By Jerry Chandler
I tend to not follow remakes or reboots that completely alter the tone and style of the original stories. There have been a few exceptions to this over the decades, but more often than not I tend to find things like classic television dramas turned into farce comedy films or lighter fare turned into grim and gritty drama to just not work for me on any level. Many modern attempts at dramas turned farce often lose any resemblance to their source material, and all too often the attempt to make lighter fare more “adult” simply comes across as poorly written material full of little more than shock value material using a familiar name for a (they hope) quick buck before word of mouth kills it. As such, I was a little late to the game (and then some) with this one.
Fortunately, I took the wise advice of Derek Tatum of the Dragon Con Horror Track. During the House of Dreadpunk panel, he gave this series a high recommendation. He’d referenced it before in other places, but he offered up on the panel an explanation of what it was that made it seem a little more intriguing than the prior descriptions I’d seen of it. The next day, while braving the crushing waves of humanity in the vendor area, I saw the trade paperback collection on a vendor’s shelf along with some other books I’d been looking for. Taking a chance, I picked it up. It still took me about three weeks to read it after getting home from Dragon Con.
The only thing I can say as a negative against Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is that it is in fact the Sabrina from the Archie line of comic books. This is only a negative in that it likely stopped a few other people besides me from picking it up and missing out on an amazingly well written and illustrated series that feels in tone and style like some of the classic exploitation horror movies of a bygone age. This is an exceptionally well crafted throwback to a genre of horror films and materials that needs to find its audience so that they can appreciate it, but this being under the Archie Comics label may have been hindering that a little bit. But, sadly, while this series could easily stand on its own as an original creation rather than a reimagining, it’s also likely true that it being under the Archie Comics banner is what got it the majority of the attention it received when it launched.
As a story, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina feels like a love letter to the European black magic and occult films that filled so many of the old exploitation theaters of the 1960s and 1970s. Writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa (Afterlife with Archie, Marvel’s Stephen King’s The Stand, television’s Glee and Riverdale) says in the foreword that his original concept was in part that this was his homage to Neil Gaiman‘s The Sandman. But, as much as that rings true during parts of the series, it’s his reference in the foreword to the occult films of the exploitation era that rings even more true as one reads the story in Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.
Eventually set around Sabrina’s teenage years in the 1960s, the story opens shortly after her birth. We see a world filled with dark magic, satanic magic, where witches (and warlocks) are forced to live by strict codes. One such code was broken by Sabrina’s father. Edward Spellman broke the rules by marrying a normal woman. Diana Spellman would eventually discover that she could not have children, so Edward and Diana turned to his sisters, Hilda and Zelda, for help. They made her capable of bearing children, but there was a price. The child was born a girl, a witch of great promise, and was thus owed to the coven. Edward was more than willing to fulfill the bargain from the start, but Diana chose to try to escape with her child. She failed, and her final fate was not ultimately a pleasant one as a result of it. For that matter, the long-term repercussions of his actions don’t work out well for Edward either.
Sabrina begins to grow older before her father is lost to her, and then she becomes the responsibility of her Aunt Hilda and Aunt Zelda. Even at a very young age she begins to show the signs of possessing great power; far more than many older, more well trained witches. We get to see Sabrina grow, and we see her powers grow far beyond what anyone familiar with any of the older incarnations of the character would recognize. This Sabrina is growing up in a black magic cult that embraces the darkest of forces whenever necessary. It’s an upbringing she fully embraces, and the limitations on her powers are nowhere near as tight as they were in the Sabrinas of previous decades. This is a darker, more powerful Sabrina growing up in a darker, more frightening world.
Even old, familiar characters have almost evil twists to them. Salem (Saberhagen) the Cat was originally a witch punished by being turned into a cat for trying to take over the world. Changes to Salem’s backstory over the years have included making him more of a victim by having him turned into a cat as a result of standing up a powerful witch at the alter and somewhat less a victim with being a witch who was punished for using magic to try to make a regular mortal woman fall in love with him. The Salem of Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is a somewhat less charming version of the character, and his origins include having been turned into a cat for being a mortal man named Samuel who unknowingly impregnated a witch and then refused to marry her. He was punished by the witches of Salem, and later attempted (as a cat) to enact the Book of Revelation.
While the introduction to the characters is done well with rich detail using a good chunk of the beginning of the first book, the series doesn’t really start the main story it wants to tell until Sabrina reaches her sixteenth birthday. From that point forward, we get to see that this Sabrina has no issues whatsoever with embracing the darkness around her, or, for that matter, getting a little blood on her hands.
Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa is delivering a great story here. It is a book that anyone who loves horror should be tracking down and reading. The characters are well fleshed out with some being surprisingly complex, the pacing is damned near perfect, and the storyline so far has been darkly compelling. There’s much that I want to get into here about the story so far, but I won’t. You seriously owe it to yourself to buy this book and experience all of it for yourself. Seriously, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa has done something that I thought no one would ever do. He has me in my late-forties eagerly looking forward to following a comic book featuring the Archie Comics character Sabrina. I wasn’t even doing that when my age was in single digits and all my friends and I read the Archie books that were out at the time.
For all the praise I could heap on Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa for the amazingly well done job of crafting a story that stands on its own, feels not the least bit dated in style and tone, but yet still somehow feels like it still belongs to the era of the European satanic occult exploitation films, a huge amount of praise for making the book worth picking up and enjoying also has to go to artist Robert Hack. The visual style he brings to the series is nothing short of wondrous to behold. It’s dark, creepy, sometimes almost skin crawlingly uncomfortable, and absolutely everything needed for the series to be the best that it can possibly be. Robert Hack is an extremely talented artist who has shown the ability to alter his style for the material he’s working on in the past. He’s done very good work in a number of other genres for years now. But the dark horror artwork he’s delivering here- especially as he improves that style with time on the book –is easily earning him a spot on the top ten (maybe top five) lists of all-time great horror artists in comics.
The one downside to so eagerly looking forward to the next chapter of the story is one that I’ve only just discovered. This is not a monthly title. Apparently, fans only get to see three to four issues a year hit the stands. However, the nice thing about starting late is that you can get a lot to enjoy upfront. As of this writing, there’s a trade paperback on the shelves collecting the story so far with a second trade paperback coming out in December of this year. If your local comic shop can’t hook you up with volume one, Amazon has it in stock and for a nice price.
Forget the fact that this is a character from Archie Comics. Forget that this is the cutesy witch you knew from the comic books of your youth. Forget the cartoons from days gone by or the live action TV show that had its moment of pop culture buzz in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Other than the names, this series has nothing to do with any of that. What do you need to think about with regards to Chilling Adventures of Sabrina? You need to think about the fact that if you are a horror fan of almost any stripe and you’ve been looking for a little something extra to scratch that dark occult witchcraft itch in your reading lists that you need to check out Chilling Adventures of Sabrina ASAP.
Oh, and, yeah… Do you have young kids in the house? Then you should absolutely read it first before deciding to let them look at it or not. If it were a film; I wouldn’t rate this book an NC-17, but it would absolutely earn an easy R rating.
Jerry Chandler follows geek stuff. When not found writing here he can be found occasionally writing for Gruesome Magazine and once in a while on his own blog. He also has a Twitter. He can additionally be heard talking pro wrestling with the amazingly talented crew at of the Earth Station One Network’s The Pro-Wrestling Roundtable podcast.