Given that the first story cycle of Afterlife with Archie is called “Escape from Riverdale,” it’s not a spoiler to reveal that the ending of the just-released fifth issue has our ginger hero and his pals and gals fleeing their home wondering what the hell they’ll do next.
What is unexpected is that the execs at Archie Comics might just be asking themselves that same question right about now. The company is currently experiencing a creative, critical and commercial renaissance they’ve not experienced in decades…if ever before. This comic is a huge reason why. So, what can be done to make sure it doesn’t all go to shit faster than a zombie attack at a prom? The solution is simple: Keep letting Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and Francesco Francavilla doing whatever the hell they want. Since Afterlife with Archie debuted last year, the pair have continually topped themselves with each subsequent issue, a streak that has yet to be broken.
Like its predecessors, this installment carefully subverts expectations. How? By placing the seemingly dull character of Hubert Smithers in the spotlight. The long-suffering butler of the Lodge family, Smithers is one of the most one-dimensional characters in the Archieverse. (Trust us, that’s saying a lot). Well, it turns out that Smithers is a pretty complex dude. Using the form of an entry in Smithers’ butler’s log, the issue takes cues from Downton Abbey, The Walking Dead (obviously) and 90210and blends them into a story about heroism and sacrifice that somehow manages to be in line with Archie’s rich history.
With the survivors of Riverdale’s zombie outbreak holed up in the Lodge mansion, Smithers tries to maintain his composure and do his duties despite the chaos that is literally closing in around him. Through flashbacks, we learn how he was taught to make himself indispensible by always anticipating his master’s needs and learning how to observe and be observed only when it is necessary. Smithers lives his life by this code, and as he moves stealth-like through the compound he encounters drama unfolding amongst Chuck, Nancy and Ginger, Kevin and Reggie, and Veronica, Archie and Betty. He helps when he must, and when the undead surround the mansion he convinces Mr. Lodge to support Archie’s survival plan by sharing a grim personal anecdote that sets the stage for all of the characters to make a last-ditch attempt to run for their lives.
Of course, this being an issue of Afterlife with Archie, there is so much more happening as well –along with some more character deaths and a few dollops of the book’s now-trademark creepy subtext. (Wait, does Smithers like like Veronica?) But to tell you more would be to spoil the undead fun. So know this: As the story rolls towards its conclusion, Francavilla’s art becomes more and more overwhelmed by shadows that adeptly mesh with Aguirre-Sacasa’s increasingly dark storytelling. The characterizations here are brutally realistic, and there are several bold confrontations between characters that are pointedly more shocking than all the bloodletting is. These first five issues have been better than anybody can have anticipated. Here’s hoping that the undead continue to terrorize Archie and company for years to come.