The Archie horror comics line is as engaging as other efforts are disappointing.
A year ago, I wrote about Afterlife with Archie and an episode that ended with Sabrina the Teenaged Witch about to become the bride of C'thulhu. It felt like a stunt to draw attention during the San Diego Comic Con to the series, which recasts the wholesome world of Archie, Betty, Veronica and Jughead as a grim, post-zombie apocalypse struggle. Still, there was enough to that issue--number six--that I went back and read the first five. In that time, Jughead's dog Hot Dog was hit by a car and killed. Emotionally devastated, he asked Sabrina if she could bring him back. Reluctantly she agreed, but she inadvertently reanimated him as a zombie, who promptly bit Jughead, and the catastrophe was on.
As is often the case in zombie stories, writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa is far more interested in the emotional dynamics of the surviving group as they struggle to hang together. In Afterlife with Archie, the two poles are Archie, who's still about as upright and foursquare as he can be in a series like this, and Mr. Lodge, Veronica's wealthy, Darwinistic dad. But Aguirre-Sacasa also has the Archie-specific Riverdale to deal with. Unlike The Walking Dead, where Rick woke up in a town that we had no connection to and hadn't seen him life in, comic book readers have seen Archie and his gang's adventures in Riverdale since 1939. Aguirre-Sacasa gets some emotional mileage out of the characters watching the carefree town of their youth overrun.
Still, the rootedness in Riverdale made the first five-issue story arc seem slightly novel as characters that once lived in a consequence-free town watch a dozen or side characters become zombies. There goes Mr. Weatherby. There goes Ethel Muggs. There goes Mrs. Grundy. The arc ends with the survivors getting out of Lodge Manor and leaving Riverdale behind. For me, this is where the story became more involving because Aguirre-Sacasa's real trick--making characters out of caricatures--comes to the fore. The tension between Betty and Veronica over Archie's love doesn't disappear three pages after a fight. Class distinctions have an effect, and issue eight ends with the suggestion the Reggie Mantle will show himself to be the dick he always had in him.
Afterlife with Archie has started to do some world-building of its own, introducing the neighborhing town of Greendale, which had a witch coven, and the idyllic life Archie and the gang led in traditional Archie comics for so long was the result of protection spell that came with a high cost. We also get the implication in issue seven that life in Riverdale wasn't always as light as it seems, and that one brother may have been incestuously abusive toward his sister.
Now that the gang is out of Riverdale, Aguirre-Sacasa also seems freed up to tell more referential stories such as the recently published issue eight, which takes place in a Shining-like hotel where Archie reflects over a long-needed root beer to the ghost of Jughead.
He has semi-spun off Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, which is two issues old. While she's from the Archie world, the two books don't share a continuity. The first issue, for example, suggests that Betty and Veronica are witches too, or at least that they dabble in magic and unleash an evil that pursues Sabrina. Like Francesco Francavilla's art in Afterlife with Archie, Robert Hack's art in Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is understated, more interested in an oppressive mood and telling details than gore, even though one character lacks a face.
Sabrina's comic hasn't quite found its footing yet, and elements in each issue make me think I've gone as far as I'll go with this series, but then something happens to hook me. The anxiety it deftly taps into again and again is the casual cruelty of powerful figures. We don't see gore or ickiness; we see magical characters dispose of humans and/or their sanity the way we step on roaches, but with less passion.
These horror reboots of the Archie franchise work because they give weight to actions. A feud doesn't go away in the next story and everybody doesn't stay pals. Less successful is Archie versus Predator, which goes the other way. It takes Predator into the traditional Archie world, where two characters can be killed by the alien monster and no one in the Archie gang notices or cares. It, like the upcoming Archie Versus Sharknado, 2011's Archie Meets Kiss, and 2013's Archie Meets Glee, is exactly the sort of novelty that Afterlife with Archie isn't.