Going All In For Riverdale With Archie Heads Jon Goldwater & Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa [Interview]
Archie Comics is on the move. Afterlife with Archie, the horror take on the Riverdale gang, garners acclaim wherever it goes -- after an initial “wait, the comics they sell at Stop N’ Shop?” double take, of course. Its sister book, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, promises to take the teen witch to the heights of 1960s-style psychological horror. Lena Dunham, fresh off her book tour, will pen a series for Archie in 2015. The publisher's new imprint, Dark Circle, will revive classic superheroes. Even dear old Riverdale is getting a shakeup, from Archie’s recent death in the Life With Archie series to a recently announced TV show.
Though the gang’s teen shenanigans endure in every checkout line, their universe stretches far beyond the confines of Pep and Pals n’ Gals. As the publisher’s future grows ever more crowded with plans and announcements, ComicsAlliance sat down with CEO Jon Goldwater and chief creative officer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa to discuss how they plan to honor their past while building a bold new future.
ComicsAlliance: Archie has been going in a lot of different directions recently. What spurred this new direction?
Jon Goldwater: Well, I don’t know that I’d call it a new direction. I’d call it taking what we always had, which was these great characters that have been around for decades, and doing something new and fun and fresh with them. It’s these characters that everyone knows and loves and putting them in new situations — that’s the foundation of everything.
Five or six years ago, we were in a bit of a rut that we needed to get out of. So we all got creative, and asked, “What can we do to move the company forward in a way that will be compelling and true to our history?” That’s been the overarching direction of everything we've done over the last five or six years.
Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa: Jon hit the nail on the head. It’s an expansion. What Archie has always done is still happening, we’re just trying to cultivate new audiences.
CA: I was talking to Dan Parent the other day on how Kevin Keller hasn't ended up a gimmick character. I think a big part of that is the way you guys commit to these initiatives — they stick around. But it's a fine line to tread, and a lot of people were, and are, skeptical. How do you go about making sure these changes matter?
JG: Well, you said it 100% right — it could come across as a gimmick, unless it’s real and true. You commit to what you believe in, and we believe in everything we do. I never want to do something I don’t believe in. People are going to see right through it, and it will be fake and disingenuous.
Plus, with Archie, you carry around all this history and you want to respect it. And the only way to respect it is to commit to what you do going forward. I don’t believe in gimmicks. I don’t believe in doing anything halfway.
With Kevin Keller, I told Dan, when we’re going for it, we’re going for it. And it’s the same with everything, with Afterlife and Sabrina, and Dark Circle, and on and on and on. When we’re in, we’re in, but we don’t go in randomly. We talk about it for weeks and months, before we get down to the plan. But once we’re in, we’re in 100 percent.
CA: Archie has a very strong core identity, in large part because your universe is much smaller than, say, DC or Marvel’s. What would you describe as the heart and soul of Archie Comics?
JG: That’s a great question. Those other companies, in a certain sense, you can’t relate to them. I can’t fly. I don’t have a butler who can give me multimillion dollar toys. But we all go through high school. We all have experiences like Archie, Betty and Vernoica. They go through things with their parents and their teachers.
People can relate to our characters. If you can’t relate to Reggie, because he’s the kind of guy he is, maybe you love Jughead. And there’s the eternal question; are you a Betty, or a Veronica? We feel attached to these characters because we share their experiences, and that’s what it’s all about.
CA: Roberto, you write Afterlife With Archie. Lots of classic horror tropes there. What were you working off of, specifically?
RAS: Classic horror tropes, exactly. I’m a big, big horror fan — my fandom for horror is second only to my fandom for Archie. It was the Night of the Living Dead movies, the Sam Raimi Evil Dead movies. And of course the many horror movies with teenagers in them — teenagers and horror movies go together like peanut butter and jelly, so all of those were fair game.
And the artist for Afterlife with Archie, Francesco Francavilla, who’s a genius, loved H.P. Lovecraft. So very early on, he said, “I want to do a Lovecraft issue,” which is why issue #6 is the Lovecraft issue. It’s a catchall, we draw from everything.
CA: With Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, you’ve almost got a horror line going. Where did that come from?
RAS: We premiered Afterlife last year at New York Comic Con, and people really responded — the critics, our readers. Not long after, Jon and I started talking about a companion book.
[Sabrina] only had a cameo in issue #1, but people really responded. She’s such a natural fit, because she’s a witch, that she should have that companion book. Originally it was going to spin off from Afterlife, we were going to see what that Sabrina’s adventures were. But then we realized that Sabrina is such an iconic character and such an important member of the Archie family that she didn't need to be a spinoff. She could support her own universe, her own timeline, her own supporting characters. So we started from scratch.
It’s set in the 1960s, which is of course when Sabrina made her original debut. We’re building it from the ground up, using all the elements people know: her two spinster aunts, Salem the talking cat, her cousin Ambrose, her high school boyfriend, Harvey Kinkle, her high school rival, Rosalyn. All those elements are in there, with more of a 1960s psychological horror vibe.
CA: The Dark Circle line is your next big project. Can you tell us a little more about that?
JG: Archie started as a comic book company, but we weren't called Archie Comics, we were called MLJ. It started with these great characters, like the Shield and the Hangman, and Black Hood. Once Archie was born, he dominated the landscape, but people still love those characters, and people want to know more about them.
So next year, under the guidance of Alex Segura, we’re relaunching these characters. And like I said earlier, we’re all in. We’re committed. These are ongoing series. We’re going to compete with Marvel and DC. We’re going to shock them. I've read some of the stuff, I've seen some of the art, and it’s exceptional. Not only do we have this horror line we've got going, and the core Archie books, which are our bread and butter, we have Dark Circle, which is as important as any of those lines. We’re very excited about it. I think this time next year, we will have made an incredible impression on the comic book landscape.
CA: Can we you tell me a little bit about where you’re going with Archie digital?
JG: We have the Archie app, which has been downloaded about 15 million times so far. It’s available of iOS and Android. And we’re slowly but surely putting 70 years of content into that app. We’re actually the leaders on so many digital initiatives. We’re committed to the digital future. For us, digital is an important part of the company — to steal a phrase from Star Trek, it’s part of our prime directive.
CA: With books like Afterlife and Chilling Adventures, you’re taking wholesome characters and putting them in very unwholesome situations. How do you maintain a balance?
RAS: We’re keeping their core identities intact, no matter what crazy situations they’re in. The Archie in Afterlife is the same Archie in the main line books. He acts the same way, though in different circumstances, under huge stress and duress. But he maintains his integrity.
It’s a balancing act, but we make sure it’s a great horror story and a great Archie story. That’s why that first issue is set at a Halloween dance; that’s why there’s a pool party in issue #3; that’s why Archie says, “I have to check on my mom and dad.” It’s those iconic moments that are so important to the book; it’s keeping the core intact. That’s why people have been reading these characters for 75 years; that’s why they want to be friends with them. That’s why people are so invested in Afterlife —it’s horrible things happening to these characters they love.
CA: Who do you guys conceive of as the Archie reader? When I say that phrase, what comes to mind?
JG: This may sound cliché, so I apologize, but I think everyone’s an Archie reader. I really do. We have young readers, we have teenagers — we certainly grab that market, with Afterlife and Sabrina. That takes us to the comic shop readers. And then we have older readers, who grew up with Archie and are now parents or grandparents. We appeal to everyone. There’s something for everyone.
If you want something fun and wholesome and teenager-y, we have it for you. If you want something on the cutting edge, we have it for you. If you want horror, we have it for you. And soon, with Dark Circle, we’ll have superheroes. We have a big menu, and you can pick and choose what you like.
CA: A lot of people know Archie as "that stuff I read as a kid," or "the only comic I can still buy in the supermarket." To me, that seems to be what sets you guys apart most in the minds of readers. Do you agree? What do you think sets Archie apart?
JG: Well, we are in the supermarkets, and I think that’s cool. You can buy some milk, bread and Archie. But mostly, unlike the bigger companies, we’re... well, a small dictatorship. [laughs] And we can make decisions really, really quickly. We don’t have to go through the hoops and dances they do.
Roberto and I sit down and talk about stuff — the prime example is Afterlife, but [my son] was there too, at that original breakfast — we sat down, talked about it, and literally two hours later Afterlife was born. Roberto had this amazing idea about Sabrina, we talked about it, done. That’ what sets us apart.
CA: You guys have Lena Dunham coming on to do a story soon. What can you tell us about that?
RAS: I was just emailing Lena — she’s on her book tour right now. She’s writing her issues now, as she’s on tour. It’s a four issue story about a reality TV show that comes to Riverdale. I don’t want to spoil anything, but she and I are big fans of the TV show Shark Tank, and an Archie version of that show comes to town. The kids all start businesses and compete, and the businesses are very specific to the characters. Things go awry in a very Archie, but also a very Lena way.
CA: One final question for both of you: are you Team Betty or Team Veronica? Or perhaps Team Cheryl?
JG: I have to tell you, my wife is both Betty and Veronica. Some days I wake up and I’m more of a Betty guy, some days more of a Veronica guy. I don’t mean to pass the buck, but I gotta embrace them both.
RAS: I love them both, but I think Betty is my favorite Archie character. But Veronica is the most fun to write!