‘Chilling’ With Sabrina: Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa & Robert Hack Reinvent The Teenage Witch [Interview]
Few publishers have been willing to take risks and expand their slate like Archie Comics has over the last several years. Once famous for old fashioned Americana, Archie has increased the diversity of its character roster, launched a number of well-received cross-promotions like its series with the band Kiss, welcomed real-world guest stars like Sarah Palin and Barack Obama to Riverdale, revived its line of superhero titles, and most surprisingly (and successfully), branched out into no-holds-barred horror with the smash hit mature-readers zombie title, Afterlife With Archie.
This October, Archie's banking on lightning striking twice when it debuts The Chilling Adventures Of Sabrina, a series that places the company's famous "teenage witch" in a world of deep psychological occult horror.
We sat down with the series' creative team of writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and artist Robert Hack to ask some questions about their goals for Sabrina and to talk about how one undertakes such a radical re-envisioning of an established character.
Comics Alliance: Why Sabrina? Why take a character who, despite a long history in comics, is probably best-known for her '90s TV sitcom, and make her the lead of this new horror series?
Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa: Sabrina has a long, somewhat convoluted history in the comic books, yes, but most people only know her from the TV show. But she’s a major player in the Archie canon—along with the main gang and Josie and the Pussycats, she’s possibly the biggest player, in fact—so we wanted to bring her forward and give the devil her due, pun intended. And her history is a bit squishy. She used to be a secret witch; now everyone knows she’s a witch—well, what’s the core truth? And for all her incarnations, one thing that hasn’t ever been done with Sabrina is go full-out horror with her. So it was a perfect witches’ brew of that started to congeal…
CA: Was this an idea you came up with? And what made you decide this concept had legs, and it was something you were going to pursue?
RAS: Even though Sabrina only had a brief cameo in the first issue of Afterlife, right away it seemed like she was going to be a breakout character. And an issue or two into Afterlife, Jon [Goldwater, CEO of Archie] and I started talking about what might be a cool companion book, and I had an image, a simple image which is in our first issue—a substitute teacher walks into Sabrina’s classroom, and that teacher is Madame Satan—which I pitched to Jon, who right away said, “Let’s do it. Go.” Of course, the pitch and story developed from there…
CA: Robert, how did you end up as the artist on this title? You've been mostly known for your cover work. Was doing interiors something you'd been wanting to do, or was there just something about this project that you couldn't resist?
Robert Hack: I came on board after congratulating Roberto on being made the Chief Creative Officer of Archie. He shot back immediately asking if I wanted to do a new monthly book. There were a few odd conversations with other folks at Archie in the months leading up to that, where they were wondering about my schedule, so I had a feeling my name was being bandied about for something. I had planned on doing interiors this year; and before I was offered Sabrina, it was going to be a book I was writing myself, but that all went on hold – when an opportunity is as cool as this, you just jump at it and sort out everything else later.
CA: Roberto, in the most recent issue, Sabrina has proved to be a far more important character in Afterlife With Archie than readers originally suspected – does this new series exist in the same basic continuity (despite being set some decades earlier)? Is it the same Sabrina, or a variation on a theme?
RAS: She’s not the same Sabrina as in Afterlife, which is set in the present, and which has Sabrina (as of issue #6) married to Cthulhu. It’s an alternate version of Sabrina, set in the 1960s, in a different continuity. Sabrina Prime, if you will. Or Ultimate Sabrina. Or Dark Sabrina. That said, it’s not inconceivable that these two very different teen witches might meet-up on some dark and stormy night, at a crossroads, in front of a cemetery…
CA: Aside from Sabrina and her aunts, will we be seeing any other familiar characters in this book?
RAS: Yes, for sure. We’re not just bringing Sabrina and Hilda and Zelda back, we’re bringing her mortal boyfriend Harvey Kinkle, her mean-girl rival Rosalind, her father Edward, her cousin Ambrose, the Enchantress, Madame Satan, and yes, of course, Salem… And at first, I was like, “Salem can’t talk, that’s just not scary,” but then I was like, “If the Sandman can have a talking raven, then Sabrina can have a talking cat.” And come on, it’s just so much more fun and cool. And hopefully he’s still scary.
RH: I'm making sure Salem is still scary! My cat is slightly evil, which has been great reference.
CA: As the horror genre goes, are there any particular creators and/or works that have been particular inspirations for this new series?
RAS: Stephen King, always. Ira Levin, always. Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist. The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane and Omen. A camp classic, but I love it, The Bad Seed — wait until you see one of Sabrina’s temper tantrums — and there’s a bit of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane in Hilda and Zelda’s relationship… As far as literature, I think of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s witchy short stories, as well as an incredible novel from the 1950’s, The Conjure Wife by Fritz Leiber. And I’m re-reading Sandman and Alan Moore’s run on Swamp Thing, not for direct inspiration, but for…aspiration.
CA: How far along are you planning the series? Is it envisioned as finite, or open-ended? Are you structuring it as stand-alone issues, larger story arcs, or a mix of the two?
RAS: A longer arc to start—to really set the characters and the world, that I’m thinking of as Sabrina’s definitive origin, but then we’ll also be doing some stand-alone stories. I have an idea to tell a story about Sabrina spending the night in a haunted house, alone, on a dare, to try and liberate spirits. A one-hander, not counting the ghosts…
CA: I saw Francesco Francavilla's alternate cover for the first issue. Are you planning to do similar things with every issue, as you have with Afterlife? Do you have any other creators lined up to provide covers?
RAS: We’re having a lot of fun with the variant covers. Many of which Robert, himself, is doing as homages to some of our favorite horror movies. Rosemary’s Baby, Carrie, and Creepshow, to name a few. But yes, we’ll be having some incredible artists lending their talents, as well, including one of my favorite artists, whom I worked with while I was at Marvel. (On a horror book, that’s the only hint I’ll give…)
CA: Robert, what sort of visual influences are you bringing to this book?
RH: Like Roberto, I love old horror movies I was excited by his influences on Sabrina because they were already some of my favorites. We geeked out over a mutual fascination with stuff like Susperia, or the silent film Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages. I'm also bringing a bit more of the B-movie with me- from the creepy grindhouse stuff to the MST3K-fodder.
CA: And are there any creators, artists, or stories you've looked to while working on this? Any comics you feel have really nailed the horror vibe?
RH: Oh yeah, tons. Artists like Johnny Craig, Alex Toth, Bernie Wrightson, Al Williamson, Wally Wood, Doug Wildey, Alex Nino, and Steve Ditko were already my go-to inspiration. I've been looking at a lot of their old horror anthology comics lately. From old EC comics, to Warren magazines, to some of the Archie horror comics of the '70s. That's sort of the tone I'm aiming for with Sabrina. As for current artists, Mike Mignola is a huge inspiration. His comics are a masterclass in economy of line and design.
CA: When working on designs for this series, what sort of vibe have you been going for? Did you do much research to capture the haircuts, clothing styles and attitudes of the era in question? Are you looking to harken back to any of Dan DeCarlo's original 1960s designs for these characters?
RH: It feels like my whole life has been research for this book! I am a huge fan of vintage design, the cars, furniture, clothes- the whole look of the era. There wasn't much of a learning curve needed as my work is already fairly rooted in the past. But I have been studying plenty of old Dan DeCarlo stories and vintage fashion magazines for specific reference.
CA: Roberto, you're not just a creator at Archie, but also the Chief Creative Officer, working to increase awareness of all the company's brands and characters. So when setting up something like Afterlife or this new series, how do you go about reinterpreting the characters for a new audience without creating confusion? Is there a delicate balance in maintaining the existing, all-ages Sabrina, and creating this new take for a different demographic? Do your own creative impulses ever conflict with your vision for the line as a whole?
RAS: Excellent question, and there are no fast and hard rules, to be honest. I believe Archie and Sabrina in the all-ages books are so different from the Afterlife and Sabrina incarnations—how the books are packaged and marketed—that there’s little chance of confusing our customers and/or “damaging the brand.” Because as we’re constantly saying with Afterlife, though we’re putting these characters in extraordinary situations—a zombie apocalypse, for instance, or an insane asylum run by H.P. Lovecraft—we’re maintaining their core. Archie is still Archie, across all the universes. Sabrina is different facets of the same teenage witch. You can buy one, you can buy the other—hopefully some people will buy both—but they’re quite consciously being created for different audiences, and to attract different audiences to Archie.
Of course, none of this would be possible without the vision and support of Jon Goldwater, who is constantly challenging us, as writers and artists, so we can do the same for our readers…
CA: We've been hearing rumblings that Afterlife and Sabrina may be simply the first couple titles in an Archie horror line, with more on the way in the future… Any clues about what sort of things you may have up your sleeve next? Completely new properties, or re-vamps of other classic characters?
RAS: Two books are a matching set, three books are an imprint. I would love, love, love for Archie to have a full-on horror imprint, with Afterlife and Chilling Adventures of Sabrina and a third book, possibly sci-fi horror, possibly a mash-up of Dilton’s Strange Science and Archie’s Weird Mysteries, in the vein of something like The X-Files or The Twilight Zone. But first thing's first—launching Sabrina and continuing Afterlife!