Los Angeles Review of Books

IN JUNIOR HIGH, I was an avid fan of Archie comics. I owned a stack of digests as tall as I was, and wrote and drew my own versions, casting myself as the star alongside Archie, Betty, Veronica, Jughead, and the rest of the gang. I had an origin story, a whitewater rafting adventure, a time-travel tale, and a Calvin and Hobbes crossover that I hope Bill Watterson never hears about because he seems to frown on that sort of thing. I drew a cover for every issue I made, copying the layout of Archie & Friends in exact detail. The logo was spot on. I numbered and dated them. And in the top left corner of each issue, I drew the Comics Code Authority’s seal of approval. I had no idea what it was.

Archie Comics and the Comics Code Authority were inextricably linked for decades, dating back to the creation of the Comics Code. In 1954, Dr. Fredric Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent tied comic books to juvenile delinquency, focusing on their violent, gruesome, and sexual imagery, and comic-book publishers were called before a Senate subcommittee to answer for their supposed damaging influence on the impressionable youth of America. Fearing that a content code would be imposed by the government, several comics publishers banded together to form the Comics Magazine Association of America (CMAA) and draft their own code. The president of this organization was John L. Goldwater, the publisher of Archie Comics.

The CMAA created the Comics Code Authority (CCA) to monitor the content of comics, and wrote strict guidelines for approval — rules based largely on Archie’s in-house content code. While most other publishers dipped their toes into the horror and crime genres that dominated the comic-book industry in the early 1950s, Archie Comics remained committed to comedic books aimed at young readers, most of which concentrated on the hijinks of the gang from Riverdale High. Their own content code reflected their goal to produce unobjectionable, wholesome fun. Unfortunately, the juvenile delinquency outrage of 1954 cast all comics publishers in the same light, and the Archie Comics crew was forced to respond.

Out of self-preservation, but also as a mercenary tactic, Goldwater and the other publishers behind the CMAA moved to eliminate the genres that were drawing the most public scrutiny. They figured that if horror and crime comics disappeared, there would be nothing left to complain about and the hysteria would quiet down. These were also the industry’s top-selling genres, and eliminating these books would open up a lot of space on the newsstands for publishers who sold other fare. The CCA severely limited what could appear in crime comics, and prohibited the use of the words “horror” and “terror” in comic-book titles altogether. Within two years, nearly every publisher with a heavy crime or horror focus went bankrupt, while business was booming for those with relatively innocuous content.

Archie Comics clung to the code for decades, publishing pleasant, mild books long after other Comics Code–supporting publishers had moved on to darker, more gruesome fare. But today they are a very different company. Archie dropped the CCA in 2011, and now, after helping to destroy the horror genre ages ago, Archie has launched its own violent, macabre horror series, Afterlife with Archie. Written by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa with art by Francesco Francavilla, the series follows a zombie invasion of Riverdale brought on by Sabrina the Teenage Witch’s dark-magic resurrection of Jughead’s dog, Hot Dog.

Afterlife with Archie is everything the Comics Code Authority stood against. It is an ode to horror, a grisly cavalcade of death and despair combined with just the right amount of humor and heart to counterbalance the darkness and make tragic losses hit even harder. Strongly influenced by the comics industry’s golden age of horror, especially infamous classics like The Vault of Horror and Tales from the Crypt, Afterlife with Archie is a celebration of the pre-code era and a gleeful eulogy for the now-defunct content code.

The book owes its existence to Francavilla’s love of old horror series, specifically EC Comics, the pinnacle of 1950s horror comics before they were wiped out by the CCA. Before the series began, Francavilla drew an alternate cover for Life with Archie #23 in the style of an EC book, renaming it Afterlife with Archie and promising “all new chilling tales” from “America’s typical teen-zombie.” The cover showed Archie in a cemetery, with zombie versions of Jughead, Betty, and Veronica coming after him. Aguirre-Sacasa, who was working on a different Archie series at the time, raved about the cover in a meeting with Archie Comics’ CEO Jon Goldwater, John L. Goldwater’s son, who took over the company in 2009. He loved it: by the end of the meeting they’d decided to launch a horror series starring the Riverdale gang.

The first issue of the series foregrounds its horror inspirations. Pages are chock-full of references to iconic horror properties: Sabrina uses H. P. Lovecraft’s Necronomicon to resurrect Hot Dog, Jughead’s bedroom is adorned with a poster of the 1922 vampire film Nosferatu, Betty talks about the Hitchcock films Psycho and The Birds, while the nerdy Dilton and token black character Chuck debate who would win in a fight — Freddy Krueger or Michael Myers. The Halloween dance that is the setting of the first zombie attack is awash with classic horror costumes, including Veronica as Vampirella and Moose and Midge as Frankenstein’s monster and the Bride of Frankenstein.

Enthusiastically, the series violates nearly every prohibition listed in the CMAA content code’s horror section. The CCA banned “all scenes of horror, excessive bloodshed, gory or gruesome crimes,” and stated that “all lurid, unsavory, gruesome illustrations shall be eliminated.” The book includes all of these: The first issue ends with an infected Jughead entering the school dance, maw agape and dripping blood. The following issue revels in the horror of his attack, which only grows as more students and teachers turn into zombies. The entire aesthetic of the book’s trade dress, in fact, is blood spatter. The code also prohibited “scenes dealing with, or instruments associated with walking dead,” a rule abandoned in the book’s conception.

But the CCA did allow for the depiction of evil, albeit for moral purposes. “Inclusion of stories dealing with evil shall be used or shall be published only where the intent is to illustrate a moral issue and in no case shall evil be presented alluringly nor as to injure the sensibilities of the reader.” A previous section similarly declared that “in every instance good shall triumph over evil and the criminal punished for his misdeeds.” Afterlife with Archie is not about learning a lesson or defeating the bad guys. It is about the existential horror of everyone you love turning against you, and deliberately intends to injure the reader’s sensibilities. As with most zombie stories, the victories are few and minor. Five issues into the series, most of the town has been turned to zombies and only a few humans survive. A brief moment of triumph quickly gives way to another, more dangerous circumstance. This is not a story that can end well. There will be no punishment for misdeeds; the best we can hope for is that a single soul might survive. The Comics Code wanted to teach readers that everything would be okay; Afterlife with Archie emphatically does not do that.

Good horror often transcends genre: Afterlife with Archie overthrows several of the CCA’s “Marriage and Sex” regulations as well. One rule emphasized “respect for parents,” which is flagrantly disregarded when a character meets his zombified father and kills him with a baseball bat. The code was keen to present romance as a healthy, wholesome activity that benefited society, but in Afterlife with Archie, romance is more often the cause of doom. Jughead’s long-time love interest, Ethel, is the first victim of his school-dance attack, while another character’s need for the comfort of her partner in her last moments as a human turns both of them into zombies.

The “Marriage and Sex” regulations prohibited “illicit sex relations” and “sex perversion,” which in the 1950s included homosexuality. Afterlife with Archie features Kevin Keller, Archie Comics’ first gay character, and has him punch out Reggie when called a “perv.” It also introduces a lesbian relationship between two traditionally straight characters, Nancy and Ginger. While homosexuality is generally accepted today, the book suggests that other taboos have been crossed as well, hinting at an incestuous relationship between twins Jason and Cheryl Blossom.

The code’s “Costume” rules banned “indecent or undue exposure” and “suggestive and salacious illustration,” while mandating “dress reasonably acceptable to society.” In response, Veronica throws a bikini-clad pool party mid-zombie apocalypse, and the series’ variant covers depict Betty and Veronica in skimpy lingerie while being menaced by the undead.

Afterlife with Archie lays waste to everything that the Comics Code Authority held dear, but it more specifically embodies Dr. Wertham’s worst fears about the comic-book industry. Wertham, contrary to popular belief, was not crusading to eliminate all comic books. His rhetoric was vitriolic, but his aim was a rating system under which children wouldn’t be allowed to buy comics with mature content.

Wertham wanted to keep crime and horror books separate from kids’ books. Aguirre-Sacasa and Francavilla merge them, taking the wholesome Archie characters that so many children know and love and placing them in a horrific and violent setting. Wertham well knew the degree to which horror and violence appealed to young readers, and the thought of this series would have made his head spin — a fact that likely brings a smile to the faces of the series’ creators and more knowledgeable readers.

However, the characters in Afterlife with Archie aren’t exactly the beloved Archie characters. All of the familiar elements are there, but these are not continuity-free, gag-based stories. The book’s tone is more The Walking Dead than Shaun of the Dead. Aguirre-Sacasa creates a more realistic Riverdale, where residents retain their emotional histories. The classic Archie/Betty/Veronica love triangle has real stakes that wear on all parties, and these are not played for laughs. There’s a seriousness to this world, a weariness with the status quo that critiques the cheery facade of most Archie comics. Even outside of the zombie apocalypse, none of the main characters seem particularly happy with their lot in life.

Francavilla captures this Riverdale well, making all of the characters look realistic but still recognizable as their iconic selves. He eschews the big emotions of Archie comics for nuance, and trades the brightly colored palette for moody colors evocative of EC Comics’ classic horror tales. Francavilla’s zombies are gruesome, but he doesn’t overindulge, focusing on specific, shocking moments rather than perpetual gore.

Afterlife with Archie is the final death knell of the Comics Code Authority. There is no greater sign that Archie Comics has moved on from the CCA than zombies scouring Riverdale in a truly frightening, EC Comics–inspired series. This unofficial funeral for the Comics Code is long overdue; the harsh censorship cost many creators their jobs and stifled the creativity of the comic-book industry for decades. But now, when kids draw their own Archie comics today, they’ll do so without the classic seal of approval, and probably with far more gruesome creatures than I ever could’ve imagined in the streets of Riverdale.

¤

Tim Hanley writes about Wonder Woman and women in comics. His book Wonder Woman Unbound: The Curious History of the World’s Most Famous Heroine came out April 1.

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