As a teacher for more than 20 years, Nancy Silberkleit saw the effects of bullying firsthand in her classroom. Now that she is co-CEO of one of America’s iconic pop culture institutions, Archie Comics, she is using her prestige and her affinity for the graphic medium to create a series of comics to help kids and teens rise above social challenges like bullying, obesity, depression, and suicide.
Silberkleit is the founder and driving force behind Rise Above Social Issues, a nonprofit venture dedicated to helping young people deal with some pretty nasty real-world issues. The foundation publishes comics that talk frankly about hot-button concerns using the tried-and-true storytelling and art style that has won the hearts of kids around the world.
The company’s first title, by veteran Archie creators John Wilcox and Stan Goldberg, explores the problem of bullying through the eyes of Erika, a spunky young tween in her first day at a new school. When she is singled out by the resident bully and her posse, the story does not shy away from exploring the cruelty and emotional damage that the experience can produce. The juxtaposition between the heavy storyline and an art style most readers associate with light teen humor stories is jarring and effective.
Silberkleit says she was motivated to address the issue after a spate of high-profile bullying cases in 2011, some of which resulted in suicide.
"It’s really important for kids to know they don’t have to fit in the box that bullies try to put them in," Silberkleit says. "Whether you are a victim of bullying or a bystander, there are things you can do, like stick up for your friends." She says the Rise Above stories are produced with the input of experts and child psychologists but filtered through the creative lens of comic-storytelling professionals.
Silberkleit, who became co-CEO of Archie in 2009 following the death of her husband Michael (son of original Archie cofounder Louis Silberkleit), says she initially tried to bring these kinds of larger social concerns into the Archie comics themselves before deciding to launch her own imprint.
"Archie is a business, and there’s a limit to the number of stories like that we can tell," she says. Although she had reached out to some artists and writers from the Archie stable to work with her on the Rise Above comics, which gives them a familiar visual style, she emphasizes that there’s no formal connection with the company she co-runs.
Now that the first book has been published, Silberkleit is touring the country speaking at schools and civic venues, distributing her comics in her wake. The global popularity of Archie—yes, the all-American teen and his pals are a hit from Latin America to the Indian subcontinent—has opened doors to spread the Rise Above message worldwide and advocate for comics as teaching tools.
The world loves Archie; the world loves comics," says Silberkleit, and this gives organizations like Rise Above Social Issues a chance to break down the barriers of culture, religion, and language to get affirmative messages out to the world’s kids.