Author: Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa
Artist: Robert Hack
Publisher: Archie Comics
It’s rare that I use the phrase “thrills and chills” with total sincerity, but The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina deserves it.
In the vein of Afterlife with Archie, Chilling Adventures is a horror comic about Sabrina the Teenage Witch, with amazing art, great writing, and incredibly dark themes and images. Hence the chills. This new series shows that Archie Comics isn’t afraid to explore the more troubling elements of its characters in unsettling and compelling depth.
As for the thrills, part of them is seeing a long-running feminist character being introduced to new audiences. As a teenage girl raised by her aunts whose story revolves around defining her own power and identity, Sabrina has been an early illustration of feminism for young readers of all genders.
The most thrilling aspect of The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, though, is its reminder of what we really talk about when we talk about witchcraft: how frightened a patriarchal society can be of female agency, and how powerful that agency can be.
As in earlier Sabrina comics, the characters with the most power and who are given the most narrative attention are women and girls; Sabrina is raised by her aunts, Hilda and Zelda, who teach her how to wield her powers and what life as a witch is like. In a departure from their previous lighthearted incarnations, however, Sabrina and her aunts are serious and driven, probably since the supernatural forces they deal with in this series are much darker and more destructive.
Yet despite the chilling (I went there) nature of what they do, these female protagonists are confident, self-assured – and, most importantly, not penalized by the narrative for daring to pursue power or have ambition.
It is only men who are punished and forced to become less than human for trying to overstep the bounds of their power. Sabrina’s father, Edward, is shown to be a witch of considerable abilities, but is subjected to a disturbing transformation which is clearly some sort of punishment. Similarly, Sabrina’s wisecracking cat Salem used to be a human witch until going too far with a spell and getting turned into a cat for his hubris.
In fact, there are no men in Sabrina’s life. The only male characters who play significant roles in her coming of age are her cousin Ambrose (who’s the same age as she is) and Salem (who is the property of Sabrina and her aunts). When we meet her love interest Harvey, he only appears in a few panels and doesn’t even have any lines. He’s clearly present at this stage as a means of driving the plot forward rather than as a character in his own right, in a reversal of the usual men-as-narrative-focus/women-as-props gender dynamic.
I mentioned the art earlier. I can’t fully convey the wonder of this comic without talking about the art. Artist Robert Hack does a stunning job of balancing mystery, fear, and Middle American suburbia, to the point where the power and strangeness are almost palpable. The predominant earth tones keep the story from sinking into grimness and remind readers of the natural world that shapes old witchcraft stories, while the sharpness of those tones ensures that we never get too relaxed in Sabrina’s world. Hack also manages to depict a nude succubus without objectifying her in the slightest, which ordinarily would be a side note but is very important in a story about female power.
The effect of the art and the writing together is so strong that I would go so far as to say that this comic is actually necessary right now. Anything that emphasizes the literary and artistic potential of popular comics is always welcome, but what makes Chilling Adventures necessary is its promotion of a paradigm wherein girls and women are unabashedly powerful in a way that is linked to their gender but not sexualized. In a world where many communities wish to silence women and portray them as property, we need a comic that presents female ambition as a natural part of growing up and depicts those who are threatened by what girls and women can do as lesser beings unworthy of humanity. The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is that comic. Long may it run.