There are certain genres with which audiences are so familiar that it seems impossible to create something really new. It’s rare to find a romance, for instance, that doesn’t follow the familiar pattern of boy-meets-girl, boy and girl get together, something comes between boy and girl before a final reconciliation.
Teen movies ending in the big game or big dance has become so formulaic that teen movie parodies are now almost a bigger genre than the original source. Classic monster horror, bound by such narrow constraints, is a genre in which things grow increasingly stale. This is perhaps particularly true of zombies whose specific conventions prevent much experimentation; 28 Days Later and World War Z may have been refreshingly new, but they also bent convention so far as to be dismissed by purists. How then, does one take two stale genres in this case zombies and teen-romance (look how that worked out!) and create something with impact and excitement?
Well, to everyone’s surprise, the answer came from Archie Comics.
Up until a few years ago, if you’d heard the words ‘Archie comics’, terms like edgy, experimental or even relevant would probably not have come to mind. For some of us, however, that’s all changed. In 2014, Archie Comics published the first issue of Afterlife With Archie and it was a game changer.
Afterlife is the child of screenwriter, playwright and comics writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa (who’s also writing new TV series Riverdale – synergy!) and artist Francesco Francavilla, with Jack Morelli on letters. Francavilla is best known for his pulp-influenced style, and was mostly known for his cover work. It was one such cover - a variant for Life With Archie #23 - which gave the inspiration for Afterlife and the start of the Archie Comics renaissance.
The cover, done in the classic horror-comic style of Creepy or EC comics, features zombified Jughead, Betty and Veronica lurching towards a stunned Archie. Taking that as inspiration, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa got Afterlife With Archie greenlit as a series - with Francesco Francavilla as interior and cover artist.
Perhaps the creepiest and most horrifying thing about zombies is that they’re the reanimated corpses of real people. They’re your teachers, your friends, your co-workers and parents. Unlike a lot of other monsters, it’s people you know who’re coming to kill you. Meanwhile, teen stories are most often a form of coming of age story with protagonists breaking away from comfortable peer groups, the authority of teachers or the double-edged protectiveness of parents.
Archie stories have never quite broken from teen drama into coming of age as none of the perennially teen-aged characters can ever quite grow up. Afterlife With Archie reveals just how well these two genres fit together. We have teen characters who need to escape their friends and family in order to grow and learn and zombies who are the reanimated corpses of their peers and relations. The metaphors of teen bildungsroman have put on scary rotting flesh: instead of moving on from peers, Archie and co. have to flee from them. Rather than rebel against a teacher’s authority they are instead left to learn their own lessons after their teachers are eaten. And Archie rather brutally outgrows his parents when he is forced to re-kill his undead father. With a baseball bat. It’s harrowing.
While Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa makes Afterlife quite unflinchingly visceral in places, he’s not unaware of the essential humour of the premise and uses that to great effect. Part of the Archie comics characters’ continued appeal is that they are archetypal teen stereotypes, living in an archetypal small American town. In part they are so familiar to us because Archie comics informed, and have been informed by, all the films and TV shows over the last seven or so decades that have used these tropes: the rich bitch, the girl next door, the jock, the nerd etc. These are (not coincidentally) the same sort of characters that you see so often in your basic horror movie. Aguirre-Sacasa and Francavilla use this situation to their advantage, playing on the readers’ awareness of the tropes and stereotypes of teen- and horror- fiction, not to subvert them but to use the conventions of one genre to shine a harsh light on the conventions of the other.
One of the key moments of the first arc is the first real encounter with zombie Jughead. When the Riverdale kids start talking about what they’re going to wear to the Halloween dance, it doesn’t take a genius to see where this story’s going. We’ve all seen Carrie, some of us have even seen the original Buffy movie - a high school dance in a horror movie is a very familiar recipe for trouble. As the dance rolls around the reader is so comfortable with how this setup should go that we’re already anticipating the outcome and so are the characters. Teens; Halloween dance; Jughead’s mysteriously absent / a zombie. When Jughead turns up the kids, understandably (predictably) think he’s just in costume. And when he starts to eat their friend Ethel in front of them, they think it’s a great joke.
As Veronica says “..it didn’t seem real at first. It was like a scene from some asinine horror movie...I...I think that’s why people started laughing.” Veronica is telling this story in flashback and the shock and guilt she feels for laughing as her friend was gruesomely killed in front of her is expertly captured by Francavilla. It’s by exploiting our very familiarity with these genres that Afterlife is able to get under the skin, taking the familiar and making it both exciting and creepy all over again.