Don’t Call It a Comeback: Archie’s Been Evolving for Years

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“He’s one of the most important characters in our stable. And for every person that pushed back, we gained 100 more fans. No doubt, Kevin set the tone for the Archie Comics you’re enjoying today.” That’s Archie comics CEO Jon Goldwater talking to Geek and Sundry about Kevin Keller, Archie’s first openly gay character. Kevin joined the Riverdale gang in 2010. His appearance was praised by the president of GLAAD, earning a Media award nomination from that same organization for creator Dan Parent.

Archie has certainly pushed boundaries since Jon Goldwater came on-board as CEO in 2009, and not just with the introduction of Kevin Keller. During Goldwater’s tenure, the red-haired boy-next-door has battled zombies, gotten married, been murdered, and even had his vacation interrupted by the Predator.

Fans who grew up buying Archie Double Digests at the corner store and grooving to “Sugar, Sugar,” the number one hit from fictional band The Archies in 1969, may initially find these new adventures jarring. But beyond the love-triangles and madcap misadventures, the clean-cut small-town teens of Riverdale were always fodder for innovation.

Art by Dan DeCarlo. Photo credit: Archie Comics

The character of Archie Andrews was the brainchild of John L. Goldwater- father of current CEO, Jon- and artist Bob Montana. Goldwater founded MLJ Magazines in 1939 with partners Maurice Coyne and Louis Silberkleit. MLJ began publishing comic anthologies like Pep Comics soon after, featuring pulp science fiction and adventure titles like The Shield: a patriotic superhero precursor to Marvel’s Captain America.

Wanting to broaden the MLJ market, Goldwater hoped Archie would prove “the antithesis to Superman — ordinary believable people with a background of humor instead of superheroes with powers beyond that of any normal being.” The formula worked: Archie quickly became MLJ’s most successful property, leading the company to change their name to Archie Comics Publications. The success of Archie saw its expansion into a radio series and cartoon series The Archie Show (which “Sugar, Sugar” was recorded for) which in turn led to over 25 other cartoons and TV movies between 1962 and 2003.

Though developed in opposition to Superman, Archie tried his hand at super heroics in the 60s as Captain Pureheart. Archie and the gang even found God in the 70s when artist Al Hartley, who cut his teeth drawing for Stan Lee at Timely Comics (later Marvel Comics), helped Spire Christian Comics license the Archie characters for a series promoting the religion and its moral values. Around this time Coyne retired, and a decade later Goldwater and Silberkleit turned the company over to sons Richard and Michael.

The Archies jam together. Photo credit: Archie Comics

This new Goldwater/Silberkleit partnership left Archie treading water. Beginning in 1981, Archie Comics began releasing double digests which reprinted previous content in a supermarket friendly size and served as the entry point for many into the world of comics. Though hardly game-changers, the new CEOs were responsible for a few famously strange crossovers in the 90’s where Archie met the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and even helped the Punisher track down a drug dealer hiding out in Riverdale.

The sudden death of Richard Goldwater in 2007 followed by Michael Silberkleit in 2008 shook up Archie in more ways than one. Looking to keep the company stewardship in the family, Michael’s widow Nancy Silberkleit joined Jon Goldwater to become the new CEOs of Archie Comics in 2009. Soon after, Kevin Keller made his debut in Veronica issue #202.

“The introduction of Kevin Keller was a watershed moment for the company,” Goldwater said, “It showed everyone that Archie and Riverdale were not nostalgia brands trapped in amber.” Explaining that Kevin’s introduction set the world of Archie firmly in the present, Goldwater added: “Whatever comedic and family-friendly aspects these comics have, my first goal was to show that the stories were not some kind of retro, generic thing.”

Kevin Keller issue #1. Art by Dan Parent. Photo credit: Archie Comics

Kevin went on to a four-issue limited series before starring in his own ongoing title, Kevin Keller, in 2012. Keller would later marry his boyfriend Clay in a crossover with Life With Archie: The Married Life. Rather than settle the love triangle of Betty, Archie, and Veronica as the title might imply; The Married Life imagined two realities which saw Archie married to Betty or Veronica.

The Married Life concluded with the much talked about death of Archie in 2014. Archie is shot protecting Keller, now a senator, from an assassination attempt. Archie’s death in this alternate reality ended the Life With Archie series.

The success of the Life With Archie and Kevin Keller books came during a difficult period behind the scenes at Archie. CEO Nancy Silberkleit was sued by Goldwater in 2011, who said she had created a “toxic” work environment in her two years with the company. His assertions were backed by other Archie employees, but Silberkleit questioned the veracity of these claims and countersued. The pair settled out of court in 2012 and continue to work together, though some of the legal fallout has yet to be resolved.

In an interesting bit of synchronicity, another former litigant of Archie Comics joined the fold around this time: Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa. Aguirre-Sacasa was issued a cease and desist letter from Archie in 2003 for a play he wrote that, in a strange premonition of things to come, saw Archie come out as gay. In 2013, following his success as a television writer for Glee and Big Love, Aguirre-Sacasa wrote the ongoing series Afterlife With Archie, which depicts an alternate reality where Riverdale succumbs to the zombie apocalypse.

Afterlife with Archie #2 cover art by Francesco Francavilla. Photo credit: Archie Comics

“All I can say about that letter is it happened long before I was running the company,” said Goldwater of the cease and desist. “In my eyes, Roberto is a key part of the team and I wouldn’t have it any other way.”  Earning critical acclaim for his darkly supernatural take on the 75 year old franchise, Aguirre-Sacasa was appointed Chief Creative Officer for Archie Comics in 2014, and expanded his writing to the spin-off title Chilling Adventures of Sabrina that same year.

While Goldwater himself was an executive in a music management company prior to his time at Archie Comics, he shied away from taking credit for the musical crossovers of the last few years: 2012’s Archie Meets KISS and the forthcoming Archie Meets Ramones.

Archie goes punk. Art by Gisele Lagace. Photo credit: Archie Comics

“Archie, as a brand, has a history of music – from the first chords of ‘Sugar, Sugar’ to Josie and the Pussycats to Archie Meets KISS,” said Goldwater. “So, pairing with an iconic band like the Ramones was meant to be, I think.” He credits Alex Segura, author of the KISS crossover and SVP of Publicity for Archie Comics, for Archie coming face to face with the punk rock legends. “Matt Rosenberg, who’s co-writing the book with Alex, connected us with the Ramones, and the rest is music history,” Goldwater said.

Though strange crossovers, like this year’s Archie vs. Predator, are nothing new to the Archie franchise, the recent rebooting of the comic series certainly is. 2015 saw the introduction of a modern look for the Archie characters at the hands of artist Fiona Staples.

In just three years Staples has racked up numerous Harvey, Hugo, and Eisner awards for her work on Image series Saga with Brian K. Vaughan. Archie Comics teamed Staples with high-profile comics writer Mark Waid, also an Eisner winner, and the pair breathed fresh life into Archie, who’s last discernible makeover happened over 50 years ago.

The rebooted Archie. Art by Fiona Staples. Photo credit: Archie Comics

Only two issues in, the rebooted series — simply titled Archie — has earned rave reviews. Issue #1 sold out at the distributor level just days before its official release. The reboot will also include others titles: Jughead stars in his own series coming this Fall, penned by Chip Zdarksy of Image’s Sex Criminals (another Eisner winner) fame, to be followed by Betty and Veronica and Kevin Keller reboots. “We do the unexpected, but in a thoughtful and effective way,” said Goldwater. “It’s all part of our plan to get Archie on the forefront of pop culture, which I think is succeeding.”

The plan for Archie’s pop-culture domination includes CW television series Riverdale, with Greg Berlanti of Arrow and Supergirl attached to executive produce. But the series won’t tie into the comic reboot, at least not directly, according to Goldwater: “I don’t think you’ll see direct overlap between the show and Archie, but thematically, you might see some similarities.”

Chip Zdarsky cover for Jughead #1. Photo credit: Archie Comics

For his part, Goldwater said that fan response to Archie titles has been a guiding principle for the organization since it’s inception: “We are always listening to our fans. We’d be nothing without them.” Indeed, Archie Comics quickly withdrew a Kickstarter campaign to help fund the rollout of the Jughead and Betty and Veronica titles when fans pushed back.  

Goldwater has said this won’t effect the series releases, only delay the timeline a bit. The rebooted series continues to earn what he calls “the ultimate validation”- positive feedback from fans. “Here we are, a brand that’s closing in on 75 years, and we did the one thing that most brands would never consider – we relaunched our main character and all his cast,” said Goldwater. “Yet, our fans were there, in droves. It was a huge vote of confidence and we’re so happy they’re along for the ride.”

Feature Image Credit: Archie Comics, art by David Mack.

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