In the middle of a night, a boy bangs on a door, desperate and scared. His dog lies in his arms, dead or dying, and he just needs the girl in this house to help him. When she opens the doors, she sees that there’s nothing that she can do to revive her friend’s dog and he goes home heartbroken. Against the advice of her two haggish aunts, the girl’s conscience doesn’t let her sleep and she heads to the boys house, figuring that she has to try to do something even if it’s a longshot. She tells him where to put the dog, mutters a few incantations, and tells the boy that his dead dog will be alive again. But what comes back isn’t his dog. It’s not even really alive. And that’s what begins the zombie infestation of Riverdale.
It’s all Jughead’s fault.
Well, not quite because there is plenty of blame to spread around in Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and Francesco Francavilla joint production, Afterlife With Archie #1. Whether it’s Jughead for putting her in that spot, the teenage witch Sabrina who worked magicks that she doesn’t even understand or the reckless driver of the car that hit Jughead’s dog, Aguirre-Sacasa and Francavilla build a web of causes and effects that impact Riverdale in ways that no one ever would have guessed. Aguirre-Sacasa’s story owes more to 1980s horror flicks like Halloween or Nightmare on Elmstreet than to The Walking Dead, one of the main drivers of the zombie comic craze of the last 10 years. It’s hard to even see the squeaky-clean Archie that we know in this story as Betty and Veronica vie for Archie’s attention at a Halloween dance wearing a Vampirella and a skimpy nurse’s outfit. Maybe Archie is still that squeaky clean because he runs off to find Reg and Jughead rather than be with the girls who are fighting for him. But this isn’t a sanitized world of childish comics. Aguirre-Sacasa is writing a teen story rather than an Archie story.
Just as this issue doesn’t read like an Archie comic, it also doesn’t look like one either. Francavilla captures enough of the visual clues to let us know that we’re looking at Archie or Jughead without having to draw in any kind of house style. Free from that, he draws in his usual heavy and shadowy style that evokes old black and white horror films. Even with the color (and more on that in a moment,) Francavilla works in these bright open panels and then these dark, confining and ominous black spaces that mirror how those old films could use their black and white limitations to create something that looks so familiar but is filled with its own mysteries and enigmas.
Heightening the tension of the story, Francavilla uses these vivid, contrasting colors, often within the same panel tiers and even the same panels to create these competing forces within a small page. His hot reds and cool blues fight each other in the image, making us feel anxious. These colors don’t blend together so there’s always a visual struggle that’s happening that’s working behind Aguirre-Sacasa’s story, quietly reinforcing the mounting terror. Even when Archie does appear, his flame red hair always stands out in the scene, bringing the attention to him (our hero?) as it sets him apart from the upcoming zombie invasion. Looking at the artwork, you’re just waiting for something to jump out from Francavilla’s shadowy corners.
In Afterlife with Archie #1, we’re seeing a writer and an artist at play. They’re getting to subvert Archie and the cast of Riverdale as they can stray a bit away from the norm of these characters’ stories. They get to have them do things like raise the dead and wear Vampirella costumes trying to turn Archie on. They get to die and become zombies themselves. They’re also getting to play with the cliches of horror stories and movies, turning those frightening tropes on to a fairly clean and homogenous cast of characters. As Aguirre-Sacasa and Francavilla blend these different story elements together, you just don’t know what’s going to happen next. You don’t know what new horror is going to show up around the next corner.