Never let it be said that the folks at Archie Comics have forgotten their roots. While the company has been making moves over the past few years to elevate their brand – celebrity guest stars like Sarah Palin and Barack Obama and hot-topic stories like the introduction of gay Riverdale teen Kevin Keller – the publisher has also been working to revitalize older properties, reprint classic material and reintroduce the Archie world via an aggressive digital comics program. And a guiding hand in all of these moves has been Mike Pellerito – President of the company and editor of many Archie titles including "Archie & Friends."
When Pellerito spoke with CBR News, he was spending the afternoon flipping through the Archie archives, specifically through the many bound volumes of rare Golden Age comics held in the company's upstate New York offices. "What I have in my hand is 'Pep Comics' June 1944 through September 1945, issues #49 to 54. I'm flipping through these because we're doing a lot of high end reprint stuff with Dark Horse and IDW.
"You know how comics used to have text pages? Like where some guy's fighting a tiger or something? This one I want to read because it's called 'Jughead The Gigolo.'" he laughed. "But the old comic books are great. The old Shield stuff started to get good around here. Sadly, I saw a villain who is just a fat bald guy, and I knew his name."
Below, the Archie President digs into the many changes hitting the company over the past two years including Archie's growth in digital and trade sales, the "Life With Archie" magazine's pop culture draw, the military brat status of openly gay character Kevin Keller, the relaunch of the "Sonic The Hedgehog" universe and an exclusive first look at the all-digital adventures of J. Torres and Rick Burchett's "Jinx."
CBR News: Mike, let's start by introducing you to the folks reading. You're both President of the company and editor of many of the books. What do each of those jobs entail?
Mike Pellerito: Luckily, I get to involve myself in whatever I want to, which is awesome. Certain things I get involved with and let other people take the ball. When we brought back [Archie spy spoof] "The Man From R.I.V.E.R.D.A.L.E." a couple of months ago, it was something I really loved. I loved the old "Man From R.I.V.E.R.D.A.L.E." when it was in "Life With Archie." It was so cool, and I really pushed to do this whole story and modernize it. And we had this old story we found that was never published and ran it in the MoCCA museum show [of Archie art that happened last year]. It was from the early '50s featuring Archie's cousin who was a war correspondent. So we made that a character, and put this whole thing together. Tom DeFalco turned in a really awesome story that reinvented "Man From R.I.V.E.R.D.A.L.E." Fernando Ruiz did great art, and turned it into a four-part story. So for something like that, I'll say "Let's do this!" and drive everybody else crazy. Victor [Gorlick, the Editor-in-Chief] got stuck with it, but I think he loved it.
I'll pitch things like "Let's do something really wild...Archie and Josie would be a good couple, but I don't think anybody would care. Let's have him fall for Valerie, and then we've got something to play with!" So for stuff like that, I just kick out ideas and see what other people do. But then some things I get really hands on with depending on what it is. I really got more involved with the Archie books of late, though I deal with everything. But the weirder stuff, like in "Archie & Friends" bringing back the Little Archies and putting in Justin Beaver. That's my fault. [Laughs] It was just awesome! But if it's weird and has a lot of guest stars, I think it's easiest to see my editorial hand involved.
Everybody over the past year or two have noticed how much Archie is putting out and how many things seem to be hitting strongly in the press for one reason or another. What's been the driving factor in that change for you?
The biggest change is Jon [Goldwater, Archie CEO.] He came in, and his attitude was "Let's go. Let's do this." Everyone was just waiting, and he took the reins off and let us go wild. So all these crazy ideas that had been bubbling under the surface that we wanted to try were there. We just have fun. These are the most fun comic books you'll ever read. There's adventure. There's love. There's romance. There's tons of jokes. And Jon's attitude was "Let's try it. Let's make it work." Guys like Dan Parent and Fernando – they've all been here for years. All these artists and writers have been working with us, but with Jon – he's a really inspiring guy. He's got a great sense about him. He's got a great lineage in comic books and the origins of comic books really when you think about his dad. He grew up with this stuff and loves it. He's a positive energy and a lot of fun, and he brought that out in us.
Archie has a lot of formats to play with. Everyone knows that the monthlies are always coming out, and the digests are easy to find in the grocery aisle, but you've also been putting out more trade collections of late – both the archival material with other publishers and collections of newer comics – as well as a pretty aggressive digital plan. What's the area overall that you want to expand into the most?
Again, I've got to give credit to Jon here. He came in here to a staff that had been here for years and said, "What the readers have been saying is that there's not enough Archie." People weren't getting what they wanted. And the cool thing about Archie is that it goes in your back pocket, so immediately Jon said, "Why aren't we doing digital?" It's what everybody here had been screaming for. We've got a real start-up company mentality where we can do everything fast, but we've been around for years. So we've got a great history that we can open up – books that go back 70 years. That's one thing. The other thing is that we have such a mass market appeal. There's the hardcore comic geek like me who has to go to the comic store every week, but there's also people who would just like to pick up a comic book. And if you don't go to the supermarket anymore every week, you go to the bookstore.
So when you take that "back pocket" mentality that we have, it made for such a great transition to digital. And I'm a guy who really loves print, so I didn't see how it could work. But then they took the comics and broke up the panels, and it felt natural. Archie fit that perfectly. The whole editorial philosophy here is that Archie has got to be like a bowl of candy. It's got to be bright and colorful, and it's got to be something you want to snack on. Digital fit that so well, and the graphic novels "The Man From R.I.V.E.R.D.A.L.E." and longer stories with a bit more meat to them do it. We're just trying to feed the appetite of the people out there.
There are Archie fans in every living generation. It's insane! Everyone has grown up with Archie. It's this massive thing. And even in our new books, we've started going back to the old school masthead with the big bright colors and that big logo. And all the interiors are brightly colored. Even though, it's got that retro feel, everything is so new. So a little kid can come along and fall in love with Archie, and the parents fall in love with it again because it's nostalgic. It's one of the only things in comic books like that.
Have you worried while expanding to digital and trades that you might be cannibalizing a segment of your monthly comics audience some? In other words, are people moving from one format to another, or do you think there are multiple audiences?
I think it's totally different audiences. The person that goes every week to the comic book store – and we really do want to push things in the comic book stores – is different from someone at a bookstore or someone at the newsstand or someone that picks up digital. I love comic book stores, and we're pushing there big with the "Sonic" universe and "Mega Man," and now the Archie stuff is helping people realize how to reach the next generation of readers. But there's not a comic book store everywhere. There's a supermarket everywhere, and that's what we hit with the newsstand stuff. But some people want something with some meat, and they're in the bookstores. So I don't think we have the same person buying the same product five times. I think we have five different people buying what they want when it's convenient to them. The whole goal of Archie is that everybody seems to want it, so they should be able to get in at whatever level they want. If they want to buy the whole collection or get a $50 hardcover or a digest or anything, we're trying to make the comics available for everybody. And it's working.
Kevin Keller as a character has gotten A LOT of press and reactions of all types. But one thing that really surprised me is that when I read "Archie & Friends" #154, I saw that you actually printed a letter from a reader who was opposed to having a gay character in Riverdale. Did you discuss the ways you wanted to confront resistance to this character?
I don't know if there's anything to confront. There's some people who hate Ethel, and some people love Ethel. When Kevin was first announced, I was so blown away with the amount of positive response. It was overwhelmingly positive. The sales went through the roof. Subscriptions went through the roof. Everybody was so supportive of "Veronica."
But there were a few negative nay-sayers. One guy kept calling the office. He was demanding to talk to somebody, so one day I picked up. And we had a really nice conversation. He was a really nice guy, but he was just upset that we were putting Kevin in the books. And I said, "Well, what's the big deal?" He said, "It's going to be the sex." I was like, "Sex? What do you mean?" And he told me "Now that Kevin's here, there's going to be all this sex in the books." And I just said, "Look, you don't sound like a kid to me . You sound like an adult. How many sex scenes have you ever seen in an Archie comic book?"
And so I say "Right! So why would we start doing that now? We're Archie. We know what we can tell." And he said "I just don't think it's a good idea." And I said, "The Archie kids are a cool bunch of kids." And he agreed, so I said, "Kevin is a cool kid too. Why can't one cool kid hang out with the other cool kids?" He seemed to agree with that. So I said, "Look, don't buy the issue...buy the issue, I don't care. But at least take a look." There's a certain style to Archie storytelling and a certain method to the madness where we can pretty much make a story out of anything. But the Archie kids are nice, cool kids, and this is just somebody cool hanging out. Not everybody like Reggie or whoever, but Kevin is just another cool kid who brings something unique to the table. He's a worthwhile character, and Dan came up with a great, likable kid. That's the core of him. He's a likable kid. He happens to be gay, but I don't think that's a big deal.
But he brings something new to the universe, and we need that. It can't just be Archie, Betty and Veronica the whole time. There's Chuck, there's Moose, there's Midge...there's so many great characters. We just did the "New School" story, which was a lot of fun. It was a big, six-part story where a local school closes so we got an influx of new teachers and students to the school. And everybody brings something to the forefront that we didn't have before. Kevin is a part of that. It's really cool to see the reaction. And the sales on all the books have been really strong. We're willing to talk about anything with our readers, but the goal is to have fun, and I think Kevin brings that to the table.
At the same time, I know that you guys have promoted Kevin in a way that really maximizes that discussion around him. Just recently, it was revealed that Kevin is a military brat. It's a fun element to develop the character, but you also have to know that's the kind of thing that will get people talking. Do you try and think of ways to make these stories a conversation with the readership as much as they're also entertainment?
It's part of making each character unique and worthwhile. It was actually Victor Gorelick – our E-i-C who's only been here 52 years, a babe in the woods – who came in the next day and said, "I've got a great spin we can put on Kevin." And it was brilliant. It touches on a lot of topics, but it makes the kid more likable. He wants to do something beyond just hang out. He wants to do something bigger. And it was really cool, and Dan did a great job putting the issue together. Just like Kevin being gay, [the military angle] is there, but it's not in your face. We're not trying to beat a viewpoint into your head. It's just that no character in Archie has the viewpoint that he has. He's really new. He's really unique. And it adds a little bit of extra story we can play with.
Aside from introducing new characters like Kevin, it feels like you've also been making more moves to revitalize some of the other properties in the Archie catalogue. The recent "Night At The Comic Shop" arc and trade by Fernando brought in a bunch of characters we've heard of like Cosmo The Merry Martian and Sam Hill, P.I., and then characters who made you go "Who in the world is Fu Chang, International Detective?" [Laughter] Are you looking to publish more with some of these older pieces of Archie history?
Yeah. I'm a huge geek, and I getting to work in comics is the biggest perk in the universe. I'm looking at stuff and seeing old comics that I would never see in my life here. It's just like when we started the conversation. I've got bound volumes of books going back to the '40s. So I started going through these hard bound comics. It's like, "I have 20 minutes. Let me look through this old stuff and see who's there. This is fun, and this can be revamped...why not drop these in?" After looking at the characters and asking who could be fun and who could be cool that brought something to the table we didn't do right now, certain ones made everybody geek out. Like Cosmo The Merry Martian. He's an underground favorite. The Sam Hill stuff was drawn by Harry Lucey, who people know as this brilliant Archie artist, but this was such gorgeous, noirish-style detective work. Tom DeFalco worked here as a kid when he started his career, and he wanted to bring Sam Hill back. So we got Greg Scott who did "Gotham Central" and some of the stuff when DC redid the Red Circle characters. Someone recommended him, and he was perfect. So now we're doing new Sam Hill stuff. There's a pitch for Cosmo too. We all get our geek vibe going and look at these old books to see what we can use. We'll try them out in reprints and digests, and if it clicks with fans and collectors, we'll do more and more.
And it's cool because Fernando got me in the door at Archie, and we have this great long history. So we went back and forth as comic fans in general and fans of all the Archie stuff. There's such a rich, vast library that people aren't aware of – thousands and thousands of characters that are so cool. So "Night At The Comic Shop" was something where we pulled out the ones we could have a lot of fun with. We did two issues, and then we went back and did two more. There were a lot of nods to old school Archie aficionados: the comic book story is "Pep Comics" which is the first series Archie appeared in. The street names have a lot to do with where the old Archie offices were. So that someone picked up on all this is awesome.
The other big push from you guys these days is the "Life With Archie" magazine hitting every month. That follows up on the back-to-back wedding stories, which really seem to be ground zero for all the changes that have come in recent years. How challenging has it been to keep creative momentum going on those stories? With so much of the series focusing on big changes – marriage, death, etc – have you found it harder to keep those stories close to the core of the Archie world?
It's really cool that you actually notice that as ground zero. That's something internally we've discussed. But the Archie characters seem to tell you what to do, and everybody seems to agree that we're on the right path. There doesn't seem to be any limitations with it. When Mrs. Grundy died, I was talking to a friend of mine who runs a comic shop, and he said he teared up at it. It's these intense stories because the characters mean so much – they're like family in a lot of ways. Playing with it and seeing how characters develop – which are radically different universe-to-universe where I as not just an Archie fan but as a comic geek love the whole aspect of parallel futures – is so neat and involved. It's soap opera-ish, and there are radical differences. Moose is mayor in one universe, and he's a janitor in the other. You see how the characters develop with this "It's A Wonderful Life" vibe times two. Mr. Lodge becomes on the greatest villains in comic books, and Milton becomes this mad scientist. There are all these little things. And there are a bunch of those shout outs too, like Little Ambrose who's such a great character.
But it's really an experiment also. People have been telling me off the record that we're shaking up and scaring the other publishers. They're going "How come Archie is doing this? Why can't we compete with Archie?" and that's awesome because we've been a sleeping giant for so long. Jon's reawakened that spirit in us. Archie was always wild and chance-taking, and now that's back. We tried something different with "Life With Archie" with these Hollywood elements and teen stuff. That out the door did better than anyone's expectations. The response we got, even internally from distribution veterans we've been dealing with for years, was extremely positive. They never saw a launch this impressive. And as it's gone on, more and more, people have been clamoring for more comics content. So as you'll see coming up in issues #10 and 11, you'll be seeing the book go more from entertainment magazine/comic book to pure comic book. There'll be two stories and a little more background so you can tell how the characters are different. So you can see the book morphing every issue as we figure out what people love and latch onto.
And what's cool is that I hit a book store this week, and I see that our friends at Marvel and DC are quietly doing more and more magazines. [Laughs] So it's nice. They're following us. Don't just sell to me, who's a geek, but sell to the kid on the street. It's nice to be leading the way, and like you said, "Life With Archie" is ground zero. It's the moment where we said, "We're going to change things.
So what's the next change? We've covered a lot about what's happened in the recent past, but what are some of the books you're hoping to launch in the summer and across into fall?
We keep poking a stick at the world and let them know we're here. It doesn't feel like we can do any wrong right now, which is nice. The biggest change coming up is with "Sonic" in terms of pure, fun continuity stuff. To me, "Sonic The Hedgehog," "Sonic Universe" and our new "Mega Man" launch are the three best superhero comic books you've got on the market. These aren't dudes in capes and tights, but this is pure comic book adventure. The editor on "Sonic," Paul Kaminski, took a really bold move to do this crazy story "Sonic Genesis." The name ties to the old game system, but this story reboots the entire series. It's really intense stuff. People don't realize that this has a really broad age group for an audience. Nine and ten-year-olds pick it up because its Sonic, but we get letters from soldiers overseas who love it. They want to sit down in their off time with a real comic book that's fun and exciting.
Issue #225 is where "Genesis" kicks off, and that gets really intense. It changes everything. I cut my teeth on "Sonic" so even I was nervous when Paul told me these ideas, but he laid it all out and said "This is the plan." If this happened in one of the big geek titles out there in the hardcore collector market, people would lose their minds. It's one of the best-drawn, best-written comics out there. And now with "Mega Man" in the fold, we've got a three-pronged approach to the best superhero comics in the business.
Beyond that, we've got some intense stuff we're doing that's a little off the beaten path. We had this character in our digests called "L'il Jinx" who was a cute, precocious kid, and we started developing her saying, "What would happen if Jinx grew up and was not in the cutesy Archie world but was a little more 'Degrassi High' soap opera-ish with its emotional relationships?" [Editor] Suzannah Rowntree came up with a great pitch, and we handed it off to J. Torres to write it, who's a brilliant writer. Then we got Rick Burchett to pencil and Terry Austin to ink it, and it's turning into a huge, huge success.
We launched it in "Life With Archie" and now can announce that it's going exclusively digital. And more digital stuff is something our audience is really embracing. Anyone who's read it loves it, and it's one of those things like we did a few years ago with "Sabrina" where we did a little solo adventure with the cat, and people loved it. Then we did a "Young Salem" mini series, and that was successful enough to try something with Jinx. It's just about bringing some of these characters out of the closet and dusting them off to see what happens. There's just a huge treasure trove of characters, and Jinx was one we thought we could find a way to do it right. It's her struggling in school and causing trouble and fighting with her dad and falling in love with boys. It's really cool and really funny. It's something you read that you don't think you'll fall in love with, but you do. A lot of credit goes to the creators.
And the biggest thing I'm doing is a four-parter that I can't talk about yet, but it's really cool. And we've got more stuff with Kevin that's insane, and his initial series numbers are through the roof. There's so much stuff we're doing. I've been at Archie a long time – eleven years this summer – and I've never been more proud of what we're doing as a company. Every book comes in, and it's as close to perfect as I would want it. Our graphic novel output is great; the format is great, and the value is great. We've got $3.99 magazines, so everything we do is to pass value on to the readers. The comics are still $2.99. Everything we do shows that we try to give value and real entertainment. And while everything we've done so far is good, 2012 is going to be even better. It's a really impressive year.
Stay tuned to CBR in the weeks ahead for more on the all-digital "Jinx" and everything from the Archie Comics universe!