Love it or hate it (or claim to hate it but secretly guilty pleasure binge it whenever you can), Riverdale caught us all off guard.
I was completely prepared to hate it. One hundred percent prepared to nitpick it. Nine million percent prepared to rip it apart during the pilot and never look at it again. I actually made a date with a friend (you know who you are) to hate watch it all hipster-like and throw popcorn at her TV. I mean, COME ON, Archie should NOT be that ripped, right?! But, instead, Riverdale, in all it’s pulpy, soap opera-esque goodness, grabbed hold of me and wouldn’t let go. No matter how hard I tried to pry Jason Blossoms’ cold, dead hands off me, I was hooked. And so was my friend, by the way.
I don’t think that there is anyone out there today that did not go through a phase of reading Archie comics at some point in their lives, be it brief or ongoing. An Archie comic is an item that pretty much everyone has in common. If you tell me you never read Archie in a bathroom at some point in your life, you’re probably lying. I’m not sure why you would do that. Maybe you’re embarrassed by bathroom related stuff, I don’t know.
I haven’t thought about it before, but Archie makes the perfect icebreaker…no matter the response you get, the person you’re talking to is likely to have enough knowledge of the inhabitants of Riverdale to answer your question. In that sense, it’s not unusual to me that so many people flocked to see Riverdale; it’s a morbid fascination to see your favourite characters butchered. But then the amazing happened…a lot of us stayed! According to TVbythenumbers, 2 million people were watching Riverdale at its midpoint when it was renewed.
Riverdale is a decidedly darker version of the characters we grew up with and made part of our lives for years and years. Sure, they share a few shakes at Pop Tate’s, but in between burgers things are not exactly how we remember them. Archie’s banging Miss Grundy while the Andrews family plummets toward bankruptcy. Betty is teaching slut shaming jocks a lesson with maple syrup in hot tubs. Mr. Lodge is doing time for embezzlement. Jughead’s parents have basically abandoned him, causing him to sleep at the drive-in he works at and shower at Riverdale High in secret.
Sure, at their core, the characters are the ones we know and love. Archie is still naïve, yet somehow manages to lead on two different girls in ignorant bliss. Jughead still really likes hamburgers. Josie and the Pussycats are still freaking awesome. But something feels different.
And yet, we were intrigued. Riverdale, like many of the recent “dark Archie” iterations, points out what we saw in the comics as a kid but couldn’t quite put our fingers on. The town of Riverdale is so perfect, so wholesome, and so unchanging, that it couldn’t possibly be real. Eventually, the cracks start to appear. Riverdale did a beautiful job showing that these characters we’d come to know and love were complex, had feelings, and were vulnerable. Jughead points out that Jason Blossom’s murder, which kickstarts the series, represents the end of innocence in Riverdale, and he’s right. Once the cracks start to show, the hidden underbelly is always revealed.
While Riverdale is more noir mystery than dark horror, there have been several recent Archie comic series that also show that underbelly. I’ll get into those now so that I don’t fall into the trap of talking about why brooding, broken Jughead works, and why I really want to read that pulp-style true crime novel he’s writing. Here are my thoughts on some of the dark Archie series that have been released.
Archie vs Predator
Archie vs Predator is kind of an anomaly in the dark Archie phenomenon. It was published by Dark Horse Comics as a 4 part stand alone, as opposed to the other ongoing properties that are out there now. This is a comic series that definitely doesn’t take itself as seriously as the other Dark Archie properties, but is a lot of fun for Predator fans. It is also unique in it’s artwork; this is the Archie style you grew up with. But, you know, with a Predator inflicting fatal wounds to Pop Tate at the Chocklit Shoppe.
The series is very typical Archie until the end of the first issue. The gang goes on a tropical vacation for spring break. There is a fashion show, and when Betty shows up in an amazing outfit that all the boys drool over, she and Veronica get into a catfight. Cheryl and Jason Blossom show up in their usual creepy matching clothes to stir the pot. Betty runs away into the jungle in tears, and Veronica and the gang follow to apologize. This is where the series, shall we say, diverges from your typical plot. After meeting up with Betty, they decide to call their vacation early and return to home sweet home. Unfortunately, a Predator lurks in the trees, happily hanging on to the swinging spinal columns of Cheryl and Jason. And he decides to join them.
The other dark iterations of Archie are far less comical, but the artwork is vastly different. The frames in the others are all very stylistically creepy, and when you’re reading them you have no doubt that you’re reading horror comics. Comical or no, seeing Archie characters get cheerfully mangled in their familiar forms is extremely jarring. It is cleverly done in that the way the Predator kills is true to Predator, and the way that the Riverdale gang interacts and appears is true to Riverdale. All of this somehow works to create a gory, funny entertaining 4-issue arc. Go in expecting comedic horror and you’ll have a great time!
Chilling Adventures of Sabrina
Of the three Archie series I talk about here, this one is probably my favourite. As soon as Betty and Veronica wandered into those woods and summoned Madame Satan, I knew I was in for something special.
This version of Sabrina opts for the visual 50s style, which places our innocent pals as we know them in an even more innocent time frame, which makes this horror series live up to its name.
The great thing about this series is that the bulk of our usual characters aren’t aware of what is happening around them. The whole town is blissfully unaware of the supernatural shitstorm that is brewing. We also get a much more hardcore version of Hilda and Zelda than we’re used to. They have been around for a very long time, and they are very old school in their values. The coven comes above all else, and as Sabrina comes of age, she has some very tricky decisions to make.
The loss of innocence is on full display here as this quaint little town is hurtling toward what will undeniably become an epic battle as Sabrina decides whether to be light or dark. It is also a story clearly centered around female empowerment and female struggles in a male dominated world, which is not something we usually get out of the Archie universe. This is not something we usually see in the comics, where two smart, capable girls are constantly seeking approval from a certain red head, and poor gangly Ethel is clearly exceedingly frustrated, if you get my drift. Instead, we get Harvey Kinkel being used as a demonic sacrifice and Salem’s backstory as a womanizing heartbreaker causing him to be cursed to be a familiar.
In short, this one is a great horror comic surprisingly rooted in real struggles. It is well written and visually awesome….be sure to check it out! My only complaint is that they don’t come fast enough; after its initial release in October of 2014, there have been only six issues to date. They are definitely worth the wait, but always leave you wanting more!
Afterlife With Archie
For some reason, I had the same aversion to trying out Afterlife with Archie as I did with trying out Riverdale. Archie is such a staple of my childhood that I was hesitant to let anything ruin that. It wasn’t until I tried Chilling Adventures of Sabrina and saw how well the characters were treated that I decided to give it a shot. It didn’t help that I am not the biggest zombie fan. I enjoy the odd zombie movie, but overall zombie novels and comics are not my cup of tea. I choose sparingly.
And then I read Afterlife With Archie, and right from the get go, I got hit with a sledge hammer.
In the opening frame, Jughead struggles over to Greendale to get help from Sabrina…all while holding the corpse of his beloved Hot Dog. I am not ashamed to say that I instantly welled up seeing this. Afterlife With Archie assumes that you’re an Archie fan, and you understand the impact that this would have on Jughead right away. It felt like a close friend just lost a pet, and you completely buy in to his desperation to bring him back. But, as Fred Gwynne said in Pet Sematary all those years ago, Sabrina repeats now: “Sometimes…..dead is better.”
But, as I’m sure you know, that warning is not heeded (seriously, is it EVER heeded?). Hot Dog comes back as an abomination, biting Jughead who then spreads a horrific zombie virus all around town.
The artwork here is spare, but amazing, and makes excellent creepy use of shadow and low-key details of facial features on the zombies to separate them from the humans without going overboard. There are also lots of great 80s horror reference, and the portrayal of Dilton as a Nightmare on Elm Street aficionado tickled me endlessy!
Story-wise, the only thing that bothers me is the portrayal of Betty, especially in the first few issues. Betty is smart and competent, but I hate how focused she is on Archie’s feelings. I’m not saying she shouldn’t be, but as Archie leaves to go and try to find his parents, she is focused on which one he would choose between herself and Veronica. Really. Annoying.
Like Sabrina, I am disappointed at the speed at which they aùre released. This isn’t really a complaint, per se, as I would rather wait for a quality issue than have it rushed, but patience just isn’t my strong suit.
Dark Archie: Does it Work?
I have discovered through all of these comics and Riverdale that Archie as a character is my least favourite part of the Riverdale universe. What makes all of these iterations so strong is that they give equal weight to all of the characters, or in some cases lean more heavily on the so-called supporting cast than they do on its namesake. This is a smart move, as Archie on his own is not a very interesting person (sorry, Mr. Andrews, but you’re kind of a snooze). Used as a story driver, Archie himself doesn’t have the character to drive complex stories. He is too good; his motivations can never be in the grey area, and that means that he doesn’t ever really struggle with right and wrong. However, used as a central figure to bring all of the peripheral inhabitants of Riverdale together, and to show them as human beings beyond their clichéd personalities, it somehow works.
Archie the zombie slayer works. I almost can’t believe that I said that out loud. Who knew?!