Here's one of the greatest things about being a comics journalist: Every month, I get a box delivered to my home that contains the entire Archie Comics output for that month. Really, it doesn't get any better than that.
I usually look at the comics one at a time, but this month, I thought it would be interesting to view the group as a whole, and see what it tells us about Archie and its product mix. (I should say right off the bat that this box doesn't include graphic novels, which means there is no copy of the truly excellent Jinx 2: Little Miss Steps. If you don't mind Jinx spoilers, go ahead and read my interview with writer J. Torres to find out what that is about.)
This month's box contains 10 single-issue comics, six digests and two magazines. That looks like a lot, but it really isn't because every comic and magazine this month has a variant cover. So in terms of what's inside, that's five singles, six digests (no variants there!) and one magazine, Life With Archie. All these have June cover dates, which means they came out in May.
Let's take a closer look at what's inside the box.
Single-issue comics: The five monthly comics are Archie, Betty and Veronica, Mega Man, Sonic the Hedgehog and Sonic Universe. So right off the bat, we see something interesting — only two out of five comics are set in Riverdale, and only Archie is a monthly. (Betty and Veronica alternates with Kevin Keller.)
While the single-issue comics are Archie's flagship properties — that's where the new stories are — they aren't where the money is. Here's what Co-CEO Jon Goldwater said to me in January: "[Monthly comics] are important in the fact that we are able to create new stories, and it’s really for us something that is more a promotional tool than something that is generating any revenue of significance. It is not generating any revenue that is meaningful, but it is a fabulous promotional vehicle for us. That is how we use the traditional comic books going forward. If we could figure out how to monetize them, that would be fabulous. I’m still trying to figure out how to make that happen."
Sonic the Hedgehog, on the other hand, does quite well. ICv2's estimates of direct market sales for April and May bear this out; Sonic seems to sell a comfortable 9,000 to 12,000 copies per month, as does Mega Man, while Archie does about half that. The direct market is only a small part of Archie's market, however. Johanna Draper Carlson has been tracking Archie's total sales for years, using the figures from the publisher's annual statements, and her most recent post on the topic includes some interesting number-crunching, as well as the fact that six years ago, Archie had seven monthly Riverdale-based comics; now they have one, plus two bimonthlies.
It's pretty difficult to escape Archie's trend toward topical comics over the past few years; the Archie comic in this month's batch is Archie Meets Glee, and Betty and Veronica are doing a fairy-tale storyline that has been going on for a while. Also, the Sonic and Mega Man comics are episodes 2, 3 and 4 in a 10-issue crossover.
Life With Archie #29: This continues to be a strange but wonderful comic, with writer Paul Kupperberg scripting surprisingly original stories about two different universes, one in which Archie has married Veronica and the other in which he married Betty. In the Archie-marries-Veronica continuity, Kevin Keller is running for Senate with a strong gun-control message, after his husband Clay was shot in a robbery. Did you ever think you would see those words written about an Archie comic? Archie is running a record label, and Veronica is working for her dad as well as running Kevin's campaign. Meanwhile, Betty and Reggie's romance is being featured on a reality show, which is causing some strain to the relationship. On the Archie-marries-Betty side, Betty is the assistant principal of Riverdale High, and Archie is feeling neglected — until his parents set him straight. Reggie has hooked up with Veronica, and Jughead and Midge are married and expecting. Kupperberg isn't afraid to throw in a strong plot element, such as Kevin Keller's debate with the governor of the state or Cheryl Blossom's breast cancer, but he also can't resist the Archie trope of a happy ending. The governor bumbles, Cheryl Blossom finds love, the warring couples talk out their troubles ... eventually. Still, with strong artwork and a set of interweaving, constantly changing storylines, this comic is a great read. And Archie has been reaching out to a variety of artists for variant covers, making an interesting story even more interesting.
Double Digests: There are six of these, and I believe they are all monthly; not only that, every other month one digest is double-sized. The real money, it seems, is in the derivative products—the double digests and collections like The Best of Archie Comics, but in order to have collections, you first have to have a monthly comic to draw from. Archie has a huge vault of older material, and the style has been consistent enough over the years that a Dan DeCarlo comic does not look out of place next to a more modern comic by Stan Goldberg or Fernando Ruiz. Non-Riverdale characters like Sabrina the Teenage Witch and Josie and the Pussycats make frequent appearances, and sometimes I think the digests exist just to keep That Wilkin Boy in print. One nice touch is that unlike the many of the older originals, the digests include credits for all the creators. While the comics are still sold on newsstands, the digests pop up in other places like supermarket checkouts, so they seem to be more widely available, and at $3.99 for 160 pages, they offer a good value for the reader.
For an update on Archie Comics, check out Alex Dueben's interview with co-president Victor Gorelick at CBR; he talks about the Archie movie, Kevin Keller, the Archie zombie comic and more. I'll leave you with Victor's birds-eye-view of Archie, after Alex asked him about the sales of the single-issue comics:
Well, they're on newsstands, but you just don't see [newsstands] anymore. If you want to find Archie comics, you have to go to Barnes and Noble -- they carry everything we do. You have to give credit for Jon Goldwater for all of these advances in publishing that we've been doing at Archie Comics. I think under the old management, they wouldn't have gone for doing some of these things and taking that risk: Including a gay character in the group, having Archie married, doing all these graphic novels and going digital. We've had to embrace digital comics, and digital comics have done very well. Every month, we're doing better and better. As far as our graphic novels go, we're putting out half a dozen or more every month. There's a lot of material.