Afterlife With Archie #5
“Escape from Riverdale pt. 5- Exodus”
Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and Donald E. Glut (writers), Francesco Francavilla and Vicente Alcazar (artists). Cover by Francavilla.
Well. That certainly was unexpected. When I saw the title Afterlife With Archie, I figured I was in for the usual campy Archie fare, maybe something silly like a half-baked Twilight parody, or a Universal Monsters pastiche. You know, something wholesome and well-meaning, but without any real bite to it.
How very wrong I was.
Afterlife With Archie is one of the most intense zombie comics this side of the Walking Dead… and while it may not be able to go quite as far as that book can under its “mature readers” tag, Afterlife more than makes up for it with the emotional cache that comes from the familiarity of such established characters. The story is told with a completely serious tone, with a moody, muted art style and some surprisingly heavy subject matter. To wit – the zombie outbreak that has ravaged Riverdale began with “patient zero” Jughead, who convinced Sabrina the Teenage Witch to use dark magic to resurrect his dead pet Hot Dog, with predictably disastrous results.
By this point in the story, the rest of the main Archie Comics gang and a handful of ancillary characters have holed themselves up in the Lodge family mansion, which is surrounded on all sides by hordes of the ravenous undead. Archie is dealing with the traumatic aftermath of having had to bludgeon his dead father to a bloody pulp in order to save his mother’s life, Reggie has been emotionally crushed by the death and zombification of his long-time crush Midge Klump, and our unlikely point-of-view character, Smithers the Butler, is torn between his vow to protect Veronica with his life, versus his professional dedication to not interfering with the Lodge family’s lives. That is some heavy shit, and although the dark tone makes this initially almost unrecognizable as an Archie comic (if I read the same book without character names, I’d not sure I’d ever clue in to the connection), the core character traits are all there, and everyone’s behaviour and reactions to the horrors around them make perfect sense… with one possible exception.
There’s a scene part way through this issue when Reggie lashes out at Kevin Keller (Riverdale’s most visible openly gay character), calling him nasty and perverted. Keller responds pretty much exactly how I would expect him to –
Now, this scene initially bothered me quite a bit. Reggie Mantle has always been the token antagonist within the Archie Comics cannon, but as far as I know, he’s never been portrayed as being bigoted or homophobic. Now, that might largely be because gay people basically didn’t exist in Riverdale until Kevin Keller showed up in 2010, but one of the most interesting things about Keller’s introduction to the Archie Comics world was that he was universally accepted in Riverdale. Archie Comics CEO Jon Goldwater famously said at the time that “Riverdale has always been a safe world for everyone”… though of course, in Afterlife With Archie, it’s no longer safe for anyone.
At first, it felt as though Reggie was made a homophobic asshole simply because that’s an accepted element of the post-Eli Roth horror world… the survivor/victims of modern horror are inevitably unlikable, at least to an extent, so the audience gains a sense of catharsis when they’re threatened or killed, as opposed to the likable protagonists of classic horror and slasher movies, who the viewers would identify with. Rereading this issue though, there’s more to it than that… Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa goes out of his way to establish the emotional strain that Reggie is under when he lashes out at Kevin, and it’s unclear whether what he says are representative of actual prejudices (acknowledged or not), or if he was just taking the most logical cheap shot in an attempt to alienate someone who was reaching out to him. The scene is still troubling to me when seen in a narrative vacuum, but since I don’t know the larger context, I’ll reserve judgement for now.
Ultimately, this comic is absolutely superb, far exceeding any expectations I ever might have had going in. I don’t say this often, and I guarantee I’ve never said this about an Archie Comics publication before, but immediately after I finish writing this review, I plan to go out and track down the issues of this series that I’ve missed. The quality of Afterlife With Archie is one of the most genuine surprises I’ve had in a long time, though in a way, it shouldn’t have been… at a time when many people see the comic industry as being at a point of stagnation, Archie Comics has been the one publisher as of late that has been consistently pushing its boundaries and limitations. I just never would have though that they would push so far, and to such remarkable effect.