• Total Nerd

The Tumultuous Real-Life History Of Archie Comics

For nearly 80 years, the adventures of Archibald "Archie" Andrews and his friends have entertained readers and TV viewers of all ages. Throughout most of its run, fans have known they could count on the storylines being innocent and family-friendly. But the behind-the-scenes history of Archie Comics Publishing has not always been as smooth - or as G-rated.

Archie Andrews made his first comic appearance in December 1941. Since then, the company has dealt with the demise of its two co-publishers in a 10-month span and a vicious power struggle between the publishers' successors. Charges of sexual harassment, intimidation, and mismanagement have been brought against top executives, while the company has filed its own lawsuits against outsiders in an attempt to protect the Archie brand. Aside from the legal entanglements, there has been creative struggle as well, with conflicts over whether the family-owned company should continue its founders' long-standing traditions or reinvent itself to be more relevant to 21st-century audiences.

Here's a look at the behind-the-scenes storylines that shine a new light on Archie Comics's squeaky-clean image.

  • A Power Struggle Between Co-CEOs Nancy Silberkleit And Jon Goldwater Erupted In 2010

    There was a major shake-up at Archie Comics after the passings of co-publishers Richard Goldwater and Michael Silberkleit. In 2009, Goldwater's half-brother, Jon Goldwater, and Silberkleit's widow, Nancy Silberkleit, took over control. Neither successor had any real prior connection to Archie Comics; Goldwater was a music manager, while Silberkleit was an elementary school art teacher.

    At first, the new CEOs seemed to work well together; Goldwater claimed in Fortune that he and Silberkleit shared an "unbreakable commitment" to preserving the company for the next generation, claiming, "It's not about each of us having our own agendas." But an ugly power struggle soon erupted over the future direction of the company. In July 2011, Goldwater and Archie Comics filed a lawsuit against Silberkleit, claiming she had tainted the workplace by spewing sexual insults and threatening to fire longtime employees. Goldwater obtained a restraining order against Silberkleit that limited her contact with employees. After failing to comply with its terms, she was barred from her office at the company's executive headquarters. That same month, Silberkleit filed a $100 million countersuit against Goldwater, claiming he had defamed her and conspired with company employees against her in an attempt to seize control.

    The co-CEOs were supposed to consult each other on all major decisions, but Goldwater said the working relationship between the two quickly deteriorated. "All too often her reaction to any discussion at all which she does not understand or does not like is to become threatening and abusive," he argued.

    Silberkleit denied the mistreatment accusation; in fact, she said, "I'm the one being harassed and abused there." In an interview with The New York Times, Silberkleit's lawyer went further:

    For the past three years, her co-CEO, Jon Goldwater, has done everything in his power to undermine her work. Slowly but surely she has been pushed out of the company: The bottom line is they want her out.

    In 2012, the executives settled their competing lawsuits after going through court-ordered mediation. Silberkleit was allowed to resume her business dealings for the company.

  • Archie Comics Started To Become A Company Divided After The Two Co-Publishers Passed Less Than A Year Apart

    Even before two new CEOs took over in 2009, Archie Comics had seen a rift in the power structure. Richard Goldwater and Michael Silberkleit became co-publishers of Archie Comics in 1983. For the next 25 years they worked together smoothly, the lifelong friends having a shared goal of keeping the Archie comics pure and innocent, refusing to introduce more grown-up elements of teen life into the storylines.

    Soon after Goldwater succumbed to cancer in 2007, Silberkleit learned that Chuck Grimes, the company's attorney and business manager, also represented Goldwater's estate. Believing this was a conflict of interest, Silberkleit filed a lawsuit against Grimes and Goldwater's estate over control of the company. The lawsuit was settled in mid-2008; not long afterward, Silberkleit lost his own bout with cancer.

    The two estates had agreed to promote VP/managing editor Victor Gorelick and VP/director of sales and circulation Fred Mausser to co-presidents, appointing one trustee each to oversee the interests of the Goldwater and Silberkleit estates. But Silberkleit had drawn up a codicil to his will leaving his second wife, Nancy Silberkleit, and their daughter his share of the company. That gave Silberkleit 50% control.

    Richard Goldwater's half-brother Jon Goldwater, meanwhile, bought a 25% share of the ownership and controlled the 25% share owned by his late half-brother's estate.

  • Nancy Silberkleit Fought The Company And Was Sued Repeatedly By Co-Workers And Employees

    Although she had been married to one of the co-publishers, Nancy Silberkleit had no real involvement with the workings of Archie Comics until after her husband's passing. "I had no business experience and had never, ever thought about running Archie Comics," she admitted in 2010. 

    Not long after she and co-CEO Jon Goldwater took over Archie Comics, they sued each other for control. The two had differing ideas for the company's direction; Silberkleit reportedly wanted to keep the company family-owned and continue the traditions it had followed for years; Goldwater apparently wanted to bring in outside investors and push the company in a more modern direction. The power struggle was settled through court-ordered mediation.

    That wasn't the end of Silberkleit's disputes with her co-workers. As part of the settlement of the dueling lawsuits between her and Goldwater, Silberkleit hired Samuel Levitin to act as a go-between for her and the company's other top executives. But that relationship fell apart. In 2013, she filed a discrimination suit against the company, specifically naming Levitin. She claimed Levitin turned against her after she rejected his "unwanted and improper sexual advances."

    For his part, Levitin claimed that Silberkleit was "unstable" and had once plotted to "tart up" Archie's love interests, Betty and Veronica. Levitin said that if Silberkleit remained in her position of power, she would greatly damage the company. Silberkleit's lawyer said the allegations against her were untrue.

    That same year, five male employees - including company president Mike Pellerito and editor-in-chief Gorelick - sued Silberkleit for gender discrimination. In her reply to the suit, she said she couldn't have discriminated against them, as white men aren't a "protected class" when it comes to discrimination charges. She also mocked the plaintiff's claim that she'd used her "gender as a weapon" by repeatedly yelling out the word "penis" during a business meeting. The lawsuit was eventually thrown out, but relations between Gorelick and Silberkleit remained frosty. In 2018, after she wrote a congratulatory note for his 60 years at Archie Comics, Gorlick responded:

    Nancy Silberkleit is not a friend of mine and we have not spoken in many years. She has no intimate knowledge of my role at Archie, nor has she been a part of any of the company's huge victories over the last decade. This essay is merely her latest attempt to piggyback on the many highs the company has reached without - and in spite of - her.

    In 2013, three women previously employed by Archie Comics filed a sexual discrimination lawsuit against the company, claiming they had been targets of gender discrimination and harassment. They called the company a "male-dominated and male-run workplace that disrespects females" and said they had been "targeted and retaliated against" by their male bosses because they had worked directly for Silberkleit. The lawsuit also claimed that male executives routinely demeaned Silberkleit with a variety of gendered comments and insults.

  • Goldwater Controversially Resolved To Update The Comic For A New Generation

    When Goldwater joined the company in 2009, he was surprised to find that many potential customers weren't aware the Archie comics were still being published. His primary job after becoming co-CEO would be attempting to make the comics more contemporary and relevant, rather than sticking to the traditional formula of innocent storylines.

    His plans were met with plenty of resistance. "When we first started going down this road of messing with tradition, so to speak, everyone was saying, 'Jon doesn’t know what he’s doing. Why is he messing with a tried-and-true formula?'" he admitted to Mother Jones in 2019. "But you have to adapt with the times. You can't just be recklessly fearless - you have to be fearless with a plan, and we were."

    Among the updates Goldwater oversaw were the first gay character in the Archie universe (Kevin Keller), introduced in 2010, and the comic book Life with Archie, which features two separate storylines; in one, Archie marries Betty; in the other one, he marries Veronica. The series dealt with serious issues like marital trouble, financial problems, and contentious political issues. In October 2013, the idea of an Archie horror imprint was launched with the exclusive direct-market release of Afterlife with Archie #1. The Dark Circle superhero imprint was relaunched with the release of The Black Hood in February 2015.

    Perhaps most notable of all was the creation of Riverdale, a moody, noir-inspired TV series featuring the Archie characters in a modern setting. The show premiered on the CW in 2017. As Goldwater told the Hollywood Reporter in 2017:

    [Archie is] not just one kind of comic, show or concept... Archie is as versatile - no, more versatile - than Superman or Batman. I've said this before and I’ll say it again: As long as the story feels true to the spirit of the characters, it can be anything.