Do you remember Archie comics? I can’t remember a time when they weren’t around. The first Archie comic was published in…1944. I have, until recently only read a couple of them, but the characters — Archie, Betty, Veronica, Reggie, Jughead, and Midge — were of a type with which any high school student could readily identify. I always skipped over Archie titles, moving quickly to The Flash, Green Lantern, Fantastic Four, Tales of Suspense (which introduced Iron Man), Daredevil, and Justice League of America, to name but a few. I continued to read and collect comics for four decades, giving it up in 2000 when it seemed as if the plots were beginning to repeat themselves and my collection was becoming more of an accumulation. The new move toward digital comics didn’t bring me back to the fold, either, despite some attempt to update and “modernize” the titles I used to love. I also peripherally noted, from a seat on the sidelines in the peanut gallery, that the Archie books tried an update or two — Archie at one point had to choose between Betty and Veronica, among other things — which didn’t really sit well with the old fans or bring in any new ones on a long term or permanent basis.
I thought I had bought or read my last comic book until a lifelong friend of mine, a 64 year-old fan boy, brought a new Archie series to my attention. It’s Afterlife with Archie, and you besides being a really good comic book, it contains a lesson for writers, published and otherwise. The Archie characters we all know are basically the same; Jughead isn’t a rocket scientist; Reggie is still kind of a d.b.; Moose is still athletically inclined to the exclusion of his intellect; and Archie, Betty, and Veronica are still caught in that love triangle of several decades. The story, however, is much, much darker. It begins when Jughead’s loyal pet Hot Dog is killed in a hit-and-run accident. Jughead takes Hot Dog to Sabrina, the teenage witch, who brings Hot Dog back to life with a spell. Hilarity ensues. Not really. Hot Dog is…different now. The resurrected Hot Dog bites someone — something that the Hot Dog we know would never do — turning them into a zombie, and within a few pages the town of Riverdale is a very, very different place. Yes, the story does tip its fedora to PET SEMATARY by Stephen King, but only a bit. There there are enough twists and turns to keep even the oldest and most jaded comic reader (me, for one) interested. The art, which is less cartoony than what you might be used to, is inked in dark shades to match the mood of the storyline, which spirals ever deliciously downward. The series is a huge hit; it takes place outside of the regular Archie universe and within its own unsettling continuity. Each issue is selling out at the comic book stores either in spite of that or because of it. Or both.
What does this mean for you or for me? I daresay that every one of us who has ever attempted to put story to page has any number of abandoned efforts on files languishing on hard drives (or in paper file folders) that are based upon good or even great ideas but somehow failed in the execution or otherwise died aborning. What I would like for you to do — and what I am going to do myself — is take one of those efforts and dramatically change one thing, and only one thing, within it. Everything wild that happens in Afterlife with Archie proceeds from one element that differs from the series proper: Hot Dog BITES someone. Chomp. It changes everything. So go ahead. Take that nice woman in your story and turn her into a killer. Or how about that ten year old boy who got kidnapped in your Chapter One? Make your kidnapper wish they had taken anyone but him. Try it, and see how that old, forgotten project works. And tell us: have you tried this before? How did it work for you?