Jon Goldwater, CEO of Archie Comics

Does the family-friendly company actually have the biggest pair in 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.)

Archie_635

Few people know Archie’s in the 1%, but it is his name on every one of these books.

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.

 

Shoot, he's even one of a small handful of gay superheroes.

Shoot, he’s even one of a small handful of gay superheroes.

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.

Just call him Bubhead.

Just call him Bubhead.

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.

Next: What’s closer than family? 

You’ve obviously been making big moves, but very judiciously — not simply trying for big and outrageous. Is that your management style historically, or is that something that has extra weight when you’re working in a company carrying your dad’s legacy?

It’s a combination of both. It is my management style, because I’m always looking to grow and expand, and “What more can we do to grow Archie and get it out there more in the public consciousness? Yeah, of course I am looking for more ways to blow it up a little bit. But on the other hand, I have a very deep feeling for these characters. I grew up with them. When I say grew up with them, I literally grew up with them. I probably learned to read by reading Archie Comics. These characters are ingrained in my soul. They are so important to me, they’re my family. I have the human family and then I have the Archie family. They’re that important to me.

And isn't that the way the world should be? Archie Comic Publications

And isn’t that the way the world should be?
Archie Comic Publications

So yes, every move we make is really thought out, really carefully planned. It may seem to some that we’re just throwing things against the wall, but I really appreciate you understanding that that’s not the case. That’s why it’s been working. It’s also been working, not just to give ourselves props, because people really love these characters. People love to experience these characters in different settings. And that is something that has been really fulfilling and a heck of a lot of fun — Life with Archie, as a married person, dealing with those issues, and Afterlife with Archie dealing with the zombie horde. [laughs] It’s really been a lot of fun.

Have you ever been prompted to make a decision against your instincts or inclinations because you know that it wouldn’t be in keeping with either the corporation or the characters themselves?

No, I’ve never done that. I will never do that. I’m always going to with what my gut instinct tells me to do. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work.

When you’re working on something like It’s Archie! [an upcoming, futuristic animated series] or Afterlife with Archiedo you ever worry about blurring the brand? 

No! It’s exciting! I’m so glad you brought that up! It’s Archie! is going to be core, fun, traditional Archie we all grew up on–the kind you go to the supermarket and pull it off of the rack. That’s what it’s going to be, but modern. I don’t want to give too much away, but it’s going to be set in the future, and it’s going to be very reminiscent of the traditional, fun Archie stories that everyone grew up reading. That’s going to come out, I think, early next year.

Going back to your expansion, it’s not just Archie. You’re actively looking at other properties you own: Red Circle, Sabrina, Katy Keene. Is this like Marvel’s movie plan where you know what you’ll be doing every two, five years? 

I will tell you Marvel is the model for what we want to do going forward. There’s no doubt about it. They created the template. It’s brilliant. They’ve executed it perfectly and that is something we aspire to. We’re putting pieces together to get there right now. In these last five years, you’ve seen an expansion and explosion in the publishing here at Archie, and the publishing is always going to be our core from where everything else springs.

But when you and I talk five years from now there will be movies, television, Sabrina, Josie & the Pussycats, Red Circle will have established itself as its standalone brand. We have all these benchmarks for the next five years that we’re very excited about meeting. You’ll also see a reinvigoration on the licensing and product side. A lot of big marketing initiatives going forward for Archie. But we’re never going to neglect the publishing side. For us, that is our foundation, and if that is strong, everything else will be strong and spring from that

Does that include an Archie convention I’ve read about?

I hope so! We absolutely want to do an Archie convention! We have so many things going on here, but we are looking into it. I don’t know how quickly we’ll be able to get that done, but hopefully not that long term a goal. Not tomorrow, unfortunately, but it is coming.

You’ve talked about doing Sabrina the Teenage Witch as more the current, popular urban fantasy than the Melissa Joan Hart sitcom we’ve seen. Is your plan overall with your properties to go with darker and deeper material?

Yes and no. If you watch the Sabrina cartoon that’s currently on-air on the Hub, it’s light, friendly, and geared for young kids. The great thing about our IP is that based on the incarnation you want to provide, it can appeal to many different age groups. So yeah, Roberto is going to be writing a Sabrina book debuting in the fall that’s a lot darker than the cartoon that’s currently airing now. And we’re having a live-action motion picture that’s probably going to be right down the middle.

Where to place our individual intellectual properties? That’s where you’ll see it. The only one who’s really… he is who he is, is Archie. He’s not going to change. In Afterlife, you’ll see a lot of dark things happening around him, but that’s who he is. He still Archie.

Page 3: The next Pixar?

Is it fair to say you’re deliberately shifting public image from kids’ entertainment to to family-friendly, like Pixar, where “Yes obviously a kid can read it, but we want adults to realize it’s something they can enjoy as well?

That’s the exact perfect way to discuss what the Sabrina movie’s going to be. Kids are going to enjoy it but if you’re a parent taking your child there, you’re going to enjoy it. It’s going to be a date movie. It’s going to be very broad-based, and I think part of our IP is going to gear towards the older reader and a large part of our foundation is still with the kids.

Archie is for the young reader and that will never change. But we’ve seen that people, as they get older, they still want to enjoy Archie but they want to enjoy a different version. That’s why Life with Archie is so successful and why Afterlife is lightning in a bottle. The great thing about what we have here at this company is you start reading Archie very young. Hopefully we provide enough great content that you can continue enjoying Archie through your teens and yours 20s and your 30s, however long you want to read it, there will be something for you to enjoy.

Presumably none of these characters will have an extended dialogue while sitting on a toilet.

Presumably none of these characters will have an extended dialogue while sitting on a toilet.

In the opposite direction of that, what are we going to see in Lena Dunham’s upcoming miniseries — her take on a straight-up Archie story or exploring themes about growing up and facing tougher issues?

No, she’s a real fan of Archie. It’s going to be her take on what Archie is and means to her. They’re two separate things. I don’t think she’s going to be putting Archie in any place that’s not what she loves. That’s the foundation of what her story’s going to be all about.

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve learned in your tenure as CEO here? 

I wouldn’t say the most satisfying, but the most gratifying is that if you give people some really great content, it doesn’t have to be for kids only. I knew that instinctively coming in here. When the wedding story came out, all of a sudden it opened a bunch of new doors for us, which led to the Life with Archie magazine, which led to all these different iterations we’re seeing here now. We’ve expanded reach to the older reader and given them the opportunity to enjoy Archie again as an adult and that’s been just wonderful.

Do you have any personal goals for  your stewardship that’s yet to happen?

Yeah! I want to build an Archie Studios. That’s really what my goals here are. I want to have a studio like Marvel has where we’re producing our own films of our own IP and turning out wonderful content in all sorts of entertainment: for film, for television, for Broadway, that’s my goal as the next step for the company.

Tentacles or no, who are we to refuse a dame's embrace?

Tentacles aren’t a dealbreaker for us, but we don’t have the Fox’s physique, so we can’t be as picky.

To that end, the Red Circle stuff seems like you’re going after a certain type of creator and making artisanal superheroes comics. Will that also be kept all-ages? 

No, we’re going to gear this one for the real comic store reader. This really isn’t going to be your all-ages comic. This is more along the tone of Afterlife. Not in terms of horror, but in the tone of the book, very much True Detective. Very dark, gritty, tough stories that we hope will still be entertaining.

But The Fox has a fun sort of Freakazoid or Blue Devil feel to it. 

Well The Fox is fabulous. We’re very proud of it. Mark and Dean do a real fine job with it. But Red Circle will have a real dark feel to it.

Okay, now for my last and most serious question: what do I have to get an Archie Meets Punisher II?

Oh God, you have to talk to the folks at Marvel. We talked about Jughead Meets Wolverine. People are still interested in doing that but we’ve all been so busy, we haven’t gotten it together just yet. But it would be great. Put that in the story and I can wave that in their face. We’d love to do it.


Brendan McGinley is editor round these parts when not writing comics or Cracked columns. You can say a neighborly hello to him on Twitter @BrendanMcGinley.

Yo. We interviewed Mike Mignola on Hellboy’s 20th Anniversary and it was great, so you should read that like, five minutes ago.

 

Hellboy oh boy!

Hellboy oh boy!

 

More from Brendan McGinley
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