Part 1 in a Series
It is probably the most important decision made in the comics industry in last 15 years, and definitely a landmark business decision for the entertainment industry as a whole following on from financial crisis. The announcement was made shortly before close of business this past Wednesday afternoon, that Archie Comics would synchronize their digital and print distribution schedules. From April first, old and new fans of Archie alike will be able to download issues digitally on the very day of their release in print. The announcement marks a first in publishing.
It’s a historic move. A single decision, that will have ongoing ramifications for both the comics industry and the content-production side of the entertainment industry more broadly. But this decision also signals the start of a new kind of business model, one that sets aside the perceived opposition between digital and print. And one that may ultimately come to shape our perceptions around the print vs. digital debate.
In this edition of the Iconographies we explore a decade-long tension brewing in the comics industry and the entertainment industry as a whole. Not the instantly recognizable debate around creative rights and ownership of intellectual property, but a more basic tension at what many have perceived as the impending demise of print.
With Archie Comics taking a lead in the digital arena, we examine the impact of the new medium on the core iconography of Archie and Riverdale as intellectual properties; we look at the changing nature of entertainment as a newly-mobile experience; and finally, in a PopMatters exclusive, we have a frank discussion with Archie Co-CEO Jon Goldwater on the state of comics and lessons learned from his background in the music industry in the early part of the millennium.
‘Solid State Society’, a story in three acts. This edition, Act One.
Act One: “It’s My Archie”: The Idea of Storytelling at Archie Comic Publications
“We should probably speak about the future”, Alex Segura, newly-minted Head of Marketing at Archie Comics writes me a few days before Xmas. There’s been an almost operatic tempo to the exchange of emails between Alex and myself since his taking office. Archie’s been a fixture of comics for the past seventy years, but talking with Alex, it’s hard to shake the idea that these decades have been nothing more than a warm-up lap. Still, it’s the last day Alex is in the office before his winter break. And if there’s ever a time to pin down the scope of how to shape Archie for a PopMatters audience in the months and years to come, that time is now.
“The future”, rings in my mind. These are not particularly welcoming words, especially with the sleek new Decade-That-Was feature in the recent Time still fresh in my mind. The problem with the future is wired into the DNA of comics journalism itself. The notion that comics journalism is built on a 20 year old politics of comprehension. Journalists write for fans. Scholars study the aesthetic mechanics of the art-form (comics finally being acknowledged as worth academic attention during the noughties). On the whole though, comics is thoroughly marginalized from the mainstream. A judgement reflected by its journalism that caters to large-sale industry narrative, rather than providing amateur readers with sufficient cultural access to the object in question. Sure you can still find comics in comicbook stores. But you’re really only buying comics now, because you’ve reliably bought comics for the past twenty years.
Talking about the future seems at first glance like a misstep. Seems very much like back-sliding into the kind of journalism that entrenches professional readers of comics culture. You’d need to know the codes to talk about the future. You’d need to know that Batman revealed his identity to Catwoman during the Hush storyline, and not for the first time. You’d need to know that Catwoman’s mind had been wiped by Zatanna to prevent this knowledge from being communicated. The future depends on this. With comics, history is a marketable commodity.
Alex is the kind of person who can be found working at the office in the handful of days before Xmas. He’s the of guy who tweets about the NFL games he’s looking forward to, with the same brio he promotes solid comics journalism through his various networks. As an industry insider, he has a working knowledge of the journalism side, almost as much as journalists have observations about industry marketing. Work long enough with anyone, and you begin to understand their rhythms. And if Alex casually mentions The Future, there’s almost certainly a story there that will evolve rather than mire comics journalism.
The exclusive interview with Archie Comics Co-CEO Jon Goldwater absolutely reflects the need to trust intuition over the higher-order philosophical debates on the state of industry journalism. Speaking with him it becomes clear that the misstep would have been to follow Time and do a retrospective on the decade that was.
It is genuinely hard not to get swept up in Jon’s exuberant optimism. “I know in my heart and soul that social media will be the rescue of comics to exactly the same degree that it was the downfall of the music industry”, Jon says. There’s more than just a wide-eyed hopefulness to these words. Jon has been a key role-player during the Napster era, when the music industry balked at the idea of a digital marketplace.
Jon’s history with that industry at a watershed moment positions him in the role of visionary. He draws on two very different psychologies, with an efficiency that would make it hard not to vote for him if he ever runs for office. On the one hand Jon’s incredibly passionate and his sense of optimism is almost infectious. He ‘gets’ comics from a creators-eye view. On the other hand, Jon is seasoned in inner aspects of business, with an uncanny ability at solving problems before others can see them. There are strong parallels between Jon Goldwater and another more famous icon of the industry who saw comics as both a business and a creative outlet. Overseeing the transformation of Timely into Marvel, that icon is Stan Lee who was a key player in developing the Silver Age of comics. If Jon has achieved nothing else, it is the historic and momentous act of single-handedly defusing the print versus digital debate.
Jon is both eloquent and open about his personal history as the impetus for embracing social media. “My background is the music business. And I saw when the music business rebelled against new technology how they got pummeled when they dug their heels in and said ‘No we’re not going to accept MP3’s’. It’s such an important lesson for all businesses going forward. Things are moving so fast, and it just keeps getting faster. And we here at Archie are gonna be the leaders. We’re going to be the leaders at embracing digital technology, we’re going to be the leaders at embracing social media. We’re doing to everything to get our characters available to as many people as possible. Because you know what…not everybody has accessibility to a newsstand, not everybody has accessibility to go buy the printed version of the book, but everyone has accessibility to a telephone, meaning a wireless device, a computer and we want to embrace that”.
For Goldwater it not so simple a case as print and digital media being in Manichaean opposition. “I think they help each other, I really do”, Jon says enthusiastically. “There are people who love the print version, who love the feel of the comicbook. They’re collectors, and they see it as an art-form and they love. That of course is our core business, the folks who go into the stores and they buy the magazine. But there are other people who just love to read the stories, and be entertained. They want immediate availability of the books. And that’s what we’re doing”.
As the interview continues, Jon unfurls a wonderland of information. Where’s Archie Comics going? In a word, everywhere. The comicbooks of videogames are returning in a big way, with Sega’s Sonic already published regularly, and plans for CapCom’s Megaman to launch this summer. But the ride doesn’t end there. Plans are already in motion to drawn in Young, Hot, Hollywood to Archie-based projects in television, film and music. And there’s the already groundbreaking success of Archie’s foray into social media. 2,000 followers on Twitter, 67,000 fans on Facebook, and an astonishing 1.7 million (million!) downloads of the Archie iPhone app. A worthy achievement for a company that had the foresight to be the first to develop a standalone app for the iPhone.
The pure thrill of this is a head rush. There’s simply too much to deal with here. And as one of the three original comics publishers (and unlike DC and Marvel the only one of the three not to controlled by a media megalith like Time-Warner or Disney), the hopes of the comics industry ride along with Archie Comics’ evolving interests. Can the comics industry remain true its chosen medium? Are we locked into print or can we evolve beyond that and still have an industry?
But the real question of course is Archie himself. Between the positive growth towards social media and digital publication, and the negative impact the recent recession the future of Archie really can only be decided by the fans. Not your typical fan (or what came to be typical fan in an era of Conventions and Direct Marketing), but the fan Comics Giant Will Eisner dreamt of. The kind of fan who had no specialist knowledge, but was perpetually exposed to comics as part of their everyday lives. Comics as daily strips, comics as standalone magazines. When turbulences emerged in these comics they emerged as an inability to produce narrative resolution. Something was just always left unfinished. It was this unresolvable nature of storytelling in early comics, Eisner argued, that mirrored the daily lives of readers. It was a different kind of comics, one that needn’t remain hidden from the cultural mainstream.
Maybe the most telling comment can be found not in the pages and pages of journalism, but in the everyday comments of an ordinary, amateur reader of comics. The kind of reader who has no idea of which X-Men died during ‘Second Coming’ or why Black Panther has replaced Daredevil on the streets of Hell’s Kitchen.
Jon’s passion rings out clearly once again. Rather than reflect the darker psychology of the recent financial crisis, Archie Comics reasserts the values that have already been established. “Archie is always going to be a place where things are good. And things work”, Jon’s voice draws a heavy emphasis, “And it’s always going to be an idealized version of what’s going on here in this country. There’s enough bad news in the world and we hear enough horrible stories. There’s this terrible tragedy last night in Arizona…in Archie, we want Riverdale to be an escape. Riverdale is about the possibilities of what will be. Riverdale is the best of the best, it’s the best of us, it’s the best of this country. That’s what Riverdale is, and that’s never going to change”.
“It’s my Archie, and I’ll buy if I want to”, Eileen Herrera confesses jocularly. She speaks openly about her anticipation at the (then-)forthcoming release of Archie #616, the issue which would guest star both President Obama and erstwhile Alaskan Governor Sarah Palin. “Not the Archie I grew up with, but the Archie I probably would have read a little more as a kid”.
But rather than attempt to recapture a lost emblem of her own childhood, Eileen’s story is a generational one. The anticipation she feels is not for herself but her young daughter Erica who was just about to turn a landmark ten years old. Erica is hoping to buy the historic issue mostly as a shrewd investment. “She knows from older kids that comics can be valuable if you take care of them”, Eileen recalls her daughter saying. “But she definitely will read it she told me. And maybe once more if she likes the story”.
And what of Eisner’s dream of the democratization of comics?
“Knowing Archie,” Eileen begins after admitting to only having read Archie books intermittently since turning 15, “It’s hard to imagine that you’d need to know a lot about politics or about even Obama or Governor Palin. But seeing them in the comicbook is important I think”.
The PopMatters exclusive interview with Archie Comics’ CEO Jon Goldwater will continue in the following edition of the Iconographies.