For the very first time in its nearly 75-year history, Archie Comics has appointed a chief creative officer: Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, the theater, Hollywood and comic book veteran who’s currently writing the publisher’s unconventional and decidedly non-all-ages ongoing hit, “Afterlife with Archie.”
That series, featuring the distinct art style of Francesco Francavilla, has been one of the boldest moves yet in a string of bold, attention-getting moves for the company — which started in 2009 with the “Archie Marries Betty” and “Archie Marries Veronica” stories and continued in 2010 with the introduction of the first openly gay Archie cast member, Kevin Keller. Now, the publisher — headed by co-CEO Jon Goldwater — is looking to continue to challenge expectations of what Archie can be, this time in movies, TV and beyond.
Aguirre-Sacasa, who along with his comic book credits has written several episodes of “Glee” and the 2013 “Carrie” remake, calls the CCO position a “dream come true,” and says that he’s eager to spread his love of Archie to the world at large. At least one very high-profile person outside of comics has already been reached by Aguirre-Sacasa’s efforts: Lena Dunham, the creator and star of HBO’s acclaimed comedy “Girls,” who will be writing a four-issue story in the main “Archie” series in 2015.
CBR News spoke with both Aguirre-Sacasa and Goldwater about the newly created chief creative officer post, bringing Dunham into the Archie family, the upcoming “Sabrina” series he’s writing that spins out of “Afterlife with Archie,” and the latest on the “Archie” movie, first announced in June 2013.
CBR News: Jon, why is now the right time for Archie to add its first chief creative officer, and what makes Roberto the right person for the position?
Jon Goldwater: I’ve been at Archie now almost five years. When I first got there, I really needed to get the lay of the land — where Archie was in the landscape of the comic book business, and how people viewed Archie on a global basis. I really wanted to dive deep into all the IP: Sabrina, Josie and the Pussycats, Katy Keene and our Red Circle heroes, which at the time were being published at DC, and have now come back to Archie. It’s taken a bit of time to figure things out, and we’ve made a lot of changes — Kevin Keller, the “Life with Archie” magazine, all sorts of goings-on from the creative side. Roberto and I started talking a few years ago, and as our professional relationship and our friendship grew, I knew that, instinctively, he belonged at Archie. He needed to be part of Archie. And not just in a small way, but in a meaningful way.
The timing for us to take that next step forward, in terms of what we’re going to do not just from the publishing side, but from the media, film and television side — Roberto is generally LA-based — was natural. We’re finally at the point right now where we’ve accomplished a lot in the last couple of years and it’s time to take that next step, and there’s no one I trust more from the creative side than Roberto. He gets it, he breathes the characters, he knows them as well as I do — if not better, quite honestly. The work he’s done with “Afterlife with Archie” is just exceptional. All the stars just aligned. It was the perfect timing.
Roberto, what are you excited about going into this position, and what are some of your initial goals?
Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa: In terms of what I’m excited about, it’s at this point, everything. As everyone at Archie knows, I’ve been obsessed with these characters since I was a kid. I read Archie comic books voraciously when I was a kid — I read other stuff, too; superhero books, horror books, “House of Mystery” all that stuff. But I always got the Archie books as well, and I’ve read them as I’ve grown up. I have a huge passion for these characters.
I stalked Jon for a couple of years until we were at New York Comic Con, and I literally stopped him at the Archie booth, and I said, “I have to write something for you.” Jon said, “Well, pitch us something.” Later that day, I was flying to LA, and I sent him an email: “Well, what if we did ‘Archie Meets Glee’?” Jon basically said, “If you can make that happen, we’ll do it.” I then went to my boss, [“Glee” co-creator”] Ryan Murphy, and said, “What do you think about this idea?” He said, “I love it.” I think that opened the door to where we might take a partnership, with me being on the ground in Los Angeles, and interacting with film and television people — I also have a huge background in theater — and figuring out a way to be a point person, and take these characters that have been around for so long and that everyone has some kind of relationship or history with, and try to start branching them out in different media. Television, film, theatrical live-action stuff, and to really be an advocate for these characters, and to try to connect with other people who are as obsessed with the characters as I am.
Lena Dunham’s a perfect example of that. We heard she was an Archie fanatic, and we run in similar circles and was able to reach out to her. I didn’t have to do a lot of arm-twisting — she jumped at the chance to write these characters. It’s trying to make those connections happen, and educating people in film and television and theater who may be aware of Archie, but not up to speed on everything that’s happening with things like Kevin Keller, with things like a more mature book like “Afterlife with Archie,” with things that are coming down the pike — “Josie and the Pussycats” are going to have a huge anniversary coming up in about a year. We’re going to be putting a lot of energy behind that on the publishing side, and we want to figure out what we can do in the other media to support that and complement it. It’s basically what Marvel and DC have started to do over the last five or 10 years, which is get their publishing division to start producing real templates and intellectual properties that can then be turned into television shows, or movies, or whatever — “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” [which Aguirre-Sacasa helped rewrite], those kinds of things.
Goldwater: We’re a small, privately held company, so we can move really fast. That’s one of the beauties of Roberto’s position — if he has an idea, a thought, spoken to someone out in LA about a film or a TV show, whatever the opportunity may be, we can move very, very quickly. There’s not a big, cumbersome process. It’s really an amazing and exciting time at Archie. If something clicks, we move. It’s exactly what happened with “Afterlife” — it sprung from a conversation between Roberto, myself and my son. Next thing you know, we have this incredible comic book out in the marketplace. I look forward to many more of those kinds of things going forward.
Aguirre-Sacasa: I don’t think a year ago anyone would have thought there’s any way we would ever make a horror Archie movie, or a horror Archie television show, or a horror Archie animated series. But now, here we are, and [“Afterlife”] is a potential franchise for Archie. That’s what’s really, really exciting.
I will definitely be the point person in Los Angeles; I am based out there, I have a lot of relationships out there. But comic books are in my blood. I am constantly trying to figure out what books to write — I have a lot of friends who are in the industry, writers and artists, [and want] to bring them to the Archie fold, to try to do what we did with “Afterlife” with some of the other properties. [Senior vice president of publicity and marketing and Red Circle Comics editor] Alex [Segura] and I just had a great conversation about the Red Circle heroes. That’s a huge priority for Archie. And really big things are already coming together. We’re going to launch a sister book to “Afterlife,” which is going to be a “Sabrina” book.
She’s had a hard time of it in that series so far.
Aguirre-Sacasa: And it’s going to get worse, I can tell you that. [Laughs]
So even though the primary focus is Hollywood outreach and getting more things going on that front, you’ll still have quite a bit of a voice in the publishing side, as well?
Aguirre-Sacasa: Absolutely. The focus is definitely Hollywood and stage, but you’ll have to pry “Afterlife with Archie” out of my cold, dead fingers. We’re having such a blast.
Obviously, Archie has made a lot of unexpected moves in the last five years or so — starting with the “Archie Marries Betty”/”Archie Marries Veronica” stories, then of course Kevin Keller, and “Afterlife with Archie” has been the most unexpected project yet. Do you it’s now being recognized on a larger scale that Archie is a different place now than it was before?
Aguirre-Sacasa: For being a family business, Archie makes a lot of noise in pop culture. There is huge awareness. Jon and I have taken a bunch of meetings in Los Angeles together, and everyone knows these characters, and they know about Kevin Keller, and they knew about the wedding story. I think they’re discovering just how malleable and how adaptable the brand is with “Afterlife.” I think they’re a little bit shocked at the risks that Archie’s willing to take with the characters. It’s a risky proposition to do a mature book in which one of your main, staple characters literally is killed in the first issue and comes back as a zombie who kills a bunch of his friends. I think they’re shocked about that, but excited by it as well. It does make it a little more relevant, and frankly, a little more marketable. People understand that — “Oh, I get it. That’s a great concept. I can hook into that.” Which is helpful.
Goldwater: What Roberto’s accomplished so brilliantly in “Afterlife,” he’s not changed the integrity of who the characters are — the characters are still the characters that you’ve grown up with and loved — they’re just in a whole different situation. That’s what makes it so emotional to a lot of people. They can’t believe that happened to Jughead in the first issue. They can’t believe all these things are happening to their friends. When you grow up with somebody, they’re your friend for life, kind of — all your friends you grow up with in elementary school and high school, those bonds are forever. It’s the same thing with the Archie characters. Those bonds are forever, and when things are happening to them, it’s a very personal experience. That’s really the most fun about “Afterlife.”
Aguirre-Sacasa: It was really important that as much of a horror story as this was, it was also an Archie story, which is why the zombies attack [during] Riverdale High’s big Halloween dance. That was a quintessential Archie story — which girl is he going to take to the Halloween dance? — but it’s also a quintessential horror story. As long as we keep our eye on that, we can put these characters in different scenarios, and they’ll thrive.
Given what we’ve seen from Archie in the last few years, and “Afterlife” being as far as things have been pushed so far, do you think there’s a lot of room to further challenge the perception of what people expect from Archie?
Goldwater: Yes. As long as the story is a great story, and you’re not changing the essence of who the characters are, I think people will not just accept it, I think people are incredibly interested in Archie being put in different types of incarnations, whatever they may be. As long as Archie’s Archie, and the gang are who they are, whatever the setting is around them, I think people are really interested in that kind of situation.
Aguirre-Sacasa: I completely agree. The monthly “Life with Archie” — I think people love seeing those twin storylines develop. That’s now been going 35 issues. People love it. “Betty and Veronica” — the brilliant Dan Parent did a great run of stories [last year] in a fairy tale setting. I think people love seeing these characters in different environments. It feels a little more fresh, it feels a little more contemporary, it feels like it’s in dialogue with the rest of culture. Do I think there could be a “Game of Thrones” version of Archie and his gang? Absolutely.
Archie will always have its young audience, but then there are a lot of people like me who have grown up reading Archie, who want something that’s a little bit more adult, and a little bit more grown up. As long as we don’t negate what these characters are at their core, I think people will go with it, and be hungry for it. I think people get so excited when they see these characters drawn in something other than the Archie house style. I know that’s a huge part of the success of “Afterlife.” Francesco’s art — it’s so pulpy, it’s so moody, it’s so EC Comics, it’s so great. It’s weird to see Archie and Jughead and Betty and Veronica in a more realistic way, but people love it. Archie still has red hair, Betty and Veronica still look like Betty and Veronica, but they’re more real, and they have a very different feel to them. [Archie president] Mike Pellerito has done a great job with all the cover variants, which I can’t get enough of. I love seeing Archie as a “New Yorker” cover, Archie drawn [in the style of] Norman Rockwell, Archie in a sci-fi setting. That speaks to the integrity of the characters, and how well defined they’ve been over the decades.
Goldwater: It really is the dream team, Roberto and Francesco. How [Francavilla has] changed people’s viewpoint of what Archie could look like is just absolutely remarkable. He’s done an incredible, incredible job. As long as you keep the essence — which he somehow has done, yet he’s changed it, and made it completely fresh — I think people are really going to enjoy it.
We’re discussing the high-concept stuff a lot, but I’m curious about the more traditional Archie stories — what’s your philosophy on how to approach them, so they don’t seem secondary or not as exciting? And how important do you see those more, for lack of a better term, low-concept stories to Archie going forward in a variety of media?
Goldwater: To me, that part of Archie is the core of the business. I’m just going to call it “Classic Archie,” because that’s what it is. The stories have been going on now for almost 75 years. What Roberto and I are talking about here are really new, fresh and interesting ideas that Archie has never explored before, so it seems like our focus is on that — and it is a lot on that — but that’s not to say we’re going to neglect, in any way, shape or form, what the company was built on, and what it was founded on, which is making fun, wonderful stories for younger readers. And older readers as well — we have a lot of people who are adults who really dig those books. Our energy, our efforts — they’re expanding. That’s all this is. The core of our business — the Double Digests, the comic books, all those things — those will continue on. We put the same amount, if not more, effort into that than we ever did before, and those are going to march on. They are vitally important to the foundation of what we do. They really are the foundation of everything. Everything that we do springs from there, basically.
Aguirre-Sacasa: In the most recent issues of the main “Archie” title, there’s been a world tour storyline, a multi-issue arc where The Archies and Josie the Pussycats go around the world. That’s the kind of stuff that I like, and I’m going to hopefully be pushing for, because it feels like an event, and I think readers — young, old — like that idea.
In the “Kevin Keller” monthly book, Kevin is about to debut as a superhero called “The Equalizer.” That, again, feels like an event. That’s bringing excitement to the monthly book to keep young readers, older readers, engaged with it. That will continue to be the priority it’s always, always been.
When we talked about Lena, and where she was going to write, Jon and I both immediately said, “It’s got to be in the main ‘Archie’ book.” That’s our flagship, that’s the crown jewel. That’s where we want to bring this super-exciting creator. That to me says exactly how valuable and important those mainline books are to us.
Can you share a little more about how the deal with Lena Dunham came together? And how significant is it for Archie to have that type of outside talent working on any comic, and especially at Archie?
Aguirre-Sacasa: It was one of those lightning in a bottle things. One of Jon’s son’s friends was at a talk in which, I think, J.J. Abrams was interviewing Lena. They were sort of doing a town hall interview, and one of the audience members asked Lena what comic book she would write if she could write any comic book, and Lena said, “Archie. I love Archie comic books.” This friend of Jesse’s told Jesse, Jesse told Jon, Jon emailed an agent at WME — where I’m at, and Archie is — the agent emailed me and said, “Have you heard about this? Is there any way we can get to Lena?” I’ve known Lena for a few years, since before “Girls” debuted. Obviously, I’m a fanatic of hers. I think the stuff she does is incredible. I sent her an email, “I heard a rumor from a friend of a friend that you might be interested in writing Archie. I just want you to know there’s an open door if you want to do that.” She immediately emailed back and said yes.
We sent her a box of tons of Archie books, she devoured them all, and maybe a week or two later came back with her pitch. I’m not going to spoil it, but it’s really, really funny. It’s incredibly contemporary. It’s a classic Archie story, with a definitely unique, Lena spin, and it’s going to be set in Archie continuity. It’s not going to be a weird miniseries — it’s within the main series. She brings a unique point-of-view to all these characters, but she also loves them, and knows what makes them work. It’s really good stuff, and obviously it’s going to be a huge deal for Archie, the closer we get to it.
Goldwater: We’re thrilled and honored to have her write for the company. She’s the voice of her generation. To have someone like that say, “Not only am I a fan, I’d love to write something,” it just epitomizes all the hard work we’ve put in for the last five years. The whole thing just clicked. It’s just a wonderful moment for the company.
Roberto, last summer it was announced that you were writing a live-action Archie movie — is there any update on that front?
Aguirre-Sacasa: These wheels turn very, very, very slowly. The development process is much more protracted for a movie or a television show than it is for a comic book. In the time it took to get a pitch ready for a movie, we pitched, and wrote, and published the first four issues of “Afterlife.”
“Afterlife” is a big game-changer for Archie. It has made us think, “Wow, should the Archie movie be an ‘Afterlife’ movie?” “Should ‘Afterlife’ be a TV series?” We took a little bit of a beat to figure out, because whatever our first big thing is going to be, obviously that’s going to define the company in a major way. So we want to get it right.
Goldwater: We are very excited about the possibility of doing an “Afterlife” movie or a TV series. We just think it could be tons and tons of fun — and extraordinarily successful.
Aguirre-Sacasa: I remember when I was a kid and I read “Archie Meets the Punisher,” I was like, “That’s a crazy idea. But it’s so brilliant it might work.” That’s kind of what we want whatever that first thing is to be. We want people to be like, “That is so insane, but it may work it’s so insane.” It’s got to be the right kind of message. Wheels are definitely turning, and stay tuned for more on that front.