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CR Sunday Interview: Jon Goldwater
posted June 12, 2011
 

imageJon Goldwater bought an interest in his father's Archie Comics Publications in 2009 with the expressed goal of bringing greater attention to the staid but successful comics company and its various properties, putting right on the table the thought of leveraging that attention into broader media opportunities while keeping and renewing its comics readership base.

So far, so good. Goldwater has become one of the most interviewed men in comics in the last two years, and one of the most vocal and active company CEOs in recent memory. The company has received publicity for such moves as its What If? solutions to the Archie universe's core quandary, the death of a supporting cast member, and the introduction of the character Kevin Keller, whose spotlight series dropped into comics stores last week.

Archie has been as aggressive with its digital media plans as it has its broader narrative moves, and its drop of the Comics Code early in 2011 was that institution's death rattle. While it's likely not all of this has come wholly and directly from Goldwater -- and one of the noticeable elements of his tenure thus far is the way they've focused on the contributions of freelancers and individual staffers rather than subsuming everything into the corporate identity -- one can detect his hand in a lot of it, the general sense of changing media landscapes that he likely picked up while working in the music business before making his full return to Riverdale.

I was happy to talk to Mr. Goldwater a few week back, and thank Alex Segura for the opportunity. -- Tom Spurgeon

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TOM SPURGEON: I'm curious -- and I've even joked about this with Alex -- about how widely available you've made yourself to the press over the last six months. I was wondering how much of that was a conscious strategy, or if that was just the natural result of your following up on your various publishing initiatives. Are you comfortable serving as a public face for your company?

JON GOLDWATER: That's a really great question, Tom. It's both conscious and natural. I love what I do here. I love our characters. Not just Archie and the gang but Sabrina and Jose and everything else that we have going on here. The best way to get out the word on all the new things we're doing, whether it be digital, or Kevin Keller, whether it's the new deal with Stan Lee, has been for me to get out there and talk about it. On that level it's a conscious thing to do. On the other hand it's a natural thing to do because we need someone out there waving the flag for Archie and letting people know that we intend, in the present and in the future, to play in the same sandbox as Marvel and DC. We're out there making sure people are aware of what we're doing.

SPURGEON: Do you think the affection that people have for your characters extends to the press coverage you get? Do you ever find yourself planning for a skepticism that ends up not being there? Has there been a receptive audience for your exact plans in terms of what you want to communicate?

GOLDWATER: I think it's been receptive to the point of shocking. In terms of the last ten years or so, you could talk in terms of Archie being a little bit quiet: not a lot of news coming out of the company, not a lot of groundbreaking initiatives. So all of these things we have going on have been met with a tremendous amount of enthusiasm. And surprise!

Generally, people are having fun discussing it, talking about it. We all love comic books, we all love this medium, and anything we can do to help other companies outside of the quote/unquote Big Two, people seem willing to do. A lot of people grew up with Archie and the gang; it was their first comic book experience. I find that a lot as well. There's a lot of affection for the characters, yes.

imageSPURGEON: When you state that there wasn't a lot going during this period of 10 years previous to your return, can you articulate a reason for that? Why was there a conservative publishing strategy at Archie for so long? Given that corporate culture, did you feel any risk back in 2009 in trying out new things just on the basis of their being new?

GOLDWATER: I think the risk would have been not doing anything. I think the risk would have been maintaining the status quo, and slowly sliding into irrelevance. We need to be very conscious of what's going on in our surroundings, and I found the company getting more and more into some isolated bubble that, frankly, was charming, and was very much reminiscent of what had been created many years before but out of touch with what was going on in the real world. With this information superhighway at everyone's fingertips, we needed to be incredibly aware of our surroundings.

So for me the risk was in standing pat, not moving forward. It's so exciting to be trying these new things; a lot of them are working and people are enjoying them. We'll figure out where we go from here. People are enjoying the new initiatives we're embarking on.

SPURGEON: When something doesn't work, do you have an assessment strategy in place to help you figure out how things are going? Do you have the mechanisms in place that might help you back way from let's say a future initiatives that doesn't hit with fans?

GOLDWATER: Of course. We're forever culling data. At the end of the day it's all about the numbers. We're a fun company, but at the end of the day the numbers don't lie and you have to go with what works and act according to what does and doesn't work. So if one of our initiatives isn't succeeding on the level we hoped it would, yeah, we'd certainly consider retreating.

I'm also very much of the Seinfeldian mode: the first year of Seinfeld, the ratings were terrible, but the folks at NBC stuck with it and look what happened. So you don't want to blindly go forward, but you may want to go with your gut instinct if you believe in something, give it that shot that if you were just looking at the black and white numbers you might not. It's kind of a cross between retreating when the time comes but giving it that little moment in time if things aren't working the way you want them to work to reassess that strategy and still move forward.

SPURGEON: Now is that entirely up to you? Does your office process those numbers and decide what they mean, or do you bring in outside players to help you analyze them? For that matter, has your approach to marketing changed in a way that maybe helps you bring in more information, different kinds of information, in order to help you make these decisions? It seems that some of the other companies have made a big deal the last few years of accessing more specific marketing information, whether in-house or outside of the company. Is that also true for Archie?

GOLDWATER: It's actually both. It's my office, but we bring in people that can cull that sort of data. We're doing that slowly and surely. Do we have the sort of behemoth resources that Marvel and DC have to go out and hire a team of people? No, we don't. But we selectively bring in people, people of excellence. I'm not saying this because Alex is sitting here, but Alex Segura exemplifies the kind of person we're bringing in here to Archie Comics. There are many others like that as well. These are people that are well rounded, that understand the little picture of what comic book marketing is and the big picture as well. We do need that data. The ground is moving under our feet. We need to be very aware of shifts in readership. We're very aware of what people are zoning in on, what's working for us and what's not working.

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SPURGEON: I have a few questions about your digital initiatives. One difference between you and companies like Marvel and DC is that when it comes to digital they seem to be operating from a mindset that they're taking an experience that appeals to a narrow audience and offering it in digital form to a wider audience. In contrast, Archie's publications have always been widely available. Fewer people ask, "Do they still make those?" Archie comics are at the supermarket. Does operating from a wider platform than most comics companies change the way you approach digital?

GOLDWATER: The good news is that by jumping into the digital arena headfirst we have natural separation. People are familiar with our brand. If people are randomly scrolling through apps, the thousands of apps in that world, and they come across Archie, the great news is that it's very familiar. If it's a parent wanting to find an app for their kid or the kid asking the parent if they can download the app, there's a certainty in what that product is. For us it's a tremendous advantage to have that separation from people where you might not know who they are or exactly what they represent. That's why a digital platform for us has so far been successful, that awareness.

SPURGEON: At the moment we're talking, you're about a month past your day and date digital announcement, and while it's a few weeks away as we speak it should be well in place by the time this interview sees publication. Has any of the feedback surprised you? In fact, was there feedback?

GOLDWATER: We got plenty of feedback. Most of it, though, was really positive. People were like, "Okay, Archie is understanding the changing dynamics of the publishing business. They're the first company that's rolling this out, day and date. They understand that from a pricing perspective, we are not charging the same as a book, we're charging a little bit less." The reaction was generally positive. Some retailers did reach out to us and we explained to them our strategy and everyone got on board with it. "You guys need to be strong." And we do. Archie needs to be strong for the whole comic book business in general. We've found that the support by and large was there for us.

SPURGEON: Have you found the incrementalism that's the norm for digital strategies in the comics industry frustrating on any level? Most companies are still moving one step forward at a time where maybe other industries seem to be, on the whole, further along collectively in making material available via these platforms. Is that even a fair characterization?

GOLDWATER: No, it is a very fair characterization. I think a lot of it has to do with how digital was introduced to the music business and how it completely and totally undermined the value of that intellectual property. So I think it's smart to sort of put one foot in front of the other, to take it slow. We want to make sure that we maintain the value of the intellectual property as best we can.

As a business owner, someone that runs a business, I am of course frustrated because I want it all done yesterday. I understand that it has to be done slowly and smartly and appropriately. With so many new platforms and opportunities coming at lightning speed, you really have to pick and choose which directions to go in. Sometimes I get a little frustrated by it, but I do understand it.

SPURGEON: Is there an end result in mind, a vision for that market that you see falling into place some years from now? Or does the future change as the present changes?

GOLDWATER: It might change, but my vision is for it to be huge, to be global, to be dynamic, to have Archie and all our properties to be available at the snap of a finger on a global, dynamic, digital level. We want to give as many opportunities to our readers as possible, to have our books available here domestically but internationally as well. You're right that we're widely available here, but there are many places outside this country where we're not as easily available. And when we go down our list sometimes of where people purchased the books, I'm just so thrilled to see books purchased in Africa and the Middle East and Asia and all over the world.

I want to make our books as available as possible, and have the digital platform be as meaningful as our print platform.

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SPURGEON: Your massive library... when we talk about digital strategies we tend to talk about new comics, comics currently being created. Where does Archie stand in terms of making available this massive body of work the company has published over the years? Does having that library opening up options and strategies for you that maybe aren't available to everyone?

GOLDWATER: Yeah, it does. Hopefully in the next few years we want to have as much of our 70 years of content available as possible. Our goal ultimately is to have every single Archie book ever published available for download. That's obviously going to take us quite a while to get there [laughs], but the goal is to mine that vast library, as you articulate so well. A lot of it at the moment is not digitized, so we need to get it digitized: we need to put it in a format that's a dynamic reading format, and make it available. It will take us several years to get it up there, but we do want it up there as soon as we can.

SPURGEON: Are you at this point more in favor of monetizing individual or groups of material, or is there any thought as to using the older material as an inducement to pay for newer works?

GOLDWATER: I think it can work either way. As far as I'm concerned, I think a lot of it will be made available as you articulated, as an inducement. The thing that's most important for us right now is to promote our brand, not just what's going on with Archie today but the historical importance of the brand and the company. Last year the Post Office was kind enough to put out an Archie stamp. That shows you how ingrained we are in the fabric of the country. To have this library, there are so many ways of going about it, focusing on certain segments of the material -- we're still sorting all that out at the moment. There will be many, many options.

imageSPURGEON: You did an interview with MTV earlier this year where you talked about after you came aboard in 2009 you found that Archie was doing well meeting the needs of a specific demographic. It was suggested that some of the things you've done since in terms of publishing moves can be seen in terms of bringing Archie to other audiences, the range of fans that the characters have that may not have been served as well as your key demographic. Are there any worries on your part when you broaden out, and introduce new characters, and see some story progression, that you might lose the core of the books, that you lose the evergreen aspect of it that generations having responded to?

GOLDWATER: That's a great question. We're going to maintain the integrity of that core demo, no doubt. Those storylines are going to be fresh and fun and vibrant. But the cool thing about our books is that we have readers that as they get older still love our characters but want something different from the stories, something that reflects the fact that they've grown and changed as well. That was really the impetus of showing a different version of Archie and the gang.

We still do it in the confines of Riverdale. We don't change the integrity of the characters. But as those readers grow older and get more indoctrinated as to what goes on in the world, we felt like we wanted to give them something so that they could stay with us as they got older. The success we had with the Archie wedding story is proof positive that we have so many millions of readers and fans, fans that flocked to that story and thought it was interesting and wanted to get involved to us.

To harken back to a question of yours about the numbers, the numbers for that story were so outstanding that it was the impetus for changing a little and moving a bit more into that direction. We'll never change the core of what we do. We're always going to have these young, fun, dynamic stories -- gags, all that stuff -- that's Archie at the core.

imageSPURGEON: I have a Kevin Keller question. What does the character add to the Riverdale setting besides his sexual orientation? How does he fit into the constellation of Archie characters personality-wise, even?

GOLDWATER: You know, with all of the bullying going on in the world today, and all of the issues young people grow up with, it just proves the point that kids are kids, and that Archie, the gang, Riverdale, it's all-inclusive. That's how kids are in high school today. The point of his being gay, he's just another kid. That's the point of putting him in there. He's accepted, and everyone should be accepted wherever they go. That sounds a little bit utopian, but why not? Why can't we at least put that forth? Put forth the fact that everyone no matter what their orientation is, what the color of their skin is, what their religion is, whatever it may be, everyone's accepted: there is no divisiveness. When you turn on the TV and you hear all this vitriol back and forth between political parties and all this nonsense it's enough to get you nuts. The point of Kevin was "Hey, stop with this craziness. Everyone's included. We're all part of the human race no matter who you are or what you are."

SPURGEON: When I hear you talk about that issue, it reminds me of how your father used to talk about Archie Andrews being a square, and that one of the backbones of this country are those squares. Do you see Riverdale in roughly those same terms? Do you feel a connection to your father's conception?

GOLDWATER: Well, yes, of course I do feel that connection. On the other hand, when my father made that comment I don't know how many decades ago that was but it was many years ago. Things change. What I relate to is the integrity of the person. When he says square, I think he's referring to the goodness of the spirit. The kindness. The inclusiveness. Being in one human family. I think that's what he meant when he used the word square in that context back then. And in that context, I feel a kinship to that 100 percent.

imageSPURGEON: You get noticeably enthusiastic talking about creators, which brings to mind Archie's legacy with its creators. On the one hand, you have these creators that have been incredibly loyal to the company, turning out hundreds if not thousands of pages of works over several years. You retain artists and writers as well as any comics company in history. On the other hand, there is a perception that exists about Archie that sees Archie as a traditional "brand above the creator" place and that past creators haven't received their full due. I wonder if you've ever felt the weight of that stigma, and if you think that's unfair. I also wondered how you perceive of Archie right now as a place for creators to find a home and to express themselves and be rewarded for it.

GOLDWATER: I've been here almost two years now. I hope that Archie is a place where the greatest creative minds want to work. More than anything, I value the creative process. Coming from the music business, which is my background, the bottom line is the same. Without the songwriter, there is no song. There's no doing business. It's the same in the comic book business. Without the writers, without the artists, there are no comic books. I embrace them. I value all the people that are the part of this company.

I hope it's just the beginning. The talent we have on board right now is exceptional. I was sitting in the office the other day looking at all our covers coming out over the next six months. I turned to someone and said, "Holy Toledo. These look incredible." There's such a difference from when I first came in here. They're fresh. They're vibrant. The imaging is beautiful. I'm thrilled with everybody we have board. I respect them with intensity and talk with them as much as I can.

More than anything, I want to allow them their own creative voice. Sometimes it can go a little bit further than I would like, and I tell them so, and we have a nice, creative dialogue. I encourage out of the box thinking, and because of that encouragement Dan Parent was creative and smart and talented enough to come up with Kevin Keller. I hope we have a lot of that moving forward.

SPURGEON: You said just now there's a difference in the covers since you came on board, which indicates to me that reinvesting in the creative aspects of your company has been a priority for you, that this something that's important to you.

GOLDWATER: Absolutely. That's the foundation of everything we do. That's our calling card: the books. They have to be so strong and vibrant. We can't take them for granted. That would be an arrogant approach. We have to make sure we turn out the best possible stories, the best possible art, and have readers embrace that work as exceptional.

SPURGEON: You spoke in an interview earlier this year about Archie performing more effectively in the Direct Market. What is the unique appeal of that market for Archie?

GOLDWATER: It's a place where we really don't have a foothold. It's a place where people uniquely go to buy comic books. I want them to go to the comic book shop to buy and Archie comic. That would be exceptional. We love the mass market, don't get me wrong. But there's an incredible experience to walking into a comics store; it's a magical environment. We want to be a large part of that magical environment, because that's our business.

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* Archie Comic Publications, Inc.

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* cover to Kevin Keller's first solo issue
* one of the progressions in narrative that has been more common at Goldwater's Archie
* the logo for their digital comics site
* a cover from the vast Archie library
* the cover to one of the Archie gets married comic books
* Dan Parent's creation, Kevin Keller
* another cover by Parent, a creator cited by Goldwater in the interview
* Betty, Archie, Veronica (below)

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