AICN COMICS Q&@: Corey Michael Dalton talks about Riverdale terrors with Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa & Francesco Francavilla from AFTERLIFE WITH ARCHIE!
@’s by AFTERLIFE WITH ARCHIE’s
Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa & Francesco Francavilla!!!
Of course, what makes the off-the-wall concept come alive is the superb execution. The suspenseful and emotionally honest writing of Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa (THE SENSATIONAL SPIDER-MAN, MARVEL DIVAS, BIG LOVE, GLEE) works in tandem with the moody, decidedly un-Archie-esque artwork by Francesco Francavilla (DETECTIVE COMICS, THE BLACK BEETLE), creating a fully realized world populated by characters worth rooting for. The series recently ended its first story arc with issue 5, which makes this the perfect time to catch up with the comic’s creators to find out how the series came to be, what the reception has been like, and what they have planned next for the Riverdale gang.
COREY MICHAEL DALTON (CMD): Francesco, I’ve read that your zombie-centric variant cover for an issue of LIFE WITH ARCHIE inspired Roberto to pitch AFTERLIFE WITH ARCHIE, so I guess we have you to thank for this delightfully bizarre series. Were you surprised when he contacted you and suggested the two of you collaborate on a non-jokey, horror comic set in Riverdale?
FRANCESCO FRANCAVILLA (FF): [President of Archie Comics] Mike Pellerito had tried to get me to draw some interiors on an Archie book for a while; we were just waiting for the right time and the right project. So when he approached me telling me that a series was spinning off that variant cover I did for LIFE WITH ARCHIE, and that Roberto and everyone at Archie wanted me to illustrate it, I was surprised [about a full Archie zombie series] and excited and honored all at the same time. Of course I said yes right away and of course I wasn’t expecting all the success the book would get.
CMD: Aside from Francesco’s awesome cover image, what made you think the concept of Archie zombies would lend itself to an ongoing series, Roberto?
ROBERTO AGUIRRE-SACASA (RAS): I’ve said this before, but to me, Archie is pop culture. And I think that as a brand, it’s strongest when it’s in dialogue with pop culture, current trends, that sort of thing. So it felt, instinctually, like a strong, simple concept: What if the zombie apocalypse started in Riverdale? It’s only in retrospect, a year later, that the combination of teenagers and horror seems like such a no-brainer.
CMD: Did you encounter any resistance from the Archie Comics’ higher-ups when you pitched the series? Seeing Jughead eat Ethel Muggs could warp a kid for life!
RAS: Everyone at Archie is incredibly invested in the series and overwhelmingly supportive. After we came up with the idea for this series, rather than give them an outline or pitch them what the first issue would be, I said, “Hey, can I just write it? It’s all going to be about tone, and I won’t know what that tone should be until I actually write it.” And [Archie CEO] Jon Goldwater said, “Start writing.” And it’s been full-steam ahead ever since. I think every so often [Archie Editor-in-Chief] Victor [Gorelick] is like, “What did Sabrina ever do to Roberto to deserve this kind of treatment?” but it’s all in good, gory fun.
CMD: The response to the series seems to be overwhelmingly positive with sell-out issues and glowing reviews. Has there been any backlash? Any upset old-school Archie fans? Has “One Million Moms” weighed in?
RAS: Not that I know of. And I think fans are appreciating the fact that though these characters are in extremis, they’re still who they’ve always been. Archie is Archie, Reggie is Reggie (oh, boy, is Reggie still Reggie), just amped up. So far, we haven’t betrayed their essences (I hope). That’s the magic trick of the series.
FF: None that I know of either. I was actually surprised to see how quickly everyone embraced my more realistic take on the Riverdale crew.
CMD: The series begins with Jughead’s beloved pooch, Hot Dog, dying from getting hit by a car. Then Sabrina brings him back to life via black magic, which starts the zombie plague (and gets her banished to the Nether-Realm by her freaky, scary aunts). What made you decide that the inciting incident should involve an animal and not one of the human characters?
RAS: Full-disclosure, it came out of a conversation I had with one of my friends who’s a writer on GLEE, Ross Maxwell. I was trying to decide between Dilton and Sabrina—is the origin of the zombie apocalypse science-based or supernatural-based? And Ross said, “What if something happens to [Sabrina’s cat] Salem and Sabrina has to bring him back from the dead?” I thought that was a great idea, but that it should be one of our core characters, Jughead, and that it should involve the most iconic pet in Archie lore, Hotdog. To me, it gave the series instant emotional stakes: How far would you go to save the life of a beloved pet?
CMD: We, the readers, later learn that Reggie was driving the car that killed Hot Dog. Even for someone as self-centered as Reggie, that has to require some soul searching. Is his guilt over kind-of-sort-of causing the zombie apocalypse part of what led him to foolishly attempt to free undead Midge from the pool in issue 5?
RAS: Absolutely. I love issue 5 because it finally starts to scratch the surface of Reggie’s guilt. He is so tormented—he’s always been tormented, playing second fiddle to Archie, being in love with Midge—now he’s colossally guilt-ridden, as well. And carrying a huge secret: that it’s really his fault the zombie apocalypse happened. We are definitely going to explore that more in our second arc. And it’s going to get a lot worse for Reggie. And he’s going to make some truly horrific decisions. He’s going to get his own issue, and I know how it’s going to end for him, I just haven’t figure out what the story is, exactly.
CMD: Back in 2003, Archie Comics tried to stop your play ARCHIE’S WEIRD FANTASY, in which Archie comes out as gay, from being performed. Now you’re the chief creative officer for the company, and openly gay Kevin Keller (who is a total badass in this series, by the way) is one of Archie’s most popular characters. How does it feel to see such a reversal in just one decade?
RAS: Surreal, when you put it that way. But honestly, Archie’s such a different company now from what it was even seven years ago—even as a fan I feel that—that I don’t really think about it that much. ARCHIE’S WEIRD FANTASY was a play I wrote in school that kind of became this thing. I’m much happier being legitimately employed by Archie, let me say that. (It is strange when I go back to my apartment in New York – I have a poster from ARCHIE’S WEIRD FANTASY on a wall, in my office. It feels like… a time capsule, almost.)
CMD: On the subject of gay characters, has it ever been hinted at before AFTERLIFE WITH ARCHIE that Ginger Lopez and Nancy Woods are secretly more than friends? If not, why did you feel like that was an important element to introduce?
RAS: As far as I know, it’s never been hinted at, but when I went to include Nancy and Ginger, I wanted to do something different with them. And maybe it’s ‘cause I’d been writing for “Glee,” which had Santana and Brittany as these two cheerleaders in a relationship, that I thought: “Well, this could be interesting.” I also thought, Kevin’s been so accepted and assimilated in Riverdale, would it be different for two women? What about two women of color? And then I remembered [Nancy’s boyfriend] Chuck, of course, and I thought, “Well, this would be an interesting love-triangle…”
CMD: Speaking of surprising relationships, what’s the deal with Cheryl Blossom and her brother Jason? They seem awfully close for siblings ….
RAS: Oh, the Blossoms, yeah, they’re upsetting, aren’t they? Again, I thought if we were going to include them, what spin could we give them? Growing up, I’d been obsessed with the FLOWERS IN THE ATTIC series of books, and I thought, “Well, what if that’s what it’s like for Cheryl and Jason? And Jason sees the zombie apocalypse as an opportunity to solidify their perfect, insular world, and Cheryl sees it as an opportunity to break free?” Again, it’s story possibilities driving the choice. And I wanted them to give the entire series a creep vibe that had nothing to do with zombies.
CMD: Francesco, given Roberto’s long fascination with the property, he is obviously a huge fan of Archie. But, being raised in Italy, how aware of the characters were you growing up? Do you have that same kind of nostalgic connection to them?
FF: Unfortunately, there were no Archie comics on the newsstands or in comic shops in Italy growing up. But once I got access to the Internet and to worldwide pop-culture icons, I became aware of the property, and once I moved here in US (more than a decade ago) I started to randomly read them too. So I didn’t have the knowledge and memories that Roberto has, but I was still pretty aware of most of the citizens of Riverdale and their dynamics when we started this.
CMD: Do you have any input into the writing of the series or its general direction? Are the two of you collaborating on the plot or specific scenes?
FF: The general direction is all in that beautiful place that is Roberto’s mind. We do collaborate on each single issue in terms of telling that specific story. In brief: Roberto sends over the script, I lay out the pages, sometimes changing this or that or adding a few panels or whatever makes the reading experience better. Changes are discussed and most of the time approved. I do the final art while Roberto reworks (if needed) dialogue based on the final art (i.e., sometimes things are shown so clearly in the art so there is no longer any need for that balloon or caption).
RAS: Francesco’s sensibility and aesthetic influences every single issue—and my writing of every issue. Sometimes subconsciously, or—as was the case with issue 6—directly, by him telling me what he wants to draw. And me doing my best to get it in there. Issue 6 comes from Francesco’s very specific, profound love of H.P. Lovecraft. Mine, too, but it’s Francesco’s issue.
CMD: How are you adapting your pulp-inspired style to fit the world of Archie, Francesco? Is it difficult to maintain the iconic look of these characters while also giving them a new, darker spin?
FF: Not as difficult as I initially thought. The thing with icons is that you can render them in different styles and they are still very recognizable.
CMD: So far, the story has been contained to Riverdale, but as of the end of issue 5, that looks to be changing. Will we see more of this world and how it’s being affected as the zombie plague begins to spread?
RAS: Oh, yes. Issue 6 is its own thing, but then we’re back with the gang in issue 7, and they’ve hit the road in a big way. And they’re facing their first winter post-apocalypse…
CMD: What has been your favorite scene to write or draw so far?
RAS: Hard question. I think issue 6, as a complete story, as a horror story from first sentence to last, if we can pull it off, will be my favorite of the series so far. I’m also really happy with the way Smithers came off in issue 5. That character, especially his relationship with Veronica, was super-fun to write.
FF: Yep, issue 6 is shaping up to be one of the most FUN to draw, but definitely I have a soft spot for #4 (both Vegas and the sequences with Archie’s dad) and several scenes from #1 (the burial and return of Hotdog, the first appearances of “Jugdead”).
CMD: I know that issue 6 will finally show us what Sabrina’s been up to since she was banished to the Nether-Realm in issue 1, which I can’t wait to see. Any hints about what’s coming after that? Any particular scene or visual that will blow readers’ minds? Will we get to see a certain Josie and her fellow Pussycats, perhaps?
RAS: The last two pages of issue 6 will be, I hope, mind-blowing. Francesco wanted to draw a two-page spread; hopefully, this scene more than justifies the allotted real estate. (Honestly, it’s the most upsetting thing I’ve ever written, comics-wise.) As for Josie and the Pussycats, I like to imagine that they were on tour when the apocalypse happened, flying in their private jet when the outbreak first occurred. And that they’re still up there, somewhere, in the night-sky…
CMD: Is this a story that you can see continuing indefinitely or do you already have the ending in mind? Surely Sabrina’s exactly one-year banishment provides a ticking clock of some sort.
RAS: Wait until you read issue 6. Sabrina will be in no position to help anyone. At least, not for a while. As for the ending of the series, which is long, long, long way off, I have an image in mind, although I haven’t a clue how we’re going to get there.
CMD: Are you both in this for the long hall? The combination of your two specific skill sets is what’s making the series work for me, so I certainly hope so!
RAS: I don’t ever want to stop writing this book. And Francesco can’t ever stop drawing it. That’s the only way I can put it.
FF: Anyone who knows me, knows I am always juggling multiple projects, but yes, this is a book I would love to stick with for as long as I can.
CMD: I am loving the vintage “From the Vault” black-and-white back-up stories in each issue, too. Who chooses those? Any rhyme or reason to which back up goes in which issue?
RAS: Every issue I get a couple to pick from, but then I narrow the options down to one. I try to choose something that speaks to the issue at hand—or I have a personal connection to—though it doesn’t always work out that way. They’re gems, though, aren’t they? The dream would be to keep reprinting them in the pages of AFTERLIFE, then collect them all in one massive trade or hard cover.
CMD: Archie Comics just announced a new, horror-tinged SABRINA THE TEENAGE WITCH series. Will that be taking place in the world of AFTERLIFE WITH ARCHIE or will it be something else entirely?
RAS: Totally different beast. Sabrina’s got enough going on in AFTERLIFE. And her series is, among other things, an origin story, so it felt like it should be its own thing. Oh, and it’s a period piece, so that wouldn’t work with AFTERLIFE. Though there will be echoes. Really, they’re sister-books. The big question no one’s asked is: Will Archie, Betty, and Veronica be in the SABRINA book? Hmmm…
CMD: Roberto, you worked on the book for SPIDER-MAN: TURN OFF THE DARK and revised the book for IT’S A BIRD... IT’S A PLANE... IT’S SUPERMAN. Five words— AFTERLIFE WITH ARCHIE: THE MUSICAL. How ’bout it?
RAS: I’d do it in a heartbeat. I mean, if there can be an EVIL DEAD, THE MUSICAL, there can be an AFTERLIFE WITH ARCHIE musical, for sure. But only if Francesco designs the sets and draws the poster.
CMD: Thanks to Roberto and Francesco for their time. AFTERLIFE WITH ARCHIE’s first collection (containing issues 1-5) will be available June 7. If you haven’t yet given the series a try, I highly recommend it!
Corey Michael Dalton has written and/or edited trade books, magazine articles, short stories, novels, comics, plays, radio shows, reviews, websites, blogs, and more. You name it, he's probably written it. Except religious scriptures. He hasn't gotten around to those just yet. Soon ...
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