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Sunday, June 29, 2014

‘Life’ with Archie has never been better

Andrew Smith

Who would guess that happy, frivolous Archie Andrews and violent, bloodthirsty zombies would make a good mix?

According to the afterword in the recently released “Afterlife with Archie Book One” (Archie, $17.99), at least three people did: Archie CEO Jon Goldwater, his son Jesse and chief creative officer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa. ...

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Who would guess that happy, frivolous Archie Andrews and violent, bloodthirsty zombies would make a good mix?

According to the afterword in the recently released “Afterlife with Archie Book One” (Archie, $17.99), at least three people did: Archie CEO Jon Goldwater, his son Jesse and chief creative officer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa.

Goldwater gave the green light to an Archie-meets-zombie series, Aguirre-Sacasa started writing it and fan-favorite artist Francesco Francavilla started penciling it. The result was a surprisingly good – and an instant hit.

“Afterlife with Archie” launched in October and reached No. 42 on the Diamond Comics Distributors Top 300 list for that month. That’s phenomenal for Archie Comics, which rarely cracks the top 100, and “AwA” No. 1 instantly sold out at the retailer level, necessitating a second print run.

In fact, most of the early issues of “Afterlife with Archie” have gone back to press, with combined print runs that routinely double or almost triple Archie’s next-best-selling titles, “Sonic the Hedgehog,” “Sonic Universe” and “Mega Man.” And it remains firmly lodged in the top 100 of Diamond’s monthly list as it approaches issue No. 6.

Why all the fuss? Because it’s very, very good.

Here’s one reason why: Aguirre-Sacasa hasn’t veered from the fundamentals of the Archie series, but he has sharpened them considerably.

For example, the teen-romance triangle of Betty-Archie-Veronica is not only still in evidence, but turned up to 11. After all, in regular Archie Comics, tomorrow is always another day. In “Afterlife,” there’s no guarantee of a tomorrow at all, which makes the girls’ rivalry all the more consequential.

And you know how Mr. Lodge has always sputtered and fumed amusingly about Archie’s antics for decades? Well, in this more realistic setting, his attitude is simpler – and harsher.

Mr. Lodge thinks Archie isn’t worthy of his daughter, and is therefore a threat to her happiness – which means he really, really doesn’t like the red-headed lad.

As for Archie, he’s no clumsy goof in this series, but a serious and almost heroic young man who sticks up for himself and for others – someone, in fact, who both a Betty and a Veronica could find attractive and admirable.

Take that approach and apply it across the board, and you get an idea of the strength of Aguirre-Sacasa’s writing. From Archie’s mother to the Lodges’ butler to a pair of closeted lesbians, the entire Riverdale gang has never enjoyed such surprising depth and dimensions.

Wait – I shouldn’t say the entire Riverdale gang, because a lot of them are turning into walking dead at a pretty rapid clip!

I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by saying the first zombie is Jughead, who ends up on the wrong end of a resurrection spell by Sabrina, the Teenage Witch.

I suppose oddball Juggie is the least realistic of the Archie gang, and therefore the most disposable in a serious setting. But taking Archie’s best friend out of the equation also changes the dynamics of the entire gang right from the start.

I have to admit that even though Jughead has been my favorite Archie character for decades, turning him into Archie’s most dangerous adversary at the outset was a smart – and daring – creative decision.

Meanwhile, the artist’s contribution is equally impressive. Francavilla employs a deceptively simple, retro style that doesn’t hide behind rendering, which requires unusually strong fundamentals to work. And it does, thanks to Francavilla’s mastery of composition, lighting and storytelling.

To tell you the truth, a lot of comics fans reacted really negatively when they heard the premise of “Afterlife with Archie.” But the series – and “Book One,” which reprints the first five issues – has proved so successful that Archie Comics is planning a second horror title, starring the aforementioned Sabrina.

Hey, when you’re hot, you’re hot.

Speaking of which, Archie Comics has another unusual book coming in a few weeks. “Diary of a Girl Next Door: Betty” ($13.99) uses the “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” format to tell a charming tale about everyone’s favorite overachieving blonde.

Set at the beginning of Betty’s freshman year, the book follows her diary entries as she goes through the sort of “crises” a teenage girl is apt to have in ninth grade: not being popular with the cool kids, finding a part-time job, learning BMX stunts, choosing a Halloween costume, getting that certain red-headed boy to ask you to the prom …

And it’s really charming. Betty is instantly likeable, of course, and is constantly – and amusingly – imagining great futures in different fields. She is also constantly battling (and making up with) her BFF, Veronica. And yes, we do get a little insight into how this partnership of opposites can possibly work.

The diary entries are by cartoonist Tania del Rio, who was responsible for a manga take on Sabrina a few years back. The art – doing its best to look like the doodles and stick figures of a tweenage girl – is by veteran Archie artist Bill Galvan.

I think quite a few young ladies – and maybe a few lads, as well – will recognize themselves in the hopes and dreams of the girl next door.

Speaking of Betty and Veronica, these two polar opposites have been friends, and friendly rivals, going back to the 1940s. They’ve been the stars in thousands of great stories by some of the best artists in the business – all of which is on full display in “The Best of Archie Comics Starring Betty & Veronica” ($9.99).

This thick, cement block of a digest – more than 400 pages – reprints the best of B&V going back 70 years, separated by decade and with introductions by various artists, writers, editors and other pros explaining why a given story is a favorite or how it illuminates some aspect of the girls’ personalities or relationship.

It’s a wonderful reading experience – and a long one! Plus, many of the stories are so timeless that it’s easy to imagine reading it again in a few years.

That’s a lot of fun for 10 bucks!

Captain Comics can be reached at capncomics@aol.com, comicsroundtable.com, on Facebook at Captain Comics Round Table or on Twitter at @CaptainComics. Used with permission.