With the comics industry continuing to battle the effects of the pandemic, Brendan Allen and I are continuing to talk about comics that the other might not have read. I’m more of a capes, laser guns and swords guy, while Brendan loves dark magic, criminals and things that go bump in the night. This week, we’re looking at a horror remix of a comics icon, with special guest David Pepose of Scout’s Honor, The O.Z. and more!
When we reached out to David to invite him to join us (and plug some of his upcoming projects), he suggested diving into Archie Comics’ 2013 horror hit Afterlife with Archie. We’ve covered other Archie Horror titles before, but never the one that started it all. So we were definitely excited to take a look at one of the most lauded titles in the past decade of comics.
In 2013, a variant cover for Life with Archie homaging classic EC Comics by Francesco Francavilla became a surprise hit. Afterlife with Archie was quickly born when Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and Archie executives realized there was nothing stopping them from transforming the variant into a full-blown series. Not long after, the series made its debut and was an instant hit.
Created by Aguirre-Sacasa, Francavilla, and letterer Jack Morelli, Afterlife with Archie begins with a much darker moment than any other Archie comic that’s come before. Jughead Jones’ beloved Hot Dog has been killed in a hit and run, and his only hope is Sabrina Spellman’s magic. However, the spell goes horribly wrong, spelling doom for Riverdale and perhaps the entire world…
Tony Thornley: David! Thanks for joining us! It’s a lot of fun to have you on the column. We were talking about how it would be fun to invite a guest in to talk about a book. We were very excited that you agreed to join us!
So I think when I reached out to you, I gave you a couple examples of books, and said “or whatever you want to do” and you jumped in with both feet with Afterlife. Tell us, as a comic creator, how has Afterlife with Archie influenced you?
David Pepose: Afterlife with Archie is probably the single comic that made me decide to take the plunge and make comics of my own. I think it’s because it not only spoke to my subversive streak and love of all things ironic, but it was a profound wake-up call at the elasticity of the Riverdale gang as a concept.
You’ve got to remember, Afterlife not only predated the CW show; this even predated Mark Waid and Fiona Staples’ acclaimed relaunch by two years — it was a seismic shift. And it made me wonder what other ideas you could put a brand-new coat of paint on. It’s perhaps no surprise that within a year I was working on my first book, Spencer & Locke. It just blew me away.
Brendan Allen: For a little background here, I actively avoided all the new Archie stuff for a while. It took Cullen Bunn doing the script for Blossoms 666 that made me pick up my first Archie Horror series. Then we ended up doing Vampironica here on NTYC a while back, and I think this one was already in queue for some point in the future, and here we are.
Tony: And you know, Archie could have half-assed all of these. Just taken the concepts, given editorially dictated stories to journeyman writers, established a horror house style like they do with the digests, and raked it in. Yet every single one of these books are unique, with strong concepts, amazing art, and they just draw you in EVERY TIME. I think Sabrina and the Jughead Vs Vampironica series are the only ones I haven’t read and they’re all so good. And that all goes back to this volume as the model.
David: 100%. There’s a real vision at play here. Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa wanted to surprise readers — both with laughter and a punch to the gut. And having Francesco Francavilla on art, I think, showed how serious Archie was about this concept. They went all out, the production values are just insane.
Brendan: That’s one of the reasons why I stayed away for so long, really. I didn’t want to ruin my memories of reading the classic stuff. I really appreciate the dedication to classic Archie here. Veronica thinks she’s about to eat it, and what’s going through her mind in those potential last moments of her life? That she would ‘lose’ to Betty if she died. Reggie is always the asshole. Betty breaks kayfabe in the best way possible, with her ‘don’t pull too hard at that thread’ line. It’s all very believable within the context of eighty years of Archie Comics.
I’m also a huge fan of horror, and I didn’t want to read something that wouldn’t take the horror elements seriously. There’s a difference between campy horror and bad horror, and there’s no point in this one or the last one we did where they dip south of that line.
Tony: So let’s look at this volume itself. It’s such an interesting story. When it comes to the supernatural horror, I think it nails it, and I think for the most part as an Archie/Riverdale universe story. I do think there’s a few places where I feel the story is a bit too clever, and a little too pleased with that. But overall, I really enjoy what Aguirre-Sacasa does.
As far as his plot goes, I’m glad that it started with that EXTREMELY jarring Jughead/ Sabrina sequence. That sets the scene for how dark the story is going to be. The moment we see the word “Necronomicon,” we know crap’s about to get real. I also really enjoy how mundane and “classic Archie” the first issue is from after that scene to the big reveal on the last page.
David: Talk about a killer first issue. Based on the way that monthly comics are structured, you’ll often end the first issue with a cliffhanger that reveals the REAL hook of the book — but sometimes that can make for an unsatisfying experience, since readers typically know what the book is about when they choose to pick it up.
But Aguirre-Sacasa really relishes the setup of it all — he knows that readers probably have some sort of shorthand for the characters (the Archie-Betty-Veronica love triangle, Reggie being a jerk, Sabrina being a teenage witch), but this is a case of someone really enjoying eating their vegetables. (“Eating vegetables” is usually how I think of writing exposition — it’s a job you don’t typically love, but you have to do it to get the story moving.)
It also helps that he’s able to break out of the quiet Riverdale lane when he feels like it, punctuating the issue with these quick beats of horror. It’s not necessarily the *meat* of the full story, but it’s like a really satisfying appetizer, y’know? Some Riverdale mozzarella sticks, lmao.
Brendan: I am 100% stealing that ‘eating vegetables’ line. And the ‘meat’ line. Also, the ‘appetizer’ line. That’s such a relatable way to describe parts of the story.
Tony: I think with any other horror book, that might have been stretching it out way too long. But here, it’s Archie, you have to see all the classic Archie tropes to help build up dread before it goes nuts. But after Jugdead shows up (that’s the official name they use for him SEVERAL times, btw), the book is just a roller coaster. You go from the dance where all hell breaks loose, to the Lodge estate, back to the streets to Riverdale, to finally the outside world when it’s clear that Riverdale is no longer safe.
This isn’t just a horror thrillride though. I think using familiar characters in horror tropes makes for a solid shorthand so Aguirre-Sacasa can jump straight to the key emotional moments, like the Moose and Midge scene, or Reggie contemplating betraying everyone, or the entire issue where Archie ventures home to get his parents and Vegas. That last one… it still hits hard, even five or six years after I originally read it.
David: Real talk, the Vegas issue is probably the single most devastating comic I’ve ever read (and I first read it when I was living in New York without pets — I’ve only gotten worse now that I actually have a puppy of my own). But I think that’s also because it’s so surprising — when you’re dealing with a zombie apocalypse, who expects internal monologue from a dog? How can you pull that off? That’s something that would only work in a comic.
I think that issue also speaks to the versatility of the Afterlife concept, and the inherent tonal flexibility of the Riverdale crew in general. Aguirre-Sacasa is very genre-savvy, but he picks and chooses when he wants his characters to be — he lampshades enough beats (like Betty warning Archie that it’s dangerous to leave, even though she knows he’s going to do it) to let bits like Veronica convincing everyone to have an end-of-the-world pool party as something like a good idea. He gets to have his cake and eat it, too.
Brendan: Yeah, I’m not usually a big fan of talking dogs, or being able to read an animal’s mind in the thought balloons, but Vegas’ motivation is so pure, and lines up so precisely with dog mentality in similar situations, it works ridiculously well. I may have had a little bit of hay fever during that bit.
Tony: Oh yeah, to go from that, to Archie discovering zombie Fred… That page with Archie confronting Zombie Fred Andrews still just had my jaw hang open. That issue is just such a good tight horror story all around, and it’s the perfect example of why this series works.
Brendan, you’re not going to be happy to discover this, but know how we keep saying “we’ll have to read volume 2 in a later installment”? Well… We won’t be able to do that here because volume 2 is still unfinished.
David: Yeah, it bums me out that we haven’t seen anything since Issue #10 — that all said, I COMPLETELY get it, given that Roberto has a lot on his plate with Riverdale the TV series. I know from experience that sequels are hard, and can sometimes take a lot of time to come to fruition — real talk, I’d volunteer to write more Afterlife with Archie myself if Archie was ever interested, but I have the feeling this series is something really special to Roberto, and nobody should take that away from him.
(That said, if anybody from Archie is listening — I’d love to write another Archie Horror book! Archie Horror is one of my white whales of comics — poor Alex Segura can attest, since I’d email him quarterly about it back when he was still at the company.)
Tony: When you get that call, we’ll have to chat down and chat before it launches!
So David alluded to it as we were starting to chat, but the Francesco Francavilla art is really where this volume shines. I mean, the story and writing is good but it isn’t perfect — but wow, this art is incredible. It’s got enough of that classic Archie feel that you can accept it, but all the horror- from the Spellman aunts, to the Big Ethel splash page at the beginning of #2, to the Fred Andrews page … This story simply would not work without Francavilla in my opinion.
David: When you have a concept as rock-solid as Afterlife with Archie, I feel like it’d be easy to overlook the artwork — it’s just such a big premise that it could translate in a number of art styles, but I don’t think anybody could have handled this book better than Francesco Francavilla. He’s almost like the best bass player in the world — he is incredibly reverent to the core concept of Afterlife with Archie (and everything Aguirre-Sacasa is writing in his scripts), but he elevates every beat consistently. It all looks seemingly effortless, but he’s really hitting grand slam after grand slam in a way that I don’t think any other artist could match on this book.
My favorite beats of the book are when Francavilla is at his most experimental — particularly the 15-panel grid when Archie beats his zombified father to death with a baseball bat, criss-crossing between flashbacks, a big splash image of Archie with his bat, followed by close-up shots of the carnage. Even the way he plays with nine-panel grids, sometimes using quick cuts, sometimes having them connect (like a three-panel beat where Vegas looks at Archie with wild concern in his eyes as the zombie Hot Dog attacks). It’s thrilling stuff, and that’s before we even start talking about his incredible skills with color — the way he’s able to shift gears between color palettes seems like it’d look simplistic in theory, but in practice it’s incredibly sophisticated and deliberate. He’s an artist’s artist, through and through.
Brendan: We actually bring this up a lot on crossovers, and while this isn’t strictly a crossover between two franchises, it does definitely cross genre. The creative team, as a whole, did an impressive job staying true to the classic Archie tropes, while bringing some absolutely devastating horror to the party. It hits in a special way, taking characters and settings that you’ve known and loved for decades, and bringing them to their knees with a zombie apocalypse. It’s like seeing your own friends and family members going through something awful, and not being able to do anything about it. That level of familiarity is amazing, but it’s also very fragile. If one of the characters steps even slightly out of their normal pattern, it breaks the whole illusion.
Tony: Totally, and that’s another reason it works. There are some quirks, sure (like what you mentioned to me about the dialogue before we sat down and started to talk), but this team is just able to make everything click. It’s one of those cases where the sum of all the parts make it MUCH better than the individual pieces would on their own.
Brendan: We-ell… since you brought it up, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa does use that ‘we-ell’ bit a few too many times, and with separate characters. It did take me out of the story the first time it came up with a different character after Dilton did it. If it had just been DD, no worries. It could have been a new tic or speech pattern. When they all start doing it, though, it’s a little weird. Super small thing in the big picture, but it made me think of the Impractical Jokers every time.
David: It’s funny, because I see a lot of that hyperstylization in Aguirre-Sacasa’s Riverdale series — given that this book predates the TV show by four years (and Chilling Adventures of Sabrina even longer), you can see him testing out a lot of stuff that we’d see perfected in those amazingly offbeat and over-the-top shows.
Tony: So I think we all agree? Not just a win, but a modern classic?
David: It’ll always be a classic to me. I owe Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and Francesco Francavilla my career thanks to Afterlife with Archie, and I’ll always be grateful to them for it.
Brendan: I’m a fan. It took me a minute to get on board, but thankfully every one of these that we’ve done has been really good.
Tony: David, thanks for joining us! This was a lot of fun, and we were glad to have you in to talk about a book that was so influential on your career. I know you’ve been getting busier by the day, so what do you have coming up in your world?
David: Sure! We’ll be launching our next Kickstarter campaign for The O.Z. #1-2 starting at the end of July — you can sign up for our prelaunch page right here. You can also order the trade paperback collection of Scout’s Honor at your local comics shop with the preorder code JUL211246!
Beyond that, I’ve got a bunch of new projects that we’re working on, including Grand Theft Astro at Top Cow, Spencer & Locke III at Action Lab, a short story in the upcoming Cthulhu is Hard to Spell anthology at Wannabee Press, plus a few other projects in development that I can’t reveal just yet, ranging from fantasy to crime to horror to sci-fi action. It’s the best kind of busy!
Tony: All of it sounds great! We can’t wait to check it out!
Brendan, what are we covering next week?
Brendan: We haven’t done a rasslin’ book in a while, so we’re going to hit up BOOM! Studios’ WWE Vol. 6: The Phenomenal One, by Dennis Hopeless and Serg Acuna.