CEO Jon Goldwater on the Future of Archie Comics
By Dan Casey on April 3, 2014
Though it may seem like Marvel and DC are dominating comic book store shelves and the cultural zeitgist, there are plenty of long-running competitors vying for a slice of the comic book reading market share. Case in point: Archie Comics. Since 1939, the venerable publisher has been offering up delightful slices of life from Archie Andrews and the residents of Riverdale, spandex-clad superheroes from the Red Circle Universe, and more recently, flesh-hungry, murderous monsters in the pages of Afterlife with Archie. Despite its long-standing history, Archie Comics, for a time, seemed to be stuck in the past, a victim of its own history, watching its readership recede as older readers moved on and younger readers passed it by in favor of hipper fare. Fortunately for Archie Comics, and for us, that way of thinking and publishing is itself a thing of the past.
Over the past five years, CEO Jon Goldwater has lead the charge to bring Archie Comics into the 21st century by offering up a wide variety of all-ages fare designed to appeal to readers young and old alike. All-ages comics are, arguably, the hardest to pull off because they need to be relatable for the younger demographic while still offering up a compelling narrative for older readers. By keeping the core qualities of classic characters like Archie and the gang, but updating the subject matter and the tone, as well as adding innovative series like Kevin Keller, The Fox, and Afterlife with Archie, and adding creative voices like Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and Lena Dunham to the mix, Goldwater and company have managed to make Archie Comics into a dynamic, viable company once more. Why exactly is Archie Comics worth your while and what’s next for the company? I caught up with Goldwater over the phone to talk about about what needed to change, what makes these characters resonate seventy-five years later, and what’s coming through Riverdale next.
Nerdist: Over the last five years you’ve been pretty instrumental in the reshaping of Archie Comics, so sort of a big-picture type question: what was your defining M.O. in this process? What did you see needed to be changed and why?
Jon Goldwater: Well, there’s one thing that absolutely needed to be changed, and one thing that absolutely did not need to be changed. I’ll start with what did not need to be changed. That is the characters themselves. The personalities, the integrity, who they are as people, what they stood for for seventy years. Basically, the Archie and Betty and Veronica that you knew growing up, and that had been so well-known for the last number of decades-those guys did not need to change at all.
But what absolutely needed to change, and had to change, and had to change immediately, was Riverdale, where they lived. Time has passed. The world is different. Riverdale had to expand, it had to diversify, it had to morph, and we needed to keep them true to who they were, but put them in a setting which is more realistic and more contemporary than what was going on in Riverdale before I got there, and what is going on in Riverdale today. So we basically had to just reflect the realities of what’s going on in the world today.
So that, to me, is very, very big picture of what I thought of when I first came in needed to be changed, and that’s sort of, I guess, the basis from where everything else was launched.
N: Yeah. I can definitely see how people might not respond to that Happy Days aesthetic that Riverdale had in previous years.
JG: You know what? We’re not responding, frankly, because Archie – our sales were flat; they were stagnant. I was very afraid that they were going to start turning in a direction which was going to be very hard to recover from, and all of a sudden you have shows like Family Guy, which are so successful and which started back in the day with The Simpsons, you know, it’s just the humor, the aesthetic – everything was just different.
Look-we’re not going to go into the areas of Family Guy, even though I’m a great lover and fan of Seth MacFarlane, and he’s actually done a couple of spoofs of Archie, which has been quite funny. But we needed to be fresh. How do we get fresh again, yet get these characters back out into the public consciousness?
N: Right, right. And how’s the audience response to these kinds of changes?
JG: I think it’s been absolutely thrilling and magnificent. We really first started in 2010 with the launch of Kevin Keller, and that was just a shaping-the-world moment for – I’m going to say for Archie, but I think for the comic book world in general-but certainly for this company, that someone who was gay and very much matter-of-fact that this is just who I am, and how all the folks who lived in Riverdale just accepted him for who he was – that was a very important moment in the history of this company.
We certainly got some haters and some nay-sayers, and people got really, really angry with me, but the overwhelming large feedback was positive, and more than just positive – people embraced it, and they respected it. They were so thrilled that Archie took this step. And of course, it was capsulized last year when we won the GLAAD award for best comic book publication of the year, one of our proudest moments here at Archie Comics.
So I think people have been very hungry for this change, quite honestly, Dan. Very hungry for it.
N: Yeah, it’s nice to hear that people are responding so well to a little injection of modernity, because things like, in whatever community you live in, it’s just a fact of life – there’s going to be people who are different than you, whether it’s their religion, their sexuality, you know, the list goes on. But I’m glad to hear that people are responding well.
JG: Diversity, diversity, diversity-that’s our world now. There are no more clones of community. If there are, I’m not privy to that. The world I live in is a very diversified world. The world my kids grew up in is very accepting of everybody and everything, and that’s what Riverdale is now – it’s very accepting of everybody and everything.
N: Fantastic. Now, what is it – you mentioned that Archie Comics was founded in 1939. What is it about these characters that makes them resonate with audiences nearly three-quarters of a century later?
JG: You know, I think they represent the best of what a typical American teenage experience is all about. And what we – I know me, growing up and reading Archie books, man, I was like, man, I can’t wait to get to high school! It was, like, if this is what high school is really like, get me there!
N: Yeah. [laughs]
JG: So I think people just enjoy the fact that there’s a really strong bond of friendship amongst these kids. At their core, they’re all really good people. They have the right values. They respect each other. They respect their parents. They respect the school. And they all really want what’s best, not just for themselves, but most importantly, for each other. So I think people really resonate to that part of who these guys are. Plus, there’s a lot of fun going in with it. Obviously, the love triangle with Betty, Archie and Veronica is eternal. Every guy – that’s their dream come true! You’ve got the two most beautiful girls in high school fighting over him, so on one hand, it’s everyone’s wish – if you’re a young man, going forward. And if you’re a girl, it sounds like a real fun time, once you get to high school
N: Excellent. Now one thing that I really admire about Archie Comics is that you guys manage to put out really compelling stories that still have an all-ages sensibility. So I wanted to ask you, is there a challenge in putting out these all-ages books, and if so, what is it?
JG: Yeah, there really is. That’s a great question, Dan. I mean, look – we need to really be aware of who our core readership is, and our core readership are the kids. So, even though we want to tell compelling stories, and we want to talk about what’s going on in the world, we also have to be very mindful that young people are reading these stories.
So we want to take it right up to a certain line, but we don’t want to cross that line. We don’t want to preach to kids. We just want to let people from our vantage point understand that if you conduct yourself a certain way, really anything is possible for you in this world. But you’ve got to be very mindful. You can’t push the envelope too hard in the core Archie stories.
But that being said, you certainly can tell some really great stories, and that’s what we’ve been doing over the last couple of years.
N: I wanted to talk a little bit about the Red Circle universe. I’ve really been enjoying books like The Fox, with Mark Waid and Dean Haspiel. It’s nice to see Archie bring back its own line of superhero stories. But nowadays, I feel like it’s a market that’s – not glutted, but there’s certainly a wide variety of superhero stories available. So what’s the challenge there in trying to make these heroes stand out from the pack?
JG: What’s really great is – you’ve had me on the phone with Alex Segura sitting here. Yes, Alex has been brought back here as senior VP of marketing and publicity, but he’s also been charged with taking control of the Red Circle line of super heroes. I think you are right – there are a lot of them out there.
Our superheroes, as you know, Dan, hearken back to the golden age of super heroes, and it’s really all about telling a great story. I mean, at the end of the day, if you have a great story, with great art, I believe that is what separates itself from everything else. And to me, the testament to that is Afterlife with Archie, which we can talk about that whenever you like. But if you tell a great, compelling story, and you have a great artist on board – our distribution here is fantastic, our promotion here is fantastic. So for us, it’s really all about telling that great story.
I’m very confident that Alex is going to lead the charge on that, and of course we have Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa on now as chief creative officer, so he’s going to work with Alex as well in reinvigorating all of those super heroes. So I think we have a really fun, amazing opportunity here, with this great library of super heroes that really has never been given the opportunity to really shine, and we’re going to do that right now.
JG: I really believe that. It’s like the music business. There’s 10,000 songs come out in any given time period, and the best always shine through, and that’s what we’re going to do here with the Red Circle. We’re going to grab the brass ring. We’re going to bring on the best writers, the best artists, we’re going to put an incredible amount of thought into each book that we release, and we’re very committed to each and every book, each story line that we will release. These will all be ongoing stories. These will not be one shot. These will not be short arcs. These are going to be ongoing series. And we’re committed to it, and I think it’s going to be a real surprise when we release that first book.
N: Terrific! I do want to move on to Afterlife with Archie, because that is one of my absolute favorite books on store shelves right now. I was really into the idea when I first heard about it, and I’ve been so pleased with the results, especially (since) Francesco Francavilla is one of my absolute favorite artists, so I don’t think you could have chosen a better guy to bring that to life.
But what was the impetus behind that? I’ve read in interviews that it came out of conversations with you and Roberto trying to figure out what it would be like if Archie characters were in a Stephen King novel, but tell me a little bit about how this project arose.
JG: Well, it actually arose in October of 2012. Francesco – we hired Francesco to do a variant cover of our Life with Archie magazine. That was our Halloween issue. So Francesco did a cover, and he called it Afterlife with Archie. And it was Archie – it was a genius cover – Jughead was a zombie, and Archie hiding behind a gravestone. It was amazingly cool!
So the following week, I’m out in L.A., and I’m having breakfast with my son and with Roberto. Roberto says, “You know, man, I still have that Life with Archie magazine, and I opened it up, and I was really disappointed – it wasn’t a full-on zombie story.” My son goes, “Yeah, I love the zombie thing. I think it could be amazing.” And really, that’s how it started. So we started talking about it. We talked about it for maybe the next twenty minutes. I said goodbye to Roberto, and later on that afternoon I called him up and said, “It’s on. We’re going to do it. It’s going to be amazing, and we’re going to do it.” And that’s really how it all began.
N: That’s awesome! I’m so glad that it just started as a pun and it all evolved from there.
JG: That’s exactly what happened. That’s exactly what happened.
N: For more of a marketing perspective, is this more of a sort of concerted effort to bring more adult readers back into the fold?
JG: Absolutely! And not only just bring adult readers back into the fold-one of the things that’s been really fun about reading comments on message boards and places like that from people who are loving the book, is some people say, “You know, I wasn’t really that big an Archie fan, but boy, I love this book! This book is amazing!” So yeah, it’s bringing-definitely expanding our reach, this is a full-on horror book, as you know. We pull no punches here. And it’s bringing in people who weren’t even necessarily big Archie fanatics in the first place. So it’s really been lightning in the bottle for us, Dan, and a very exciting time. So yeah-we’re expanding our reach, and it’s giving us some good residence in the comic books stores, which we’ve never really had before.
JG: That’s also exciting as well. It sort of showing and proving to the comic book retailers that there is a place in their stores for Archie Comics.
N: Well, it’s very, very well deserved, and I’m very glad that it’s doing so well, because I’m absolutely loving that book.
JG: Thank you. I just want to say a quick aside about Francesco, that you mentioned a little while ago. I mean Francesco to me is not just the greatest comic book artist out there today, and there are a lot of great ones – I think he’s the leader of the pack of artists in the comic book world, but I just think he’s just a great artist, not just as a comic book artist. He’s a great artist.
JG: I liken him – and I’ve said this and it may sound very broad, but I think he’s Picasso. He took a very iconic look that Archie and the gang had, that was seared into your brain, and he took it and he changed it and he made it better. It was incredible what he did. He completely reimagined what Archie and the gang were, but at the same time, you looked at it, and you knew it was them. I don’t know how he pulled that off, but he did it. It was absolutely brilliant. So to have him on board as the artist is just a very wonderful thing for us.
N: I agree. I’ve spent more time than I care to admit looking at his web store and lusting after prints that I can’t afford.
JG: I hear you man, I hear you. I’d love to have that store of his. He’s got some great stuff up there.
N: Yeah. So looking towards the future, now that you guys have all these fantastic initiatives in place, where do you guys hope to see the company go from here?
JG: Well, I see us keeping everything moving forward from the print side, but also taking advantage of how great the IP is. Film and television and animation and live theater–we have a lot of irons in the fire with a lot of those initiatives. I see print always being the foundation from which everything else springs, and we are very committed to everything we do here, from the publishing side, but I see us growing from both the licensing side and the entertainment side.
That’s the next natural evolution, and five years from now – this is the first five years, I see the next five years, you and I will be talking and there will be movies out and television shows on the air, and Broadway productions and licensing, and really a whole sort of separate business going forward for Archie. And I also have very high hopes, as we touched on earlier, for Red Circle. I look at Red Circle as being its own sort of stand-alone division, apart from-under the same umbrella that Archie is, but apart from Archie, and basically doing its own thing. So that’s kind of where I see things going over the next five years.
N: Awesome, awesome. Well I certainly hope that comes to pass, because I would certainly love to go see an Afterlife with Archie musical, especially considering what Roberto has done with American Psycho.
JG: Yeah, but you also may see an Afterlife with Archie movie, too, Dan.
JG: There’s been a lot of – lot of people and heat – there’s been a lot of heat about an Afterlife with Archie movie.
N: Oh, I’ve been keeping my ear to the ground! If the heat intensifies, in an ideal world, who would you like to see play Archie in that movie?
JG: Ooo, boy. I don’t know. I mean, I don’t know. I don’t know. That’s a great question. Someone who looks like Archie in Francesco’s book. That kind of guy.
JG: Very heroic, yet humble. The Archie that you read about in Afterlife #4. That’s who I want Archie to be.
What do you think about how Archie Comics has reshaped itself? Let us know in the comments below.