SDCC: Archie Forever: Life, Afterlife and Beyond

Fans of the Riverdale gang packed the hall at 2014 Comic-Con International in San Diego Thursday morning. Though recent years have seen publisher Archie Comics expand beyond the generally squeaky-clean antics of the girl-crazy Archie, and the past twelve months have continued to expand the company's experimentaton. The Eisner-nominated zombie horror series "Afterlife With Archie" and the headline-grabbing "Death of Archie" story arc proved just the start of where Archie's panel would go.

An all-star panel of Archie alum featuring Archie Comics Publisher/Co-CEO Jon Goldwater, Co-President/Editor-in-Chief Victor Gorelick, President Mike Pellerito, Chief Creative Officer and writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, "Afterlife with Archie" artist Francesco Francavilla, "Kevin Keller" writer/artist Dan Parent, and "Life with Archie" writer Michael Uslan dished on what's next for Riverdale, with moderator Alex Segura overseeing it all.

The panel began in celebratory form with Goldwater acknowledging the decades-long commitment of Gorelick to Archie Comics. "He's been with Archie for 56 years! He has been in the comic book business, which is such a volatile business, and has stayed with one company the entire time. I think it's time that Comic-Con honors Victor!" Goldwater said, prompting a standing ovation from the audience. "So if you guys would, when you have a moment after Comic-Con is over and the dust has settled, send Comic-Con an e-mail and let's get Victor the award from Comic-Con that he deserves next year. Can we do that?" he asked to more applause.

The panel then moved to discuss the perhaps the biggest order of business: the recently-completed "Death of Archie" storyline in the publisher's "Life With Archie" magazine -- the mere mention of which elicited a mix of applause and audible boos. "He's okay!" Goldwater assured the crowd. "He went to school today, actually, and he has a date tonight. I promise you, he's okay."

"'The Death of Archie' has been a long, long process," Segura continued, "and it's the culmination of 'Life with Archie,' but really it all goes back to Jon. I vividly remember that meeting, Jon, where you said, 'this is the perfect way to end this series.'"

Goldwater gave the credit to Uslan, who started the "Life with Archie" series which allowed the company to explore new storylines with the Archie characters, and who thought that Archie's death would be a poignant way to wrap it up. "Really we've been talking about this for a little over two years, and we're here now at this moment. I know that in the 'Life with Archie' book Archie passes away, he meets his end. But he meets his end in a way which I think is heroic. Archie did end up taking the bullet for Kevin Keller. But he would take the bullet for me, for all these guys on the panel, for any of you. That's the kind of person he is. So this was our way to show what kind of a man Archie has been for the last nearly 75 years. It's a celebration of who he is and what he means to Riverdale and to all of us," Goldwater said.

"But teenage Archie is still fine, and he will be for another 75 plus years at least. He's not going anywhere," the CEO assured.

"Life with Archie" #36 featured the fatal moment of Archie's sacrifice, and the current issue #37 returns to Riverdale one year later as Archie's friends and the rest of the world still grapple with his loss. Goldwater assured the crowd that it was an inspiring story that would make them proud to be Archie fans. The panel took a moment to show off some of the variant covers for issue #37 from a roster of comics stars that included Fiona Staples, Walt Simonson, Alex Ross, and Francavilla.

From there talk moved to the growing Archie horror line, which found surprising success with the zombie book "Afterlife with Archie." Segura introduced the newest addition to the line, "Sabrina." Sabrina the Teenage Witch was, after all, the unwitting catalyst for the zombie apocalypse seen in "Afterlife with Archie," and the new series hopes to flesh out some of the character's backstory in an all-new setting. Writer Aguirre-Sacasa is working on the book with artist Robert Hack, and said that it was influenced by '70s horror like "Rosemary's Baby" and "The Exorcist."

"Sabrina is a character that is very, very dear to my heart," Aguirre-Sacasa said. "She's such a kind of epic character with one foot in the mortal world dating Harvey and one foot in the Dynasty of Witches. Francisco had introduced me to the work of Robert Hack, who has a real retro style. We wanted to do homage to the 'Chilling Adventures in Sorcery' book that Archie put out years ago (in the 1970s). We wanted to bring Sabrina from her birth up through her teenage years, and really delve into that mythology. It is a scary book, but it's also a fun book and we really explore every facet of her personality. It comes out the first week of October."

Sabrina will gets some time to shine ahead of her leading debut in "Afterlife with Archie" #6, which went on sale last week. The panel presented some of the book's interior pages by Francavilla, with Sabrina diving into a rich blue sea, only to be attacked by a giant tentacled monster. "It's probably the creepiest thing I've read, ever," Segura said.

"I have to give Francisco full props," said Aguirre-Sacasa. "The whole reason there is an 'Afterlife with Archie' is because Francisco did a 'Life with Archie' variant cover with Archie in the graveyard and zombies coming after him, and Jon Goldwater and I were having breakfast and we had a Eureka moment that came from that cover. (Issue #6) is a big book for us because a lot of people thought that 'Afterlife' was a 5-issue limited series, but this issue opens the world. We'll catch back up in issue #7 with the kids."

"Sabrina is my favorite character to draw," added Francavilla. "I guess I'm on the wrong book."

Despite the success of these offbeat concepts, the panelists assured fans that the company does not plan to take Archie too far from his roots. "There's zombie apocalypse and Archie is dying and various versions, but the bread and butter is the Archie teen stories that fans of every age seem to connect with," Segura said. The panel teased a couple upcoming issues of "Archie," including one in which Sabrina's mischievous cat Salem turns the gang into animals during a visit to the zoo, and one in which Archie tries to go on dates with four different girls simultaneously. "Mike is a great springboard for some of these teen Archie and he came up with the idea, what if Archie had four dates in one night, kind of exploding the usual story where he's got two," Segura added.

They moved on to introduce Dark Circle, the company's re-launched superhero line. "We had a bit of a re-branding a few weeks ago and are reviving our superhero circle of characters. You may have known them as Red Circle characters; they are Dark Circle characters now. And that's a mission statement. We are trying to restart these characters in unique ways. We're not trying to make them similar to what you see out there already at DC, Marvel, or Image. We're taking more of a cinematic approach with them," Segura said.

The first character revealed was a dark, noir-feeling Black Hood, featured in covers by Michael Gaydos and David Mack. The panel promised that the Duane Swierczynski-penned title would be a dark crime comic for adults and readers interested in superhero comics. The second was a revamped Shield, which Pellerito described as "an empowered and strong female character that represents the country today." "The Shield" is written by Adam Christopher with art by Chuck Wendig.

"We're going to be competing with Marvel and DC, so it's a really important initiative for this company," Goldwater continued. The line is due to re-launch in early 2015.

Pellerito also announced some new comics based on their video game licensed comics, including "Sonic Boom" featuring characters from Sega's Sonic the Hedgehog universe and tied to a new game and cartoon, and Capcom's Mega Man. In addition to new solo comics, the two characters are set to cross over in an upcoming limited series.

The final piece of news is set to answer the question: "What would happen if Betty and Veronica bailed?" The incoming "Farewell Betty and Veronica" story launches next month and runs into next year. "Betty and Veronica have been the heart and soul of Archie comics, respectively, for 73 and 72 years. I love shaking up the dynamics in Riverdale, and finding a way to jar everybody's sensibilities," Uslan said. This story offers the chance to do that by sending the pair on a foreign exchange trip to Europe, Asia, and different parts of the world. On the home front, "all the energy is going to be sucked out of Riverdale. What is going to happen, for the first time in all these years, with them not being there? It gives everyone a chance to reevaluate themselves and who they are. Everything seems just lifeless... until the two other foreign exchange students replacing them show up in Riverdale," he teased. The multicultural duo -- one girl is from India and one is from France -- will change Riverdale and Archie forever.

"Meanwhile we are going to follow Betty and Veronica overseas. It's almost miraculous that any woman or girl can easily, quickly identify themselves as either a Betty or a Veronica," Uslan noted. He polled the room to see how the women there identified themselves (Bettys outnumbered Veronicas 2-to-1). He went on to reveal that at one point in the story, the two will actually trade identities for the first time in 73 years and "learn exactly what it means to be a Betty and exactly what it means to be a Veronica."

As the panel drew to a close, it was clear that despite his death, Archie seems to be doing better than ever. With a GLAAD media award win, a Harvey nomination, a new slate of titles, and a new $5.99 subscription service offering unlimited digital access to the company's entire history called "Archie Unlimited," Archie Comics is working hard to serve a wide range of readers in new ways, and with exciting new stories. And based on the temperature of that room in San Diego, they are succeeding.

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