The critic encounters standard elements of comics work — word balloons, square panels, standard layouts — and immediately interprets them as meaningful to the content of the work. This is another example of the critic’s own ignorance coming out to play. Imagine if a critic wrote (of a prose novel) that “the straightness of the lines of text reflect the narrator’s matter-of-fact perception of the world, and the ordering of the letters from left-to-right functions as a subtle reference to his growing political conservatism as he comes of age over the course of the novel.”
Dylan Meconis, “How Not to Write Comics Criticism“
The medium is the message.
Michael McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man
Drew: These two statements might seem contradictory, but I firmly believe both of them. All elements of any work of art are meaningful, but not all are uniquely meaningful. Meconis makes this distinction later in his essay, acknowledging that even the elements we tend to take for granted can be full of meaning, but I tend to agree that they aren’t always worth noting in a discussion with a limited word count. The problem, of course, is in distinguishing which elements are uniquely meaningful to the work at hand, and which can be understood as “standard elements” — an easy task when you’re familiar with the medium (or genre) in question, but becomes a bit more treacherous when you aren’t. In those cases, we have to weigh the value of those fresh eyes (which might be more valuable for a discussion aimed at people equally unfamiliar) vs. doing more research (which will be better for an audience already well-versed in the medium/genre). I’ve opted for the former in this discussion of Afterlife with Archie 7, so my apologies to anyone who is no longer as excited about the novelty of Archie! With! Zombies!
Actually, this issue is a pretty fantastic jumping-on point, giving us tons of backstory and clearly laying out the characters’ motives. Heck, a lot of those motives are ported directly from the very platonic ideal of Riverdale, with Archie torn between the glamorous Veronica and the brainy Betty. Those broad strokes are essentially exactly what I expected from this series (plus zombies, obviously), but what really struck me with this issue is how the dark tone of the post-zombie world has crept into those flashbacks. Again, I’ll own my ignorance here and admit that I don’t know if that has always been true of this series. Did this Riverdale feel like the Riverdale of Life with Archie? It seems logical to play up the contrast between the idyllic innocence of Archie and the grim horror of a zombie story, but maybe this series has always taken place in a darker world.
Ultimately, I suppose exactly how new this subversion is doesn’t matter — it still pushes against our expectations of what an Archie comic should feel like. The zombies are the obvious representation of that subversion, but they play a relatively small role here. Indeed, while the spectre of death looms large over this issue, the biggest horrors come from how people treat one another, from Betty helping Polly cover for being battered to the unsettling truth about the death of Cheryl’s childhood dog. While domestic violence feels at least within the realm of “very special issue” territory, canicide is decidedly not something we’d ever expect to come up in an Archie comic. Of course, that’s not even as dark as this thing gets. After this half-hearted confrontation about the dog, Cheryl returns to camp covered in Jason’s blood. There’s enough subtext bubbling beneath that scene for any long-time reader to feast on, but for me, it’s enough to just be shocked at everyone’s actions.
Actually, with all of these big life-and-death situations boiling over, the love triangle runs the risk of being totally overshadowed, but writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa finds a clever way to up the ante without making it seem silly: he makes Betty’s diary the symbol of her secrets from Veronica. It’s brilliant — he spends the rest of the issue building up the importance of that diary to Betty, going so far as to make it our avenue into the story, so that we feel personally threatened when Veronica snatches it up. That’s especially important, since our sympathies should otherwise lie with Veronica, who is clearly the victim of her boyfriend and best friend’s secret love affair.
I suppose the biggest surprise to me is how naturally these elements fit together. I thought this series was for sure going to be about the incongruities of Archie and zombies, but Aguirre-Sacasa and artist Francesco Francavilla manage to find a tone that plays both totally straight, nabbing shorthand for the situation from the best zombie narratives, and the characters and relationships from Archie. My expectations may have only been mine, but I’m impressed at just how wrong they were. Patrick: No, I think you’ve struck on what makes this conceit so surprisingly durable. You don’t really need to be familiar with the specifics of Archie comics to understand that there’s a nearly a century of emotional history between the characters. Archie-Betty-Veronica is the quintessential American love triangle, and Riverdale is the quintessential American suburb – those are emotionally resonant concepts, putting Afterlife with Archie at an immediate advantage over other zombie fiction, which has to work doubly hard to get you invested in its characters without boring the audience. That’s what most of the first arc coasted on. That’s not to imply that the first arc was in any way deficient, but there was quite a bit more typical zombie-horror and siege-suspense in those first five issues, as if Aquirre-Sacasa and Francavilla were just excited about wielding the elemental powers of all these genres. It excites me how much more time they spend in this issue developing the quiet, intimate moments in this issue. Here’s one of my favorites from the first couple pages. They are incredibly patient panels, willfully free of any of the hallmarks of either zombie fiction or Archie. Look at how little copy there is in these panels; Betty’s words have been — and will continue to be — an incredibly important part of these flashbacks, but Francavilla’s art sings over paltry narration, filling those “Hi!”s with so much precious meaning.
I’m also just excited to see this series settling into a different set of zombie stories. The first couple issues were torn from the classic horror movie mold — infection, outbreak, escape — but now the characters are forced to actually deal with the results of a zombie apocalypse. That’s not new territory by any stretch of the imagination: The Walking Dead has been playing that song for years, and way before that, George Romero plumed those depths in Dawn of the Dead in 1978. In the grand tradition of the narratives that stick around long enough to deal with zombie aftermath, Afterlife with Archie is beginning to suggest that the real enemy is the living, not the dead. Aguirre-Sacasa is a downright pessimist, and straight-up refuses to let our Riverdale heroes interact with any other survivors. It’s one line in the diary and then we’ve moved on. I assume we’ll get to Archie’s Team vs. The World, but for right now, we have to work out Archie’s Team vs. Itself. Drew already mentioned the upsetting dynamics between Jason and Cheryl, and the non-specific horror that transformed into, but that makes me incredibly nervous for the Riverdale love triangle. Where there was once an open and jovial competition for Archie’s affections, there is now deceit and distrust. The relationship always kind of hinges of a kind of jealousy — one that, I have to admit as a modern reader, I don’t totally get — but transplanting that base emotion into a post-apocalyptic setting makes the barbs the Betty and Veronica trade that much more venomous. Let’s add one more worrying ingredient to the stew: this chapter of the series is titled “R.I.P. Betty.” For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page. Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore. If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to Comixology and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?