DisComfort Food Comics: Afterlife With Archie by Brandon Masters

Teenagers and horror go together like peanut butter and chocolate. Various slasher and horror movies are chock filled with teenagers to be slaughtered, or have various ratings-appropriate romps while they fight against Freddie Kreuger, Michael Meyers, or some other villain beyond imagination. Some of them die, some of them live, and no one is safe until the final credits roll.

What if comic creators took America’s favorite teenagers, and threw them against one of the popular monster trends of the day?

Why, you’d have Afterlife with Archie! The zombie apocalypse has come to Riverdale, and in a most unexpected way. Coming from the demented minds of Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, Francesco Francavilla, and Jack Morelli, Afterlife with Archie started publishing in September of 2013 when the most anyone thought of the company was how east it was to find their archives on newsstands, or how safe their books could be for kids. Sonic the Hedgehog was a massive hit for the company, quality be damned, and they had just expanded their video game library by including Capcom’s own Mega Man

2010’s Life with Archie had expanded the company into drama, featuring two parallel stories of worlds where Archie had married Betty or Veronica, resulting in two different explorations of how the comic could mature over the course of 37 issues. However, the comic company was still considered family friendly, despite having left the Comics Code Authority’s rules and regulations of comics in 2011.

That would soon change with this comic, with a title lampooning Life with Archie.

Aside from the incredibly moody cover greeting curious readers, featuring a Zombie Jughead, the interiors are a dark black with blood splatter coating the pages. It truly creates this eerie mood, and that mood is only heightened with the introductory page.

The book opens with Jughead running to the door of Sabrina Spellman, local friendly witch, to beg for help. Someone ran over his faithful pal and pet Hot Dog with a car, and Jughead is desperate to save him. Sabrina’s witch aunts cannot do anything for the dog, as he has passed away. Seeing how distraught Jughead is, however, Sabrina steals a book of spells and sneaks out to help her friend.

The book is already leaving an impression on the reader by avoiding standard Archie color palettes. Flesh tones exist, but they fall by the wayside with strong reds, blues, and oranges coating an entire page. It really feels like an experimental horror movie, and strongly lends to the idea that something is dangerously wrong with this world, or will be soon.

Jughead buries Hot Dog at the banks of the local river, standing in for the River Styx. A spell is delivered, and lightning strikes the location where Hot Dog lies. Sabrina mentions it could take a day or two for results, and he should wait at home… and at her own home, Sabrina suffers the consequences for her deeds. Her aunts turn into ghouls and rip away her powers, seal her mouth closed, and leave her stranded for a year in the nether-realm. They promise her she won’t be missing anything… important.

At school, the color palate does include flesh tones, but still has splashes of deep blues, purples, and reds to shade the world rather than use the standard color palettes that comic fans are used to. Archie tries to chat up his rival Reggie, who seems down in the dumps, but it turns out that Reggie is suffering from some extreme guilt over… killing Hot Dog the previous night.

Ah.

Jughead has stayed home for the day, looking out for any sign of his revived friend. Hot Dog does return, but he returns in a way most horror fans saw coming.

Jughead, bitten by a zombified version of his beloved dog, is now infected and dying. Readers know this, but Archie and his friends haven’t a clue. It does look like Jughead might know, however, and urges Archie to stay away.

It’s Halloween that night, however, and everyone has a costume to wear. Archie references the past of the franchise by dressing up as the superhero Pureheart, Veronica goes as a slightly less skimpy Vampirella, and Betty goes as a sexy nurse. Other members of the cast can be seeing referencing other horror franchises, like super-nerd Dilton dressed up as Freddy Kreuger. Principal Waldo Wetherbee and teacher Geraldine Grundy reminisce about Halloweens past, and the book even references the original Night of the Living Dead by making Waldo a massive fan of zombie movies and teasing Geraldine about it. For characters who are often just put-upon adults, or foes to be outwitted in the comics, it’s really fun to see them given a little bit of fleshing out.

Before something devours that flesh, anyway. While familiar teenage party drama plays out in the comic, something has been approaching the party all night. Something has returned, using Jughead’s corpse as a vehicle. And hoooo boy, does it look good.

Zombies in this book look utterly fantastic. Decaying bodies, physical damage, shreds of clothes, there’s very little that doesn’t look amazing about them. Whenever the zombies are on page, the palette just flips to black, white and red, and it makes the comic look strikingly horrific when compared to the black and white plainess of something like The Walking Dead or Marvel’s recent-in-memory Marvel Zombies with their dull and flat colors.

The second issue came out in January 2014, and it looked like the series was on a quarterly rotation to allow for the artwork to be the best it could be. Issue two wound up being set on a flashback concept, with one character who had survived the incident at the halloween dance reflecting on if they had only acted sooner, or reacted to what had happened, then maybe things could have gone differently. It’s the stereotypical rich girl Veronica, remembering how the first attack started. Ethyl Muggs, Jughead’s semi love interest, had approached the zombie as Snow White, wanting to know how he got that awesome makeup. And then he ate her.

With this recollection are interludes with other longtime Archie cast members, like Cheryl Blossom and Pops, as the zombie infection spreads. They provide some nice moments of fan favorites and how they fell, or how they would survive the opening infections. As Veronica’s flashback carries on, however, we realize that not everyone is going to be playing the horror movie role of the clueless hero.

To the credit of the creative team, they also use the expansive setting of Riverdale to their advantage. The mansion of Hiram Lodge winds up acting as the setting for several later issues, allowing the Archie cast to experience a time of being under siege by the zombies… one of whom may be more intelligent than he seems. It also doesn’t help when one of the cast pulls the “doesn’t want to tell anyone they’re infected” role, resulting in more death and the closing off some of the mansion. During this time, Archie also takes the time to sneak back to Riverdale to try and find his parents. The town is in flames, Pops’ Malt Shop is burning to the ground.

And honestly, this is the issue that finally broke me and hooked me 100% as a reader. When I first read issue four in 2015 or so, I didn’t really have any pets or attachments to animals still with us. So I got misty-eyed a little, when what I’m referencing happened. Five years later, I now help foster dogs for a local canine rescue, and have taken care of over 70 different dogs. Some of them since birth, and have even had my own dog since he was a palm-size puppy. And I found myself sobbing on the couch like my own dog had died.

While heading home, Archie encounters the zombie Hot Dog. And Archie’s own dog, Vegas, has found his owner. I didn’t know Archie actually owned a dog, as the 90s comics I had read as a kid made sure to hype up Hot Dog as a character, and Vegas just fell by the wayside. The comic does a solid job of making sure we know Archie had a dog, having key flashback moments of young Archie getting his dog.

And then Vegas throws himself at Hot Dog to save his boy.

I’m a pushover when it comes to emotional impacts and big sacrifices. But now I can’t help but imagine my own son’s dog, or my own dog, doing this same thing. And damn it, that makes this book feel even more personal. And if that wasn’t enough, issue four also decides to throw another curveball and make Archie’s life even more of a living hell.

In order to save his mom’s life, Archie has to beat his own father’s brain in with a baseball bat.

Hooooooo.

This is a wonderful comic, but one that will wreck you emotionally once it finds your weakness.

Oh, and something we had not mentioned before? Starting with issue two, each issue would have a black and white reprint of the 1970s comic Chilling Adventures in Sorcery, from Archie’s own comic vault. While not actually related to the Afterlife universe, it added a lot of value to see older content treated nicely.

Issue 6 also starts the second major storyline: Betty: RIP… by showing exactly what happened to Sabrina. Despite being left in the nether-realm, it looks like she is now actually in a mental health hospital of some kind. There’s a lovely doctor taking care of her, and most people with her seem sane and grounded. However, there are still… moments where reality slips.

Something truly wrong is happening, and Sabrina is going to find out what. This is a one-shot issue, and actually teases nicely at what would become the Chilling Tales of Sabrina thematic spinoff a few months down the road. Unfortunately, here is where the schedule would begin to slip.

Issues started becoming more and more delayed. Stories are kinda scattershot as to why, however. Around the time of issue seven coming out, February 2015, the Sonic the Hedgehog comic had gone through some serious legal issues. To make a long story as abbreviated as possible, artist and writer Ken Penders demanded the legal rights to all the original characters he had made for the book ages ago, including original characters like “Sonic, but evil and later green” and “Knuckles, but a cyborg girl.”

Admittedly, the green was added to “Evil Sonic” by another writer so he could be a more unique character, but this was the limit of Penders’ creativity a lot of the time.

Penders had been a writer on the Sonic comic for decades, and he had made a lot of the book his own, for better or worse. Unfortunately, Archie couldn’t find his contract, establishing his creations as theirs. They, and Sega’s legal team, were taken to the cleaners and lost the rights to all those characters. But don’t worry, they rebooted the universe to wipe out the Penders-owned original characters and keep plugging along with what remained in a closer form to the video games.

There were also serious money issues, thanks to a cool crossover. The first reboot had been done with a Mega Man crossover called Worlds Collide, and fans loved it. A second crossover would come in with Worlds Collide in 2015. To make it bigger, Mega Man and Sonic would also cross over with Sonic Boom and Mega Man X. And nearly every other major high-profile IP that both Sega and Capcom owned. And a few that were long forgotten.

This was expensive, and it did not sell well. The Mega Man book was cancelled not long after, and the rights to Sonic would be ripped away from Archie a few months into 2016. The somewhat popular TV show Riverdale would also premier on the CW around this time, and a lot of people I’ve seen online feel that Archie was desperate for this book to succeed, and might have sacrificed a lot of their own comics to make it work. The biggest example I can think of is having a continuity and tone reboot with Mark Waid at the helm to make their comic seem more television friendly.

Oh, and Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa was also promoted to head creative officer of Archie Comics in late 2014, which is likely the largest factor in why issues would slip and slide further down the release date highway.

Some truly remarkable issues would still be released, with issue eight being a Christmas tale with the ghost of Jughead trying to help Archie reconcile his life as it happened so far. More creepy details about the world of this Riverdale would be revealed as well. Issues nine and ten would focus on the mental anguish Reggie Mangle was feeling over how horrible the world had become, and how it was likely tied directly to his murder of Hot Dog…

…and that would be it. Issue ten would be released in October of 2016, featuring Josie and the Pussycats in this demented world. Issues 11 and 12 were never solicited, but were promised with a Betty: RIP collection to be released once those issues came out. It’s been four years since the unintentional final issue came out, and it is seeming less likely that we will ever see an issue eleven. It’s still not officially cancelled yet, however.

On the plus side, Afterlife with Archie inspired the company to take a lot more risks with the franchise. 2014 would bring The Chilling Tales of Sabrina, while 2015 would bring the tongue in cheek Archie vs Predator and Archie vs Sharknado

It is every bit as stupid and amazing as you can imagine.

If you’re looking for something more serious, then the horror label under Archie also provides Jughead: The Hunger with werewolves, and Vampironica, which has the other side of the classic monster spectrum. There is even a crossover book that just rolls with it.

And hey. If you’re wanting to read this, but don’t want to spend any money? Every issue is currently available for free if you have Comixology Unlimited. At the very least, it’s a great way to spend a few hours during those lonely pandemic-demanded nights.

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