In the introduction to Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacaa writes how he pitched the story as a “love letter to Sandman,” Neil Gaiman’s Vertigo run of the title. That sounds like a cool premise. Alternative worlds can be fun, so I dove into this darker world. I did not expect the story that ensued.
The series follows the tale of 1960s Sabrina Spellman. Her magical father marries her mortal mother ostensibly out of love, which sounds nice. He then chases her in the woods when she flees with their baby, which doesn’t sound nice. Then he curses his wife with insanity so she can’t expose him and other witches to the town. He also vanishes, leaving Sabrina’s aunts Hilda and Zelda to raise her. Teenage Sabrina also falls for a mortal, Harvey Kinkle, and she gains a familiar, her cat Salem. Meanwhile Betty and Veronica from Riverdale resurrect her father’s old foe. This foe starts a scheme to gain revenge on Sabrina, and her father by proxy. Harvey Kinkle soon becomes involved.
Sabrina the Teenage Witch I know mainly from the ABC live action show and the first animated series that aired in the 1990s. I have read the comics and get the gist that the magical world exists to create hi-jinks. Certain beings enforce lessons on hapless witches, and remain firm in their righteousness. Others, like Sabrina’s aunts, magically summon up drivers’ licenses to drive a car without the training.
In this world, the magic takes a more foreboding tone. We get allegiance to Satan, the Salem Witch trials, and witches cursing others arbitrarily. Innocents die and suffer in the crossfire, kind and cruel mortals alike. Sabrina’s aunts eat human flesh like it’s chicken. Her cousin Ambrose happily plays with others’ free will. Betty and Veronica dabble in dark forces foreign to them, with devastating consequences.
I do wonder why we get Puritan-like witchcraft in this lore. We might find this in a Cotton Mather’s witch-hunting guide, but not in factual history. Historical oppressors created the demonic form of witchcraft to target free-thinking women. In reality Satanism focuses more on not imposing arbitrary dogma and encouraging individualism. Witchcraft also runs on a spectrum. The recently-developed Wicca focuses on balance with the natural world and good deeds, for example, and talismanic magic in the Middle East uses historical context and small spells to assist with romance. The 1960s were an age of revolution for America, and for adults to explore other cultures. We could have Eastern influence, but we remain entrenched in Western thinking.
In addition, the writer decided to change the characters’ original personalities. Sabrina’s father has more mystery to his actions, and unclear principles. His disappearance only adds to the mystery. Sabrina’s aunts no longer clash because Hilda is no longer zany and Zelda loses her reasonable discipline. They instead expostulate on the magical realm, serving as our gatekeepers into the world. In addition they completely agree on how to raise Sabrina, without a problem.
Salem and Harvey Kinkle remain the exceptions. Salem, a former warlock turned feline, snarks while serving as a mentor. He doles out advice that Sabrina ignores, and watches her back. Harvey remains a lovable, dorky jock that develops feelings for Sabrina but doesn’t like her keeping secrets. He also retains his running stamina, which comes in handy.
Sabrina remains a relatively innocent child. She exists between awesome immortality and a conscientious life. When not doing magic, she has a love for musical theater and can sing. Also, she doesn’t want to use glamours to resemble Marilyn Monroe. As her ethics change over the book, her good intentions mix with malicious actions. We’ll have to wait and see where her character development will journey. It’s quite an adjustment to see a Sabrina that can sing without magic.
The big question is why change the other characters and keep Harvey and Salem the same. Is it because most of the witches are women? Is it because magic fundamentally changes who you are? Or is it simply that the writer wanted to try something different? It may be the nostalgia talking, but I would have liked to see quirky Hilda performing dark magic, since that isn’t far from her television show characterization. Sabrina also has ample opportunity to retain her snark from other versions. If Salem can retain his biting words about ending the world and needing his litterbox changed, then surely the other main characters ought to as well. A good laugh is needed within the darkness.
Chilling Adventures of Sabrina doesn’t explore the full potential. Instead we get an extremely dark take on the teenage witch. Even so, the writer might still pay homage to canon in future issues. Perhaps we will get other forms of witchcraft, and more witch snark. I’m going to rewatch some of the animated series from the 1990s and pinpoint the dark moments. This colorful world of humor and glamour had its dark side. I hope Chilling Adventures shows more color.