I've wondered more than once over the last few years about Archie comics' continued relevance. Some books have been clear stunts involving the death of a main character or the introduction of a homosexual one. Other have been silly cash grabs like Archie Vs. Predator (a spiritual successor to Archie vs. Punisher). But beneath each of these titles is the same basic, silly fantasy of the idyllic 1950s that has remained roughly unchanged since it really was relevant (or at least, not out of date). In the best arc of Ed Brubaker's Criminal ("The Last of the Innocent"), the world of Archie was corrupted by crime and murder, using the iconic innocence of Riverdale as a stand-in for a desperate man's nostalgic past. When I first read Afterlife with Archie, I recognized immediately that it was an excellent horror book, but I wondered why it needed to be about Archie characters. I thought at first it might be, like Criminal, using the corruption of the Archie world to represent an adult loss of innocence (or at least, make the loss of innocence that much scarier), but I now see things a little differently. Afterlife with Archie posits a world where the relationships and characters taken for granted for fifty years, are in fact living, breathing, deeply flawed individuals inhabiting a much darker world than they would ever notice or admit. The arrival of the undead does not create darkness but highlights what was already there. It's a clever approach, and one that, through the writing of Aguirre-Sacasa manages to avoid the arbitrarily gritty re-imaging that comics sees on a daily basis (looking at you 'Scooby Apocalypse').
This brings us to Archie #9, a rich study of Riverdale's resident asshole, Reggie Mantle: the man who started all the madness by killing Jughead's dog in the first place. The issue is told from Reggie's perspective as he wrestles with his guilt and self-loathing for causing the apocalypse but also simply for being a bad person. It's a touching look inside a character who has been a literally two dimensional bully for the entire history of Archie Comics. In the space of 30 pages, I had come to sympathize with and care about Reggie more than many a main character in lesser series. I am still mulling over a final, surprising character beat, but it's a testament to Aguirre-sacasa as a writer that there's so much to chew on in a single issue.
The release schedule for Afterlife with Archie has, as anyone who has read up to this point will know, been awful. As such, it's unclear to me exactly how this issue will fit into the larger ongoing survival story of the main cast, but as an issue in its own right, it's one of the best I've read in quite some time. Afterlife with Archie has been brilliant in its unwillingness to fall squarely into the cliches it plays with, never satisfied to be merely an odd Archie book or even merely a great zombie book. In this issue some of the stranger elements of the mythos begin to come into play, and the future for Archie and the rest of the Riverdale gang looks grimmer than ever (not to spoil, but the villain of the piece is a hell of lot scarier than Mr. Mantle).
And of course, Francavilla continues to bring his own charismatically shadowy style to the issue. I don't know that I could pinpoint why exactly Francavilla's work, which is in many ways fairly simple, works as well as it does, but AWA #9 is as sharp looking an issue as one could hope for. In the very beginning, I wished that the series had opted for a more traditional Archie style to highlight just how strange the invasion of the undead was, but in retrospect, Francavilla's distinct noir look instead highlights just how different the book is from traditional Archie--which is of course, exactly the point.
[su_box title="Score: 5/5" style="glass" box_color="#8955ab" radius="6"]