[12 June 2014]
On the face of it, there’s nothing about Afterlife With Archie that should make it stand out as the exceptional horror comic it is. It’s founded on a gimmick, smashing together a fairly standard zombie apocalypse story with the world and characters of Riverdale. Yet Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and Francesco Francavilla have managed to turn it into a deeply chilling, moving, intense story without ever straying from that oh-so-simple initial concept. And this is coming from someone whose previous experience with Archie and the gang is practically zero. I can identify several of the important characters and I know the basics of a few key relationships, but Afterlife is the first Archie comicbook I’ve ever actually read. I don’t feel as though I’m missing out on anything by coming in cold, though, because Aguirre-Sacasa and Francavilla don’t rely on the history to make their story work. You could change all the names and the location while keeping everything else the same, and it wouldn’t be any less powerful or impressive a series.
That’s because the Archie cast is one built out of familiar types of characters, and the dynamics between them are similarly easy to recognize and relate to. By leaning into the archetypal nature of the characters and their connections with one another, Aguirre-Sacasa and Francavilla make it easy for the reader to get sucked in immediately, giving us several viable options of characters to whom we might feel connected or with whom we can empathize. From there, the creators need only turn up the heat and raise the stakes slowly but surely—-which the growing zombie horde more or less accomplishes by default—-in order to keep the story moving and the audience engaged, since we’re already heavily invested in the cast. The list of examples I might point to of Aguirre-Sacasa and Francavilla using archetypes to their advantage is incredibly long, but for the sake of focus and space, I’d like to zero in on the three that have felt the most significant to the larger narrative up to this point (though with only one full arc completed, it’s possible the importance of each of these might shift in the future). For now, at least, here are the common, arguably clichéd bits of Afterlife With Archie that tie most directly to the book’s title character, and that have most heavily impacted the story thus far.
The Teenage Love Triangle
If there’s one thing about the Archie continuity with which everyone ought to be familiar, it’s the Betty-Veronica-Archie love triangle. Archie likes both girls, they both like him, and they’re best friends with each other, a situation that sounds strange on paper but is pretty commonplace in fiction and, sadly enough, in real life. Especially with teenagers, who’re typically so amped up on their own puberty that any and every possible romantic encounter seems too good to turn down, and ditto any opportunity to create or engender drama. So the fact that Veronica and Betty are so close with one another does nothing to deter them from being interested in the same boy; on the contrary, their competition likely makes their respective attractions to Archie even stronger, as well as his to each of them. The conflict is part of the appeal for all involved, not despite but because of all the additional stress and hassle it entails. For Archie to permanently land on either lady would be boring for everyone, so they all act upset about it on the surface, while underneath all three of them are glad that the issue never resolves.
That’s where we find them at the beginning of Afterlife With Archie: Betty and Veronica fight for Archie’s attentions and affections, while he switches between the two repeatedly and on a dime. It takes only one short and easily-digestible scene to establish this, since it’s such a quickly recognizable situation. However, once the zombie element is introduced, the ties between these three characters become considerably more complicated and fraught. When thrust into such a serious, dangerous situation, the formerly petty, almost playful romantic dramas become much more significant. Every emotion is heightened when your life is on the line, so a once friendly rivalry can grow quite severe, and Archie’s childish flip-flopping suddenly has the potential to do real harm. If he turned down one girl or another in the past, it would be for a single date or event, and everyone understood there’d be more chances for the girl he didn’t pick in that particular instance to win him over again in the future. Now, there’s no telling how long any of them will survive, so the urgency of locking Archie down increases a hundredfold, and any time he goes with one girl over the other, it hurts that much worse for whomever he did not choose.
Already, Archie has once decided to fall on Betty when he needed a shoulder to cry on in the midst of all the madness, and Veronica, of course, saw this happen as was deeply wounded by it. To her mind, the fact that Archie would pick Betty during such dark and troubling times speaks volumes about which girl he truly prefers. And she may be right about that; after all, when the shit hits the fan, don’t we all want to be with the ones we love most? Yet after a moment of despair and a pep talk from her loyal butler, Veronica finds herself not defeated but strengthened in her resolve. If Betty does, indeed, have some kind of edge right now, then Veronica will find a way to dull it as things move forward. She will prove her worth to the boy she likes and win him over anew. She may’ve been hurt by him on a deeper, more serious level than ever before, but all that means is she’ll fight that much harder to get her way in the end.
At the same time, Betty and Veronica’s friendship isn’t invalidated by the zombies, either. So even after seeing Archie and Betty in a tearful embrace of emotional support, Veronica still views Betty as her best friend, and vice versa, meaning they will continue to rely on each other to survive intact. When Betty sees her parents as zombies, it is Veronica whom she confides in, and for her part, Veronica is very much the supportive, trustworthy, understanding friend in that moment. One minute she’s recommitting herself to defeating Betty in a romantic conflict, and the next they’re on the same side in the larger conflict that surrounds them. It’ll be interesting to see how this dynamic continues to grow more complicated as the story progresses, because surely these two young women cannot maintain such contrary dynamics indefinitely in such a traumatic situation. Eventually, it’ll all have to come to a head one way or the other, and a simple, everyday teenage love triangle might transform itself into a legitimate threat to the safety and well-being of a small band of zombie apocalypse survivors.
The Over-Protective Father (and the Boy his Daughter Likes)
In any high-stress or emergency situation, natural leaders will emerge. In Afterlife With Archie, the obvious choice was the titular teen, and though many have played helpful roles along the way, Archie has very much been the head of the pack thus far, corralling his friends and leading them to the safety of Lodge Manor, the most secure building in Riverdale. Archie knows just how impenetrable the Manor is because it’s Veronica’s family home, and Archie has spent quite a bit of time learning how to sneak in and/or out of the place so he can see her. The reason he has to be so stealthy about it is that her father, Hiram Lodge, disapproves of Archie, another classic relationship that Francavilla and Aguirre-Sacasa exploit wonderfully.
The established mutual lack of respect and shared low opinions of between Hiram and Archie are evident right away, simply because of the nature of how the two characters know one another. As countless teens have before him, Archie feels irked that he can’t win over the parent of the girl he likes, and doesn’t understand why Hiram has to be such a stick in the mud all the time. Hiram, meanwhile, wants only to keep his child safe, and sees Archie as a potential threat to that safety and therefore as a wholly unwelcome presence. But while that connection between them theoretically matters very little when the world is ending and thoughts of teenage romance have to be put on hold, the way they interact with one another is still informed by it. In the face of the incoming zombie horde, Archie and Hiram go from being a rebellious boy and overbearing father to an adventurous field commander and overly-cautious armchair general, butting heads over the best tactics to keep the rest of their troops alive. It begins when Archie chooses Lodge Manor as a place for everyone to hide, and Hiram is begrudgingly forced to accept that decision because it’s made before he can protest. Later, Hiram and Archie clash over whether or not the smartest move is to flee Riverdale when it becomes completely overrun. Hiram believes his home will last as a stronghold, while Archie thinks that staying there means inevitable death, and intensely heated words pass between them. In the end, Archie gets his way, which is to be expected but doesn’t mean Hiram’s at all happy about it. Any tragedies that strike the group while on the road could now potentially be blamed on Archie, at least in Hiram’s eyes, and that’s bound to add tension and create unrest. There may still be opportunities for Hiram to fully take over completely as leader, shoving Archie aside in light of some potential future catastrophe that Hiram can spin to make it look like Archie’s fault. The two of them are seen as being in charge now, Archie because he acts that way and Hiram due mostly to seniority, but their long-running dislike of one another means that they may not be able to peaceably share the responsibility forever.
Kids With Pets
Perhaps the most powerful and important archetype seen up to now is also the most basic: the love and loyalty between a child and his/her pet. In fact, the whole zombie uprising stems from that bond; when Jughead asks Sabrina to raise his dog Hot Dog from the dead after the animal is hit by a car, she agrees reluctantly, and the result is an angry undead Hot Dog showing up and taking a big chomp out of Jughead almost immediately. This in turn makes Jughead into the first human zombie, and everything snowballs from there in normal epidemic fashion. Aguirre-Sacasa and Francavilla both do superb work in those early scenes of Jughead mourning Hot Dog and guilt-tripping Sabrina into helping out. There is a tender hopelessness in Jughead’s voice and face when handling Hot Dog’s mangled body and pleading for his life. The first pet to die is always the hardest to bid farewell, and for Jughead it’s so difficult and agonizing that he’ll even turn to dark witchcraft if it means Hot Dog can stick around. When Sabrina turns Jughead down the first time, he’s even smart enough to play on her own affections for her cat Salem to get her to change her mind. Anyone who’s had a pet can relate to the tremendous sadness that comes with losing one, so when Jughead presses that button for Sabrina, it affects the reader, too. What’s nice about this is it means the entire zombie fiasco starts out with an act of compassion and empathy, so even though the whole thing is very much Jughead and Sabrina’s fault, the audience never feels anything but sympathy for them. We want Jughead to have his dog back just as much as he does, even though we’re far more aware of the consequences of his attempts to make that happen than he could ever be.
Even more moving than Jughead’s devotion to Hot Dog, however, is Archie’s dog Vegas’ devotion to Archie. In a gut-wrenching sequence, the audience sees the day Archie adopted Vegas and several tiny vignettes of the two of them loving one another while, in the present-tense, Vegas sacrifices himself in a fight against zombie Hot Dog so that Archie might live. Aguirre-Sacasa writes what might be the most believable dog voice ever as Vegas makes the conscious decision to give his life for his master’s, even while Archie begs him not to. Because Vegas and Archie have a strong master-pet bond, and because Archie has always cared for and paid attention to Vegas the way you’re supposed to, the choice is, for Vegas, an easy and instinctual one. Yet for Archie and, by extension, the reader, it’s difficult to watch Vegas knowingly make a call that will kill him simply because he’s the kind of dog that would make such a sacrifice. An animal that brave and loyal surely deserves to live, and a kid who’s done such an attentive job of raising a pet unquestionably deserves to keep it. But things are rarely fair when zombies get involved, so Vegas is added to the undead horde and ends up trying to attack Archie only minutes after saving his life.
Archetypes, clichés, and the like are more often bad than good, indicative of lazy or unimaginative writing, too easily dismissed or overlooked by a discerning audience. Afterlife With Archie clearly knows this, but rather than shy away from archetypes because of it, the series finds ways to enhance or wrinkle them to make something new, exciting, and interesting. The foundations of the story and its characters’ relationships with each other are all exceedingly familiar, as is the general notion of a zombie apocalypse, so all the ingredients of Afterlife With Archie might seems stale at a first glance. Yet Aguirre-Sacasa and Francavilla mix them up in just the right amounts to liven them up again, letting the archetypes bring the reader into the fold before turning them all on their heads when the zombies arrive. As this book moves into its second arc and however many will follow after that, I’m anxious to watch these once-common character dynamics become even more specific and bizarre, because things are only going to get worse before they get better, if ever getting better is even in the cards at all.