SPOILER WARNING: Spoilers lies ahead for "Afterlife With Archie" #4, on sale now!
When Archie Comics announced that it'd be taking the squeaky clean students of Riverdale High into a horror comic with "Afterlife With Archie," one of the biggest questions was how deep into mature readers territory the zombie story could go.
But since its launch, the monthly series by newly minted Archie CCO Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and artist Francesco Francavilla has worked overtime to jump into true horror territory, and with this week's fourth issue "Afterlife" bites deep into the underbelly of Riverdale. Aside from a growing zombie horde, flesh-tearing animal fights and just a hint of incest, the issue capped off its tale by forcing Archie Andrews to kill his own father with a baseball bat after the paterfamilias was infected by Jughead's supernatural virus.
With the emotional scene marking a twisted turning point for the book, CBR News spoke with Aguirre-Sacasa about the series to date, and the writer went in depth on how he and Francavilla shaped the fight, why each issue carries its own emotional theme, where the zombie action turns next and what exactly is going on between Cheryl Blossom and her brother.
CBR News: Archie's journey in issue #4 of the series is one of the more dramatic and horrific scenes in "Afterlife" to date, but I wanted to start by talking about this as a turning point for Archie as a character. How does his taking a life -- undead or not -- change how Archie will approach the task of zombies?
Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa: This issue is definitely a turning point for Archie. I don't want to say that from here on out, Archie's a kick-ass, take-no-prisoners kind of guy. He's still a kid, he's still figuring things out. But he is also, maybe finally, growing up. He's faced death first-hand now. (That's what the flashback with Fred and Mary and Li'l Archie that opens the issue is all about -- setting up that inevitable moment when a young person realizes he or she is not beyond death.) And he's committing himself to helping the other survivors, his friends. So it's a moment of growth for Archie, a milestone on his journey towards becoming an epic hero. But he's not there yet. Nowhere near, in fact.
Break down how you crafted this scene with Francesco. Every issue of "Afterlife" has had a thematic hook so far. What was most important on that front as Archie had to fight his own father, and how did you and Francesco come upon that "flashback grid" storytelling form as the way to make it work?
The first issue was Jughead's story -- it started with a splash page of Jughead, it ended with a splash page of undead Jughead. Issue #2 was told from Veronica's point of view. Issue #3 was bookended by Hiram Lodge. Issue #4, with the exception of the brief Cheryl-Jason interlude and the zombie epilogue, is all about Archie, his mom and dad, and his dog Vegas. It's Archie's dark coming-of-age, and it all hinged on that one primal scene: Archie killing his father to protect his mother. When I wrote the scene, I went back to the comic book death that most impacted me as a kid: The Joker killing Robin. I went back to that issue, to see how Jim Starlin and Jim Aparo handled Jason Todd's beating/murder. And it was a grid. So I wrote the killing as a series of narrow panels, with every third one being a flashback, to some iconic moment from Archie's childhood, shared with his dad. But Francesco, because he's brilliant, turned the entire page into a 15-panel grid. So the moment is even more deconstructed -- more emotional -- and more horrific.
While Archie's always been the "hero" of this universe in any context, in the early issues he didn't seem to necessarily be the one taking the most control of the situation. I'd probably argue Veronica was the focus up until now. Does the death of Archie's father definitively make him the "leader of the survivors" (in his own head or otherwise)?
Not consciously, no. In the next issue, we do track how Archie's... encounter with Fred affected him, but it's not quite so cut-and-dry as: "I'm the leader now." Like I said, Archie's on that path, for sure, but this is only the first of many tests for him. Next issue is his biggest one yet.
At the same time, like I said, it was a pretty brutal scene. I get the sense that part of the challenge in a book like this is how to continue to amp up the scare factor after you've opened with a flesh-eating Jughead. How does the death of Archie's father answer that issue for you, and where can you continue to go from here?
Every day, I sit in the "Glee" writers' room with Ryan Murphy, who is one of the most brilliant, most creative people I know. And every episode, he asks, "What's it about? What's the scene that people are going to talk about? What's the moment that will stay with them?" So with "Afterlife," I do want each issue to have a specific theme, a specific point-of-view. And yes, a water-cooler moment. Which can be a big death, absolutely, but it can also be a quiet moment, as well. As long as it's surprising and resonant in some way. Next issue, tons of stuff happens, but to me, what's most "shocking" is a scene between two of the kids, just talking. But yes, every time we finish an issue, we think: "The bar's been raised, what can we do next?"
One of the most fun aspects of the series so far has been how you've threaded in various horror tropes from the slumber party aspect of #3 to the way Chuck and Dilton are "Scream"-esque horror experts. What's the overall tone you want to strike in the book between the horrific moments and the more tongue-in-cheek ones?
Look, "Afterlife" is a horror book, but I think we all want it to be "fun-horror," if that's even a term. Like, I love Garth Ennis' "Crossed," but I wouldn't necessarily call that book tons of fun, you know? Because this is teenagers, and because this is, first and foremost, an Archie book, we want to honor that -- the comedy and romance -- as much as the horror and gore. The sweet spot to me, tonally, remains Sam Raimi's first two "Evil Dead" movies. Which are scary as hell, but also hilarious.
Of course, Nancy and Ginger seem to strike that balance most strongly between their emerging confrontation about their sexual orientation and the kind of grindhouse-esque positioning as badass cheerleader chicks. How do those two sides of their story work together as they go on the road?
They're totally grindhouse, aren't they? That sequence of them burning the diner, then driving off on Pop's motorcycle -- especially the way Francesco drew them -- is pure Robert Rodriguez/Quentin Tarantino. They're badasses, yes, but again, I didn't want them to be just that. I wanted to them to be struggling with something. And I thought, as I was writing the diner scene, "Why wouldn't these two hot girls be at the dance?" And then my next thought was, "Maybe because they feel like they can't go together, as the couple they truly are." And then I thought, "But Kevin's out in Riverdale, so why couldn't they be out?" But -- as the girls discuss -- Kevin's a guy, Kevin's not a person of color, Kevin's not in relationship with a woman the way Nancy's in a relationship with Chuck... It all started to stack up, in a really interesting way. Suffice to say, we're going to be exploring all of this for... well, as long as Ginger and Nancy are alive. (Stay tuned for Issue #7.) And also, though we've kept him on the backburner for these first issues, Kevin has some great stuff in the next issue.
And I can't go too far in this discussion without discussing the Circe and Jamie Lanister vibe of Cheryl and Jason Blossom. What draws you to amping up the adult nature of the storytelling in this non-all ages book outside just the gore of the story?
It was like the Ginger-Nancy relationship, it just sort of... kind of... happened. And what's hilarious is, at first, I thought we were being so subtle and coy about it, I thought most people wouldn't even pick up on it. But, of course, reading it now, it's about as subtle as Moose Mason in a china shop. But, like I said, "Afterlife" is a horror book, not just a zombie book, and when I was kid, I was obsessed with the V.C. Andrews "Flowers in the Attic" series, and I thought, if we're going to use these two characters, Cheryl and Jason, we need a really compelling reason to include them. And I wanted it to be ultra-creepy. I mean, twins in horror movies are great. The twin girls in "The Shining," the twins in "Carrie," it's just a classic horror trope we wanted to explore.
Of course, the next issue seems to be pointing to the siege of Lodge Manor, and I've got two questions here. First up, it seems like Jughead is a little less mindless a patient zero than we initially suspected. In what ways does this revelation deviate from the standard idea of "mindless zombies" and how important is that aspect the longterm plot of the book?
Yeah, it seems like zombie Jughead does remember... something, doesn't it? Honestly, I don't know how far we're going to push that, but when we realized we had this zombie wearing a crown (Jughead), and this zombie in a princess gown (Ethel), it was like, "Okay, Dead Jughead is King of the Zombies and Big Ethel is his undead Queen, that's pretty cool." (I think Francesco first called Dead Jughead "King of the Zombies," actually.) And they're not random zombies, they're characters we've known for more than 70 years, so it was like, "Why not keep using them, as long as it makes sense?"
On the other side, Veronica, Betty and the gang are trapped inside that house with zombies under the pool cover and zombies at the gate. What's the attraction to the classic "cabin fever" kind of horror that can provide? Is there a chance this crew will be reconnecting with Archie or the rest of the gang anytime soon?
I don't think it's a spoiler to say that everyone's back in Lodge Manor for Issue #5. And after the solo "quest" nature of Issue #4, we really wanted to get all of our characters under one roof so we could create a hothouse atmosphere and see these different personalities play off of each other, under some serious distress. And, yeah, it absolutely is part of horror tradition: Eventually, it always comes down to a bunch of people trapped in a house, the zombies banging on the doors and windows. Whether you're in Pittsburgh or Riverdale.
Overall, what's been the biggest surprise to you in terms of what you and Francesco can do with the storytelling of this very unique book after four issues have hit?
I can't speak for Francesco, but for me, the biggest surprise -- and the most gratifying thing -- has been the unconditional -- like, completely unconditional -- support this book has gotten from everyone at Archie, from Jon Goldwater on down. It's a labor of love for everyone… I remember when I first started at Marvel, ten, eleven years ago, I pitched a "What if?" story about Spider-Man, which was, basically, the horror version of Spider-man's origin. With Peter slowly turning into a giant spider the way Jeff Goldblum turned into a giant fly in "The Fly." And it was crazy -- Mary Jane snuck into Peter's house and found Aunt May and Uncle Ben dead, their bodies wrapped-up in cocoons, drained of blood, and one of the editors was like, "You're insane." Now, every time I send in a script, I think, "This is it, this is when Jon [Goldwater] says no and tells me I'm crazy." But it hasn't happened yet, it's always like, "Oh, my God, I love this! Keep going!" That's a cool feeling.
"Afterlife With Archie" #4 is on sale now from Archie Comics.