Or, How to Keep that Halloween High Going
by Jenny Mott
November 1, 2016 at 10:00 am
It’s finally (finally!) starting to look a little like autumn here in this Hill Country Hellscape, and what could be better for savoring that crisp fall air than brewing up a pot of cocoa and sitting inside reading comic books?
Since the spoopy weather tends to hit Central Texas about a month later than everywhere else, this week really seems like the perfect time to indulge in the Halloween feels that we couldn’t properly enjoy when the highs were still in the mid-90s.
SO, I’m here to spread the good news about this hero of our time, Sabrina Spellman.
Now, I know that for many of us, our first association with that name is going to be Melissa Joan Hart and that ridiculous puppet they had playing Salem:
But! The Sabrina I present to you today draws so much more from the tradition of 1950s pulp horror comics than 1990s sitcoms.
However, before I can tell you who she is now, we need to know who she’s been.
Sabrina is a character from the Archie Comics universe (Archie, Jughead, Betty & Veronica — those guys), and for those of you who are just now being welcomed into the cult of Sabrina the Teenage Witch, she is just that — a teenager who is also a witch.
She lives with her spinster witch aunts, Hilda and Zelda, and their talking cat, Salem — a human who was cursed to live as a cat a la Thackery Binx (some curse though, am I right? where do I sign up?). Sabrina’s parents are a warlock and a human woman (a very taboo coupling that resulted in banishment/death), but that makes her half witch and half human. Naturally there are some challenges to her double life and so emerge many and varied comic/sitcom-worthy hijinks.
Archie Comics is, predominantly, a humor title. As such, Sabrina has historically been pretty lighthearted. She first appeared as a one-shot character in a 1962 issue of Archie’s Madhouse, but she was received with so much enthusiasm that the Archie writers just kept putting her in stuff. (Note: this is a full TWO YEARS before the cultural phenomenon that is Bewitched (1964-1972) — so, y’know, really trendsetting, Sabrina is).
She got a cartoon in the early-mid ‘70s with an accompanying comics run, but she shared that animated space with Archie, and then with the “Groovy Goolies” (which got spun off into its own thing pretty quickly, but is really worth checking out if you can find it).
Anyway, this was all pretty much leading up to the near and dear 1990s sitcom (7 Seasons and a movie; 1996-2003), which I feel left an appropriate 7 years of grieving time to mourn the intolerable, wasted opportunity that was/is Teen Witch (1989) before reminding us all how much we need a charming and relatable witch in our lives.
The new millennium saw the sitcom’s series finale, two attempted animation series (one with Sabrina as voiced by Sharpay from High School Musical, which is probably worth a watch), and a manga.
And that string of failures leads us to where we are now: The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, an Archie Horror title. Archie Horror is an imprint of Archie Comics that launched last year, and let me tell you: it is genuinely very good. I mean, right now it’s pretty much just Afterlife with Archie and The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, but still — very good.
The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is set in the 1960s, in the fictional New England town of Greendale. The core cast remains — Hilda, Zelda, Salem, Harvey — and is supplemented by some characters the sitcom forgot (namely, Sabrina’s gay cousin Ambrose and his two Cobra familiars).
When we first meet this Sabrina, she is just weeks away from her sixteenth birthday, at which point she will have to make the decision: devote herself to the crone life or become fully mortal (AKA the ability to LITERALLY DO MAGIC is pretty cool, I guess, but what if somehow I’m in love with this teenage boy?? — jesus what an easy decision; can I just say again: where do I sign up?).
Archie Horror was designed for an older audience (“Teen+”), and so it definitely lets itself have a little more fun with violence, nudity, and sexual undertones; for example: the villain of The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is a demon witch/woman named, I kid you not, Madam Satan. She’s incredible. Madam Satan was spurned by Sabrina’s father in favor of Sabrina’s mother, and now she is just all revenge all the time. She uses a clumsy summoning spell by two mediocre beginner witches (a fantastic Betty & Veronica cameo) as her escape rope out of Hell (see below) so that she can just start some fine-ass drama.
Now, I know what you’re thinking here — “isn’t this fury-of-a-woman-scorned plot line a little outdated? kind of over-the-top sexist, even?” And the answer is: yes. yes it is. But, part of what makes The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina so great is the way it engages with that plot line. The reader follows Madam Satan in her internal struggles against intra-gender policing and the contradictory complexities of “loving” one’s oppressor. The narrative shapes itself around thinking through these problems step-by-step!
And again, this iteration of Sabrina IS NOT MESSING AROUND. Like, for one thing: check out that art style — Very Tales from the Crypt. For another, this version does A Lot of Work defining witches as distinctly Other. For example: Hilda and Zelda chose to live across the street from a cemetery because they need to eat human flesh to live! Their human appearances are explicitly explained to be glamours that disguise their horrible witch bodies!
The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina draws really heavily on 1950s pulp horror comics like Tales from the Crypt (1950-1955) or Adventures into the Unknown (1948-1967) for its #aesthetic, but it updates the characters and the language to engage with social and narrative issues in an actively more modern way. Instead of being scary and gross because scary and gross things are chilling, this book seeks to expose what about these things make them scary and/or gross; and it often succeeds in pointing out that the root of many of our fears is just pretty hecked up social conditioning.
Also, it’s worth noting that the witches in this title are distinctly Satanic in the way of actual Satan — goats, hellfire, the whole nine. So, that’s definitely a thing.
And all the Othering that happens throughout this book is especially interesting insofar as it works to undo a lot of what was established by Bewitched and Sabrina the Teenage Witch (Sitcom) — those shows were just SO focused on the humanity of Samantha and Sabrina, respectively (even Hilda and Zelda, who both, at some point, get romance plot lines with humans); and this is a focus that’s specifically designed to remind the audience that even though they’re witches, they’re still women with needs; women who need men — a tenet that is really purposefully examined and ultimately rejected by The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.
The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, Volume 1 (Issues #1-5) came out in August.
Harrow County, Dark Horse Comics
Black Magick, Image Comics
The Good Witch, Hallmark Channel (7 movies and 2, going on 3, seasons)