Comic Book Biography: MICHAEL SILBERKLEIT
Michael Silberkleit is the son of MLJ (Archie Comics) founder Louis Silberkleit, and has grown up with Archie. Michael started as an errand boy and eventually became the Chairman and Co-Publisher of the family business. Michael he has taken time out of his day to chat with First Comics News about his career in comics and what a publisher actually does.
First Comics News: You went to Albright College and majored in History, How did this prepare you for publishing?
Michael I. Silberkleit: Even though my major in college was history, I managed to get a well-rounded education. I believe that going away to school for four years, away from home and on your own, allows you to mature and prepare for a career. After getting my BA degree, I went to law school while starting to work at Archie Comics. My liberal arts education, plus law, was very helpful in preparing me for a publishing career.
1st: You started working for Archie Comics right after college, was this always your plan?
Michaell: Yes. I also attended law school while working at Archie.
1st: I understand you started working with the subscriptions and mailing end of the business, this wasn’t a case of starting in the mailroom and working your way up was it?
Michaell: You bet it was. You’re being kind though. I also was office boy, lunch getter, errand boy and chauffer. Shortly after my starting work at Archie, my partner Richard also started working at the Company. We both started at the “lowest level”, working for our dads.
1st: Archie Comics is a family business; selling family orientated comics, how is running a family business different then running other business?
Michaell: I’ve never run any other kind of business, so I wouldn’t know. In a family business, you take all of the risks. Working for someone else, it’s not always your money.
1st: Your father was an original founder of Archie Comics, you are Chairman and Co-Publisher, and your son David was an executive at Archie before forming his own company, Empower Executive Coaching. Is your daughter, Susan involved with the family business?
Michaell: None of my kids are involved for the moment.
1st: In the early 1970s, Archie Enterprises Inc. went public, why was the company taken public?
Michaell: The reason we went public was to raise funds to develop Archie Family Restaurants. The goal was to build pilot restaurants and then sell franchises. This was during the franchise boom of the 70s.
1st: What was your position with the company at the time?
Michaell: I was Treasurer and a Director.
1st: Just over ten years later you and Richard Goldwater took Archie Comic Publications back into private ownership, this is very rare in the business world, how did you and Richard accomplish this?
Michaell: Several outside people felt that Archie Enterprises was ripe for a hostile takeover. They started buying stock on the open market, attempting to gain control. Tender offers were made. Richard and I decided to buy back all of the stock. We made a tender offer higher than what was made and the shareholders voted to accept ours. We then bought back all of the stock of Archie held by the public and took the company private.
1st: Outside Archie Comics I hear you are a sports car enthusiast. You have a 1966 Austin Healey, 3000 MKIII, which was built from the ground up and is shown competitively. How did you get involved with classic cars?
Michaell: I have always enjoyed driving and working on sports cars, particularly old British ones. My ’66 Healey was a “basket case” when I bought it. It took 12 years to restore and now it is a “Concourse winner”. It is just like the day they drove it out of the factory some 37 years ago. Everyone should have a hobby, restoring old cars is one of mine.
1st: The main focus of Archie Comics is obviously Archie himself. The first caption in Pep #22 starts, “Here y’are gang, America’s newest boy friend, Archie Andrews, christened Archibald. He hates Archie, so if you value life and limb, call him ‘Chick’.” This isn’t the Archie of today, how do you keep the material fresh for each new generation?
Michaell: Throughout the last 60+ years, Archie and his pals have continued to evolve. However, the overall theme hasn’t changed. Our stories are about the lives of high school kids growing up in America, their relationship with their parents, teachers and friends. Our story line has evolved just as life in America has evolved. Our writers and artists incorporate all that is contemporary into our stories. Now, Archie and his pals have computers, use email, and cell phones and PDA’s. Next year there will be something else.
1st: While your competitors have turned their comics into grand multi-part soap operas designed to be repackaged into trade paper backs, Archie has continued its tradition of telling accessible short stories, has this helped or hurt the company?
Michaell: Since we are a successful and profitable company, I believe we are on the right track. We also publish trade paperbacks and they are selling quite well in the direct market and in the bookstores. We have released the Archie Americana Series from the 40s through the 80s, our best Christmas Stories, Day By Day, (the best of our newspaper strips), the Shield, America’s First Patriotic Hero, among others. Soon we will be releasing the Adventurers of The Fly and the Mighty Crusaders and Little Archie in this format. There are several others and quite a few new ones on the “drawing board”. We realize that there is a need for trade paperbacks, particularly in the direct market and into the bookstore chains, as well as in libraries and schools.
You know, while we sell many comics and digests in the traditional newsstand market and in supermarkets and chains like Wal*Mart, K-Mart, drug chains and book stores, we are a strong supporter of the Direct Market. While our titles cater to a younger audience, we cannot lose sight of the fact that today’s kids continue to be the comic readers of tomorrow. We are proud of the fact that Archie Comics are “reader breeders”. Many storeowners tell us that Archie comics and digests and trade paperbacks are what bring families, and, particularly young girls into their stores.
1st: You’re quoted as saying, “Our comics are reader breeders.” How does Archie get the new and younger readers that the other major comic publishers can’t seem to connect with?
Michaell: Whenever I talk about Archie Comics, parents come up to me and tell me that they learned to read by reading Archie Comics. They then tell me that their little ones are learning to read by reading Archie Comics. Parents feel that our comics are “good” for their kids and encourage them to read Archie Comics and will buy them when they see them in the supermarket, convenience stores, chains, and so on. The fact that our stories are funny, are non violent, believable, clean and appropriate for youngsters makes us so appealing to the younger reader. This philosophy hasn’t changed for more than 60 years. Many parents grew up reading Archie Comics and feel that our comics are appropriate for their kids.
1st: Archie comics sell in places other comics only wish they could sell. While the newsstand distribution has all but disappeared for most major publishers, Archie is available at grocery store check stands, Wal-Mart & K-mart nationwide. Why is Archie successful while other have failed?
Michaell: The outlets you mentioned above are high traffic family outlets and as I said above, for more than 60 years, parents feel that Archie Comics are safe for their kids and encourage their kids to read. Most adults have grown up reading Archie and feel that if it was good for them when they were kids, it is still good for their kids today.
1st: Four months after Archie Andrews and Betty Cooper first appeared, Veronica Lodge was introduced starting the eternal triangle. How does Archie Comics decide it’s time to add more friends to Archie & Friends?
Michaell: Our editors and writers are constantly exploring more scenarios. We continue to invent more characters. Some start as minor characters and stay there, some develop to a point that they might command their own book. We also pay close attention to the thousands of letters and fan art we receive from our readers and the email we get in the “talkback” section of our website http://www.archiecomics.com. This site receives 16-18 million hits a month. If a lot of our fans want to see something happen in the pages of our comics, we try to make it happen, if it makes sense.
1st: One friend returning is Cheryl Blossom, isn’t she a little “sexy” for the world of Archie?
Michaell: No, I don’t think so. In fact, one of the most popular comics we recently published in trade paperback format was The Love Showdown. In this comic, Archie was finally going to decide whom he preferred, Betty or Veronica. Guess who it turned out to be?? You know, for a while, we sent Cheryl Blossom to private school abroad. The fans were very disappointed.
1st: On a personal note, who do you prefer, Betty or Veronica?
Michaell: I can’t answer that, I love them both equally.
1st: Archie Comics has a long history of licensing, both licensing their own characters and publishing licensed characters. How does Archie decide what to license, for instance Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles orSonic the Hedgehog?
Michaell: In the course of a year, many properties are brought to us for possible licensing as a comic book. Most of them, we feel aren’t for us. You always take a chance when you license a property. Of course, its exposure on TV helps a lot.
Two of the most successful licensed character comics we ever published are the Turtles and Sonic. When we first licensed the TMNT, they were relatively unknown. I believe that our releasing them as a regularly issued full color comic into both the newsstand and into the direct market brought this great property to the attention of the licensing community and the public as well. Licensing of the Turtles took off and earned hundreds of millions in licensing revenue. I’m not complaining though, we sold a lot of Turtles comics.
Sonic continues to be one of our better selling titles. The characters have a large following and translate well into comics. When we first learned of the Sonic property, we felt it had great potential as a comic and we are very happy with our relationship with Sega.
1st: In the 1973 Archie Comics licensed their characters to Spire Christian Comics, considering that both you and Richard are Jewish, what prompted this decision?
Michaell: The Spire Comics were consistent with the wholesome themes that our comics espouse. That is all that was important to us.
1st: In 1991 Archie Comics licensed their super heroes to DC for the Impact line, why license instead of publishing yourself?
Michaell: DC came to us with a great proposal and we decided to make it happen.
1st: Why did Archie Comics terminate the licensing agreement with DC early?
Michaell: Sales didn’t meet our expectations.
1st: While we are on the subject of the Archie super heroes, in 1989, while you were president of the Comic Magazine Association of America (Comics Code Authority), Archie Comics was planning the Spectrum line, which would not have been code approved. Why would Archie comics plan a non-approved line of comics?
Michaell: In the final analysis, we decided we did not want to publish comics that were not Code approved.
1st: Archie comics is not known for crossovers with other publishers, but two do stand out, The Sonic Super Special that featured the Image comics heroes and Archie Meets the Punisher. How do you determine which crossovers are right for Archie?
Michaell: Archie Meets the Punisher developed out of a conversation I had in San Diego with Mike Hobson of Marvel. It sounded like a fun project, timing was right and it made a decent profit for both of our companies. With regard to Sonic, someone approached Richard and me with the idea of a crossover, it sounded doable and we did it. We don’t have closed minds to publish crossovers. We just don’t want to do anything out of character or that will portray our characters in a bad light. If some publisher has a crossover idea, we certainly will listen.
1st: Just recently Betty Cooper and the rest of the Archie gang were featured in a six-page color comic in the New York Times Magazine. How did this come about?
Michaell: This feature, which appeared in August, is really special to me. You know, the Sunday edition of the New York Times has a circulation of more than a million copies. I was approached by the editor of the Styles Section of the NYT and asked if we would be willing to have Betty appear in the Sunday magazine section in a story in which she is drawn wearing the latest in contemporary women’s fashions in each panel. I quickly said yes. Working with the writer of the story, I’ll Take Manhattan, was great fun. Once again it brought to light the tremendous popularity and acceptance of our characters. I think our premiere artist Stan Goldberg did a great job.
1st: I first became aware of Archie through the Filmation Archie Cartoon. Do these types of products help sales or are they just revenue producers?
Michaell: Any exposure in the media has to help sales. The Archie Filmation cartoons, which debuted on CBS in 1969, had the highest ratings, then, in the history of Saturday morning TV. Look how they made you aware of Archie. I bet you bought a few comics then.
1st: As a matter of fact, I did. In addition to being the Chairman and Co-Publisher at Archie, you have had producer credits on Archie’s Weird Mysteries, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, and, Josie and the Pussycats. As a producer, how much control do you have on the final product?
Michaell: When we negotiate a movie or TV deal for our characters, we insist upon clauses in the contract that give us control over what the characters can and cannot do. In other words, they have to be depicted in situations that are appropriate to their characterizations and appropriate for our readers. We review and provide input into all of the scripts
1st: Don’t you think that the PG-13 rating on Josie and the Pussycatskept your core audience from seeing the film?
Michaell: Yes, we wanted it to have a PG rating, not PG-13. We have received many letters and email from parents and children telling us that after seeing the film they felt it should have had a PG rating, not PG-13. Many kids did not see the movie because of its rating. Ironically, the movie got a PG rating in Canada and Australia, which have more restrictive rating boards. Go figure!
1st: There was some difficulty with Melissa Joan Hart, and both her appearance and quotes in Maxim Magazine. Without getting into all the details here. Hart’s publicist said she prefers to address “the concerns of Archie Comics Publications” privately rather than in the press. Did she ever apologies?
Michaell: We resolved it with her privately.
1st: Variety announced “Miramax has a hot date with Archie’s gal pals”. How does Archie Comics decide which film deals are right for the Riverdale gang?
Michaell: We are very excited with the Betty & Veronica Miramax film. The film will show our characters in situations similar to those in which they appear in our comics and thus will be familiar to the millions of Archie comic readers over the past 60+ years. Miramax is an A+ company and we are proud to be associated with them. We have started a new entertainment company called Archie Comics Entertainment, LLC. We have brought on board Allan Graffman, an executive with a great track record, to be President of this company. Allan’s is playing a leadership role to landing us movie, TV and licensing deals, working with Chuck Grimes, our long time counsel and CEO of the new company.
1st: Also while talking about Archie in other media, how is the search of “The Archies” musical group going?
Michaell: It’s coming along quite well. In the next several months, we hope to have some important announcements to make.
1st: Getting back to Archie Comics. What exactly does a publisher do?
Michaell: A publisher’s job is to see that everything runs smoothly. The publisher surrounds himself with competent people and then oversees the entire operation of the Company. Printing and distribution contracts have to be negotiated, editorial decisions have to be made, formats have to be decided on, editorial policies, and on and on. It’s a full time 24/7 job. In the end, the publisher has bottom line responsibility (and in a private company like ours, he also takes all of the risk so he better do a good job!)
1st: Is Archie Comics where you want it to be in the market place?
Michaell: We are happy that we have a strong position in “kid’s comics”. However, there is always room for expansion and more outlets to sell comics. Our sales department is constantly exploring the opportunity for additional outlets. Our editorial department continues to research new properties. We are proud of the fact that we dominate the newsstand. It might surprise you to learn that Wal*Mart has told us that we rank 12th in sales of all magazines. (Not just comics, all magazines!) No other comic comes close.
1st: What future plans do you have?
Michaell: Only to make Archie Comics the very best in comics and to build upon the early success of our new company, Archie Comics Entertainment, LLC. You may have noticed in recent trade publication articles in the entertainment industry the recognition given to the potential of our properties. We are very optimistic and in the process of making all kinds of deals that involve our properties.
1st: CrossGen is now releasing their comics on DVD; does Archie have any plans for new technologies, like CD or DVD comics?
Michaell: Yes, but we are still strongly committed to the newsstand and the direct market.
1st: Archie recently signed a book deal with Diamond Book Distributors. Is Archie experience the same thing that Marvel and DC Comics are reporting, more and more of their revenue is coming from bookstores?
Michaell: No, the bulk of our sales revenue is still from the traditional newsstand, supermarkets and chain stores, drug chains and convenience stores like Wal*Mart. However, we also derive a large amount of income from our friends in the direct market.
1st: Back in July 1942, Archie comics created the character “the Web”, obviously being very forward thinking. How is Archie Comics doing on the World Wide Web?
Michaell: As I said, our website archiecomics.com receives 15-18 million hits a month. We have a very active website that is visited over and over by our fans. As I said above, we receive many thousands of emails from these fans and try to read them all. Regarding our character “The Web”, we are developing new stories and ideas for this character and hope to make some very exciting announcements about “The Web” soon.
1st: You have two separate companies handling Archie, what is the difference between the two?
Michaell: Archie Comic Publications, Inc. handles all of our publishing and owns our properties. Archie Comics Entertainment, LLC, which also is a private company, handles all of our non-publishing activities under license.
1st: Michael, thank you for your time and good luck with both your companies, it looks like the first 60 years were just the beginning for the Riverdale Gang.
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