Inside the Red Circle with Archie's "New Crusaders"

In comics, you can't keep a good superhero down, and at Archie Comics, it turns out that you can't keep an entire universe of superheroes down, either.

Last weekend, the publisher dropped the surprising news that they'd relaunch their "Red Circle" line of superheroes in 2012 in the form of a new digital subscription comics app. Described as "Netflix for Comics," each week sees the release of a brand new "New Crusaders" story by the team of Ian Flynn and Ben Bates (known for their work on the publisher's "Sonic The Hedgehog" comics) and access to archives of Archie-published versions of the superheroes from their original 1940s appearances through the Radio Comics of the '60s into the Red Circle books of the '80s and on to the Impact Comics of the '90s.

"You're essentially getting your monthly comic book fix, but with a built-in weekly format on top of the library that goes all the way back to the Golden Age," said Archie President Mike Perellito who teamed with Executive Director of Publicity and Marketing Alex Segura and "Sonic" editor Paul Kaminski to mastermind the "New Crusaders" idea. The format of the stories will built large arcs out of the individual "episodes" of the new series with a full "season" of "New Crusaders" comics running approximately 25 episodes.

To uncover the story behind the story on how "New Crusaders" went from idea to incoming Red Circle comics app, CBR News spoke to both Perellito, Segura and Kaminski about the digital and creative sides of the launch AND "New Crusaders" writer Ian Flynn about his plans for the characters. Read on to see how digital is driving the content of Archie moving forward, what classic villain causes the New Crusaders to form and what other characters and ideas will be born when the Red Circle returns in 2012.

CBR News: Gents, this is an all-new kind of project for Archie. Why launch a subscription-based app for new comics content?

Mike Pellerito: Distribution for comic books has always controlled the content, meaning the newsstand made for done-in-one kinds of stories because you never knew who was coming by. When the Direct Market exploded, people like me went, "Wow! I can read this 12-issue maxi series, and I'm there every week. This is awesome." So comics has always drifted towards new distribution, and Archie has embraced every single new format, and we've stayed vibrant in all of them. Now we're embracing and actually leading the way with this new distribution of digital dictating content. We've found that fans want new, fresh stuff, but they also want access to everything. That "Netflix for Comics" line is exactly it. You want new stuff, and you want everything that feeds your huge appetite.

How did this conversation about new models get rolled up with the Crusaders? Have you ben trying to find a way to bring those heroes back into the mix?

Pellerito: Luckily, there is no better place in the world to work if you're a comic book fan than Archie. It's got everything you want, including the most creative people doing the most creative things. There's no crazy corporate structure like at the other places. We just go, "Let's get a good idea and do it." Speaking for myself only, I am a comic book nerd. I go to the store every Wednesday. I go to book stores all the time. I'm downloading comics now. It's addictive. And we have a tremendously awesome library of superhero characters that are so great. They've had a legacy of great creators working on them.

And personally, I just see less and less stuff I like out there in superheroes. There's tons of great comic books, but what I buy every week has been less about superheroes. It kind of bummed me out. A lot of people feel the same way. And we started talking about how we've got this great library where we can do great action and great superheroes. And it doesn't have to be for the guy like me who's addicted and has to go to the comic book store every week. I got into comics as a kid at the corner candy store. My kids love superheroes and Archie and all this stuff, but I can't give them most superhero books. This new series is for daddy, but I can leave it out, and my six-year-old can also pick it up, and I don't have to freak out about Batman having sex with Catwoman. You know, The Shield will beat up a bad guy, and he might go on a date, but it won't be too freaky. It's entertaining and interesting.

Alex Segura: Yeah, these aren't watered down superheroes. This isn't what we think is a kids version of Superman or Batman. This is a comic like "The Incredibles." You can read it with your kids, and you'll both get different things out of it. It appeals to all ages in that way.

Pellerito: The "Justice League Unlimited" TV show had a nice mix like that where it dealt with some heavy stuff, but whether you were six or 60, there's something in there for you. Like "Incredibles" has something in there for you, this can feed your comic book addiction, OR if you haven't read a book in years, it's still cool. That's what this company has always done. We make comic book entertainment available for everyone.

The Red Circle characters come back every few years with the most recent run being at DC, but it seems to me there's been trouble getting them to go over in a sustained way. With "Sonic The Hedgehog" now being a franchise at Archie and a new "Mega Man" series fleshing out that Archie Adventure format, did you guys feel more confident being able to launch a superhero series that can last?

Paul Kaminski: Tonally speaking, those books where the catalyst for this project. The way Ian writes and the way Ben draws -- what they're able to deliver on the "Sonic" and "Mega Man" books really walks that fine line in terms of appealing to both kids and adults. We've been experimenting with and honing that for years starting with Mike's editorial run on "Sonic" and continuing into mine. We just hope to bring that feel to the Crusaders. The DC stuff that came along a few years back with the Red Circle guys, there was nothing particularly wrong with that. We just want to take these characters to the level we know they can be at. It's not just a standard superhero book, but a superhero book that's going to be innovative.

Pellerito: These are Archie's toys. No one's going to give them the love we are. And Paul always gets red in the face when I say this, but he is the best editor "Sonic" has ever had. "Sonic The Hedgehog," "Sonic Universe" and "Mega Man" as a comic book fan are my three favorite monthly superhero books. I say that in comic book stores, and people lose their minds, and then I give them my copy, and they agree with me. So for people saying, "But in superheroes I want to see boots and capes" -- well, here are your boots and capes. Now you've got even more of the best superhero comics going on. There was stuff in that DC launch that I loved, but without that Archie love, the Red Circle comics will just be another book. Archie Comics puts so much love into everything we do -- including Sonic and Mega Man -- that we know how to make them work.

Look at something like Kevin Keller. We brought a gay character into Archie's world and made people go, "It's about time!" We can tell a story about anything and make people want to read it in a way that's enjoyable to anyone.

Kaminski: And our excitement reads through in the final product. Even in the initial pitch phase of "New Crusaders," we got so excited about how cool this project was going to be that you could feel it when you're reading it, and you cans sense it when you're looking at the artwork. We're stoked about this one, and we know that everyone will be as well when we read it.

So what can you tell us at this point about that proposal and the fictional world of the "New Crusaders"?

Segura: It's the kind of thing where we met with Michael Murphy over at iVerse who are the engine behind this app, and literally after that meeting, Mike, Paul and I walked back to our hotel and hammered out the basics of the proposal. This doesn't negate what came before. All the classic Crusaders stuff happened for the die-hards, but this is really a reintroduction of these characters for a new audience.

Kaminski: The superheroes won, and they retired. So they founded a town called Red Circle where they went on with their lives. They became regular citizens and had families. It became this huge community where they all felt safe because, obviously, they were all together. A lot of the powers of the parents were bestowed upon the kids, but it wasn't something that was really outwardly discussed in the town. You have all of this bubbling under the surface, and then the catalyst for the series is that the Brain Emperor returns!

Segura: The villains come back.

Pellerito: And they get vengeance, big time. Red Circle as a city is wiped out. All that's left is this handful of kids and this grumpy old dude who never had kids. This was the guy in the neighborhood you grew up with who you never wanted to go near his property. That's the guy they all get stuck with, and he turns out to be The Shield!

Kaminski: Joe Higgins!

Pellerito: So he takes these kids under his wing and says, "We've got to fix all this. And by the way, you don't know your legacy. You don't know your history. I'm going to show you all that, so we can save the day. And by the way -- underneath this town of Red Circle is this massive training area filled with all the weapons tools and outfits we'd ever need." This book is every little kids dream. You wake up one day and find out that there are superheroes galore. These kids find out they're superheroes and that they have everything they need to beat up the bad guys.

Kaminski: They are the last best hope. They are the New Crusaders. [Laughter]

The teaser image reveals our core team: The Shield, The Web, Fireball, Steel Sterling, Fly-Girl, The Comet and The Jaguar. I'm assuming that even though these are the first kids we'll meet, other heroes like the Fox or the Black Hood are out there, too.

Pellerito: Absolutely. And all of the personalities and quirks of those characters that have existed play into the way we're handling these new characters. So for example, Paul Patten was the Fox, and he was a photo journalist. We're playing up that angle of him and how it revolves into what happens next. Each one of these heroes has a great, rich back story. There's an incredible legacy, and we're bringing it forward. This isn't a reboot. I don't want to knock those other guys because they're doing some fun stuff, but this approach keeps everything the fans -- whether they've been around for 70 years, ten years or five minutes -- loves. This makes it so the series can still be theirs. Our approach is "Comics for Everyone."

To wrap, what are your hopes for this project as a whole? Is more on the way from Archie in this mold? Would a successful "New Crusaders" launch mean more Crusaders comics, more digital?

Pellerito: When Jon Goldwater [our CEO] came to Archie two years ago, we kept making one step after another after another. Mike Murphy had an incredible love of these characters as he build up iVerse. And now, Archie's got the most downloaded apps and the most downloaded comics of all time. This is a first step into a bigger and broader plan for all of Archie's properties -- not just the Archie, Betty and Veronica gang but also Josie and the Pussycats and the new Sabrina stuff. These are characters for everyone that target every audience. The Red Circle is the next step in Archie's continued evolution.

Segura: Everyone talks about day and date now, but day and date is an old story for us. We've been day and date since April. This is our next step. It's new superhero content in a digital only format, and it's really a whole new imprint. You download the Red Circle app, and you get new comics by two of our best creators, some classic stuff by everyone from Joe Simon to Alex Toth to Gray Morrow. This is classic stuff that we've never reprinted and probably will not reprint for a while. It's very much an immersive experience. Say we reintroduce the Fox in chapter 8. We'll then upload ten or 12 old Fox stories so you can get a sense of who the character is. It's not just one new title. It's a whole new arm of the company.

CBR News: Ian, to begin with, the Red Circle characters have been around quite a while and have had many different publishing eras to call their own. What's your first memory of the characters, and do you have any favorite comics starring the team members?

Ian Flynn: I remembered seeing them in the Archie comics I had as a kid, and I was always curious about them. So, as I began to dive into the huge history for this project, my main question was "why haven't we been using these guys sooner?!"

The crew at Archie put some thought into the set up for the world the New Crusaders would be seen in. What was your first response to their pitch? Did you immediately start thinking of places for the character and story to go?

Absolutely.  I loved it from the first word.  It's a great premise that allows us to create anew and utilize the past material.  And it's a fun super hero book.  Who wouldn't want to jump onto a project like this?

Let's talk about the team! Obviously, at the heart of every Crusader team is the Shield, though the version we're seeing here is a bit different than some past iterations. What's your take on old Joe Higgins, and how does he play a central role in the story from the first page?

I don't want to go into too much detail yet -- part of the allure of the book will be seeing what's happened to the original Crusaders over the years.  Joe is still every bit the hero he was before, but he's older, and he's conscious of it.  The world has changed around him and he knows it.  And while he has high hopes for the New Crusaders, he's not sure if these kids will all make the cut.  He is their mentor, their leader, and he sets the bar for the team to reach for; but he's not going to just hand them a costume and let them slug villains.  They've got to earn their positions in his eyes.

Beyond that, we've got a lot of young characters in the roles of classic heroes from the Web to the Jaguar to the Comet. How did you land upon these six heroes as the core of your team? Who are your favorites to write so far?

The roster was nailed down in a group effort, because there's no way I could just pick a few.  As for who's my favorite, it's honestly hard to choose.  Each kid will be accessing their powers in different ways, and they'll be tackling them uniquely.  Again, I don't want to spoil anything, because they're each so new and fresh to read and write for I don't want to spoil the surprises.

Speaking of which, there's obviously a strong legacy thread to this series, and that kind of begs the question: what's come before? Do all the previous Archie Comics versions of these heroes work as canon for the new series? If so, how much of the original versions will we be seeing alongside these new kids?

We're going to do our best to honor the old canon that came in the 40s, 80s, and under the Impact line.  We're approaching it with a kind of new J.J. Abrams/"Star Trek" approach,  where we can use and adapt stories to apply to the stories of today.  That way, older material that wouldn't necessarily work with today's sensibilities or our current tone is still viable.  We'll be taking occasional glimpses into the past to show what's been "missed."

We know the book opens with the return of major villain the Brain Emperor to the scene. What can you tell us about opening battle and how its story unfolds?

Spoilers!  Oh the spoilers!  The Brain Emperor has been gone for years, and our heroes had ever reason to be sure he'd never come back.  So his return to the scene will be a huge event in itself.  The battle with the old Mighty Crusaders won't go how anyone expects, and it opens the door for the New Crusaders to seek out their legacies and become heroes themselves.

One of the most intriguing aspects of the launch is the digital format. On a basic story level, how do you tackle the challenge of telling this epic over a year of six-page stories? Will you be working on longer arcs with soap operatic plot lines, or will the six page stories focus on one member of the team at a time?

It's not all that different from telling a regular comic story.  In your standard 32-pager, the story progresses in three acts.  A lot of the stories will be like taking each act as a bite-sized installment, while others will be stand-alone vignettes to flesh out the past and the world. This puts the choice in the customer's hands. You have the option to follow week-to-week, episode-to-episode, or season-to-season!

In what other ways does the digital distribution model change about how you approach the creative work on the series with artist Ben Bates?

The digital distribution doesn't really affect how I'm approaching the project.  It's still a comic book, and it still needs a fun story with interesting characters.  Knowing that I'm working with Ben Bates, though, tells me I can go nuts with the scope of the scenes.  Ben has an amazing, fluid, kinetic style and I've loved what he's done with my stuff on "Sonic The Hedgehog" and "Mega Man."  I can't wait to see more of his "New Crusaders" stuff! 

You've been on quite the tear over the past few years: a reinvention of Sonic's world, a big launch for Mega Man and now a return of the original Crusaders universe. What do you feel all these books have in common as the main writer for Archie's latest "Adventure" lineup?

In terms of approaching the projects, all three have these wonderfully rich backgrounds to utilize.  Tons of characters, worlds and lore are right there to be played with.  And the old rules make it all the more interesting, turning them into puzzles.  So I want to do something new -- how can I make that fit into what's come before?  How can I make it feel like an organic extension of the world?  How can I use old and new together?

In terms of tone and content, they're all fun action-adventure books.  The characters are bright, colorful, approachable and enjoyable.  They have amazing powers to delight us, and they're good people and become endearing to us.  They're all the kind of stories everyone can pick up and enjoy together.

Finally, there are obviously so many more characters from the world of the Crusaders that aren't in the poster from the Fox to the Black Hood on down. Any teases of who else might be along for the ride?

The world of "New Crusaders" has gotten to be a little sleepy and complacent.  The return of the Brain Emperor and the rise of the New Crusaders are going to shake that up a lot, and we'll be seeing a lot of old and new faces join this new renaissance of super heroics.  And not everyone is going to see eye-to-eye with how Shield is reviving the team.

Look for more on "New Crusaders" at Archie Comics panels at this weekend's New York Comic Con, with full coverage right here on CBR!

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