Jeff Krell’s Archie Ambitions

jeff-krellLet’s just say it right up front: Jeff Krell wants to write Archie comics.

That is his ambition; that is his goal; that is his mantra.

Of course, you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting someone who wants to write for Archie (I spent a hazy, confused weekend trying once and it cannot be done), but few people who dream of writing for Archie possess the almost 30 years of experience writing a character-driven humour strip that Jeff Krell does.

On Christmas Day, 1982, Jeff Krell created “Jayson”. From the get-go, “Jayson” was very Archie-esque in terms of structure, pacing and humour, and Mr. Krell will be the first to point out the obvious Archie influence in his work:

In November 1983 “Jayson” debuted in the Philadelphia Gay News in a six-panel format, where it ran monthly. The strip had been championed by Mark Segal, the paper’s publisher, whose enthusiasm for the material was not shared by the paper’s editor, leading to “Jayson” being unceremoniously cancelled after a year.“My first year out of college (1982), I created “Jayson” because I loved Archie comics but never saw myself or my friends represented in them. The Archie house style was the only style of drawing I ever liked, and the pacing and humor of the Archie stories were ingrained at an early age.” -Jeff Krell

Around this time some “Jayson” samples found their way to the editor’s desk at Gay Comix, a national publication, just as new editor Robert Triptow was taking over and looking for new material. Starting with issue #6 in 1985, six-page “Jayson” stories were featured through to issue #12, and helped propel the strip to national prominence. “Jayson” also appeared in many volumes of Winston Leyland’s successful “Meatmen” anthology, providing the strip with even more national exposure.

After spending many years mounting (and then paying for) the “Jayson” musical, Jeff returned to the comics world with the publication of two collections: “Jayson: Best of the 80s” and “Jayson: Best of the 90s” in 2005. Both volumes sold well and were critically well received, and in 2008 “Jayson Goes To Hollywood” was published. “Jayson Goes To Hollywood” was a runaway success both critically and commercially, and earned Jeff two nominations in the 2009 Comic Buyer’s Guide Fan Awards (Favorite Writer and Favorite Graphic Novel).By the early 90s, “Jayson” was syndicated and appearing in several smaller papers, a run that lasted a few years but eventually died out. In 1997, Jeff self-published “Jayson: A New Collection”, which was a companion piece to an off-Broadway “Jayson” musical.

Even with a new graphic novel (“Jayson Gets A Job”) due early next year, Jeff Krell is determined to realize a (literally) life-long dream by writing for Archie Comics.

First Comics News: Let’s get this one out of the way right off the top: one argument against hiring you to write Archie could be that “Jayson” sometimes contains very adult language and situations, and they may not want writers whose public work contains these elements. Your rebuttal, please.

Jeff Krell: “Jayson” is told in the style of a teen humor strip, but the characters are in their twenties. Their language and situations are appropriate to their age group and their intended audience. I understand that Archie is an all-ages comic and I would never violate that trust. Lately Archie has shown greater openness to writers who have made their mark in other genres. In the end, a good story wins. I am confident that I can write good stories for Archie that are true to the characters and respectful of the boundaries.

1st:You’ve been trying to write for Archie since your senior year in high school (1977), when you submitted a fully illustrated “Sabrina” script, which garnered you a form rejection letter. In 1988, you applied for a job with Archie and interviewed with David Silberkleit, but nothing came of this. In 1994, you submitted some scripts to Victor Gorelick, gaining you another form rejection. During that time you’ve very successfully self-published 4 volumes of your original teen-humour strip “Jayson” and translated and published two volumes of Ralf König’s work. Why do you still want to write for Archie?

Jeff: It’s Archie, man! Who wouldn’t want to work for such an iconic American company?

1st: Do you think, given that you’re one of the very few people with 25+ years experience writing and publishing a teen(ish)-humour comic, you deserve more than a form letter this time around?

JK: Yes, and I’m sure I will. I’ve taken the opportunity over the past few years to meet and talk with all the Archie principals at the comic book conventions. When Archie announced the introduction of Kevin Keller, I pounced on the opportunity to pitch myself to Mike Pellerito as the writer who can lend authenticity to Kevin Keller stories — not that I’d want to stop there. I want to write for the whole gang, especially the girls. I’m renowned for my catfights, you know.

1st: You mentioned Kevin Keller, the new boy in Riverdale, who brings with him the rare elements of curly/wavy light brown hair and an immunity to Veronica’s charms. Given the chance, what direction would you like to take Kevin in?

Jeff: First, I would like to congratulate Dan Parent for creating Kevin and convincing Archie to embrace him. It’s a very brave choice for a family-friendly company, and a sign of new, younger leadership at Archie. I know precious little from the press releases about who Kevin is, and it would be presumptuous of me to discuss any direction I would take him in, since those would be editorial decisions. That said, I have a few ideas that make sense based on what I know.

After Veronica gets over her initial shock, I’m certain that Kevin will become her new BFF, making both Betty and the boys jealous. And Jughead, always looking for new girl repellant, could take lessons from Kevin in how to appear gay; this would backfire as everyone knows a gay man is irresistible to women. A more seriocomic tale could focus on rampant speculation about whom, if anyone, Kevin will bring to the prom, and how Mr. Weatherbee will deal with the growing buzz.

(Really, this seems like a no-brainer to me. Not because Kevin’s gay so a gay writer should get preference. Please. First of all, these ideas are good: the prom story would be an awesome Archie story, I love it when Riverdale gets all topical. Secondly, Kevin Keller moving to Riverdale is an indication of a new level of mainstream acceptance for a long-marginalized group of people; acceptance that was won through a long and difficult struggle. In our current culture of media-saturated meta-tainment it seems like an excellent hook to have some Kevin stories written by a cartoonist who spent 25 years on the front line of that struggle.)

1st: The timing, pacing and humour of “Jayson” is clearly influenced by a lifetime of reading Archie. When did you start reading Archie? Paint a picture for us of your Archie reading and purchasing habits as a young child in rural Pennsylvania.

Jeff: My childhood coincided with the debut of The Archie Show (1968), the hit singles by The Archies, and an explosion of new titles. I grew up poor, not unlike Jayson, and I was allowed to buy one comic book a week. While my mother did her weekly food shopping at Genetti’s, I spent the entire half-hour at the spinner rack trying to decide which Archie comic was extra special enough that week for me to purchase. I read them and reread them to death. Today, when I’m at comic book conventions, my very favorite thing to do is to troll the used comics boxes for the Archies from 1968-72 that I don’t own. I won’t be satisfied until I own all the Archies I couldn’t buy at Genetti’s.

1st: Did you have any of the Spire Archie comics when you were growing up? I always liked the art (Betty was so doe-eyed and beautiful) but was kind of creeped out by the Sunday School messages.

JK: I did. Every summer we got to make a trip to the Christian bookstore to buy supplies for Vacation Bible School. They had the Spire comics on a spinner rack and I got to buy one (and only one) whenever we went. One of the titles I bought was “Archie Gets a Job!” It is no coincidence that my next graphic novel is titled “Jayson Gets a Job!”

1st: Obviously writing an Archie story would be a blast for a life-long Archie fan, and as a creator it would seem like a great gig. Beyond all that, after all the ups and downs of the first 27 years of your career, what would getting the chance to write for Archie mean to you?

JK: Archie was such an important part of my childhood. I’ve often said that everything I needed to learn, I learned from Archie Comics. I’d love pass on that gift on to the next generation of young readers.

1st: On a related note…what would be the best, and the worst, moments of your career to date?

Jeff: For me, the best moments always come when I’m scripting a story, and the characters do something unexpected and wonderful — and the joke’s on them because I can still take credit for writing it. My worst moments have occurred whenever I’ve ventured outside my little cartoon ghetto and into the mainstream of comics — and gotten roundly, soundly rejected.

1st: If you were going to adapt your own life as an Archie comic, which character would play Jeff Krell and why?

Jeff: Jayson could walk right into Riverdale, feel at home, and play me. He’d have to watch his language, though. If you’re limiting this exercise to Riverdale denizens, it would have to be Dilton. I looked just like him when I was in high school — small and skinny with curly dark hair and big glasses. I was also a brainiac who knew full well he was playing a supporting role in the lives of the more popular students.

1st: Let’s talk about supporting characters. I’ve been following the tense battle for legitimacy amongst the second and third tier characters for quite a while, and I’ve realized that to get anywhere a character needs a champion in the writing department. If you got the chance to write for Archie, would you spread some love to the lower ranks?

JK: When I was a kid, Archie was publishing more than 30 titles on a regular basis. This gave them ample opportunity to feature the second-tier characters (Moose, Dilton, Ethel, etc.) in their own stories. Now that they only publish a handful of titles starring the Final Four (Archie, Betty, Veronica, Jughead), I think they should devote the third story of each issue to a second-tier character.

I got to thinking about this when Archie announced the introduction of Kevin Keller in “Veronica” #202 and seemed to imply that he would star in his own stories. It would make sense for each of the titles to devote one story per issue to a backup character compatible with its readership. Just as “Laugh” and “Pep” comics used to have Li’l Jinx stories in the third slot, “Jughead” comics could present Ethel or Bingo, and “Betty” could offer Brigitte or — dare I say it — Adam.

In order to accomplish this, however, Archie would have to return to the practice of offering four stories per issue, and curtail the trend towards issue-length and multi-issue “events” that they can repackage as graphic novels. I understand that newsstand comics are loss leaders these days and they need to repurpose while the iron is hot, but I hope these events soon become the exception rather than the rule, or that they run in 6 to 12-page installments over multiple issues, to keep readers coming back while making room for the second tier to shine.

(Anyone who thinks Adam should get his own back-up stories should be hired immediately, don’t you think? Personally, I’d love to see short back-up stories featuring the secondary characters in the New Look style. These could even be used to give some of these characters a bit of weight. For instance: Moose is just generally portrayed as a dolt with a sometimes heart of gold, but clearly he spends some time working on his physique. A short, funny story that shows Moose’s ability to focus and be disciplined would go a long way towards giving him more personality. It also would help to explain why a dish like Midge has stayed with him for 50-odd years.)

1st: In the recent Archie/Valerie romance (Archie 608-609) a dramatic shift was felt in Riverdale’s romantic landscape: Archie is in love with Valerie, and Betty and Veronica know that he isn’t theirs anymore. What new romantic avenues would you open up for our leading ladies?

Jeff: First of all, I was thrilled that Archie and Valerie hooked up. I thought that story was going to be the shock of the year until the Kevin bombshell dropped. I am old enough to remember when Chuck Clayton moved to Riverdale and there was no question of his hooking up with Betty or Veronica — that was taboo. That said, I think it’s a stretch to claim that Archie is in love with Valerie (or vice versa). I don’t believe Valerie will upset Archie’s universe any more than Cheryl did, and that Betty and Veronica just need to fight harder to win Archie back (so they can go back to fighting with each other). But if Archie’s pursuit of Valerie has truly opened up the playing field, that would give Adam a shot at Betty and Reggie a shot at Veronica. Or maybe one of the second-tier characters could get a promotion. I still think Chuck is off limits, but only because no one would want to see him and Nancy break up — would they?

1st: You mention Chuck Clayton, Riverdale’s resident cartoonist, who was recently featured in his own “Freshman Year: The Missing Chapters” story (Archie and Friends #143). The plot revolved around mini-comics Chuck used to draw starring him and his classmates when he was first starting to get into cartooning. Any similar experience for a young Jeff Krell?

Jeff: 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.

1st: If we are going to compare casts, obviously Jayson=Archie. Which other Archie characters would you equate the Jayson cast with?

Jeff: Jayson is the lead character, but that’s where similarities with Archie end. Jayson is really the love child of Jughead and Dilton. Jayson’s roommate Arena is much more like Veronica, in that she is a princess from a wealthy family who likes to boss everyone around. Jayson’s neighbor Robyn would be Cheryl, because she’s the only one who can give Veronica a run for her money.Walter, Jayson’s ex, is really the Betty of the strip — he always tries to be nice despite the way the others treat him.

1st: Any hints you care to drop for “Jayson Gets a Job”, aside from the titular event? Can I safely assume we’ll continue to follow the parental plans of Meryl and Eduardo?

Jeff: The most exciting thing for me about “Jayson Gets a Job” is that I am finally taking Walter, Jayson’s ex, off the back burner. I’m finally giving him a back story. All we really know about Walter is that, relative to Jayson, he’s been pretty successful in his career. In this story, Jayson gets a job at Walter’s company. As a result, we get to know much more about Walter, his boyfriend Steven, and what really caused Jayson and Walter to break up. Meanwhile, Arena and Robyn deal with their own career issues in B and C stories that dovetail nicely with the main story.

I tried to make “Jayson Goes to Hollywood” a jumping-on point for people who weren’t familiar with 25 years of “Jayson” history. I am now doing the same with “Jayson Gets a Job.” Consequently, I am focusing the story quite consciously on the three main characters, plus Walter and Steven. I use a fair amount of exposition — cleverly, I hope — in the opening pages to bring readers up to date. Meryl and Eduardo are mentioned, but we don’t catch up with them, or Portia, until at least halfway through the book. Jayson’s mother Bertha also has a huge dangling plot thread from “Hollywood” that is resolved in “Job.”

(“Jayson Goes to Hollywood” is probably the strongest argument Jeff has for getting hired to write Archie. I would agree that it’s a great jumping-on point for readers curious about “Jayson”, but it’s also simply a very well-written graphic novel. Each of the individual chapters can stand on its own while still combining to create a larger story, and each chapter is quite funny. Especially when Robyn shows up.)

1st: You had a seat on the “Gays in Comics” panel at the 2008 San Diego Comic Con where Andy Mangels introduced you as one of the “pioneers of gay comics”, a label that is definitely well earned. What were the “pioneering” days, back when a cowboy (well, cowboy actor) was president and George Michael still had to pretend he was into the ladies, like for you?

Jeff: I was the first person in my family to go to college. I studied Communications and German Literature — also known as pre-unemployment, though I didn’t realize it at the time. Awarded a useless (in the short run) liberal arts degree in 1982, I graduated into an economy as bad as the current one, and with no family money or connections to fall back on, I was forced to take a series of low-paying jobs that didn’t even require a college degree. Meanwhile, I entered Philadelphia’s gay bar scene, where I was routinely snubbed for possessing insufficient wealth and looks. Such were the frustrations of which “Jayson” was born.

1st: To wrap up here, every fanboy has something they wish they could change about their beloved. What is your fanboy wish with Archie Comics?

JK: I miss the iconic Archie logos! Those classic, Cooper-based designs still have the power to excite. Moreover, Archie must know this, since they are now placing the classic “A” in the upper left-hand corner of every magazine. Yet they have chosen to radically redesign the logos of the Final Four, diminishing their power in the process. I wish they had chosen instead to contemporize the classic logos, building on the strong branding platform instead of discarding it. It has become hard enough to find Archie digests at the supermarket checkout. Now, even when they’re right in front of me, they don’t catch my eye anymore because I don’t recognize the logos. Is it too late to change back?

A million thanks to Jeff Krell for his time, art and classic Archie panels. Be sure to come back next week when Jeff and I talk only Archie; including Hypotheticals, Who Would Win? and the Gag Bag Challenge.

For (far more) information about Jeff and “Jayson”, Jeff’s blog is well worth a read.

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