Sunday, 25 October 2015

Countdown to Halloween: A Look At... Afterlife With Archie: Escape From Riverdale

Afterlife with Archie – sp named not because it has zombies in it but because it makes you feel dead inside

Here’s some new information for you: despite being very English and somewhat cynical I like Archie, I’ve liked Archie since…I dunno, I can’t remember a time I didn’t like Archie and the Riverdale Gang, as a kid I watched the re-runs on Cartoon Network, as a teenager I collected the comics, as an adult I just read ‘em when I want some light entertainment. When I had my massive trade paperback cull while downsizing my old comic collection all my Archie stuff survived, I have mini-busts of Betty & Veronica proudly on show in my bedroom when almost everything comic-related that isn’t also related to ninja reptiles has been long since removed (due mostly to emotional baggage). I hadn’t been reading much of Archie since the excellent Archie Marries arc though; mostly because I have no desire to see the characters desperately scramble for relevancy or teaming up with anyone they can get the licence for – especially Glee, which I hate with a fiery passion. I liked Kevin Keller, though I think it did show just how behind-the-times Archie’s bigwigs were that they thought bringing in an openly gay character into Archie made them ‘21st Century’ when y’know, we’ve had openly gay characters in most mediums (and most comic companies) for decades. I’m also totally on Team Betty.

Part of my ignoring ‘desperate to be relevant’ Archie included ignoring Afterlife with Archie, a concept I thought was absolutely laughable (I was wrong, there’s nothing funny in this book at all), I only bothered to read the first story-arc ‘Escape From Riverdale’, which we’re taking A Look At here, because I’ve been enjoying Chilling Adventures of Sabrina and Archie Volume 2. I’ve now read every issue published so far (not many, they’ve only put out 9 issues since late 2013) and I’ve been looking for the perfect way to describe it, and come up with this: it’s like injecting Radiohead into your penis – it may be well written and very good quality but it’s still uncomfortable, painful, depressing and horrible. Let’s make this clear, this book plays everything completely straight, it’s a drama, there’s little to no black humour like Zombieland or Shaun of the Dead, there’s no knowing winks at the audience about how mad this is because it’s happening to Archie & Pals, this is just the Walking Dead with Archie characters and iconography. Now are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.

Escape From Riverdale (Afterlife with Archie issue 1)
Quick Summary: It’s the witching hour and someone has come to the door of Sabrina the Teenage Witch – it’s Jughead Jones, someone has run over Hot Dog (yes we’re killing off a cute animal on page 2). Sabrina’s aunts can do nothing for the pooch, it’s already dead, Jughead asks them to bring him back and refuse, Sabrina gives her condolences “I’m so, so sorry Jughead. I know how much you loved him” “y-yeah, as much as you love Salem, Sabrina” – that’s enough for Sabrina to get the Necronomicon, go to Jughead and rip-off Pet Semetary bring the dog back to life – it has begun. Pissed, Hilda and Zelda send Sabrina to the nether-realm for a year as punishment. At school the next day Betty and Veronica fight over who’s taking Archie to the Halloween Fancy Dress Party, and Reggie is down in the dumps because he accidentally hit Hot Dog with his car and Jughead has stayed home waiting for Hot Dog to resurrect, that night gets his wish but Hot Dog came back different, wrong, he bites Jughead (yes this is going where you think it is). The next day Archie calls ‘round to see his best friend, who is ill, infected with the zombie virus, and Hot Dog is locked away under the house. That night, at the party, everyone’s having a lovely time, but Jughead has risen and is coming, first his parents, then Principal Weatherbee and Miss Grundy, and then Dilton announces “hey everyone, Jughead’s here – and holy spit, his costume is amazing!” Contagion is imminent.

I should really have realised this wouldn’t be a fun read when they killed Hot Dog on page 2 and there wasn’t a hint of ‘Orko sucks’ style comedy about it. But before I start being all doom and gloom I do want to say how much I like Francesco Francavilla’s art, it’s perfectly suited to the story with lots of heavy shading – both cross-hatching and block – with a realistic style that makes the book jarringly different from Archie of old, this isn’t a cartoon his artwork says, this is a horror film. He reminds me a little of David Mazzucchelli (Batman: Year One, Daredevil: Born Again) and although he clearly has a very ‘indie’ style (noticeably and I don’t doubt intentionally similar to the one used in The Walking Dead) there’s just a hint of the European artists who turned in art for the ‘sexy’ horror anthologies in the 70s like Vampirella and Misty.  Also there’s nothing wrong with the writing at all, it’s well paced, the build-up is slow enough to build tension but fast enough so it doesn’t get boring or make you feel like you’ve bought half an issue (or a fifth of an issue if Bendis is writing), Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa (who wrote the aforementioned shitpile that was Archie Meets Glee) has a great grip on the characters although Betty and Veronica are a little bit too mean to each other but I suppose ‘in the real world’ (this series is very much going for a real world approach to the Riverdale gang, despite the fact that it has fucking zombies all over it) they probably would be. The Halloween party also starts off a long list of delightful nods to past Archie continuity with Veronica dressed as Vamperonica and Archie as Pureheart the Powerful.

Now the doom and gloom – just to reiterate – Reggie ran over Hot Dog, Sabrina was banished to a hellish dimension by her own aunts, Jughead is a zombie who has killed his parents and then savagely attacked Mr Weatherbee and Miss Grundy (note that we don’t see Weatherbee, The Jones or Grundy actually killed on-panel, allowing your mind to fill in the blanks with far worse horrors). It’s horrible, it’s shown to be horrible, it’s supposed to be horrible, it’s supposed to be jarring but it IS jarring, it’s too jarring, and it’s all in one issue – good pacing from a story-telling point of view but a lot to take in in one go, we’ve had a complete shift in tone to what we’re used to and four characters have died, all of which we’ve known for years, one of which is a main character (and often comic relief at that) and is not fucking Archie no matter what Hooper X says is a key supporting cast member.

Dance of the Dead (Afterlife with Archie issue 2)
Quick Summary: As chaos erupts inside the School Gym, Cheryl and Jason Blossom arrive to crash, a terrified senior however tells them to flee and it’s enough for Cheryl to convince Jason to go back home, also incest undertones, in Archie. Cut to 12:30 and Veronica is telling her father what happened inside that Gym: a delighted Big Ethel met her Juggie, and he bit her, then he ate her, in front of everyone, while Veronica laughed thinking it was a joke. At Pop’s Ginger and Nancy argue, Ginger wants them to come out like Kevin did, Nancy is scared to, then she has something to really be scared of – Jughead’s dad comes in. Back at the school Jughead went for Veronica, they never liked each other, but Archie saved her and he, Reggie and Moose dragged him away. Then Ethel came back, and it was Veronica’s turn to protect someone – Betty – but Ethel wouldn’t stay dead, then Weatherbee and Grundy arrived and everyone lost their shit. Dilton and Chuck however – urber nerds that they be – kept calm and took a party of Kevin, Midge, Betty & Veronica back to find Archie, Reggie and Moose, united in the locker room they fled to a safe place of Archie’s suggestion. Veronica finishes her story, and explains why she’s been telling it at all – the safe place Archie thought of? Lodge Manor, their home.


This issue I found less upsetting, which is a little odd as this is the one where the all carnage begins. Issue one did its job of making me think anyone could and would die, killing Jughead and Mr Weatherbee’ll do that to a reader, but this issue at least gave me some hope by having all the name characters introduced survive all the way through its 22 pages and I was especially thankful that Cheryl Blossom (my favourite Archie character) survived at least this issue; watching Jughead kill Ethel Muggs ON-PANEL and then seeing a splash page of blood running down her arm onto her apple (she was dressed as Snow White) was utterly horrible but it was only one character and so the issue never reached the overload of tragedy issue 1 did. It also introduced something I’m curious about – a secret gay relationship between Nancy (the black girl) and Ginger (the Latino girl with the highlights), as far as I was aware Nancy was completely devoted to Chuck and Ginger was a crappy replacement for my beloved Cheryl Blossom – I thought I might be missing something as like I say I’ve not been paying super close attention to Archie for a while but all my research points to this being an invention for this book.  People seem happy about it, but mostly they seem happy about it simply because it’s a lesbian relationship in Archie (it’s their first) and not really bothering to think beyond that – on that note I have no problem with outing a couple of girls in Riverdale and am totally glad we finally have some gay girls there and frankly I’ll take anything that makes Ginger more of a character but it really seems to be the opposite of how both characters have been portrayed up to this point – that is, painfully straight: Nancy’s been a dedicated girlfriend and Ginger was supposed to be Cheryl Blossom 2.0. I can’t help but feel these two got gayed up more because they’re B-to-C-listers and RAS needed them to have something to do in the story rather than because RAS honestly thought there was enough subtext around that they were gay, or at least Bi (but the implication seems to be that they’re both gay). I think I'd actually be happier if they were confirmed as Bi - which leaves me open to all kinds of accusations - but it's simply because it would work better with their previous characterisations and stories, i know that in real life people have serious straight relationships then give up on all that shit and identify as gay for the rest of their lives, having nothing but same sex relationships thereafter and all without a hint that they may have been been interested in the same sex during that previous 'straight' period and we accept that fine, but this isn't real life and in the scripted and planned world of fiction I expect changes to stay constant with previous depictions and stories or at least give me some an explanation as to why the sudden change, this doesn't do that, it acts like Ginger has always been out and proud, that Nancy has always been conflicted and we should know this. Still I’d like see it brought over to Archie Volume 2 and given an arc, that's a crappy retcon and my brain does't accept it, Nancy tries to date Chuck but finds she’s gay and eventually falls for Ginger. Ginger could even be trying to seduce one of the girls from the Betty-Veronica-Archie triangle rather than Archie to differentiate her from Cheryl Blossom and put a new spin on that bloody rehashed to death plot. 
And yes I was talking about this to avoid reading more Afterlife with Archie.    

Note: From issue 2 onwards we start to get ‘From the Vault’ reprints from Chilling Adventures in Sorcery, a short-lived horror anthology ala Tales from the Crypt that started off as the more Archie-styled Chilling Adventures in Sorcery As Told By Sabrina (and is the origin of the name of her new title Chilling Adventures of Sabrina). These are great to see and I really appreciate them getting a reprint but I’m not going to Look At ‘em here because they have nothing to do with anything.    

Sleepover (Afterlife with Archie issue 3)
Quick Summary:  Mr Lodge tells us how he came to Riverdale, how his wife came to join him, pregnant, and met Hilda and Zelda Spellman on the train, and they foresaw Veronica’s birth, we also learn that Hermione Lodge is dead – and risen from the grave. But it’s only a dream, Lodge awakes to find Smithers, faithful butler, armed with Axe, to update him that Riverdale is fucked but they are secure, they’re going to wait it out. Archie however is not, in a flashback he’s breaking out to find his family. In the present Veronica brings Betty to the pool, where everyone but Midge and Moose are trying to ignore their worries. Where are Midge and Moose? Worrying because Midge got scratched, Midge is trying to convince Moose (and herself) that it’s fine, they lay together and tell each other they love each other. Archie exist the sewers in front of Pop’s – to find it ablaze, Nancy and Ginger burnt it to make sure Mr Jones and Pop stayed dead, they hotwired Pop’s motorcycle and went to check on their families. While Archie escapes from a zombified mayor Martinez, a zombified Moose and Midge fall into the pool and attack the swimming teens, thankfully Mr Lodge and Smithers are watching and seal them in the pool before any more can be infected. Returning home Archie is pleased to hear the sound of Vegas, only it’s not Vegas, it’s Hot Dog.

Killing off Midge and Moose was just fucking gratuitous, ‘one of the survivors is infected’ IS a standard zombie plot as is ‘our safe house isn’t as safe as we think’ so I get it, but  we’ve already lost Jughead, to then kill off two b-listers when Chuck and Dilton are around to play this ‘infected survivor’ role seems over-the-top, it’s almost like they were killed off because RAS didn’t want to use them or something silly like that (surely not?) – one of the two would have been acceptable but both is too much. To make this worse we don’t see Moose die at the hands of the girl he obsessively loves/abuses, so we don’t even get the of satisfaction Midge killing her over-protective, stifling boyfriend (if that’s your thing) or the pathos of seeing a man die by his lover’s hand as his limited intelligence tries to grasp it (if that’s your thing). This isn’t just me complaining about how horrible this book is to experience, that’s me complaining about bad writing.
On the horrible to experience thing we lose Pop and the Mayor too; killing then zombifying then burning Pop Tate. Pop. If one good thing comes out of me reading this book (twice) it’s that I’m warming to this version of Ginger, these panels did it I think:

She’ll get even cooler as the story goes on, though not quite as cool as Smithers or Kevin. This issue also reveals that Veronica’s mum died at some point before the story began, the first real big deviation from established continuity because as far as I know, Ronnie’s mum was alive and well when the old continuity ended, in fact she’d been getting progressively younger and hotter. I thought this might be a reference to Hermione (it’s really hard to use that name and not think of Emma Watson) having disappeared in the comics (she never appeared all that often)? I don’t have anything else of interest to say about this issue, other than the cliff-hanger was great, if not horrible for reminding us that Hot Dog is now a zombie.

Archibald Rex (Afterlife with Archie issue 4)
Quick Summary: 10 years ago we see the day Archie picked Vegas to be his dog, and his mother remembered when her dog, Spotty, died. In the (horrible) present Vegas leaps through a window to protect his master from the zombified Hot Dog and we hear the dog’s inner monologue as he gives his life for Archie Andrews. Inside the redhead finds his mother in her room, in shock, but his dad went downstairs because he heard scratching (yes this is going exactly where you think). At the home of the Blossoms Jason is more than happy to stay in, the two of them, forever but Cheryl isn’t. Back at the Andrews residence Fred Andrews pursues his wife and son into Archie’s room, then Archie takes a baseball to him; having lead his zombiefied father out to the landing and accidentally dropped him down the stairs, then Archie, fucking ARCHIE, beats his father’s brains in with a baseball bat, repeating ‘I love you’. Speeding away in Betsy to escape Zombie!Vegas and Zombie!Hot Dog Archie breaks down in tears. At the foot of the hill the dogs meet up with Jugdead and he points the way to their next target, Lodge Mansion.

This is easily the worst of the arc’s issues, it’s also the best written and probably the best drawn, such is the paradox that is Afterlife with Archie. Vegas gets a Crowning Moment of Awesome and so does Betsy, Archie’s old Ford Model T Jalopy. But it’s also harrowing as fuck and really takes things too far into The Walking Dead territory; hearing what a dog is thinking as it gives it life for its master is unnecessarily sad enough as it is without it being Archie Andrews’ dog, and then to have Archie beat his own father to death it’s just…it’s too much…I’m not saying it’s gone ‘too far’ because this is a zombie story, technically there is no too far, and a standard zombie trope like a character having to kill one of his zombiefied relatives is nowhere near too far for a zombie story but I will say it’s become too ill-fitting for the franchise it’s a part of. Up until now we’ve had lots of death, lots of once happy cheerful cartoon characters dying in traumatic ways but a) this is a zombie story and b) the only times these cartoon characters have done anything horrific is after they’ve become zombies, when they’re not ‘them’ anymore, it’s not them doing it, now we’ve had Archie beat his father to death and he’s not a Zombie (well his dad was) and you could argue that it goes the other way, Archie didn’t kill him, he just re-killed him, but it’s still Archie Andrews, a beloved cartoon character from a gag strip doing something terrible involving one of his parents without any mind control or zombification or whatever – and Archie Comics, the custodian of these characters, okayed it. Archie Comics have been staid and boring for far too long, I’m not denying this, their more recent attempts to move into modern storytelling (and by modern I mean, ‘not the 1950s’) has come far too late and at times have felt cynical and half-hearted, but this isn’t what Archie needed to be taken seriously, Archie volume 2 is what Archie needed to be taken seriously, Kevin Keller volume 2 was what Archie needed to be taken seriously, Ian Flynn was what Archie needed to be taken seriously. This is just upsetting, and I know it’s a zombie story and it’s supposed to be upsetting but this is still upsetting, and makes me worry that Archie can’t be trusted with its characters – as if Archie vs Sharknado wasn’t a good enough indicator – that they’ll put them in any situation a writer gives them if they think it’ll make them look less like the Archie Comics of old. 
On a good note there’s more nice references stuffed into this one – the flashback incorporates Spotty (the Andrews’ dog from Little Archie) and Betsy is Archie and his mum’s salvation.

Exodus (Afterlife with Archie issue 5)
Quick Summary: for the final chapter we follow Smithers, Veronica’s faithful Butler – time has passed and our players have all assembled, Smithers brings tea to Mary Andrews and overhears the reunion between Nancy and Chuck –featuring an angry Ginger who all but tells him she’s in a secret romance with his girlfriend. Smithers sees Kevin Kelly to the games room where he finds Reggie is struggling with mourning Moose and Midge, he tries to comfort him but Reggie lashes out, calling him a pervert – Kevin gives him exactly the response the intolerant little prick deserves – he punches him. In Dilton’s room Jason argues with Cheryl Blossom, who has chosen to room with Dilton, she says the status quo is over and he should get over it – more incest hints, delightful. Veronica meanwhile finds Betty comforting Archie as he confines in her what he did to his dad, she tells him he’s a hero, Smithers comforts Ronnie as she cries on the stairs, heartbroken that she he went to Betty rather than her.  At the pool it seems that Reggie is going to let Midge out until Dilton interrupts him and then the horde of Riverdale zombies (led by Jugdead) interrupts them. Surrounded as they are, Archie tries to convince Mr Lodge to leave Lodge Manor but he won’t have it, then Smithers steps in and gets his master to relent. With the grate Archie used to sneak out (he usd to use it to sneak in, to see Veronica) last time blocked by Betty’s zombified parents they set off the fireworks meant for the Fourth fo July display (sponsored every year by Lodge Industries) and escape, Ginger and Kevin wielding bows and arrows Kevin found in the games room and taking out a zombified Coach Kleats. The group leave Riverdale, possibly never to return.

Thank fuck it’s over. And it ends on a semi-positive note, sure they’ve left Riverdale but they’re being proactive and actually being quite good at being proactive, we get some slight moments of levity as well, with the following exchange between Ginger and Kevin being the funnest thing in the book:

Speaking of Kevin, it’s really great to see Kevin being awesome throughout this entire issue, I was very sceptical when I saw the media frenzy around Archie’s first gay character “oh look, Archie’s got another Token” I thought “They’ve already got their token black person, their token black couple, their token Mexican, now they’re getting a token gay – in 2010, revolutionary” and although he did get praise from the LGBT community again that praise seemed to be as much about there being a gay character in Archie as it was about Kevin as a character. But Kevin was great pretty much from the start, turning down Veronica made me like him, turning her down because he was gay and being open about that made me like him even more, and he’s been cool ever since, not really being any kind of overt stereotype while at the same time not trying in any way to look straight (my only complaint about Archie volume 2 is that they’ve made Kevin a bit more of a stereotypical gay best friend). The cynic in me still thinks he got his own title so Archie could get press out of having a gay title character but he was very popular and it was a fun book that actually did a pretty good job of saying ‘look kids, gay people are normal – and cool - too, don’t grow up into bigoted fuckheads’. True to form he’s the coolest character in Afterlife with Archie, where they’ve given him a bow and arrow so he can always be posed to look badass. But he does have competition, this issue is all from Smithers point of view (and brings in a number of elements from Little Archie) and the butler rocks, I’ve been fond of Smithers for a good while – I’ve preferred the Betty & Veronica titles to the Archie and Jughead titles since I was a teen so I’ve got to see him quite a lot and I’ve always been confident he was secretly kick-ass similar to Jarvis or Alfred and this book has proven it, his relationship with Veronica was also very well done, he legitimately cares for her (someone has to). I am however sick of the twincest thing with the Blossoms, luckily that won’t last much longer, unluckily it’s replaced by far more horrible things – as is the way of this book.  


And that’s Escape from Riverdale. Don’t read this book – I’m serious, don’t, it’s well written (mostly) and well-drawn, but it’s not enjoyable, it’s horrible and upsetting – and before you (even though you don’t exist) say “it’s horror it’s not supposed to be” horseshit, the horror genre endures because people enjoy being scared, there’s a thrill in it, there is no thrill in Afterlife with Archie – unless you’re one of those desperate to be edgy types who hates Archie for being twee and wants to enjoy them all being killed off, in which case go right ahead, but you’re almost certainly a prick so I don’t care what you do, how you spend your time or how it makes you feel.  This is almost entirely joyless gloom; fine for The Walking Dead (a book I think is utterly great because it’s so depressing), but completely ill-suited for Archie, doing horrible things to loveable and loved characters for the sake of shaking off an image of being stuck in the 50s. If you want to see how to do this sort of thing right, go play Epic Mickey if you want to read horror and Archie combined go read Chilling Adventures of Sabrain, if you want to read an Archie book that isn’t anything like the twee Archie you remember go read Archie volume 2 by Mark Waid, it doesn’t have the same amount of continuity porn but it won’t make you feel numb after your first read-through. Oh and no it doesn’t get any better – next issue sees Sabrina trapped in an ethereal mental ward and becoming the bride of Cthulu and upcoming issues include Cheryl Blossom possibly murdering someone and the ghost of Jughead talking to the ghost of his dead little sister Jellybean who was kidnapped and killed by Sabrina’s aunts. Spoilers.

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