Today, Patrick and Drew are discussing The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina 2, originally released April 15, 2015.
“[Horror movies] urge us to put away our more civilized and adult penchant for analysis and to become children again, seeing things in pure blacks and whites. It may be that horror movies provide physic relief on this level because this invitation to lapse into simplicity, irrationality and even outright madness is extended so rarely. We are told we may allow our emotions free rein… or no rein at all.”
Stephen King, ‘Why We Crave Horror Movies’
Patrick: I’ve always found it hard to explain the appeal of a scary movie — even to myself. Generally speaking, I don’t consider myself a fan of horror. Why add to the anxiety in my life, right? But I have to admit that most of my most memorable moments watching movies have been forged during flicks that scared the shit out of me. Sixth grade super camp — outdoor screening of The Birds. Eighth grade, all-night movie fest, my first viewing of The Exorcist. My reactions to these movies transcend logic, appealing directly to my baser impulses. But fear is not the only thing human beings feel deep down past their rational cores; sex appeal is equally illogical. The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina 2 plays with the concepts of sex and horror and takes advantage of the reader’s lizard brain reaction to both.
That title might be something of a misnomer for this issue: Sabrina herself gets very little page-time, and almost none of it is adventurous. Instead, the story focuses primarily on Madam Satan, the woman that Edward Spellman eventually left for Sabrina’s mother. We get Madam’s story in a wonky chronology, sometimes implying that she’s imposing this disorder on the ordering of events and sometimes leaving that to the omniscient (and overly familiar) narrator. Madam was a witch, and the good wife of Edward Spellman until he up and left her for a mortal woman — one capable of bearing children. The good Madam, with apparently no other recourse, throws herself into the lion’s den at the zoo during feeding time.
Chronologically, this is the first horrifying thing to happen in this issue. Robert Hack doesn’t skimp with the blood, but the violence here isn’t particularly imaginative. Ingeniously, it doesn’t have to be an inventive way to die to elicit a reaction — in fact, the obviousness of this moment does half the work in selling it. Think about it: she doesn’t match herself into a wolf’s habitat or a bear cage — she goes right for the lions. The imagery is horrifying immediately because the idea is so familiar. Ditto on the coloring on this page: Hack’s splashes of red only come from Madam’s dress or Madam’s blood.
From there, she goes straight to the special hell reserved for suicide victims. One of the punishments that’s part and parcel with this hell is the loss of one’s face. It doesn’t make shit for sense, but her eyes are also replaced with tiny skulls. This results in undead Madam Satan physically removing and wearing the face of a teenage girl. If you suddenly feel like you need a shower, that’s because I’m describing some fucked up shit right now. Hack runs with this grotesquerie.
When we finally do catch up with Sabrina, writer Aguirre-Sacasa shifts his focus from the subliminally horrifying to the subliminally sexual. We witness Sabrina dreaming about her pursuer, but rather than being asleep in her bed, Sabrina hovers a few feet above. She’s also only wearing underpants and a shirt (both in and outside of her dream), further emphasizing the that this is a naked and fragile moment for the character. Aguirre-Sacasa makes of point of reminding us that Sabrina’s not even sixteen yet — not in any accusatory way, just gently reminding the reader of that fact. That very same narration box introduces the song Bye-Bye Birdie to the narrative.
Ann Margret’s performance of the titular Bye-Bye Birdie is legendarily sexy. The power of the performance almost defies logic – anyone familiar with Margret’s voice knows that she’s not nailing this thing on a technical level. All other component parts of filmmaking — setting, blocking, editing, other cast members — are stripped away so she can present this song.
Aguirre-Sacasa makes absolutely certain the audience knows that this is the version Sabrina will be singing for her audition, even going so far as to have our hero pay a visit to Margret. (The added fun nugget being that Margret herself is a witch.) We’re supposed to be mapping that feeling you get when Ann Margret squeezes her breasts together onto Sabrina, and I believe it’s supposed to intrigue and repulse us just as much as the images of death, torture and suffering do elsewhere in the issue.
Drew, boy howdy did this one make me uncomfortable. It feel like Aguirre-Sacasa has a direct line into my id and can just jam on whatever buttons he wants. The reader’s emotions, to bring it back to King, are totally off the reins. Did you find this issue as subconsciously stimulating as I did? And do you think there’s any danger is wielding these images too cavalierly? For my money, the somber, detached narration offers just enough authority to convince me of the storteller’s good judgment in trotting out those images, but I could see making an argument the other way too.
Drew: Interesting. I absolutely agree with you that Aguirre-Sacasa and Hack use these images effectively, to the point that I disagree that there may be a chance that they’re being cavalier. Indeed, while I agree that we’re supposed to connect Sabrina’s performance to Margret’s, I think Hack is very careful NOT to sexualize Sabrina.
Slouching and pigeon-toed, Sabrina’s posture is downright awkward in that first panel — exactly what we might expect of a teen auditioning for a musical. She gains confidence throughout the sequence, but I think it’s important to note that she never looks more relaxed than in that penultimate panel, where she is quite literally eclipsed by Margret’s breasts. Heck, even Sabrina’s dress, designed clearly to evoke both Margret’s wardrobe from the film AND her yellow swimsuit here, is decidedly less low-cut than both of its inspirations. Sabrina is trying her darnedest, but, to quote Roger Sterling, “she’s not Ann Margret.”
Madame Satan, on the other hand, has sexuality to spare, lording it over men and women alike. Tellingly, all of her admirers suffer for noticing her, from the rapist truck-driver to Martin Coslaw to poor Ms. Gardenia. It’s not entirely clear to me if we’re meant to understand sexuality as inherently evil, or if it only seems that way because it’s being wielded by Madame. That Ann Margret is also a witch is an interesting wrinkle — is this proof that sexual desire is tied up in satanic practice, or proof that it isn’t inherently dangerous? I’m not sure the issue comes to any conclusions about that, but all of this works together to support Madame as mature and experienced, while Sabrina is young and naïve.
That’s a familiar conflict in teen drama — kids vs. adults — but I’m impressed at just how different Aguirre-Sacasa makes those worlds. Madame’s slow rise from the depths, stealing young girl’s faces, and terrorizing the countryside is the stuff of pure horror, while Sabrina’s concerns of playing the romantic lead opposite her boyfriend in the school play is pure bubblegum. Never mind that Sabrina can transmogrify tree branches or that she sleeps above her covers (four feet above her covers), she’s basically a regular teenage girl with regular teenage girl problems, not the least of which is the new drama teacher.
That conflict feels right at home at Archie comics, even as the details wallow in gore and occult mysticism. It’s a truly strange mixture, but one that’s also oddly alluring. I look forward to the next issue, and especially a more regular release schedule for this series — I can’t wait to see what happens next!
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?