Friday, January 16, 2015

The Contagion Spreads: Afterlife With Archie Infects Another Reader

Following the ascent of Archie, I committed a few nickels to the latest installment, Afterlife With Archie (official site). I wasn't at all sure I'd dig it. Snapshots like the one below, from an enthusiastic review, left me cold:
Encountered out of context, the cleverness of the scene is quickly acknowledged and just as quickly dismissed. The Archie-Betty-Veronica triangle: we get it, we get it. "The next 70 years," is a nice wink at Archie history. But is that all this exercise amounts to?

Not by a long shot, in fact. While I'd caught (how could you not?) how Archie's response regenerated the eternal question, I'd missed just how adroitly it reinvigorated his essential appeal as a sweet-natured goof. Sure, he can't decide -- who among us could? -- but he sees how this doesn't just make for sexually tense fun, it also contributes an element of misery to the inner-lives of his two favourite girls. Archie is self-aware -- who knew?

Much is made (and rightly so) of this surprisingly deft exploitation (or "judo-flip") of 70-year-old tropes -- chiefly the work of writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa. But there is a larger and equally canny excavation of the overall Archie template, beginning with the aesthetic. Sending Dan DeCarlo kids to battle zombies would leach all tension from the narrative, so we get Francesco Francavilla penning panels that are an artful blend of David Mazzucchelli and Mike Mignolla. Here Francavilla tweaks the concluding "to be continued" splash-panel, bringing stark contrasts and an oppressive color-palette to the usual "Riverdale Gang" closer:
Alright, another typical element from the Riverdale template: a school dance (Halloween, in this case).
Betty and Veronica are both miffed at the other's attempts to sway Archie with their choice of outfit. For the last 70 years, the writer/artist would use a third-person limited approach to the story, following a single character through the maelstrom, occasionally resorting to a dual-narrative that reaches resolution by the end of the gag. In this case, a reader could expect to follow Betty and Veronica on two distinct quests to foil each other's attempts at wooing Archie, before concluding with the two of them in a self-defeated state of dishevelment, watching with chagrin as Archie dances with the beautiful visiting foreign exchange student.

This is not the concern of Aguirre-Sacasa and Francavilla.To heighten their narrative's actual source of tension -- the arrival of zombies in Riverdale -- they frequently switch from one character's point-of-view to the next, to yet another, including traditional supporting players like gazillionaire Hiram Lodge (Veronica's father):
The death of Hermione Lodge (an infrequent character in the older template) raises the pathos, of course, adding emotional depth and reader investment to Hiram, and his subsequent dealings with an over-indulged daughter and her clumsy suitor.

Other story-lines converging on the larger zombie apocalypse narrative include a couple of new (to me, at any rate) characters, struggling with their sexuality:
So far, so frank -- rather delicately so, actually. If Archie's gay friend Kevin Keller introduced not just gay sexuality but sexuality itself to Riverdale, the Afterlife template treats it compassionately as a matter that imbues not just thrills, but also confusion and conflict -- with others, and with one's self.

None of this is revolutionary in comics, per se -- Ed Brubaker, among others, has been plying this approach for decades -- but it is revolutionary to Archie. Comics artists, says Scott McLeod, work with what the reader brings to the page. In the case of Archie, readers are bringing a set of expectations that have been deeply engraved into the national psyche for the last 70 years. And in the hands of Aguirre-Sacasa and Francavilla those expectations are proving to be astonishingly malleable.

It's not uncommon to experience vivid dreams following a zombie entertainment. After I'd read Afterlife I had a deluge of them, most of them involving me trying to shepherd my nearly-adult daughters through some all-consuming peril -- a forest fire, in one case.

There was a brief window, when I was roughly 10-years-old, when I read Archie and thought, "Wouldn't it be great if High School was like that?"

It isn't. Your friends can change into unrecognizable ciphers, and so can your parents. So can you. It's like a Zombie Apocalypse, really.

And who better to navigate such treacherous terrain than a sincere, red-headed putz whom even the dodgiest among us . . . kinda trusts?

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