The Best Zombie Story Right Now Is Not What You’re Expecting

Slate's Culture Blog
May 19 2014 11:25 AM

The Best Zombie Story Right Now Is Not What You’re Expecting

afterlife_with_archie

I hope you’re reading the best zombie comic around. No, not The Walking Dead. Not the rural noir Revival. Not even the bizarre guilty pleasure that is Zombie Tramp.

I’m talking about Afterlife With Archie, which just completed its first arc. (The collection will be out in June.) Writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and artist Francesco Francavilla bring the zombie apocalypse to Riverdale with spectacular results. Against all odds, Archie and his gang of ageless teens put teeth, so to speak, in the oversaturated genre of zombie horror. It’s a mash-up for the ages.

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The story is familiar. Due to a combination of Reggie Mantle’s douchebaggery, Sabrina the Teenage Witch’s sorcery, and one character’s love for his dog, zombies are unleashed in Riverdale. A major character is zombified in the first issue, and no parent, pet, or principal is safe. The classic Archie setting of a Halloween dance launches the action, as characters are soon struggling to find refuge, see if their parents are still alive, and take their mind off the nightmare with an impromptu pool party at Lodge Mansion. Almost every character gets a moment to shine, including Archie Comics’ first gay character, Kevin Keller; creepy twins Cheryl and Jason Blossom; and the Lodges’ butler, Smithers, who has never seemed so Alfred Pennyworth-y. As the series progresses, Archie Andrews becomes, improbably, the Rick Grimes of Riverdale.

The art is an absolute revelation, as Francesco Francavilla somehow creates brand new versions of the characters while maintaining their essence. As Francavilla has shown in The Black Beetle (which he also writes) and his Batman ’72 art (which needs to be a series now), he is a master of combining a cartoony style with noir gloom. Betty’s still Betty, and Veronica’s still Veronica, but this isn’t the Riverdale you know from those little supermarket digests. The cheery, bright colors of a typical Archie comic are gone, as Francavilla’s palette of oranges, greys, and purples creates a dread-soaked mood. It’s as if the undead have sucked the color, as well as the life, out of Riverdale.

Writer Aguirre-Sacasa—recently appointed Archie Comics’ chief creator officer—has nailed the balance between horror and humor. In Afterlife, the dynamics of the Archieverse, which are surely part of the collective unconscious at this point, serve to heighten the horror while adding comic relief and, oddly, relatability. For example, when ever-snooty Veronica Lodge is near death, she doesn’t scream like a damsel or think “This would be a good death” like Frank Miller’s Batman. Her first thought is that this death would not be worthy of a Lodge. Her second thought is that her nemesis Betty will finally have Archie to herself. As final regrets go, those are pretty funny and, dare I say, typical. I doubt many people’s internal near-death monologue would win them a Nobel Peace Prize. On my deathbed, I’ll probably regret I didn’t play more pinball or eat more nachos.

And I’m particularly impressed by how poignant—yes, poignant—this series can be. I nearly cried twice while reading issue #4, and I know at least one other adult who had the same reaction. This is a moving, emotional series, mostly because Aguirre-Sacasa and Francavilla have a terrific grasp on the essence of horror, which isn’t scary monsters, but fear of loss. Nothing’s more terrifying than the potential death of your parents, your pet, your best friend, or your two longtime love interests. When watching The Walking Dead, I’m numbed by the endless body count. I think the death of Daryl is the only thing that would make me blink. But in Afterlife, the stakes feel meaningful.

Somehow, by mixing two totally unreal worlds—Archie Comics’ eternal teens and zombie horror’s undead monsters—Aguirre-Sacasa and Francavilla have created something emotionally true.

Mark Peters is a freelance writer from Chicago. He writes jokes on Twitter and writes about jokes for McSweeney’s.