It's 1951 and baby Sabrina Spellman is taken from the arms of her human mother, Diana, to be raised by her warlock father, Edward, and aunts, Hilda and Zelda. Edward resists his sisters' entreaties to kill Diana, deciding that a lobotomy and a permanent stay in hospital is enough to stop her derailing their daughter's future. He loves his wife, but loyalty to his faith comes first.
Within a few years, Edward, too, is gone, sentenced to an awful fate. Was it the doing of his corpse-devouring sisters? Did hard-hearted Zelda persuade the softer Hilda to get the human-hating Witches' Council involved?
And that summation represents only the first few pages of this debut issue of the companion, complementary series to the hit Afterlife With Archie. Writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa presents Sabrina the Teenage Witch as never before, keeping the basics of the story - setting, characters, lore, cat - but excising the cutesiness. And that allows him to tell a very grim tale indeed. The retro setting evokes the eerie world of Rosemary's Baby, a place of covens and betrayals and evils both banal and otherworldy.
The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina recasts her cuddly aunts as outwardly normal, but possessive of withered souls and a quiet ruthlessness. The budding witch is a far more sympathetic character, relatively naive and holding onto the orphan's hope that her parents are alive and together, maybe even thinking of her; but nature and nurture are dragging her in only one direction. Cousin Ambrose shows up to befriend the lonely young woman, but his more worldly view of spellcasting leads Sabrina down that same dark path.
The character nearest their regular persona is Salem the cat, sarcastic as ever and the voice of reason - the familiar is familiar.
The biggest shock comes with the cameos by a certain pair of rivals for a feckless ginger's affections. If you thought Betty and Veronica were minxes in their regular world ...
Smaller, but perfectly formed, shocks come every few pages, as Aguirre-Sacasa reveals more about this version of Greendale. He's perfectly partnered in satanic worldbuilding by Robert Hack, whose lyrical pencils, inks and colours never fail to find beauty amid the darkness. And when he gets a full-on horror scene to draw, you'd better run!
British readers may, like me, be reminded of UK girls' weeklies from the Sixties and Seventies, Bunty and Mandy, say, or the shortlived but highly collectible Misty, whose spooky thrillers this Sabrina would likely enjoy. Every page, heck, every panel cries out for framing, while working as a building block for a hugely immersive look at Sabrina's early years. And while I normally dislike upper and lower case lettering in comics, Jack Morelli's choice here is perfect, speaking to a world of whispers and secrets.
As well as the 28pp lead story, this issue includes the 1962 debut of Sabrina, and it's fun to see that while she was always drawn as a sweetheart, she wasn't exactly a good girl back then. Add in a couple of text pages and a look at some of Hack's process art and you have a terrific bargain at $3.99. I bought this digitally but now I know the printed cover is a die-cut Flowers in the Attic homage, I'm heading for the comics shop tomorrow.
I don't know where Aguirre-Sacasa, Hack and co are going with this series. The obvious route is to have Sabrina tempted by the apparent convenience of witchcraft, but resisting, trying to be more Wendy than Wicked. So they're likely pointing their brooms in another direction entirely. Wherever they're off to, I'm flying right behind them, because this reimagining of a kids' favourite has everything I want in a horror comic - a compelling storyline, fascinating characters, dark wit and pitch black twists, conjured onto the page with imagination and intensity. Unmissable.