Archie Comics CEO and Publisher Jon Goldwater doesn't mince words when he talks about the state of the company that his father started in 1939 and which the younger Goldwater took over in 2009. After spending years working in the music business, Goldwater came to Archie with an eye on what worked and what didn't—and what he found was a company that, for the most part, didn't work.
"I gotta tell you, I was really surprised to discover how dusty, neglected, and irrelevant the characters had become," Goldwater recalls of that experience. "I knew these characters to be vibrant, interesting, and full of life and adventure. But when I got here, it seemed as if it had fallen into this routine: Very little thought was going into the stories, very little energy was going into making sure the art was excellent. There seemed to be almost no effort or energy put into the creative side of the company." Goldwater held a meeting and told the assembled creators that the new mandate at Archie would be to be "fearless" in presenting ideas. "We're making comic books, for goodness' sake—let's enjoy ourselves."
The first idea that came out of that was the creation of Kevin Keller, the first gay character to join Archie and the Riverdale gang, who debuted in 2010. That was an idea pitched after that meeting by longtime Archie writer/artist Dan Parent in the pages of Veronica, and it was also a big PR coup for the company—Parent received the GLAAD Media Award that year—and it's something that Goldwater is clearly proud of.
Goldwater's a big-talker in the two-fisted comic book publisher tradition—get him started on talking about Kevin Keller and he'll not only claim that Keller is the first gay character in comics (he isn't) but also that he "changed the whole business" and that it was "a big moment in the history of the country, as well"—but he has a lot to be proud of. The creation of Kevin Keller dovetailed with the launch of the ongoing title Archie: The Married Life, which imagined two potential futures for the redheaded all-American—one in which he married Betty Cooper and one in which he married Veronica Lodge—and which turned out to be one of the most creatively vibrant series in Archie history.
Things have sped up from there. The debut of Kevin Keller played an important role in the conclusion of Archie: The Married Life, and made another big PR splash. The series ended with Archie dying after taking a bullet intended for Keller, and the symbolism there was very much intentional, according to Goldwater. "Metaphorically, at least from my perspective, that was the old Archie dying to save the new Archie," he says. "Kevin represented the new Archie." The Married Life begat a weird left-field turn to horror—more on that in a minute—with the ongoing zombie survival story Afterlife With Archie, which in turn led to a company-wide reboot of all of Archie Comics' core titles, beginning with a new Archie #1, written and illustrated by comics superstars Mark Waid and Fiona Staples. Things have accelerated from there—Archie was followed quickly by Jughead, and this summer will see the launch of Betty & Veronica and Josie and the Pussycats as ongoing, serialized, monthly titles.
On top of all of that, Archie's heading outside of comic books for the first time in years. The Archie brand has always carried weight outside of comics—in 1969, the song "Sugar, Sugar" by The Archies was the biggest hit of a year that also saw the release of Abbey Road, Let It Bleed, and Stand!—but the premiere of Riverdale on the CW this fall is the biggest push into the mainstream for Archie since 2001's Josie and the Pussycats feature. It doesn't stop there, either—today, Archie announced that it's partnering with Rachel Antonoff (Lena Dunham collaborators and sister of Fun. singer Jack) for a new fashion line, Betty & Veronica by Rachel Antonoff.
All of this is a hell of a turnaround from the late-'00s days of Archie as a "dusty, neglected, and irrelevant" collection of characters. And it doesn't seem like a stretch to say that the same bravado that leads Goldwater to claim credit for the past six years of social progress on gay rights because Archie Comics introduced Kevin Keller ("I think the feeling was that if Archie could accept it, then wow, that's a real big step forward for everybody") comes from the same place as the "Why the hell not?" spirit that seems to be driving the company forward. These days, Archie is vibrant, interesting, and full of life and adventure. So how did it get back there?
Goldwater's first directive to the Archie creative staff was to be "fearless," and as that began to play out, he says, he found himself following that advice himself. "I realized that we could really start doing some amazing things here at the company," he says. "Some of that was out of necessity—I think we needed to really reinvigorate the brand, there was no doubt about it."
"Reinvigorating the brand" took a very weird—and very successful—left turn in 2012, when Italian artist Francisco Francavilla was commissioned to create an alternate cover for an issue of The Married Life. Archie Comics' house style over the years was established since the late '50s and early '60s by the work of artist Dan DeCarlo—but Francavilla opted instead for a more realistic look for the characters, placing Archie in a cemetery on the run from a zombie version of Jughead. (Francavilla called it "Afterlife With Archie.") It was a weird twist on the characters, the sort of thing that occasionally pops up in an alternate cover—and Goldwater loved it.
"It was a stunning moment for me," Goldwater says of Francavilla's interpretation of the characters. "I realized we could reimagine these characters, and people would still know it's Archie."
Shortly after he saw Francavilla's cover, the second part of Goldwater's fearless plan fell into place—over a breakfast with former Glee staff writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa (who wrote the Archie Meets Glee crossover for the company) when the conversation once more turned to the Francavilla cover. Aguirre-Sacasa mentioned that he was disappointed when he opened the issue and saw that it wasn't actually a horror story, and told Goldwater that he'd love to write that book himself. Goldwater found himself convinced. "I literally greenlit it then and there at the table."
There are a million ways that Afterlife With Archie could have failed. It could have been cheesy, it could have played it safe, it could have treated the whole concept as a gag. But the biggest failure would have been if it had disrespected the Archie characters, or tried to put them into roles that didn't make them feel like the characters that fans knew. The series goes to dark places—at one point, Archie has to kill his zombie father with a bat—but the key to the series is that it still reads like the Riverdale gang in these extraordinary circumstances. And that was deliberate, too. "I knew just how much [Aguirre-Sacasa] cared about the Archie characters," Goldwater says. ""He cares about them so deeply and so passionately that I felt I could trust him to really push the envelope, but not break the envelope, and he did that."
The success of Afterlife With Archie—which sold in comic book stores as a more traditional direct-market title, alongside superheroes and other monthly, serialized titles, rather than on supermarket shelves and convenience stores where Archie Comics had typically done most of their business—led Goldwater and the company (which hired Aguirre-Sacasa as its Chief Creative Officer in 2014) to pursue that model for their core titles, too. "Archie Horror" got spun off into its own brand, but the company ended the core Archie title in June 2015 with the publication of issue #666. The following month, it launched a new Archie #1 with a more realistic art style by acclaimed Saga artist Fiona Staples, written by longtime Marvel and DC writer Mark Waid.
"We wanted to bring in the best and the brightest, and take advantage of what we saw as a gap in our publishing plan here," Goldwater says. "We really had no foothold in the comic book shops, we had no foothold in the direct market, and we looked at that as a huge opportunity for Archie. There aren't many places in publishing to really expand, and we looked at the comic book shops as a real opportunity to us. The awareness of Archie there is 100%—everybody who's a comic book fan has heard of Archie. They may not read it, but they've certainly heard of it, so we had a huge opportunity there."
From a business perspective, it made sense to Goldwater to try to excite people who like to read comic books by giving them Archie comics created by the people whose work they already enjoyed. "I looked at it as a real chance to expand our brand into places that are meaningful and vibrant—people go into comic book shops to buy comic books. You don't necessarily walk into a supermarket to buy an Archie digest."
Archie #1 was a huge hit—it sold out at the distributor level before it was even released—and it quickly led to the launch of Jughead #1 by writer Chip Zdarsky and artist Erica Henderson, with Betty & Veronica by Adam Hughes and Josie and the Pussycats by DC Bombshells writers Marguerite Bennett and Cameron DeOrdio, with artist Audrey Mok.
"They grew up with Archie," Goldwater explains of getting Waid and Staples involved. "They knew all about it, and when you offer them the opportunity to relaunch with a whole new Archie #1, that's something that was very, very appealing to them, and of course have them is a fantasy come true for us."
Relaunching Archie in a way that's both more contemporary in look, tone, and feel than the house style of the '60s, and designed to cater to the tastes of fans who've become accustomed to a more sophisticated kind of storytelling, can have implications outside of just comic book stores. In May, the CW premiered the trailer for Riverdale at its upfronts (the trailer has yet to make its way to the Internet), promising a television version of the characters that's got a good deal of both "edge" and "heart," according to producer Greg Berlanti.
There are a lot of comic book-based properties on television (and specifically the CW) right now, and before the relaunch of Archie, Riverdale might have felt like an anachronism—but instead, it's another TV series with a counterpart on comic book store shelves that'll involve a fair bit of synergy between the two.
"They've hewn really close to the imaging that Fiona created in the new Archie #1," Goldwater says. "The Archie that's on the cover, K.J. Apa, who plays Archie [on Riverdale] is is almost a clone of the Archie that Fiona drew." The pilot was written by Aguirre-Sacasa, and Goldwater is confident that a sexed-up version of Archie and pals for CW tweens manages to strike the same balance that Aguirre-Sacasa hit on Afterlife With Archie.
"Roberto wrote a script that is certainly unique in how the Archie characters are going to be viewed and imagined, but their core integrity remains intact," Goldwater says. "I think it’s going to be a phenomenon. I truly do. What Roberto did in writing it was the final touch on the reinvigoration of the characters. He just took it to a different place—but the integrity remains intact from what you would expect from all of the characters from 75 years ago."
Archie Comics has pushed forward in big ways—while the digests are still published, and still sold at supermarkets, the core business of the company is pretty different from where it was a decade ago. For more than 50 years, "Archie Comics" meant something that looked like Dan DeCarlo's work, and which told stories that worked in a certain vein. Goldwater is proud of that, but if that era is considered part of Archie's iconic past, rather than the brand's future, that's just fine with him. In fact, he's downright excited about it.
"I'm absolutely thrilled with that," he says when asked how he'd feel if the Francisco Francavilla/Fiona Staples versions of the characters come to define the 21st century of Archie the way that the DeCarlo versions did the 20th. "Quite honestly, I think it's fantastic. I think it just shows that we've moved forward as a company, and as a brand, that the characters have been redefined. It was really important that we do that—if we didn't do that, I was not confident about how we were going to maneuver our way through this very crowded media and publishing landscape. I don't mind at all if the classic art is defined as something a little retro, a little older. 'Retro, classic art' is fantastic and iconic, and something we really look at with pride. I think there's something for everybody there. And if that's how we're defined, that, to me is really fantastic. It shows that we've really been making some of the right moves."