Chilling Adventures of Sabrina #4
Story: Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa
Artwork: Robert Hack
Lettering: Jack Morelli
Publisher: Archie Comics
By Matthew Jent
“Justice — a kind of justice — will be served.”
There’s an obvious metaphor when telling stories of teenagers and supernatural forces. Buffy, the Vampire Slayer — the tv version — did it the clearest in a way that’s been talked about the most. Basically, being a high school teenager is a horror show. You face monsters and demons and terrifying changes in your body. You come face to face with blood and guts and love and hate in a way that nothing can prepare you for.
The new version of Sabrina, the Teenage Witch, launched under the Archie Horror imprint around last Halloween, isn’t exclusively about how adolescence is horrific, not to the extent that Buffy was, but the latest issue can’t help but circle some of that territory. Issue #4 is part four the new Sabrina’s opening storyline, “The Crucible,” and it deals with the aftermath of her induction, last issue, into the way of a witch — and, more specifically, her boyfriend Harvey Kinkle’s discovery of the same.
This is a knowing nod to the decades-long history of the fictional Sabrina and Harvey. In Sabrina’s previous iterations, Harvey almost routinely discovered the truth of Sabrina’s witchy powers only to have his memory wiped clean. Harvey’s discovery was always consequence-free, and Sabrina’s witchcraft was likewise without ramifications.
But that’s far from the case in this new series. The witchcraft in Chilling Adventures is bloody, scary, and overtly Satanic. This is the kind of comic book Fredric Wertham warned you about, and it’s gloriously fun. True horror is not about sudden scares — true horror is about the fundamental upending of what seems normal and safe in our lives. Stephen King’s Danse Macabre, a treatise on modern horror published in 1981, states that, “Terror … often arises from a pervasive sense of disestablishment; that things are in the unmaking. If that sense of unmaking is sudden and seems personal — if it hits you around the heart — then it lodges in the memory as a complete set.”
Sabrina hits you around the heart.
Like I said above, Chilling Adventures #4 deals with the aftermath of last issue’s discovery by Harvey of Sabrina’s initiation ceremony. It was a dreadful one — witches convening in the woods, a goat sacrifice, the literal actual Devil appearing in the flesh. Harvey was led there by Madam Satan, a straight-up ghoulish creature with with skulls for eyes who wants revenge for the actions of Sabrina’s father. The plot has followed Madam Satan just as much as Sabrina so far, if not more. Which makes sense. Sabrina has been — well, a teenage witch. The story has happened to Sabrina up until now, but Madam Satan was the maleficent driving force of the narrative. She is stripping Sabrina from anything she cares about in her life, and that includes Harvey.
The script, by Archie’s Chief Creative Officer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, is a steady drumbeat of doom. Yellow-colored captions lead us through the narrative’s present day, flashbacks to Harvey’s past, and through visions of a hopeful future that will never come to pass. Occasionally the captions become so thick they can obscure the beautifully painted art by Robert Hack, but they never feel superfluous. The captions are doing what they’re supposed to, and you can almost picture some unseen cryptkeeper-like narrator telling us this tale.
Hack’s work (heh!) impresses on every page. The autumnal color palette infuses the story with a sense of creeping decay, and he balances the beauty and the gore of the witches with aplomb. The blood of sweetmeat drips, the woods oppress, and Sabrina’s hair is never a lock out of place. Doom, beauty, and doomed beauty coexist perfectly.
I admittedly have an amateur’s eyeball when it comes to lettering and typography — when anyone talks about kerning I get a case of the Andy Brennan Empty Stares — but gosh, avoiding the subject doesn’t win you any friends in the comments section. And thankfully when I do slow down to appreciate the letterer’s art, well, I key into the subtly effective craft of letters like Jack Morelli. Here, a mix of upper & lowercase letters prevails, but when the witches hunt their prey through the dark woods, their all-caps dialogue takes on a slight scratchiness. And when Sabrina commands Harvey to run — (“something in her voice — (a spell?) — gave him no choice”), a large, gothic R indicates this is not just pleading advice — this is a compulsion. It’s a neat effect, and comics remains a realm where lettering contributes to the stew in a unique and fundamental fashion.
Most issues of Chilling Adventures of Sabrina have included a classic backup , and this issue features our man Harvey Kinkle. I don’t have much to say about this particular backup — last issue’s classic horror Madam Satan showcase was more interesting — but I’m glad they continue to be included. What makes this overall Sabrina reboot unique is that it’s not a retread/retelling of older stories and it’s not a cynical perpetuation of a trademark. It’s a new view of a familiar character. It’s a grown-up, downright scary version of what was once a kind of toothless horror satire.
Horror is about isolation. It’s about the foundation dropping out from under you, discovering that things are actually worse than they seemed a moment ago. The beast is getting closer, the shadows are getting darker, and sunrise is a long ways away.
Chilling Adventures of Sabrina continues to scare, but even better — it’s getting scarier. Sabrina is more alone, more isolated, and much worse off than she was an issue ago, when things seemed very dark indeed. The unseen narrator of this issue reminds readers to pray for poor Harvey Kinkle, but really it’s Sabrina’s advice we should be heeding.
Prayer isn’t going to save you from true horror. The only thing you can do is run.