FAN EXPO: Archie Embraces Horror in "Afterlife," Ponders Next Meet-Up

Archie Comics has been branching out. First the publisher increased the diversity of its characters. Then it made forays into digital comics. And with "Afterlife with Archie," it will venture into the world of grim horror.

At Fan Expo 2013, Archie assembled a team of panelists including Senior Vice President of Sales Jim Sokolowski, Project Coordinator Joe Morciglio, "Kevin Keller" mastermind Dan Parent, "Life with Archie" artist Fernando Ruiz and "Sonic the Hedgehog" writer Ian Flynn. The panelists immediately began discussing "Afterlife with Archie" the moment fans took their seats, mentioning that it will only be available in comic shops. The series follows a Riverdale overrun by zombies written by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa ("Glee," "Carrie") and drawn by Francesco Francavilla ("The Black Beetle," "Detective Comics").

"It's the real deal. This is not traditional high school hijinks or a bad 'Scooby Doo' episode," announced Jim Sokolowski. While he assured fans typical Archie love triangles and Jughead's hunger will remain, "We pour H.P. Lovecraft and Stephen King's 'Pet Cemetary' and 'The Walking Dead' on top of that."

The series was born when Aguirre-Sacasa saw a variant cover of "Archie Meets KISS" drawn by Francavilla. According to Joe Morciglio, Archie's Project Coordinator, the cover inspired Aguirre-Sacasa to create a zombie story set in Riverdale. Aguirre-Sacasa contacted Archie Comics CEO John Goldwater and he gave the idea the green light.

"When you look at the ratings for something like a 'Walking Dead,' you can't not do it," Morciglio said. "It almost seemed like a no brainer."

"When Francesco Francavilla says he wants to draw your book, you find a book for him to draw that he wants to draw," added Sokolowski, pointing out the critical acclaim the artist received on "Black Beetle."

The comic will not be stocked on grocery store shelves alongside the regular "Archie" digests for fear that young fans will confuse the two. Morciglio insisted the tone would be dark. "If you're a real hardcore Archie fan, you might want to have a friend read it before you," he cautioned.

Many of the fans who had shown up for the sparsely populated panel also brought their children. At the end of the discussion, a middle-aged man raised his hand and said that his favorite stories were the clean-cut ones.

Morciglio leaned into the microphone. "Well, there will be a lot of clean cuts and some not so clean cuts," he said. The crowd laughed, and the man put an arm around his son, seated beside him. The audience seemed to accept the idea of an undead Riverdale with no further questions about the series. No fan asked more about the series.

The panel then introduced writer/artist Dan Parent and artist Fernando Ruiz who immediately fielded questions from the audience.

Aside from the obligatory Betty or Veronica query, the first question was about Archie Comics current sales. Sokolowski declined to reveal specific numbers but said that overall the digest business was doing fairly well in grocery stores and convenience stores, but much weaker in comic book shops. This disparity is even greater in Canada. "Canada loves Archie and we thank you for it," said Sokolowski.

Another fan asked about the future of Archie's "Sonic the Hedgehog" series. Writer Ian Flynn was on hand to tease the next few months of both "Mega Man" and the speedy Sega video game character.

Flynn said "Mega Man's" next challenge is the "Ra Moon" storyline, which was previously put on hold due to the recent "Worlds Collide" crossover with "Sonic the Hedgehog," but is now back in the plans. Meanwhile Sonic faces the consequences of that crossover as his universe crumbles around him in future issues. Both new story lines kicked off in August, and Tracy Yardley returned to both writing and art on Sonic by taking over "Sonic Universe."

In time for the "Sonic Lost World" video game, they will also be releasing a prequel comic as part of Halloween ComicFest. The book will be available for free in comic shops and will be relevant to the game's story.

Flynn described this release as fairly typical for Archie Comics' relationship with video game publisher Sega. During the release of "Sonic Adventure" for the Sega Dreamcast, they were also forced to change the style of all the characters to match their appearances in the new game.

"When a new game comes out Sega says, 'You're a glorified ad for us so promote the game,'" said Flynn. "The biggest transition was that style change, but the book has rolled on very well since then."

"Even Sega realizes that this thing has taken a life of its own," Sokolowski quickly added. At more than 300 issues "Sonic the Hedgehog" is currently the longest running comic book based on a video game.

A meek girl from the back of the crowd raised her hand and quietly asked that on top of KISS and "Glee" who else did the panelists want Archie to meet, no matter how unlikely.

"I want to do Archie meets 'Big Bang Theory.' It doesn't matter whether we get it or not. I'll draw it," Parent said, laughing.

Ruiz offered "Star Wars." Sokolowski wanted the 1960s TV show "Gilligan's Island." Flynn went with "Godzilla." Parent informed him he had just drawn a commission of Veronica fighting Godzilla. Morciglio settled on the cast of 1990s television show "Alf."

Talk of potential meet-ups inevitably led to 1994's "Archie Meets the Punisher" one-shot. At the end of that book, in which Marvel Comics vigilante The Punisher visits Riverdale, they hint that next Jughead will meet Wolverine. A second fan wondered if that would ever happen.

While that final page is often considered a joke, Sokolowski said he has discussed it with people at Marvel. Unfortunately neither company has been able to find a place for such a story. He warned fans "Don't hold your breath."The latest "Archie Meets..." title saw the Riverdale gang meet the cast of the TV show "Glee," and the collected edition of that series was published very close to "Glee" star Cory Monteith's death. Parent said they haven't considered doing a tribute comic to mark his death and Sokolowski explained they tried to hold back the release of the trade, but couldn't.

"When you do a tribute, you risk it becoming a cash-in. We literally had discussions of how to stop the trade from coming out that same week, but it was too deep into the system by then," said Sokolowski. "We didn't want to cash in on that."

"Afterlife with Archie" #1 debuts only in comic shops October 9, and the prelude to "Sonic Lost World" bows October 22.

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