Comics have embraced horror since the earliest days of the medium, from EC Comics and Will Eisner on through to the present day. Since the Comics Code restrictions were relaxed a few decades ago, and with artists and writers like Guillermo Del Toro expressing an abiding love, it’s only natural that today we’ve got a couple of scary comic book recommendations.
After the jump, not just for kids anymore
Tom Chick: Caliban
If someone were to describe Garth Ennis’ Caliban, you might think it’s just an alien rip-off. In fact, by softening the specifics, a fairly detailed plot description can apply to both Alien and Caliban:
A mining ship stumbles across an abandoned alien hulk that has been infected by a parasite from yet another alien species. The long-dormant parasite then infects the crew of the mining ship. It must be stopped by our blue-collar working stiffs, not just for the sake of the crew, but for the sake of humanity.
There. You can stick that on the back of an Alien DVD case or an issue of Caliban. Ennis isn’t coy about the similarities. The epigraph is a dedication to H.R. Giger.
Like Alien, Caliban has a decidedly feminine angle. When Alien came out in 1979, slasher movies were just getting their footing with the idea of the “final girl”. Jamie Lee Curtis had just dispatched Michael Myers the year before. Friday the 13th wouldn’t be along until next year. So it was still a surprise when the lone survivor turned out to be Ripley. We weren’t accustomed to final girls yet. Caliban, published last year, isn’t going to get as much mileage out of a bad-ass chick fighting an alien.
So it takes a different approach to the same angle. Caliban is ultimately a love story. Amid the ghastly violence, the freaky body dysmorphia, the starship technobabble, and the obligatory quasi-theological pontificating, Caliban is illuminated by an unmistakably romantic spark. I could just as well paste this text into a Valentine’s Day write-up.
All seven issues of Calian are collected into a trade paperback available from Amazon.com here.
Chris Hornbostel: Afterlife with Archie
Through the month of October, it’s been tremendously enjoyable to discover and recommend horror themed bits of entertainment. By tomorrow, I’ll have ended up talking about 20 different things that are all worthwhile in their own ways. Of everything I’ve recommended this month, however, nothing has brought me the sheer, unalloyed delight of the comic book series Afterlife With Archie. The elevator pitch here is beautifully simple: the zombie apocalypse begins in Riverdale, of all places. A beloved pet is hit and killed by a car. Perhaps Sabrina, the teenage witch can bring him back from beyond the veil? She can…but when the pet returns he isn’t what he once was, and after a couple of bites and fights, it’s full on zombie mayhem.
Yes, go ahead, be skeptical. I certainly was. These are Archie comics, after all! I do have a nodding familiarity with the Archieverse. My grandmother used to buy bundles of Archie comics for me to read whenever I stayed over at her house. I caught reruns of the animated series on TV occasionally. The local newspaper ran a four-panel Archie strip daily. And so lets be real here: the Archie I know is as anachronistic and square as that weird jalopy car he drives and Jughead’s odd-looking hat. Archie was the hyper-sanitized tripe we’d make fun of at the games and comics shop where I’d hang out with friends in high school. It’s the comic book you can buy in supermarket checkout lines.
A few years ago, the rights to the Archie comic book empire were willed to the son of its original publisher, and he realized that dwindling sales and even less relevance meant things couldn’t continue as they had been. He hired award-winning screenwriter and playwright (and avowed Archie fan) Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa to take over as chief creative officer. Riverdale got a makeover in both art style and content. Kids in Riverdale now text on smartphones. They have modern hangups about relationships and insecurities about actual teenage stuff now. There are even openly gay characters featured in stories.
Afterlife With Archie became Sacasa’s pet project, although in some of his editor’s notes he makes it clear that when he pitched it he wasn’t sure the idea would fly. Its a comic aimed squarely at a knowing, grown up audience, and it is a credit to the publisher that they are gleefully all in on this. Make no mistake: this is no kid’s comic. Afterlife goes very dark right from the start, and pulls no punches. Beloved Archieverse characters are gruesomely dispatched in cavalier ways that might make George R. R. Martin blanch. There are relationships, rivalries and grown up betrayals that don’t feel dumbed-down at all. And holy crap, what the heck is going on with the creepy Blossom twins?
It would be easy enough for this to exist as a generic zombie apocalypse scenario, re-skinned with a bunch of familiar childhood characters. The creative team here could have gone the easy route and made this a surface-level parody too. Sacasa clearly loves both horror and all things Archie though, and dives headlong into both with an infectious (ahem) joy for story and detail. We get character backstories and motivations, fears and doubts, jealousies and anguish. For that alone, the books are a triumph, because classic Archie comics mostly only ever hinted at this stuff, preferring instead to keep things shallow in service of easy grade school gags. Sacasa also knows the key elements of zombie mythology and skimps on none of them. There’s an inevitableness to the horde that besieges the gang. There are gruesome deaths galore. And yes, absolutely there is shattering sadness and a sense of loss throughout.
All of this would be just fine as a weird curiosity piece, but Afterlife With Archie isn’t interested in being a novelty act. It wants to creep you out with a great story and gorgeous atmospherics. The classic pulp-inspired artwork of artist Francesco Francavilla is a big part of that. His panels manage to be vivid and stuffed with details when necessary, beautifully clean and direct whenever that fits better. Sacasa knows his horror too. It could be gimmicky as hell when this zombie apocalypse takes a distinctly Lovecraftian turn (and I mean, a hard turn) halfway through the series. It’s almost a shock at how gracefully Cthulhu mythology is blended with the zombie terrors here in a “Why hasnt anyone else thought of this?” kind of way.
I adore every bit of Afterlife with Archie. I originally read all 10 existing issues (it’s an in-progress series) digitally, but found myself at the local comic shop yesterday buying hard copy originals to have and display…and I am so not a comic book kind of guy. Afterlife with Archie was also enough of a critical success that it’s spawned a spinoff series, The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, an alternate universe setting with a different art style that’s every bit as great. (Think 1960s bobby-soxer chosen one fighting Cthulhu mythos in full Buffy The Vampire Slayer awesomeness. How many copies of that comic did I just sell?) I recommend both highly. In fact, in October until Halloween, you can get digital versions of both series from the Archie Comics Reader app on sale for 99 cents per issue.
You can start your own collection of Afterlife with Archie in a graphic novel that collects the first six issues here.
The first six issues of The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina are available in graphic novel format here.
Tomorrow: Friday favorites
Making October Scare Again began here.