|I Love Archie Comics!
June 18 - July 30, 2010
When I created my “Jayson” comic strip back in 1982, it was in large part because I loved Archie Comics but never saw myself represented in them.
So when the news broke on April 22 that Archie Comics was introducing an openly gay teen character named Kevin Keller, I had to check my calendar -- nope, it wasn’t April Fool’s Day. As a lifelong Archie Comics fan, I was stunned, thrilled, and more than a little worried about backlash from conservative parents. Other comics publishers like Marvel and DC have introduced gay and lesbian characters over the years; but those magazines are targeted to older readers, and those characters are adults. But a gay teen in Riverdale? This can’t end well.
Yet the response, from both the press and from readers, has been overwhelmingly positive. It looks like for every reader they might lose over this decision, they’re going to pick up ten new ones. So unless you’ve been hiding under an Amish quilt, you already know that Kevin Keller will debut in “Veronica” #202, which comes out (so to speak) in September. You can pre-order your copy today at archiecomics.com.
Why do I care so much about Archie Comics? I’m going to explore that subject starting tomorrow!
My grandparents’ house
The first Archie comic book I can remember reading was at my grandparents’ house. My cousins, who were a few years older than me, were avid comics readers, and one of them even became a collector. One day while they were visiting my grandparents, they left behind a couple of their “funny books” for me to find.
“Betty & Veronica Spectacular” #153 (June 1968) changed my life. To this day, I consider it the holy grail of comics reading experiences. All the art was by Dan DeCarlo at his peak; every story was a 5 or 6 page gem filled with humor, conflict, and a satisfying resolution; and at 64 pages, the fun went on for hours!
I became instantly enthralled with this new world of Archie Comics. We were poor and couldn’t afford much in the way of entertainment, but at just 12¢ an issue (25¢ for the Giant Size), “funny books” were something my parents would soon permit.
The Archie Comics Code
I was a quiet, introspective kid who didn’t get too excited about much of anything except doing well in school. And playing the piano. So when it became apparent how much I loved “funny books,” my mother was happy to purchase me an occasional Archie Series comic that met with her approval. My brothers and I also traded comics with my older cousins. They read everything, but I was only interested in the Archies. We had a coding system to track who had read what. My cousin Craig, the youngest of the cousins and the one most likely to still be reading Archies, was born on September 6. So the issues that he read were coded with a 6 inside a circle, written inside the yellow Archie Series trademark in the upper left corner. As my cousins outgrew Archie Comics and I grew into them, I took possession of the entire collection, including the ones with my cousins’ codes on them.
The spinner rack at Genetti’s
I grew up surrounded by farmland, seven miles from the nearest town. Every Thursday my mother would drive into town to do her weekly food shopping at Genetti’s supermarket. It was at Genetti’s that I discovered the joy of the spinner rack.
The Genetti’s spinner rack was dominated by Archie Series comics. By the late 1960s, Archie was publishing several titles a week, but I was only allowed to buy one. So while my mother shopped, I combed through the entire rack looking for that one Archie Series comic that was extra special that week. If there were two, I would have to make a mental note and hope that the second one would still be there the following week.
Today, when I’m at comic book conventions, my very favorite thing to do is to troll the vintage comics boxes for the Archies from 1968-72 that I don’t already have. I won’t be satisfied until I own all the Archies I couldn’t buy at Genetti’s.
Archie’s stable of artists
Even though the Archie Series comics of the late 1960s were uncredited, it didn’t take me long to figure out that different artists, and presumably different writers, were producing the stories. The art on “Jughead” was different from the art on “Betty & Veronica,” which was different from the art on “Archie.” I later learned these artists’ names: Samm Schwartz, Dan DeCarlo, and Harry Lucey, respectively.
Most of the second-tier stories seemed to be written and drawn by yet another creator, who specialized in zany situations, physical humor, and wacky “surprise” endings. As the 1970s wore on, he also began injecting Christian messages into his stories. This was Al Hartley.
But one writer/artist in particular always stood out for me. His stories were more sophisticated and more imaginative than the rest. His dialogue was distinguished by its cleverness and reliance on puns. When “Life with Archie” took a more relevant turn in the early 1970s, he was there, writing sprawling stories that spoke to the issues of the day. This, of course, was Bob Bolling. He is better known as the creator of “Little Archie,” but in 1965 he handed the reigns to Dexter Taylor -- the Little Archie writer/artist I grew up with -- because he was in such demand on “big Archie.” One can see why.
Ripping off Reggie
When I was a kid, I loved Archie Comics so much that I wanted to create my own. One day, using a page from “Reggie’s Wise Guy Jokes” as a model, I tried to draw my own version -- not a tracing, mind you, but a hand-drawn hommage with some original touches.
No sooner had I finished when my older brother Bill, who dedicated his young life to torturing me, declared that I was going to be sued by Archie Comics for stealing their property. My mother soon intervened with the pale argument that my version of the strip was sufficiently different -- for example, I drew two bricks on the wall instead of three -- that is was more than a copy. Obviously, unless I tried to sell my cartoon or pass it off as my original idea, there was no basis for a lawsuit. But once again, my brother Bill managed to keep me up at night worrying if was going to go to prison.
Soon after, I solved the ownership problem by creating an original comic-book series called “Susan & Jeffrey Comics,” which I’ll tell you about tomorrow.
Susan & Jeffrey Comics
By the time I hit fifth grade, I was creating my own regularly published comic-book series, “Susan & Jeffrey Comics.” Photocopiers were still expensive and rare, so there was only one hand-drawn copy of each issue, which I distributed by passing it around the classroom.
“Susan & Jeffrey” was an Archie-esque humor comic that starred cartoon versions of me (“Jeffrey”) and some of my classmates, most prominently Susan Diaz (“Susan”). Susan and I were the top students in our class and friendly competitors. But for some reason she did not appreciate being immortalized in print and asked that I stop drawing her. Ever the continuity freak, I asked her to give me time to ease her out. Over the next several issues, I diminished her presence and promoted Susan Frantz, another Susan from our class, to the title role.
I still have all the hand-drawn copies of “Susan & Jeffrey Comics” in my archives. They’re not half bad.
Moving to Spring House Road
I drew my early issues of “Susan & Jeffrey Comics” in pencil on erasable bond paper. Later I graduated to higher-grade paper and ballpoint pen, and finally, to India ink. The characters may have been inspired by my classmates at Mahoning Elementary School, but the plotlines were straight out of Riverdale High. The kids formed a band called “The Susan & Jeffreys.” A “Life with Archie”-inspired story featured a creep named Creapps who stole the band’s music. Two of the characters became witches, like Sabrina. And so it went.
By high school I abandoned Susan & Jeffrey in favor of original characters who lived on “Spring House Road,” the comic strip I started drawing for the school newspaper. I even turned my characters loose in a full-length comic book called “Just for Laughs,” which our German Club sold to raise funds for a trip to Germany. I convinced the Club that if I could single-handedly sell enough advertising to pay for the printing costs -- which I did -- all the sales revenue would go directly in the travel fund. So in 1975, at the tender age of 15, I published my first comic book. And on July 4, 1976, as citizens of the United States were celebrating their bicentennial moment, our German Club was raising a glass somewhere along the Rhine.
Come on, let’s go, with The Archie Show!
The late 1960s were an exciting time to be an Archie Comics fan. Not only were Archie Series comic books ubiquitous and hugely popular; there was also a Saturday morning cartoon to watch! “The Archie Show,” which debuted on CBS in 1968, was reportedly the highest-rated show in the history of Saturday morning television. It was a deceptively simple concept: two 10-minute stories, with a dance of the week and a brand new song sandwiched in the middle. As entertaining as the stories were, it was the weekly song that really put the show on the map. The Archies, a studio band fronted by singer Ron Dante, produced some of the finest bubblegum pop music of the day, spawning five original albums and series of hit singles including “Bang-Shang-A-Lang,” “Jingle Jangle,” “Sunshine,” “Who’s Your Baby,” and the mother of all pop hits, “Sugar Sugar” – the number-one song of 1969. Ron Dante, the lead singer of The Cufflinks as well as The Archies, went on to co-produce the biggest hits of Barry Manilow’s career. I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Dante at Comic-Con a few years ago, and he is as humble as he is talented.
Jingle Jangle, Over and Over
When I was a kid, we didn’t have a record store in the area. The only place to buy records – and it was inconsistent at best -- was at the Farmers’ Market on Friday nights. I missed out on The Archies’ first two albums, but when I spied their third, “Jingle Jangle,” at the Farmers’ Market, I simply had to have it. My mother agreed to buy it for me. I brought it home, placed it oh-so-carefully on the turntable of our portable record player, and proceeded to play it over and over and over again.
And so it went, until one day I pulled my LP out of its sleeve and discovered that the edge was melted, probably by a cigarette lighter. I knew immediately who was responsible: my older brother Bill, who dedicated his young life to tormenting me. I angrily accused him of melting down my one and only record album. He angrily denied my accusation. My mother tried to make peace by suggesting that maybe I left my album out in the sun -- as if I would ever do such a thing to my prized possession!
My pet theory is that Bill’s partner-in-crime, Thomas Zimmerman, actually did the deed while Bill egged him on, knowing he could later claim that he “never touched” my album -- his exact words. But the joke was on him, because I continued to play it every day, even though “Jingle Jangle” and “Get on the Line” now skipped badly. Perhaps when Bill is on his deathbed, I will finally coax the truth out of him.
Why not “Get on the Line”?
“Jingle Jangle” has got to be the worst song The Archies ever recorded. But because it was the follow-up to the gargantuan “Sugar Sugar,” it made the top ten and went gold. Why the “Jingle Jangle” album’s far superior “Get on the Line,” with its infectious beat and positive message, was never released as a single, is beyond me. The Archies performed “Get on the Line” at the end of their primetime special, “Archie and his New Pals,” and frequently during the second season of their Saturday morning show. I never got tired of hearing it.
Since it was hard for me to purchase The Archies’ record albums, and the only one I did own somehow melted, I used a tape recorder to record the songs off the TV every Saturday morning. If my brother Bill was around when I did this, he would be sure to make just enough noise to ruin the recording, then feign ignorance.
It wasn’t until 40 years later that all of the albums came out on CD -- thank you, Essential Media Group! – and I was finally able to own them and play them to my heart’s content without fear of retribution.
The Archie Show expands to an hour
The first season of “The Archie Show” (1968-69) was so successful that in its second season, the show expanded to an hour. The debut of “The Archie Comedy Hour” (1969-70) was heralded with a prime-time special called “Archie and his New Pals,” which introduced Sabrina, the Teenage Witch to the series.
Sabrina was a minor character in a minor Archie Series comic called “Madhouse” before she got “discovered” by Lou Scheimer, the Filmation producer behind “The Archie Show.” Legend has it that he was flipping through an Archie comic one day when a half-page Sabrina cartoon caught his eye -- and he decided to add her to the show.
The “Madhouse” version of Sabrina was a hip chick, but the version that moved to Riverdale was described as “troubled,” because she was trying to conceal her magic powers and fit in among her mortal classmates -- much like a high-school version of Samantha Stevens.
Sabrina moves to Riverdale
“The Archie Comedy Hour” (1969-70) broke neatly into four quarter-hours. The first quarter-hour offered a new Archie story featuring Sabrina. The second quarter-hour was called Archie’s Funhouse and featured gags, running and otherwise, plus songs by The Archies. The third quarter-hour offered another new Archie story featuring Sabrina. And the fourth quarter-hour was a rerun of an Archie story from the first season.
In retrospect, it might have been wiser to limit Sabrina’s appearance to one story per episode until she could grow her own fan base. Instead, it felt like she had taken over a show that was already quite successful without her. Nonetheless, the scripts were solid and the show continued to garner huge ratings, buoyed the phenomenal success of The Archies, which earned two gold records that year for “Sugar Sugar” and “Jingle Jangle.”
It wasn’t until the third season that Filmation’s greed and shortsightedness would start to do the show in.
Filmation, the animation house that launched “The Archie Show” in 1968, was notoriously, legendarily cheap. They repurposed animation shamelessly within and between their shows, going so far as to paint Hot Dog a different color and insert him as a different dog into a different, non-Archie show.
In 1970, Filmation debuted the third “Archie” format in as many years, now called “Archie’s Funhouse” (1970-71). Based on the gag section of “The Archie Comedy Hour,” this series offered no stories, only running jokes and gags using endlessly recycled animation, a “live” studio audience (also endlessly recycled), and a “giant jukebox” that spewed song after song by The Archies, singing to -- you guessed it -- endlessly recycled animation. It was a huge comedown, creatively speaking, and marked an inexorable slide in the ratings.
That year the Archie brand also started to become dangerously diluted. Sabrina was spun off to join the “Groovie Goolies,” a non-Archie property owned by Filmation. And “Josie and the Pussycats,” another Archie property, joined the lineup courtesy Filmation competitor Hanna-Barbera, in a half-hour format that recycled the same baddies-threaten-the-world plotline every week. Suddenly, Archie had three shows on Saturday morning television; but more was by no means better.
Archie Drama Critics’ Contest
In the fall of 1970, when Archie had three shows on Saturday morning television, they announced a Drama Critics Contest to be judged in the pages of Archie Club News. I wasn’t a member of the Archie Club yet, but this contest would have compelled me to join except for one thing: I wasn’t thrilled with the new shows. “Archie’s Funhouse,” the show that replaced “The Archie Comedy Hour” (1969-70), was cheaply produced and eschewed stories in favor of repetitive, predictable gags. Sabrina had to compete for screen time with the “Groovie Goolies.” And with “Josie and the Pussycats,” Hanna-Barbera’s may well have hit rock bottom in terms of animation and script quality. I watched them anyway, because they were Archie shows, but I couldn’t mask my disappointment.
Most of the winning essays heaped praise on the new shows and especially the music, which remained reliably good. But one review in particular stood out for me. David Procsal of El Centro, California wrote that the new season did not match up to the previous one, then proceeded to pick each show apart with such eloquence that I read his essay over and over again, amazed by its honesty, thoughtfulness, and the fact the Archie awarded it First Prize -- which in those days was five whole dollars. Some years later I worked up the courage to write to him, but my letter was returned to sender. I often wondered if Mr. Procsal didn’t become a TV critic somewhere. Then lo and behold, he turned up recently on Amazon.com as one of their book reviewers!
Archie Club News picks a winner
When I was in Junior High, I finally joined the Archie Club. I was so excited to receive my reporter’s card and shiny four-color button in the mail a few weeks later. I wanted to write a report, but what could I write about? A lot of kids wrote how much they liked the TV shows and especially The Archies’ music, so what could I add to that? For a class assignment a year earlier, I had written my autobiography, and got in a bit of hot water with both my teacher and my parents for my honesty -- or as my teacher wrote, “Wouldn’t you rather forget?” So I figured that, as subject matter, my life was out.
Since I was particularly impressed by the topical stories appearing in recent issues of “Life with Archie,” I decided to write about the impact of one such story on my life. The essay I wrote won First Prize in issue 279 of “Pep” (July 1973) and garnered me a lot of fan mail. (In those days Archie still published the reporters’ home addresses -- can you imagine?)
My parents allowed me to write back to everyone who wrote to me, except for one guy. He was 18, hardly ever read comic books any more, but happened to pick up the one with my report in it. He took issue with a passage I wrote about respecting policemen, as he had recently participated in the Kent State riots and witnessed unconscionable behavior on the part of law enforcement. My parents forbade me to write this guy, because if I did, “He might show up on our doorstep!” (He already had our address!!) But several of the others became my pen pals for years to come, including one girl from Belize named Christine Vernon. If you’re out there, Christine, please drop me a line!
Limping to the finish
“Archie” remained on Saturday morning television for a decade (1968-78), but the format changed from year to year and the show never regained its original luster. “Archie’s TV Funnies” saw the Archie gang introducing hoary cartoon shorts starring the likes of Broom-Hilda, Nancy, and The Captain and the Kids. “The U.S. of Archie” put the gang in historical garb to re-enact key moments from U.S. history. I suppose they were trying to capitalize on bicentennial fever (of which there was none, if memory serves) and the show was quickly relegated to the dustbin of Sunday mornings. When CBS finally threw in the towel, NBC rushed in to launch “The New Archie/Sabrina Hour,” which quickly fizzled.
Other than a slapdash attempt to repurpose all the old shows in one syndicated package, and a live-action version that James Komack (“Chico and the Man”) struggled to launch, “Archie” remained off the air until 1987, when DIC launched a “tween” version of the show called “The New Archies.” It was OK but it was not the teenage characters I grew up with, nor was it based on the “Little Archie” comics that offered their own rich history. It was the product of misguided research purporting to show that children preferred stories about characters their own age -- ignoring mountains of evidence that children are aspirational, meaning they enjoy stories about characters who are a few years older than they are. Archie Comics rushed in to capitalize on the show with a new comic book, but it, like the show, was short-lived.
Sabrina casts a primetime spell
In 1996, ABC-TV launched a live-action “Sabrina, the Teenage Witch” sitcom as part of its TGIF comedy lineup. That fall, the print campaign was dominated by Sabrina’s lead-in, the TV version of “Clueless,” with “Sabrina” relegated to a tiny corner of the ad. Despite ABC’s lack of faith, I was convinced that “Sabrina” would kick ass, as star Melissa Joan Hart was popular with kids from her recent run on “Clarissa Explains it All,” and nostalgic parents would tune in along with them. “Clueless” limped along for three low-rated seasons, while “Sabrina” ran for seven -- five on ABC and two on the WB.
It was my fervent hope that with the success of "Sabrina" in primetime, "Archie" wouldn't be far behind. Alas, the "Sabrina" producers did not license any of the core "Archie" characters, which is why this Sabrina lived not in Riverdale, but in Westbridge, Massachusetts, and why no "Archie" spinoff or crossover ever materialized.
Melissa Joan Hart’s mother Paula, an executive producer on “Sabrina,” went on to develop a new animated Sabrina series that DIC produced. But instead of making the obvious choice to use the character designs from the Archie Series comics, they redesigned all the characters from the ground up, making them tween-sized a la “the New Archies” -- ostensibly to permit MJH’s younger sister Emily to voice the lead character.
The many faces of Sabrina
When Melissa Joan Hart’s live-action “Sabrina, the Teenage Witch” hit the airwaves in 1996, Archie relaunched the “Sabrina” comic book they had cancelled in 1983 after 77 issues. The early issues of the “Sabrina” revival featured MJH on the cover along with her cartoon counterpart. The characters in this version hewed closely to the 1970s’ “Riverdale Sabrina,” although Aunts Hilda and Zelda quickly gave themselves a “modern makeover” to look more like the humans who played them on TV, and like the TV show, the setting changed from Riverdale to Westbridge to prevent the core Archie characters from ever turning up. "Westbridge Sabrina" ran for 32 issues, until she was supplanted by a tween version based on "Sabrina, the Animated Series," introduced as a "childhood flashback," which curiously restarted the numbering at issue 1 (and ditched “the Teenage Witch” from the title). With issue 38 of this series, Sabrina became a teenager again in stories essayed by Holly Golightly, whose take was once again, more or less, on-model. Holly’s run ended with issue 58, when Tania del Rio took over and launched the “Manga Sabrina” version that ran through issue 100, followed by a 4-issue mini-series starring “Young Salem” -- after which this wildly schizophrenic series came to a halt. For now.
Something good and “Weird”
Archie’s most recent, and most pleasantly surprising, television entry was the animated “Archie’s Weird Mysteries.” Like “Sabrina: The Animated Series” and “The New Archies” before it, this series was produced by DIC. Unlike those others, it did not attempt to redesign or tween-size or otherwise adulterate the characters. In fact, despite the mystery hook, it was the most faithful, and dare I say loving, adaptation of Archie Comics I’ve seen to date.
The show revolved around a school newspaper column written by Archie. As he wrote about the mysteries of the universe, weird things kept happening in a little town called Riverdale, and it was up to the gang to solve the mysteries. I know it sounds a lot like Scooby-Doo, but it was far better and far more varied in its storylines. As a bonus, the writers made a number of sly, knowing references to the likes of Ron Dante, Bob Montana, John Goldwater, and the rich history of Archie Comics.
The show debuted on October 2, 1999 on PAX, a television network with Christian roots -- shades of Spire Comics! – but there was no overtly religious content to the show, just 30 minutes of the good, wholesome entertainment and gentle life lessons Archie is known for. The show ran daily for 39 episodes, then enjoyed a brief syndicated run before disappearing, save a few DVD repackagings. I wish Cartoon Network, Noggin, etc. would pick up the show give viewers another chance to enjoy this great show!
Archie also published a companion comic book, helmed by writer/artist Fernando Ruiz. When the TV series ended, the book briefly dropped the “Weird” from “Archie’s Mysteries” and paid homage to “CSI” with its band of Teen Scene Investigators -- “TSI” for short.
Charlton reduces the Flintstones to Rubble
I've always wanted to work for Archie Comics. My early adventures in self-publishing were all modeled on Archie, as was my first published work, the high school German Club fund-raiser, “Just for Laughs.” By my junior year, I was convinced that I was ready for the big time. Okay, maybe not the big big time -- that would have been Archie, Marvel, and DC -- but definitely a second-tier publisher like Fawcett, Gold Key, or Charlton.
At the time, Charlton Comics represented the bottom of the barrel, a place where talented newcomers went to break in, and untalented hacks went to die. Charlton had recently licensed “The Flintstones” from Hanna-Barbera and had begun to publish a series of execrable comics that were so far off model, they were practically hallucinogenic. But “The Flintstones and Pebbles” (was Pebbles not a Flintstone?) must have been a successful book for them, because they soon launched a series of spinoff books such as “Teenage Pebbles and Bamm-Bamm,” “Dino,” and “The Great Gazoo.” The most poorly written and drawn among these spinoffs was “Barney & Betty Rubble.”
Thinking I could do better, or certainly no worse, I set out to write and draw an entire issue of “Barney & Betty Rubble” for Charlton Comics.
Charlton declines my generous offer
During my junior year in high school, I wrote and drew an entire issue of “Barney & Betty Rubble” comics, and sent the originals off to Charlton Comics, enthusing in my cover letter that I would “happily supply up to six issues a year!”
Charlton Comics editor Nicola Cuti reviewed my submission and wrote me the kindest rejection letter I've ever received. It was also my first rejection letter, so at the time I didn't realize what a privilege it was to receive such thoughtful feedback. Mr. Cuti wrote that I “have talent, but lack the necessary study and practice.” He also advised me that it was a mistake to do an entire book, when 2 or 3 pages would suffice as a sample. He might have added that I should have sent reduced-size photocopies rather than the oversized, original art!
Armed with Mr. Cuti's advice, I spent my senior year in high school plotting my strategy for conquering Archie Comics.
My first rejection by Archie Comics (1977)
In my senior year of high school, I enrolled in a “Senior Seminar in the Arts” -- two of them, actually. In the first seminar, I created an animated cartoon starring the characters I had created for “Spring House Road,” the comic strip I drew for the school paper (which was called the Leni Lenapian in honor of the area's Native American tribe that was wiped out by the early European settlers).
In the second seminar, I wrote and drew and original “Sabrina” story, which at the end of the seminar I submitted to Archie Comics for consideration. When my submission package was returned unopened without so much as a form rejection letter, I assumed that the package had gotten lost in the mail. I checked the address, even though I knew it by heart (1116 First Avenue!) and sent it off a second time. When the package was again returned without comment, I got the message: Archie didn't want me.
At least my art teacher gave me an A.
The Manhattan Project
“This is good,” my father gestured to the freshly inked page on my drafting table. “But surely you don't think you can make a living at it.” Indeed, after my summary rejection for Archie Comics in my senior year, I put away childish things and concentrated on my college career, which would not include a single art class. Instead, I would pursue a career in international marketing by double-majoring in Communications and German. (Little did I know that I was merely exchanging one degree in pre-unemployment for another.)
During my senior year at the University of Pennsylvania, some high school friends of mine decided that they wanted to visit the big city. They asked if I would plan a day in Philadelphia for them. In exchange, they would plan a day in New York for us. I agreed, provided that the New York trip included a visit to Archie Comics.
I located the phone number of Archie Comics and dialed with trepidation. A woman answered the phone: “Aaaachie Entaprises.” Very Noo Yawk. The woman was polite but noncommittal about a tour. So I decided we were just going to storm the gates when we got there. And I was going to bring my high school “Sabrina” project with me.
My second rejection by Archie Comics (1982)
In 1982, the Archie Comics office was still located at 1116 First Ave. in Manhattan. Being familiar with Philadelphia, where the street numbering makes sense (i.e., the 1100 block of Spruce Street is located between 11th and 12th Streets), I expected a like numbering scheme in Manhattan. No dice. We drove up and down First Ave. looking for building 1116, which I assumed was somewhere near 11th Street but is actually somewhere in the 50s! After a number of false starts, and after passing the United Nations more than once, we finally located the building. By then I was so nervous that I forgot my Sabrina story in the car. No matter, because the Noo Yawk lady who had answered the phone, and who also served as the receptionist, would not let us in. She told us, through a tiny window in a wall separating me from my destiny, there was nothing to see because the writers and artists all worked at home. In fact, the only one there was John Goldwater.
“I would love to meet John Goldwater!” I enthused. The Noo Yawk lady rolled her eyes and exited her window for a moment as my heart raced in anticipation of meeting one of the founders of Archie Comics, the Publisher who created all the main characters back in 1941. Alas, the Noo Yawk lady quickly returned to her post with a fistful of comic books, which she extended in my direction as she informed my that Mr. Goldwater was too busy to meet. In other words, “Buzz off.”
Archie needs a business manager
On Christmas Day in 1982, as loyal readers know, I created “Jayson” in my parents' basement. Then I raced back to Philadelphia to add pictures to the words I had written. I couldn't imagine, based on the comedic tone of the strip and my inability to draw realistically, using anything other than the Archie Comics house style to bring my characters to life.
Within a year, “Jayson” was a fixture in the Philadelphia Gay News. Within a few years, “Jayson” landed regular berths in Gay Comix, Meatmen, and ETC magazine, a gay weekly published in Atlanta, where I was pursuing my MBA at Emory University.
Six months after graduation, and still without a single job offer, I spied an ad in Comics Buyer's Guide for a business manager at Archie Comics. Could this be destiny calling?
My third rejection by Archie Comics (1988)
In late 1988 I applied for the job as a business manager at Archie Comics and soon found myself conducting a phone interview with David Silberkleit, son of Michael Silberkleit, grandson of one of the founders. David described the position as both business and creative. I assured him that I brought both! I described my long-running “underground” comic strip (I avoided using the “g” word) and my newly minted MBA degree as evidence.
David asked me where I would take the Archie characters. Now remember, this was the late 1980s, when Archie Comics had fallen precipitously in terms of quality, sales, and public awareness. When I told friends I was applying for a job at Archie Comics, they responded, “Oh, do they still make those?” My feeling, then as now, is that these iconic characters already benefit from tremendous name recognition, and that all they need is well-written, contemporary stories (along with a more aggressive, more cohesive, licensing strategy) to remain relevant and popular with kids and their parents. David, unbeknownst to me, was a champion of gimmicks, such as Archie 15 years in the future (soon to be the TV movie “To Riverdale and Back”) and Archie in the 30th century (soon to be the comic book “Archie 3000”). So I guess we didn't see eye-to-eye on what Archie needed.
Nonetheless, I wrote David a long, heartfelt followup letter detailing my lifelong affection for Archie comics and my recommended creative/business strategy for revitalizing the line. I never heard back from him and he never took my calls again.
I recently read that he left Archie in 1993 because he didn’t see eye to eye with his father either.
My fourth rejection by Archie Comics (1994)
In 1989 I managed, after a year and a half of temping in Atlanta, to land a job in Manhattan as a market research manager. I continued to produce “Jayson” for Meatmen (and also briefly in syndication), and continued to harbor fantasies of working for Archie Comics. In 1994 I attended a comic-book convention at the Javits Center in Manhattan. Archie Comics had a booth there. I was momentarily speechless when I came face to face with Editor Victor Gorelick and Associate Editor Paul Castiglia, after years of smacking up against figurative and literal brick walls. Once I recovered my motor skills, I chatted briefly with them about the multi-episode crossover story underway called “Love Showdown.” The final installment of this story was slated to appear in an issue of “Veronica” because, Paul explained, that title was selling poorly. I took the opportunity to pitch myself as someone who could write “Veronica” stories. Paul invited me to send in some script samples, and recommended that I also sketch them up to show the page layouts. I rushed home and went straight to work, coming up with two killer Veronica stories (one of them a two-parter) and one classic Betty & Veronica story. I sent them off to Mamaroneck, NY (Archie's new home) and waited for the validation I had long sought from Archie. A few months later I received a form rejection letter signed by Victor Gorelick.
Kevin Keller renews my hope
I tried not to think about Archie Comics any more, but once I plunged back into the “Jayson” business in 2005, Archie became unavoidable. All of my reviews compared my work (favorably) to Archie Comics, and the Archie team turned out in full force every year at the San Diego Comic-Con, my primary promotion venue. So I decided to take the opportunity to engage the Archie creators (Dan Parent, Craig Boldman) and the business folks (Rik Offenburger, Mike Pellerito) whenever I saw them at Comic-Con. And I made sure they all received complimentary copies of “Jayson Goes to Hollywood,” accompanied by glowing notices from mainstream reviewers like Tony Isabella.
By the time the Kevin Keller story broke in 2010, I was on a first-name basis with just about everyone at Archie. So I decided to take one last shot at marketing myself to them, as an “authentic voice with a proven track record of writing gay characters in the teen humor genre.” I mailed a book-length pitch to Archie president Mike Pellerito and persuaded influential Archie blogger Mark Haney to conduct a far-ranging interview on my “Archie Aspirations,” which hit First Comics News in the days leading up to Comic-Con 2010.
It is a testament to the new, younger leadership at Archie that many decisions to contemporize the series are being made. These decisions are also shrewd marketing gambits, such as the “Archie Marries Veronica” storyline, Archie’s romance with Josie and the Pussycats’ African-American bassist Valerie Brown, and now Kevin.
Archie and Jayson: drawn together!
I’ve mentioned a time or two that when I created “Jayson,” it was in large part because I loved Archie Comics but never saw myself represented in them. Now Kevin Keller has come along, and I hope not only that future generations of LGBT readers will see themselves represented in Archie Comics, but also that I will be invited to help shape that representation.
When my interview regarding my Archie aspirations hit First Comics News, I immediately emailed the link to everyone I know who has an Internet connection. Among the names on that coveted list is the man who inspired the character of Walter, Jayson’s ex-boyfriend, nearly 30 years ago. His response to my email reminded me of yet another connection between Jayson and Archie. He mentioned that his mother had recently spoken with Josie. At first I thought, Is she so far gone that she’s talking to comic-book characters? Then I remembered: My ex grew up next door to Dan DeCarlo and his wife Josie!
You can’t make this Archie stuff up. But I can’t wait to try!
Sign, sign, everywhere a sign
On my drive to and from work at the Evil Aerospace Giant (EAG), I usually listen to “70s on 7” on my Sirius-XM radio. Sometimes I shake things up by spinning the dial to The Blend or The Strobe, but I always end up back on 7 -- the musical comfort food I grew up with.
One night while I was in the middle of Campaign Archie, I began to doubt whether I should really be making a fifth -- and final, I swear -- run at writing for Archie Comics, Kevin Keller notwithstanding. That night I did something I rarely ever do: I prayed for a sign.
The next morning I braced myself for another soul-crushing day at EAG, started my car, and pulled out of the garage. My Sirius-XM radio sparked to life and began to play. The song on the radio was “Jingle Jangle” by The Archies. Not “Sugar Sugar,” the big hit that everyone remembers, but the follow-up single that today would only be recognized by Archie aficionados like myself.
What’s that, you say? “Jingle Jangle” was released in 1969? You’re right, grasshopper. The night before, when I was dialing back from The Blend or The Strobe, I aimed for 7 but must have landed on 6 by accident. Unless you don’t believe in accidents.
You may recall from a previous post that I consider “Jingle Jangle” the worst song The Archies ever recorded. But now that it’s a sign, it’s starting to grow on me.
Kevin Keller Meets Sabrina?
In early 2012 I was inspired to write an Archie Comics story in which Kevin Keller meets Sabrina and senses there's something different about her. Sabrina, inspired by Kevin's openness about his sexual orientation, decides to take the bold step of coming out of the closet as a teen witch. My "Kevin Keller Meets Sabrina" script made it to Archie Editor-in-Chief Victor Gorelick's desk in April 2012. I never thought I'd break through with Victor, but this script evidently convinced him that I could plot a good story and write it in the Archie style. At the next San Diego Comic Con, Victor greeted me warmly and said, "We need to find something for you to write!" He said he didn't want to use the Sabrina story because they had other plans for the character (which turned out to be the Rosemary's Baby-inspired "Chilling Adventures of Sabrina), but he would be on the lookout for a project.
Archie meets Jayson?
At San Diego Comic Con in 2013, I found myself on a Prism Comics-sponsored Kevin Keller panel with Archie president Mike Pellerito, Kevin's creator Dan Parent, and former Archie publicist (and out lesbian) Nina Kester. Towards the end of the panel, an audience member asked whether Archie had considered doing a crossover with Jayson. Mike said he didn't see why not, but I was more skeptical, and took the opportunity to pitch crossovers that made more sense, such as Kevin Keller meets Sabrina (which I'd conveniently already written). Now that openly gay Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa is Archie's Chief Creative Officer, and they are doing more adult comics and off-the-wall crossovers like Archie meets Predator, I guess anything is possible, including Jayson paying a visit to Riverdale.
Taking the Bull by the Horns
At New York Comic Con in October 2013, frustrated that everyone at Archie Comics knew me and my work but had still not thrown me a bone, I wrote out an elevator pitch on a Jayson postcard listing all the reasons they should hire me, and on the last day of the Con I handed it to Editor-in-Chief Victor Gorelick. He responded by telling me that they had lost their publicist, Alex Segura, to DC Comics and had not replaced him. He asked me if I had done that kind of work. I had, sort of, for my own line of comics, and I have an MBA in Marketing (which I listed on the postcard), so I said Yes! Victor responded by inviting me to visit Archie headquarters in Mamaroneck, NY the next time I was in town to talk about potential opportunities.
Entering the Kingdom
In January 2014 I fulfilled my lifelong dream of visiting the Archie Comics editorial office in Mamaroneck, NY at the invitation of Editor-in-Chief Victor Gorelick, who has been with the company for over fifty years. We spent several hours talking in his office; he gave me a tour and introduced me to the staff; he even took me out to lunch. The pretext for this meeting was a possible job as head of publicity, dangled like a carrot at New York Comic Con the previous October. By the time I arrived, the position has been filled by its previous occupant, Alex Segura, who had bolted for DC Comics and then came crawling back when DC announced it was moving to Los Angeles. With that offer off the table, the conversation soon turned to what I could write for them. Victor laid out the parameters of the kind of story he was looking for, that he felt he wasn’t getting from his current writers. He asked me to write a treatment for a story that fit within those parameters and he would get back to me.
Joining the Team?
Inspiration hit during the flight back to Los Angeles for a timely story in which Kevin Keller joins the football team and not every player is thrilled to see him in the locker room. I dashed off the treatment, typed it up as soon as I landed, and emailed it to Victor – who promptly caught pneumonia, which sidelined him for several months. To his credit, he sent me a message from his sickbed to let me know he hadn’t forgotten about me. But by the time he returned to work, the Kevin Keller comic book was cancelled, leaving no logical home for the story. But at least now the door is open for me to pitch future ideas.