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An Interview With the CEO of Archie About the Boycott and Politics in Riverdale

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If you would have asked me five years ago who I thought the most positive and progressive major comics publisher was, I'd have been hard pressed to give you an answer. Comics cover the gamut of politics, civics, and social issues, but no one was really leading the pack. Today, the answer is both simple and surprising.

In the past two years, Archie comics has grown from what was viewed as an anachronisim to the most supportive and all-inclusive universe in comicdom. From bringing Barack Obama and Sarah Palin together to discuss their differences over a milkshake to promote civility, to having a same-sex wedding in a critically acclaimed issue of Life With Archie.

Because of that specific issue, the conservative lobby group "One Million Moms" launched a boycott of Archie and of Toys 'R Us for their distribution of the issue. The issue in question, Life With Archie #16 is now sold out and fetching $30-$50 on eBay. Amazon has them going for $60.

Thanks to the foofaraw, I decided it was time to talk to Archie CEO Jon Goldwater once more about the boycott and the progressive movement that Archie comics has embraced.

Bryan Young: What was more surprising to you, the proposed boycott over Kevin Keller's marriage? Or the fan response to the boycott?

Jon Goldwater: To be honest, we weren't really surprised by either. We knew that, at some point, one of these organizations was going to set their sites on Kevin, a character that's gotten so much positive attention and love from our readers and the world. Thankfully, the fans spoke out in the best way possible - by buying the book. Life With Archie #16 has sold out, and that's the best, most direct response to those saying Kevin shouldn't exist.

As I've said everywhere I can - Kevin is here to stay. He's a part of Riverdale and is the most important character we've introduced in Archie Comics since Archie first appeared. We are committed to a diverse, welcoming and current Riverdale. To create a world for Archie that is retroactive, disconnected from reality and unrealistic would be unfair to our readers. Archie and his friends live in today, not in someone's idea of what was or in a world that is not inclusive or welcoming to everyone.

BY: How did the decision to have Kevin get married come about?

JG:
It really stemmed from the fact that Kevin had become such a key part of Archie and Riverdale. People kept asking about Kevin. "What's Kevin doing in the future?" We wanted to give the story we started with Kevin's early appearances a happy, loving and new chapter. We wanted to show that things worked out for Kevin - and, in a way, that things can work out for people who find themselves in a similar position to him. Things get better. Not everyone can live in a place like Riverdale - where you're not judged or treated harshly because of who you are - but we're going to continue to show the potential and hope that a place like Riverdale provides.

So, I sat down with our Editor in Chief Victor Gorelick, President Mike Pellerito, Kevin Keller's writer/artist Dan Parent and Life With Archie writer Paul Kupperberg and we hashed it out. We knew we wanted Kevin's appearance to not only bring the two timelines together, but we also wanted it to be a natural progression for him. Once the idea of him getting married - and allowing us to speak out on not only gay marriage but gays in the military and everything else Kevin's own series had been working toward - was thrown out, we were sold and pushed forward with it. It's really been an organic and story-based initiative. We always want to stay true to Kevin and show him living his life like any other character in our books, because that's what he is: a normal kid growing up and, eventually, finding love and happiness. It's what we'd wish for all our characters.

BY: With all of the controversy surrounding Kevin, what steps are being taken to make sure that he's about character first and not defined strictly by his sexual orientation?

JG:
It's always been about story with Kevin. He was a product of a story meeting. We got some initial criticism that tabbed him as a token character that we'd created just to get a one-time PR hit. Hopefully, we've disproven that. Kevin is an important part of Riverdale and will be part of the Archie gang moving forward. He's going to go through the same adventures and misadventures that Archie, Betty and Veronica and Jughead all deal with. He's one of the gang. He's not "the gay character" or however people want to pigeonhole him. He's a funny, cool, smart kid hanging out with other funny, cool and smart kids. He just happens to be gay.

BY: I love that Riverdale is so inclusive to everyone. Will we see any more of the LGBT community represented there?

JG: We're going to continue to explore diversity and show a Riverdale that reflects the world we live in today. We want Riverdale to feel vibrant, modern, relevant, and real. You'll continue to see us introducing new characters that reflect what's happening today.

BY: With the upcoming Occupy Wall Street issue, it seems like you have a very easy set of characters that can play in that world. What do you hope people will get by reading Archie's take on the protests and the level of unfairness Occupy represents? How will Reggie deal with that?

JG: Talking about the Occupy movement just seemed like such a natural fit for Archie. His entire life has been about choosing between two people! But seriously - like I said earlier - Riverdale is a city in the world today. The Occupy movement has affected the entire country and really made us all think about our financial systems and what we'd like changed or not changed. That's reflected in the story by writer Alex Segura and artist Gisele. It's still very much an Archie story, mind you. Jughead jokes about food and Reggie pokes fun at Archie, etc. But it brings the characters into contact with something that people in most of our major cities see every day.

As for Reggie...well, it seems to me his choice is an obvious one! But read the issue. It's got a few fun surprises. We think people will be pleasantly surprised. It's not preachy, but it shows both sides fairly and with all the elements of a classic Archie story.

BY: Obviously, the issue of Kevin Keller's wedding sold out. Is it the readers of Archie that are the ones up in arms about things like this? Or is it people who don't read the books anyway?

JG: I can't speak for the American Family Association or MillionMoms.com - I'd love for them to read Life With Archie #16 and see that the issue is probably the most family-friendly comic series on stands today. Archie has never been about sex, violence or extremity. Like our President, Mike Pellerito says - everything we do is built around love. Love, inclusion, friendship and family. This issue is an extension of that.

To answer your question, though - I wouldn't be surprised to learn that the protesters haven't read the issue. Which is a shame, because, controversy aside, it's one of the best comics out there. Hands down.

BY: Never more than in the last few years has it seemed that Archie has been in the news getting out in front of social issues, what changed at Archie? Or has it always been this way and I hadn't noticed?

JG: No, there's definitely been a shift. For a while there, before I came in as Co-CEO about three years ago, Archie was very much living in the past. We were resting on our laurels and kind of fading into a kind of retro, nostalgia brand. When I got to Archie my first mandate was to talk to the staff and creators and say "Change things up. Try new things. Be bold. Be daring. Be creative." If there was an idea I felt was out of line or too crazy, I'd nix it. But for the most part, people like Dan Parent came to me with excellent ideas and suggestions. Kevin Keller is a perfect example of that. I don't think you would have seen the previous regime publish Kevin.

BY: Why do you feel it's important that Archie gets in front of these social equality issues?

JG:
Because it's what's happening outside our windows and in our homes. If Archie continued on, in a bubble of nostalgia, we'd run the risk of becoming an anachronism. Archie is at his best when he's connecting with what's going on in the world and in the lives of his readers and fans. Archie and his friends are of the moment, and Kevin is just a part of that.

BY: What's the next big issue we can expect Archie Comics to handle as just another day in Riverdale?

JG:
Well, we have Occupy Riverdale in July, which we discussed. We also have a major, major announcement slated to hit in the next few months. If you thought Archie Meets KISS was a big deal, this kicks it to another level.

BY: What is Archie doing to get their books in front of more kids? I know because of these issues, I added Archie to my comics hold for my kids because I feel it's good to see these positive messages... If anything, I'd love to see more of these things in the book.

JG: Great question. Our mantra, day in and day out, is "Archie is everywhere." That means digitally, in print and beyond. Our Archie Comics app has been downloaded close to 4 million times and we're on every tablet and device you can imagien, we've seen our bookstore sales spike considerably since we partnered with Random House and we continue to make inroads via the newsstand and comic shop markets. Archie's here to stay, and we'll continue to explore ways to get books in front of anyone who's interested in reading about Archie and his friends.

So there you have it. If you want progressive messages and inclusive storylines in comics for your kids, Archie Comics is the place to find them.

Bryan Young is the editor of the geek news site Big Shiny Robot! and the author of God Bless You, Mr. Vonnegut.