Archie (c) Archie Comics
Hey, Archie! Want to Build an Empire?
By GEORGE GENE GUSTINES
(c) New York Times
Last fall, Archie, the comic book redhead from Riverdale, got married — twice. (No worries: Archie is not a bigamist. The story line showcased two possible futures.)
But those marriages haven’t stopped from him turning into a playa: he recently flirted and locked lips with Valerie, who is one-third of the all-girl band Josie and the Pussycats.
And Archie’s recent forays into parody — in which he and his friends were reimagined as the stars of the “Jersey Shore” reality series and the “Twilight” films — have landed him write-ups on TMZ and MTV.com.
At 68 years old, Archie is suddenly looking awfully spry.
His new zest for life is the work of new management at Archie Comics. The team is aggressively trying to take the tried, true and previously lethargic Archie family of characters, including Betty and Veronica, Sabrina the Teenage Witch and Josie and her bandmates, and transform them into global brands in comics, film, apparel and more.
“We’re at the beginning of the beginning,” says Jon Goldwater, co-chief executive of Archie Comic Publications. “We’re going to expand. Publishing will always be part of it, but we must morph into a multimedia company.”
With more than $40 million in print and digital sales last year, Archie Comics, based in Mamaroneck, N.Y., is a small player in a large but unforgiving market dominated by DC Comics and Marvel Entertainment. Archie’s titles capture less than 1 percent of sales at comic book specialty shops, and the competitive challenge is only growing: Comics in general are battling the popularity of other distractions like video games and YouTube. And traditional readers of comics are aging, with no steady stream of new ones to take their place.
But comics alone are not what generate the hundreds of millions of dollars that characters from DC and Marvel can rake in, which is what Mr. Goldwater wants to emulate.
Enter Hollywood, where comic book characters can sometimes lead to box-office blockbusters and ancillary merchandise. Last year, the Walt Disney Company acquired Marvel for $4 billion and gained access to Spider-Man, the X-Men and thousands of other characters. In February, DC Comics was reorganized by its parent company, Warner Brothers Entertainment, with an aim to make Superman and his fellow heroes available anywhere a consumer lurks.
Archie, clearly, is no superhero, but that’s not necessarily a negative. His stories lend themselves to comedy or romance, says Ira Mayer, the publisher of The Licensing Letter, a newsletter for the licensing industry. “It’s a property that actually has some personality, so you can build on that,” he says.
The risks and potential rewards in such an effort go from “zero to billions,” says Mr. Mayer. (For example, the recent “Batman” films were a phenomenon, while “Jonah Hex” was not.) “You have to appeal to various demographic groups,” Mr. Mayer says, and while baby boomers may know Archie, “that’s not enough to grow a business on.” You need to build a younger audience, he adds, and “you have to make it relevant.”
One Archie enthusiast is Mark Freedman, the president of Surge Licensing, who in the late 1980s helped turn the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, an independent comic book, into top-selling toys, an animated series and films. He pursued Archie for about 18 months to win a contract to license the company’s entire family of characters. “It’s kind of the flip side of the superhero market, a soft intellectual property aimed more at girls,” he says.
And thanks to Archie’s longevity, a nostalgia factor is at work. But that eternalness has a downside. “The problem that the Archie people have always had is the changing times of teenagers,” says Mark Evanier, a comic book historian. “Dating is not what it was when Archie was created.”
In the past, Archie was also perceived as out of touch. “I think there’s been periods when you can tell that Archie comics had been written by men in their 50s,” Mr. Evanier adds. “It’s nice that the folks at Archie have met this problem head-on because to not do anything would give them a greater problem: it would make them irrelevant and corny, like a 1950s hygiene movie.”
ARCHIE’S roller-coaster ride began in May 2009, when word leaked that this seemingly perennial bachelor would marry Veronica Lodge, one of his longtime love interests. That news — and its twist, revealed in October, that Archie would also marry Betty Cooper — made headlines worldwide.
“That was the tipping point,” says Mr. Goldwater. “It let people know that Archie was still here. We don’t have a television show or an animated series or a feature film, but we were all over the media.”
The company’s latest project, which began this month, is “Life With Archie,” a magazine-size publication that is part comic book, part “Teen Beat.” Each issue will contain two comic book stories — one chronicling his future with Betty, the other with Veronica — and special features like casting calls for “Archie” films or one-offs like “The Archie Guide to ‘Glee.’ ”
The magazine-size comic was more attractive to retailers, according to Chip Smith, the vice president for client services at Kable Media Services, which distributes Archie, Dark Horse and other comics to traditional brick-and-mortar stores. “The retailer community is geared to a regular-sized magazine,” he says. “Comics don’t fit that mold anymore.”
“Life With Archie,” Mr. Smith says, is bigger, better and provides more space, editorially and on the display shelves. It will also increase the comic book presence outside specialty stores. The magazine will be sold at a selection of CVS, Walgreen, Wal-Mart, Target, Toys “R” Us, Barnes & Noble and Rite Aid stores. Widening the availability is a main ingredient in the Archie plan.
“I hate to denigrate comic book stores,” says Michael Uslan, a comic book historian and the writer of the wedding story line. “They are wonderful, but for a kid to buy an Archie comic or for a parent to buy an Archie comic for a kid, they are not going to go to a walk-up in a bad part of town.” Having the comics at drugstores and toy stores, he says, will make them “more accessible to the masses and not just the fan boys.”
Mr. Goldwater says the new format was easy to enact. “There’s no board I had to take that to; we made the decision right there,” he said. “We’re mom-and-pop, but we’re nimble.”
Mom-and-pop is right. Archie Comics was first known as MLJ Comics, which was derived from the first initials of the partners Maurice Coyne, Louis Silberkleit and John L. Goldwater. The company began publishing in 1939, but Archie did not have its premiere until Pep Comics No. 22, published in December 1941.
In his heyday, in the 1940s, the character sold “well over a million” copies an issue, says Mr. Uslan, and the company reflected that popularity by officially becoming Archie Comics in 1946. “He was the poster child for everything going forward,” says Mr. Goldwater, 51.
In April 2009, Nancy Silberkleit, 56, the daughter-in-law of Mr. Silberkleit, and Mr. Goldwater, the son of John L. Goldwater, the creator of Archie, came on board as co-chief executives. They took over after Richard Goldwater (Mr. Goldwater’s half-brother) and Michael Silberkleit (Ms. Silberkleit’s husband), who had led the company, died within months of each other.
Mr. Uslan likes to call Archie “a sleeping giant,” and Mr. Goldwater wants to awaken it.
“The previous administration had no interest to grow the company” like a DC or Marvel, he says. Worse, revenue had fallen in the previous couple of years. “The company had been neglected, and the bottom line suffered,” he says. “That has turned around.” (The old regime did at least one thing right: the “Sabrina the Teenage Witch” television series, Mr. Goldwater says, generated more than $500 million in revenue for its partners.)
Before the wedding, single-issue sales for Archie at comic book stores were near the bottom of the month’s top 300 comics. They averaged around 2,455 copies. The first issue of the marital story line moved nearly 60,000 copies, and new issues have averaged just above 5,000. Mr. Goldwater says that mail-order subscriptions, across all Archie titles, are also up.
In 2009, the comic book industry had about $680 million in sales of single issues and trade paperbacks, down from $715 million in 2008, according to Milton Griepp, the publisher and founder of ICv2, an online trade publication that covers pop culture for retailers. Despite the overall industry dip, Archie has had some small gains. As of June this year, Archie Comics is the 10th-ranked publisher, Mr. Griepp noted, up from 15th a year earlier. Marvel controls 39 percent of the market, followed by DC Comics, at 32 percent. Neither Marvel nor DC would comment on Archie Comics’ plans.
The comic industry went through a significant but temporary boom in the 1990s. The growth was fed primarily by speculators who bought comics as investments and were attracted to event story lines like the “death” of Superman. In those days, millions of copies of a single significant issue could be sold. These days, however, one issue of a popular story may generally sell just 100,000 to 250,000 copies — though a Spider-Man comic featuring President Obama sold more than 520,000 in 2009. But the overall decline shows how the search for new readers is of great importance to the industry.
BRINGING Archie into the modern age was one of the first goals of Mr. Goldwater, who had also worked in the music industry. He told the editorial team to take chances and be contemporary.
“Look, Archie is fantastic,” he says. “It’s been built up over generations and decades, but we need to step forward and reflect what kids are going through today.”
Mr. Goldwater’s 19-year-old daughter, Shannon, helped lead to the introduction of Kevin Keller, who is blond, blue-eyed and openly gay. She told her father that some of her classmates were gay and wondered, “How come Archie doesn’t have any gay friends?”
Kevin is not a gimmick, according to Victor Gorelick, the co-president and editor in chief at Archie.
“He will be part of Archie’s world,” says Mr. Gorelick, who has been with the company since 1958.
Another of Mr. Goldwater’s initiatives was to embrace the digital realm. “I learned that lesson from the music business,” he said. “They fought against digital and got burned.” In June last year, Archie rolled out its first digital comics for portable devices. The revenue on the Archie app, Mr. Goldwater says, has increased monthly since it was first offered. It was not until this year that Marvel and DC Comics aggressively entered this arena.
Mr. Goldwater says that for Archie, digital comics have not cannibalized print sales, as some comic book companies feared. The company plans to release exclusive digital material starring some of its other characters: the model Katy Keene, Li’l Jinx as a teenager, and Josie and the Pussycats. Archie is also in early talks to provide content to a mobile carrier in Japan.
The first ancillary products out of the gate will be apparel: sleepwear, caps and Halloween costumes. A line of T-shirts that will soon be available at Urban Outfitters and Target stores includes one of Archie, Betty, Veronica, Jughead and Reggie crossing a street in Beverly Hills à la the Beatles’ “Abbey Road” album cover.
There may be other music in Archie’s future. Nancy Silberkleit, who describes her background as mother, housewife and schoolteacher, is in charge of scholastic development and theater — but she is coy about discussing rumors of a possible Archie musical. “It takes three to four years to develop a musical or Broadway show,” she says. But “I feel confident in the connections that I have made that it will happen.”
Ms. Silberkleit has more to say about a project she has started: Comic Book Fairs, a program that uses Archie comics to promote literacy. It also helps schools to raise money by selling comics, with 40 percent of the proceeds going to the institution.
Other possible ventures for the company include new TV series, animated shows and live-action movies — though all of those also take time to develop. To help in that quest, Archie has signed up with William Morris Endeavor.
The full extent of the company’s library of characters goes back to the Shield, whom Mr. Uslan called “the first patriotic superhero.” The Shield, whose costume was based on the American flag, had his premiere in 1940 and predated Captain America by a year.
Superheroes will return to Riverdale next year, when Mr. Uslan unveils heroic personas for Archie, Betty, Moose and the rest of the gang. He also has a grim surprise coming up in “Life With Archie”: the death of a major character.
“Riverdale is not Gotham City or Metropolis,” he warns. “They don’t die and show up again a year later.”
Mr. Goldwater will probably be happy if the character’s demise generates the same buzz as the “Jersey Shore” and “Twilight” parodies. He asks: “When would Archie have ever been mentioned on TMZ or MTV before?”