It isn’t such a far creative leap, apparently, from Jughead to the Undead.
Archie Andrews and the rest of the eerily eternal youngsters at Riverdale High have been deftly riding the trends for more than 70 years — from burgers and shakes at Pop Tate’s, to texting and tweeting on smartphones. So it’s only natural that they now sink their teeth into…zombies.
In “Afterlife With Archie,” perhaps the most popular redhead in comics has more to worry about than choosing between Betty and Veronica — assuming Archie’s favorite gal-pals make it out of this series alive.
Riverdale has seen better days. Hotdog, Jughead’s pooch, has just been hit by a car. Jughead goes to the one person he thinks can help: Sabrina the Teenage Witch. Sabrina acts against the wishes of her powerful witch-aunts but fails to revive Hotdog — who becomes one undead dog.
The zombie dog goes home to Jughead, who thinks his canine pal has come back to life. Jughead gets bitten instead, turning into a zombie himself — and thus launches the contagion/horror tale in “Afterlife With Archie.”
“Archie and his gang have alway been my favorite comic-book characters — the Fantastic Four are a close second,” writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa said. “So to get the chance to tell this kind of story with them has been, well, it’s a cliche to say a dream come true, but that’s what it feels like.”
“The horror stuff is obviously a lot of fun,” continues the “Afterlife With Archie” writer. “The zombies, the witches, the other creatures of the night that will start popping up soon, but the real thrill has been telling these weird, deeply emotional, personal stories with these iconic characters. Treating them as real people, in extreme situations. Peeling back the layers to reveal their true cores. That’s been the best part for a lifelong Archie fan like me.”
Compared with other Archie books, there is a much more mature tone in “Afterlife With Archie” (the publisher says that the title is rated Teen+ and that Archie Comics is not targeting children with this title). Yet many of the things people expect from an Archie comic are still there:
Veronica’s father despises Archie with a passion. Reggie is always up to something. And Jughead is always an arm’s-length from a burger.
Aguirre-Sacasa says the iconic rivalry between Betty and Veronica is a lot more intense in his story, given “Afterlife With Archie’s” teen rating.
“Betty and Veronica are best friends in ‘Afterlife With Archie,’ no question, but that friendship will be tested majorly during our second arc, ‘Betty RIP,” explains the Harvey Award-winning writer. “In Issue 5, there’s a great scene between Betty and Archie that Veronica witnesses that is a real game-changer. [With the threat of death imminent] the girls are basically like, ‘We don’t know how much longer any of us is going to be here, Archie — you need to decide, once and for all, which of us do you love. It’s endgame for the love triangle.”
The mature themes meant that the standard template for fun — and the visual style most familiar to those who read Archie Comics — wouldn’t be applicable with this series.
Eisner-winning artist Francesco Francavilla took on the challenge of giving Archie and his friends an updated, more mature and darker look for “Afterlife With Archie.”
“We needed a more realistic approach to the design look of all the Riverdale crew to make this work as a horror book, so I was very happy we got carte blanche from [executive] Jon Goldwater and everyone at Archie from the get-go,” Francavilla said. “That definitely added a whole new level of fun approaching this book.”
Despite the new look in the zombie stories, Francavilla says that it’s still obvious who’s who.
“Even with my more realistic approach, all the characters are still very recognizable and faithful to the original designs” — facial features, hair styles, clothes, etc., says Francavilla. “Some characters were a little harder to render in my style — Jughead with his pointy nose — but in the end, everything fell in place like clockwork.”
Such other Archie characters as Nancy and Ginger are also around in “Afterlife,” but not in the same way. Nancy, who in the Archie books is normally seen dating Chuck Clayton, is instead in a secret relationship with Ginger. When asked whether the recent popularity of the gay Archie character Kevin Keller paved the way for this new situation, Aguirre-Sacasa says he understands how that can be assumed, but that wasn’t specifically the case.
“I think Kevin Keller paved the way for a lot of things at Archie, including the entire ‘Afterlife With Archie’ comic,” Aguirre-Sacasa says. “But in terms of Nancy and Ginger, I wanted to include these characters and I wanted to do something different with them. So I thought: ‘What if they’re secretly dating?’ More for the story possibilities than anything else. What will happen to their secret relationship now that they’re in the middle of a zombie apocalypse?
“Historically, Nancy has dated Chuck Clayton in the main Archie-verse, so we’re definitely going to be playing the tension between him, Nancy and Ginger in upcoming issues,” the writer continues. “And Kevin, who’s been in the background the first few issues, will also be a part of that story.”
So is writing horror for the Archie gang the same as trying to write Spider-Man for Broadway, as Aguirre-Sacasa did with “Turn Off the Dark”?
“Oh, wow, the biggest difference is that one is told through live performance, and the other is told through sequential, static images,” Aguirre-Sacasa said. “On Broadway, it’s one story, told over the course of 2 1/2 hours. In comic books, each issue is its own chapter, but you’re hopefully telling your story over months, or if you’re lucky, years.
“At their core, they’re both forms of storytelling. You have characters with big needs, big obstacles, villains, set-pieces. And in most cases, in comic books and in Broadway shows, you have a love story you’re following.”
As for creating an undead Riverdale, Aguirre-Sacasa says that bringing in the horror genre “does seem incredibly obvious. Teenagers and horror go hand-in-hand like peanut butter and jelly.”
So is anyone safe in Riverdale as hungry zombies are unleashed?
“No, unfortunately,” said Aguirre-Sacasa. “And we have a finite cast, so people have to stop dying soon.”