Jon Goldwater, CEO of Archie Comics
He’s almost as old as Superman. In fact, he was created in opposition to the Man of Steel, on the theory that readers would enjoy an everyman like themselves just as much as an idealied fantasy. But mere mortal Archie Andrews may, in his own way, be able to move the world. Whereas Superman responds to distress by turning back time, Archie (and the company named for him that publishes his adventures) embraces the future. Like The Simpsons‘ Springfield, Riverdale quietly transforms itself in tweaks and turns, as a jalopy becomes a Mustang, smart phones subtly become ubiquitous, and new neighbors appear.
The most notorious of these last would have to be Kevin Keller, a classmate of Archie’s who was introduced in 2011 as a good friend to Jughead and Betty that politely declines Veronica’s interest because he’s gay. In the years since, Kevin’s joined the armed forces, gotten married, and even dealt with violent tragedy, all while making headlines in not only the comic press but mainstream papers as well.
Meanwhile Riverdale resident Cheryl Blossom fought breast cancer, a disease which also claimed the class’s teacher, Miss Grundy. An “Occupy Riverdale” movement sprung up, as did a zombie plague in Afterlife with Archie, where the all-American teen must slay the shambling corpses of his friends and family. (Don’t feel bad for him. He also got to rock out with K.I.S.S.)
All told, there’s a lot of heavy reality happening in Riverdale, but what sees the cast of characters through is the values that make the town such an idealized version of America. And in that testing of those values their worth is proved.
It’s a focus on character and story you won’t always see trump publishing concerns. DC Comics famously lost superstar creators J.H. Williams III and W. Haden Blackman, who quit Batwoman after the company refused to let them show the title character’s lesbian marriage. And it all jumps off with Jon Goldwater assuming the mantle of CEO of a character created by his father more than 70 years ago. So does Archie have the biggest juevos on the block? Goldwater spoke to Man Cave Daily about his company’s forward-facing stance and how he manages custodianship of these characters.
Disclosure: Archie’s new Senior Vice President of Publicity is Alex Segura, who used to be my roommate. But this interview centers on something I’ve noticed for years now (prior to Segura’s return to the company) which is that Archie Comics holds a mirror up to its readership’s without worrying about public outcry. Segura set this interview up for Man Cave Daily in his new position.
Were you ever concerned that it would cost you any markets to introduce a gay character?
Quite honestly, I was not concerned. Yes, we were breaking down barriers, walls, whatever cliche you want to throw out there…but what we were really doing was reflecting what was going on in the world, and the diversity of what the world is really all about today. My very sincere gut instinct was “If we handle this in the right way–and Dan wrote the right story–then it was going to be absolutely fine.
And the reaction was so gratifying that I can’t even put it into words. Sure we got some pushback; there’s haters all over the world, there’s no doubt about it. Some people didn’t like it. I got death threats. Some nut jobs out there. But overwhelmingly positive was the response. And if you want to talk numbers, only seven people total said they didn’t want to read Archie comic books anymore. And many, many thousands more reached out and subscribed to the Archie books.
And to me, that’s proof positive of what a fantastic impact Kevin made, not just on the bar sheet, but really in the comic book landscape in general. I think we broke down doors for everybody. And it was a bold move but I think we handled it very well, but more importantly, it was the right thing to do and it was the right move at the right time. We grabbed the bull by the horns and said “This needs to be done,” and we did it.
Your Chief Creative Officer, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, got sued once upon a time for writing a play where Archie came out as gay. Has he been vindicated in a way?
I don’t know. All I can say is if I were running the show back when that happened, it never would have happened. [laughs] That’s the best way I can put it. Roberto is the greatest.
Was he selected as Chief Creative Officer to keep pushing the envelope?
He wasn’t, really. He was selected because of his talent and his love for Archie are both so immense that when you have the opportunity to have someone like that be part of your company, it’s the luckiest and most fantastic thing that Archie could hope for.
If one of his projects is something that may be a little out of the box, that’s fine, but really his charge is to be the CCO for all of Archie content–not just Archie and the gang. That’s Sabrina, that’s Josie, that’s some of our lesser-known characters like Katy Keene. As well, Alex is here not just to be Senior VP of Publicity, but to reinvigorate the Red Circle brand and take charge of that. He and Roberto are going to be working together very closely on Red Circle as well.
Roberto’s mandate: is “You have a blank canvas; fill it in as you see fit.” I have the utmost faith, confidence & trust in what he is going to do. And so far with the great book he wrote, Archie Meets Glee, and of course Afterlife with Archie, which is probably my favorite comic of all time, Roberto can do no wrong in my eyes.
Riverdale’s always been a place that diversifies as America does. But sometimes those characters haven’t been fully realized. I’m thinking, for example, of Anita Chavita, who was paraplegic, but inclined to make her disability the focus of her interactions with the Riverdale gang. When you were working on Kevin, I’ve read your priority was character first. Did you look back at any of that and ask “How do we avoid these pitfalls from our own history?”
Not really — I really just wanted Kevin to be Kevin. When I came in in 2009 it was clean slate. Whatever happened in the past I couldn’t undo the last 20 years of–you could call it stagnation. I don’t know if that’s a very harsh word, but the characters stayed in their own bubble. When I came in, I said, “You know what? We’re going to move forward with a brand new vision, a breath of fresh air. Archie is open for business.” That was how I came in.
When we started talking about Kevin, the most important thing for me was that Kevin was a fully formed character. It had nothing to do with what had gone on in the past, or even looking to the future. It was “Who is this guy? What is he all about? What is his family about? How did he come to Riverdale?” All the questions one asks when one introduces a new character or element into an ongoing storyline.