Today, Drew and Ryan M. are discussing The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina 5, originally released May 18, 2016.
…he says that it was a spree, you know? A drifter or “gang of drifters.” You know, like it’s 1942. Like, uh, drifters are a national threat…
Deputy Molly Solverson, Fargo
Drew: That quote isn’t going to make a ton of sense to folks who haven’t seen season 1 of Fargo, but for me, it perfectly illustrates the tension between genre and setting that I’ve come to absolutely love about that series. David Lynch is the undisputed master of this kind of tension, exploiting it to idiosynchratic heights in Twin Peaks and Blue Velvet, but for me, Fargo twists the knife a little further by making the characters explicitly aware of this incongruity. It’s not just about the seedy crime underworld of the seemingly innocent midwest, it’s about how nobody within that setting could conceive of something so dark happening there — they basically believe they’re living in a caricature of 1942.
Archie Comics is notorious for representing a similar caricature of mid-20th-century high-school, which is exactly what writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa has played against in Archie’s horror line. That tension carries Afterlife With Archie, which largely plays its genre straight, but is complicated much more in The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, which freely mixes its 1960s teen comic setting with its modern horror sensibilities, playing those elements off each other in unexpected ways. It’s both genres and neither of those genres, giving it an unpredictability that may just be more vital than anything Lynch or the Coen brothers could cook up.
Issue 5 finds Aguirre-Sacasa finding the common ground between 1960s bubblegum and modern horror in the use of dramatic irony — we’re privy to information (some of) the characters aren’t, which elevates the drama in virtually every scene. We know that Betty and Veronica are actual witches (or, at least, they wish they were), so their drama teacher’s appraisal of their performance in Macbeth as “convincing” takes on an ironic twist. We know Sabrina is colluding with Sabrina to bring back Harvey, so all of the needling of Sabrina to tell the truth has some added tension. And, finally, we learn that Harvey didn’t come back as Harvey, putting Sabrina once again in a dangerous situation she doesn’t see coming.
But for me, the real fun of this issue was when the genres didn’t line up so elegantly; when the bubblegum turns suddenly violent, or the horror suddenly seems sweet and innocent. I can’t help but giggle when Madam Satan whisks Betty and Veronica off to “the witch-dimension,” but the best illustration of the latter just might be Sabrina’s tactic for lying during her trial:
It’s such a quaint, antiquated gesture for lying — the thing most people do daily without any such outward gesture. I’ve never met anyone who actually makes a point of crossing their fingers when they lie, though it’s regularly depicted in film and television. Indeed, my strongest association with it is from a scene in Sesame Street Presents Follow That Bird. I don’t think that’s a movie anyone expects a horror comic to bring to mind.
These quaint touches can be found throughout the issue, anchoring the action in a familiar 1960s setting, which give the moments of real horror extra oomph. Aside from Betty’s “Satanic stigmata” early in the issue, the issue is bloodless, right up until Harvey’s resurrected body comes knocking at his parents’ door.
Whoa. That scene goes from 0 to 60 insanely fast. It would be hard to swallow in an issue of Archie, but the events around it are crazy enough to make this one of the more likely events in the issue. Still, it comes as a complete surprise — we expect the horrors to come from the evil witches pulling the strings here, not the mortal suburbanites quietly eating dinner.
There’s another factor in here that I didn’t account for: political commentary. Aguirre-Sacasa establishes early on that the arguments against witch/mortal “miscegenation” are the same as those against gay marriage, even going so far as to adapt that oft-quoted line from Leviticus about it being an “abomination.” This issue also brings up notions of sexism and racism within in the witch council and Riverdale, respectively, which adds interesting (if not always developed) texture to this world. This may feel like both a 1960s teen drama and a horror story, but the characters still have to deal with bigotry and oppression in ways that characters from either genre typically don’t.
Ryan, I’m not entirely sure what conclusions to draw from that last point, so I’m hoping you have some thoughts on that. Also, I totally failed to mention Robert Hack’s artwork, which brings Aguirre-Sacasa’s tensions to vivid life. Do yo have any favorite images from this issue?
Ryan M: The dissonance of genre that you note here is an excellent source of tension. The same kind of dynamic exists between the mid-century Americana of Riverdale and the political realities of the time. For most Archie Comics stories, gender roles are exploited for laughs and rarely examined while race is dealt with an occasional reference and the inclusion of token characters like Chuck and Nancy.
Aguirre-Sacasa addresses race directly in the issue through Nancy playing one of the witches in Macbeth. Betty and Veronica attempt to draw a parallel between racism and the persecution of witches. Betty and Veronica are white middle-class women who only empathize with racial inequities as a means of recruitment. This dynamic could be read as a critique of the second-wave feminism of the sixties. Betty and Veronica feign empathy for Nancy’s struggles while trying to get her in their coven. As Betty says, the oppressed and disenfranchised are “easy pickings.” It’s a cynical and dark take on the witches and establishes a moral ambiguity to the women who are ostensibly aiding our heroine.
Sabrina is beset by men. Her trial is presided over by Crowley, who uses the kinds of tests that characterized history’s witch hunts. Witch hunts that were used by the patriarchy to terrorize women into complacency. Crowley orders and a male bailiff conducts the trials. There is one silent women on the council, but she doesn’t participate at all. The council is run by men, while women fill the gallery. All of the institutional power rests with a small minority of men. Sabrina is able to outmaneuver the council even though it means inflicting damage on other women. In the end, her father has hijacked the body of her dead boyfriend and appears to be a murderous threat.
The way that Edward Spellman is treated within the issue is not as a straightforward villain. In his first appearance in the issue, we see him in a flashback, juxtaposed with Sabrina on trial. His argument for the right to marry a mortal echoes the kind of cases involving race and sexual orientation that have been appealed over the past fifty years. With our modern eye for justice, Edward’s case seems to be honorable and even his choice to threaten the council with the Dark Lord feels justified. The images accompanying the threat give a hint of Edward’s darkness.
Robert Hack’s work in this sequence does an excellent job at underscoring the complexity of tone Drew discussed in Aquirre-Sacasa’s work. The image of Edward on the far left looks almost like a campaign poster. He is handsome and smiling in sepia tones. The tentacled conjuring in the second panel above is a striking contrast. The danger and demonic nature of Edward’s magic is made clear by Hack’s use of color. The blue in the center seems like the eye of a beast, with the red looks like smudged blood stains. The contrast of the just man who is also a tool of Satan is effective and an excellent precursor to Edward’s appearance later in the issue.
Hack reinforces the many layer of the story by wielding multiple tones even in the same image.
Madam Satan’s wanton pose and body parts peeking above the bubbles in her bath have a relaxed humanity while her ghoulish face is central to the image. The pink in the bath implies either indulgent soap or blood. It’s a strange image and, while not key to the plot, the one to which my mind keeps wandering back. Aguirre-Sacasa and Hack have executed the the melding of two genres without compromising either.
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?