doctor Who

"...and sign Satan’s book. You know, the usual."

Given the context, now I can't help imagining Teen Satan collecting signatures for his yearbook.

Satan,

You rock!  Stay crazy, Dude!

Sabrina

Sabrina is chockablock with familiar faces.

Kiernan Shipka (Sabrina) was Don Draper's daughter on Mad Men.

Beth Broderick (Aunt Hilda) was Etta Candy in Wonder Woman.

Miranda Otto (Aunt Zelda) was Eowyn in Lord of the Rings.

Here's another oddity that I avoided in the column because I don't know the details: When the two aunts had arrived in their final form in 1968, Aunt Zelda was the dotty one, and Aunt Hilda was the stern one. In today's comics and TV show, it's the reverse.

This I gleaned from Sabrina the Teenage Witch: The Complete Collection Volume 1 (and so far, only). That book collects all the Sabrina stories from her debut in 1962 through Sabrina the Teenage Witch #4 (first series) in 1971, with a smattering of books from 1972. In those early stories, Aunt Hilda arrived first in 1962, a combination of a horror host named Hilda and an earlier character (filling much the same niche) named Greta the Fairy Witch Mother. The more maternal Zelda arrived in 1968, pretty much fully formed as Hilda's foil and sidekick.

Sabrina (first series) ran for another 73 issues after what's collected in Sabrina the Teenage Witch: The Complete Collection Volume 1 and I can only guess that the characters remained much the same for those issues. The series ended with issue #77 in 1983.

There wasn't another ongoing Sabrina series until 1997, coinciding with and based on the TV show, which ran for 32 issues and sometimes even had Melissa Joan Hart on the cover. But from those covers, I see the maternal aunt referred to as Hilda for the first time. So I'm led to believe that the name switch occurred in the TV show, and has been perpetuated ever since. But I don't know that for sure.

For the record, that series only ran almost three years (1997-1999), and was succeeded by a third series in 2000, based on the Sabrina cartoon where she was in middle school. That series ran 104 issues (into 2009), but beginning with issue #58 (2004) was done in manga style.

Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is her fourth ongoing, and offers yet another premise and style. Aguirre-Sacasa casts Zelda as the mean aunt and Hilda as the maternal one, following what I assume was established in 1997 by the TV show.

But I could be wrong.

That would be Melissa Joan Hart

Jennifer Love Hewitt would be Ghost Whisperer



Captain Comics said

There wasn't another ongoing Sabrina series until 1997, coinciding with and based on the TV show, which ran for 32 issues and sometimes even had Jennifer Love Hewitt on the cover. But from those covers, I see the maternal aunt referred to as Hilda for the first time. So I'm led to believe that the name switch occurred in the TV show, and has been perpetuated ever since. But I don't know that for sure.

I picked up Sabrina the Teenage Witch: The Complete Collection Volume 1 in my travels a few months back. That first story made Sabrina look a lot more sultry than she ever did in any subsequent tale. And the whole business of a teenage witch who can't fall in love when she's amid an environment of horny-but-chaste teenagers was obviously too awkward to work.

Dave Palmer said:

That would be Melissa Joan Hart

D'oh! Fixed.

ClarkKent_DC said:

I picked up Sabrina the Teenage Witch: The Complete Collection Volume 1 in my travels a few months back. That first story made Sabrina look a lot more sultry than she ever did in any subsequent tale. And the whole business of a teenage witch who can't fall in love when she's amid an environment of horny-but-chaste teenagers was obviously too awkward to work.

Yeah, she shifted into standard B&V attractiveness almost immediately.

Most of those early stories seemed to follow a formula where Sabrina would use her powers to tilt the romantic playing field in her favor, but it would backfire. There was a different male love interest in each story, until Harvey came along, fully formed, in 1969.

I mentioned the "rules" of witchery in that first story in my column, although it didn't really seem to apply after that first issue. The next time I saw one referenced was in Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, when one of the aunts told the other "don't pretend to cry, you know you can't." Or something like that.

Of course, I didn't read any Sabrina stories from 1972 to 2016!


Captain Comics said:

Of course, I didn't read any Sabrina stories from 1972 to 2016!

Or, as the kids from Riverdale call it, Spring Break.

My wife and I just finished binging Sabrina, and really enjoyed it.

I like this more than Riverdale. Here's why:

  • Unlike Riverdale, some of these characters (heck, most even) are likeable.
  • It's dark, but not quite as dark as the comic book.
  • The actor playing Sabrina is immensely talented. Something about the way she looks at people while they're talking to her. It's unlike anything I remember ever seeing before.
  • I also like the guy who plays Harvey. He just seems like a genuinely nice guy without any of the cynical stand-offishness that Archie, Jughead, and the rest of the Riverdale gang possess.
  • I also like how the one aunt is really nice, of course, and the other one is pretty nasty. But even she has her moments, and you really do get the feeling she cares for Sabrina.
  • Lastly, I really really love this take on Salem. You wouldn't want to mess with him.

Several of the things I've noticed I like are:

* Actions have consequences. Sabrina does, as Ambrose points out, act as if the universe owes her special dispensation. As she keeps breaking the rules in more egregious manner, the consequences grow. Now, in a normal show, she'd get away with everything, because we know Satan is BAD and she deserves to win. But that's now what's happening. She's operating within a set of rules, and as she's broken the rules everyone's gotten pretty peeved with her. The biggest mistake -- resurrectiion -- has had the biggest consequences.

* Harvey is likeable. Most boyfriends on TV shows aren't.

* Zelda has dimensions. Yeah, she's the strict one. But how could Sabrina be the person she is if Zelda had always been that way? Clearly, she hasn't been strict with Sabrina. And, in fact, Father Blackwood (or maybe it was Hilda) said, "You've never been able to say 'no' to Sabrina." That makes sense.

I'm wondering when the witches will start asking why this matriarchal religion has nothing but males at the top. It looks like the show is going to make that an issue, because Blackwood and his boy gang are looking to establish a patriarchy.

In general, this is a really smart, thought-out show.

...A couple of points:
First, ARCHIE'S MADHOUSE was not discontinue d in favor of ARCHIE'S T.V. LAUGHOUT. Rather, it became (among other titles) THE MADHOUSE GLAADS - with Fran the Fan, an...eerr...groupie!
Also, I was quite fond of the couple years' worth early-2000s version of the SABRINA title, pre-the magna rebooting, when Holly G.! drew it, in a post-TV series version of the early-60s approach! Any reprintings of that one?

I finished this series off this afternoon. I love this so much. I thought it was pretty much perfect.

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