‘Sabrina’ #1: All The Gothic Horror And Human Sacrifice A Teen Romance Needs [Review]
I'm not saying that it's easy to succeed with an oddball idea in the world of comics, but I have to imagine that it's a heck of a lot harder to do it twice in a row with very similar ideas -- which is exactly what Archie Comcis and writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa are trying to do in the pages of this week's Chilling Adventures Of Sabrina #1. A year after Aguirre-Sacasa teamed up with artist Francesco Francavilla and found critical and commercial success with Afterlife With Archie, where the familiar teenagers of Riverdale found themselves contending with the zombie apocalypse, he's joining artist Robert Hack to try to strike gold a second time -- not with a spinoff of Afterlife, but by expanding the horror line with an entirely new title, taking the same characters and twisting them around again.
The result is a comic that dives headling into a world of horror, witchcraft and high school drama, and while it might not have the immediate eyebrow-raising hook of seeing Archie beat his zombified father to death with a baseball bat, it's definitely a pretty amazing comic that's hitting at exactly the right time.
The introduction of Sabrina the Teenage Witch to the world of Archie back in 1962 was a pretty weird move for Archie, and if you want to see just how weird it was, you just have to pick up this comic. They've helpfully printed her first appearance as a backup story, and even as someone who's read that comic before, it still always strikes me as bizarre that she started there and ended up becoming Archie's most marketable character. There's something sinister in that first appearance, with all the bits about how she uses her magic to make the mortals around her fall in love and how she'll alter the score of a high school basketball game for no purpose other than to take the edge off her own ennui, and while that sinister edge is undoubtedly part of the appeal -- it does, after all, form the basis of most of the best Sabrina stories -- it's also a weird fit for the rest of the universe. They weren't so much adding Sabrina to the world of Archie as they were adding Archie and his gang to a world where there was definitely actual magic going on.
That's the idea at the core of what Aguirre-Sacasa and Hack are doing with this book. They've taken Sabrina to its sinister extreme, and by the end of it, they've turned the entire Archie universe into something strange and unsettling -- and also pretty hilarious.
Not that it starts out that way.
Aguirre-Sacasa and Hack kick off their story -- which is called "The Crucible," to maximum groaning effect -- by going about as dark as you can in a book like this. I mean, the first page has a caption identifying Sabrina's father as a man who has "conjured his lord Satan in the living flesh numerous times," and that's the least of it. There are secret pacts, forbidden knowledge, a woman who's trying to escape with her newborn, and a magically assisted kidnapping followed by having the woman lobotomized in a mental institution. It's genuinely unsettling and horrific in the most literal sense of the word.
But the great thing about Sabrina #1 is that the creators start from there, and -- much like with Afterlife, which I still think is pretty hilarious -- the comedy starts creeping in around the edges too.
Sabrina's interaction with her creepy and overbearing (magical) aunts and Salem's sardonic wit have always been part of her story, and Sabrina keeps those elements intact with a pretty great effect. It's a little darker, sure, and built slightly more around terrifying children, bringing about the end of all things and then manipulating the emotions of the people around you, sure, but it's there and it works.
What's amazing is that it works while everything else in the book is still happening, and neither part detracts from the other. It's funny and horrifying in equal measure, and that's a very difficult balance to strike. Here, though, the comedy slowly starts to infiltrate the book about halfway through, not just from the writing, but from the subtle changes that Hack makes to his style. The entire thing is moody and gothic, with brushstroke backgrounds and sketchy detail on everything that's not directly in focus that give it the sense of something happening in a dream, something that's creepy and half remembered but unsettling just the same. But as it goes on, the faces turn a little happier, the expressions get a little nicer, and by the time Betty and Veronica show up as members of a rival coven -- something that I knew was coming from an interview with Aguirre-Sacasa back at Comic-Con -- it's gone all the way over into hilarious.
And then, just as I'm cracking up at the idea of Betty and Veronica trying to conjure up a sex demon in hopes that this will somehow help them resolve their eternal love triangle, the book ratchets back to horror for the last few pages, just so you don't forget what's really happening here. It's the sort of thing that under a lesser team would feel like tonal whiplash, but it works here, largely because they told you way back on page one that this is the reality that they're creating, and this is the world that Sabrina is not only a part of, but is a huge factor in creating.
The seeds are there for plots that are going to be interweaving and complicating each other for the forseeable future, from Sabrina dabbling in love potions to a bad influence from a new relative who arrives with a pair of snakes who worship Glycon to the truly amazing idea of Miss Grundy running a coven of her own teenage witches in the next town. It's all hanging over everyone's head just waiting to come crashing down, and that's the best kind of storytelling you can ask for from a book like this. In a time when we're getting some fantastic horror comcis on the stands, Sabrina might just be the best of the bunch -- and when you consider how we said the same thing last year about Afterlife, that's a pretty incredible accomplishment.