Archie Comics is one of the most enduring brands in the history of comics. Created in 1941, their lovable cast of wholesome characters—Archie Andrews, Betty Cooper, Veronica Lodge, and the rest of the Archie gang—captivated generations of readers, who devoured every word of their teenage predicaments. According to the company’s website, they’ve sold more than two billion comics and are published in a dozen foreign languages and distributed worldwide. They’re also the first mainstream comic book line to make its content available digitally. Over the years, the Archie storyline has adapted, to stay in step with the times, introducing more diversity and contemporary themes. Recently, ABIILTY met via Zoom with Nancy Silberkleit, of Archie Comic Publications. She is the widow of Michael Silberkleit, the son of Louis Silberkleit, one of the company’s founders. Silberkleit spoke about her background in education, her role in the company, and her push to introduce more diverse characters and storylines.
ABILITY: Can you give us your history with Archie Comics?
Silberkleit: “Zam Wham Wow to ABILITY Magazine.” The iconic brand is going on its 80th year. But my true background, my true platform, is education. I graduated from Boston College in 1976. My family was not encouraging me to go on to college. I kind of propelled myself because that’s what I wanted, that’s what I believed in for myself. I believe going for that higher degree after college really served me well for what would happen to me at age 54.
I was a schoolteacher in a public school. Archie Comics has always been a family business, for 80 years—the Goldwater’s and the Silberkleit’s. My husband’s dear partner, Richard Goldwater, passed away about 12 years ago, and, then seven months after that, shockingly, my husband passed away. It was absolutely shocking, something that just doesn’t happen, but it happened, and Archie Comics was running rudderless. I was left to oversee the 50 percent of the other half. It was something I was not ever spoken to about in terms of what to do. So, I felt, at the time, I was at a loss. There was a force that did want my 50 percent, but I just didn’t want to sell. I would think about what it would be like on a yacht, like Veronica Lodge in the panels of the comic books, but I was kind of like this itch. I just couldn’t get an answer for why I would not take the money.
It was only about maybe two years ago that the light bulb went on. Do teachers go into their careers thinking about getting rich? No, not at all. So, I think that is why I would not take the money. The blood that runs through my veins is about education and propelling knowledge. There was nothing else they could do but to ask me to come in as a co-CEO. I didn’t even realize what the responsibilities of those words were until I looked them up. But for some reason, I stepped out of the classroom and into the Archie boardroom. I am the first female to ever walk through their doors. I do not hold an MBA. I do encourage the many young people—and anybody! —to always go for other degrees.
It’s really your weapon. I feel very qualified in business because, as I said, I was kind of scared, holding on to Betty Cooper for dear life, but as I look back, I was overqualified for the job, because my job as a teacher is to get information into individual minds. And what better platform is ABILITY Magazine to know that there are so many different minds out there. So think about the job a teacher has in the classroom. At that moment, I was the art teacher. I saw 300 students during the week. So it was my job to be skilled in communicating information to individual minds in a way they could grasp what I was pitching. Because when you’re standing up there in the classroom, not everyone is going to be able to grasp what you are doing.
I’ve had children who were blind, who were deaf. You have to be very resourceful. But as a businessperson and as the co-CEO at Archie Comics, it’s my job to connect the brand to the people, and also to advance the brand. Isn’t that what a teacher does every single day? So, I look back and I was overqualified for the job. That’s my background. When I came in, there have been some stories that I carried with me from the classroom into publishing, and one was Scarlet. I can talk more about how Scarlet was created.
Silberkleit: I taught kindergarten through twelfth during my entire teaching career, but the bulk of it was K-5 and then we went to K-4. But I have taught high school and middle school. And now, as a CEO, I get the opportunity to go to many universities around our globe and speak to them and also speak to business classes.
ABILITY: What are the demographics for Archie?
Silberkleit: It’s global, ageless and genderless. It’s for everyone. Archie Comics started out in 1941 with the idea that the company wanted to get something out there in comic book format for the eight-year-old girl. Because the comic book industry was very male-dominated, and there was nothing there for that young girl. So the company came up with the concept of having that all-American boy who’s behind me who can’t decide between two young ladies who are very different. You have Veronica Lodge, who I said has the Reed CIA in her. She has a lot of confidence, intelligence, and allure. And then you have Betty Cooper, who can do everything. She’s very skilled in baking a cake, being attuned to kindness, and being there for others. So two very different people. That was the platform. And Archie Comics has a formula, which I’ll get into in a minute.
But it ended up, when Archie Comics was launched, it appealed to everyone. The targeted person was the eight-year-old girl, but it morphed to include people who were finding maybe isolation, loneliness. They would carry these comic books in their pockets. There were always those young themes that reflected who they were. They had a bond. We have lots of fans who subscribe to Archie Comics today who are reaching their eighties. So from the eight-year-old to the eighties, wherever I go, I don’t know who to say is more popular. When I landed in India, I was like a superstar. When I go to the Philippines, I’m a superstar. Canada, a superstar. Burbank, California, a superstar.
Archie is everywhere, and it’s known by such a diverse group of people. Since we were talking about disabilities, I’ve met so many Archie fans who are deaf. Also, I happen to have one of my stories in Braille. I wish I could do all our stories in Braille. But I was meeting people who were blind who were huge fans. David Patterson, who was the governor of New York at one time, he was a huge fan. I said, “Hey, David, how did you read?” Because he has some sight, but it’s very difficult. His parents would buy those books and a friend of his would read them to him on the beach. Isn’t that heartwarming? He always looked forward to that time. And he knows our characters very well. And our stories are so impactful. I find that they stay with you for a lifetime. And you carry them with you.
And, also, for the English language learner, they always say the Archie Comics taught them English. They also taught them slang. They didn’t know what the word “jalopy” was, and they were curious. I never met my father-in-law, Louis Silberkleit. I never met John Goldwater, Sr., and I’d love to have them here at the table with us to thank them, because they gave not just to the US, but they gave the globe a treasure of literacy.
ABILITY: Where are you headquartered?
Silberkleit: We’re in Pelham, New York. And I think there’s Pelham, Alabama, and I’m sure there’s a few more Pelhams, but we’re in Pelham, New York. It’s 45 minutes north of New York City.
ABILITY: Did you go to Comic Con in San Diego?
Silberkleit: Yes. That is an amazing event. All of them are amazing. I’m trying to think of another one out in California. Is it Emerald Comics? They’re all very unique. In San Diego they go all out, and so does New York. They’re spectacular. Each is very individual and special, just like people!
ABILITY: How did the character of Scarlet came about.
Silberkleit: First, I would like to say, as a comic book publisher, I want to share our dedication to equity and inclusion. There are a few words that sit on my shoulder. One is “engage.” How do you engage people in conversation? And, of course, “empathy,” the importance to practice empathy and understand its meaning versus “sympathy.” Society, I’d say, needs to understand its difference in order to make the change. We need to teach that to people who come into this world. Each person is unique. Everyone is different. I’m sure you would agree with that. Empathy, and I’m sure you know this, is a term we use for the ability to understand other people’s feelings as if we were having them ourselves. Sympathy, I don’t know if you can put this in your magazine, but to remind people, sympathy refers to the ability to take part in someone else’s feelings, mostly by feeling sorrowful about misfortune. We want to teach empathy.
So Scarlet was created because I wanted to provide a platform that could view autism for its strengths and to communicate that autistic minds understand everything going on and want to be a part of things. I was brought over to speak in Athens, Greece, and they were housing me in a hotel store. It’s called COCO-MAT. They are on top of understanding disabilities in the workforce. As I said, autistic minds understand everything going on and want to be a part of things. There’s one gentleman, I hate to say he’s autistic. He’s a wonderful person in the store. I’d say, “Good morning!” to him every morning, and he never said anything back. That’s his self, his style, the way he comes across. And then one day, as I was leaving, he just automatically said, “Hi.” It was a delayed reaction to my every morning saying, “Hello.”
I feel that autistic people are very much aware of what’s going on, even if they’re not engaged. And isolation is one of the worst things people can experience, period. People need to learn how to embrace and engage with different communication styles, as I just expressed. People also need to learn how to see people in deeper, more meaningful ways. Scarlet is the character who’s autistic in the Archie Comics cast of characters. Scarlet is compassionate and inquisitive. She is of Filipina and Irish descent. She is gifted and interested in architecture as well as building ideas.
Here is one story with Scarlet called “Straw Thinking.” Scarlet is not defined exclusively by her autism, nor should anyone be defined by a disability, but rather by their individual and unique ability. I love the title, and I apologize for saying “abilities,” but ability. Scarlet is a whole person, and she teaches her friend how to befriend people with diverse lenses and approaches. And she’s not intended to represent all autistic youth but having a representation of an autistic teen is important to raising awareness, enhancing empathy, embolding education and giving that inspiration of courage to speak up, providing we don’t assume or listen to rumors, that we get good information from reliable people. That was my feeling, and the importance of putting Scarlet out there.
ABILITY: Are you pulling in people who have autism to help you with the drafting of these stories?
Silberkleit: Yes, absolutely. Autistic and neurodivergent people shared feedback regarding how best to represent this biracial, autistic female character. I’m looking at some names here. Jason Phillip Harris, you should look him up, he works as Director of Strategic Operations for LADD empowering adults with disabilities. Jason Phillip Harris was very good support for me. Boston Children’s Hospital had given me the names of some doctors who were very much connected. I’ve worked with the autistic people, and the message that kept coming back to me was, “You know what? My autistic teens are telling me that they want friends. They desire friends.” This was in the very beginning of the idea that I wanted to do this and the importance of friends.
And then Diane Wiener, she’s a research professor at a university, and Ray Felix, who did our very first story, “Kindness Works.” His daughter is autistic. I am not an expert in this field of disabilities or autism. What I discuss does not provide medical advice; it’s not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis or treatment. It’s the next part of why I started Scarlet that I’ll share with you. It was from my experiences, but I knew I could not put Scarlet out unless I had a solid background of professionals who have worked in this field.
ABILITY: There’s a wide diversity on the spectrum. What’s the most surprising thing that you’ve encountered?
Silberkleit: I love the term “neurodiverse.” We have gender diversity, we have all diversities, so why not neurodiverse? I love that. I think it’s a cool name. But other people want to be defined as autistic. I’m never sure if I’m OK saying—I always say, “Autism is a part of Scarlet. There’s so much more about her.”
I keep my ears open, but I don’t know exactly what is the right way to go. I thought we were all “person first.” I thought that was the path we were going down. Now I’m hearing that it’s changing to “disability first.”
ABILITY: Can you talk more about the creation of Scarlet?
Silberkleit: I wanted to provide a platform that could view autism for its strength and its communication. It’s not just that I’m a comic book publisher, and I know this is a powerful literary genre to get information across. But as I was a teacher, we did provide special instruction for those with autism. They came into the school, into that program, with diapers on, and they stayed with us for years.
There were a few students who would actively try to be inclusive, because the children had their room, but they would be mainstreamed into the music room and into other events. But then there were many who were not inclusive. And I felt that my autistic students were very much aware of this separation, but I feel they deeply desired to be a part of the group, of the school. But their verbal skills were not there. As I said, they came to us in diapers and stuck with us for many, many years.
Then one of the students from the program, who had advanced verbally, came up to me in the class one day and said, “I think they are being mean. I think they are not being nice.” I remember his words in my head. “I think they’re not being nice.” And that day has never, ever left me. The words stuck my heart. “I think they’re not being nice.” With that, I wanted to do something to get that message out as a comic book publisher and empower children and try to give out information. That child was able to communicate his feelings. He knew who to come to. He was advocating for himself. I was proud that he could articulate that, but not everyone can. I feel people understand what’s going on. You may see that someone doesn’t understand what’s going on and you isolate them, and you ignore them.
That’s another thing that gave life to Scarlet. I wanted to use that moment to identify her as autistic, but her stories show her desires, talents, interests, interactions, and self-advocacy. That’s how Scarlet came about, and I’m very glad that I was able to have the resources to get other people involved. There’s one panel, I don’t know if told you, but the stories are only available to me. They are not available—I’ll show you—in digest forms like this. They’re not in single issues. The only way the Scarlet stories can be read is by contacting me.
This project was not about money but about messaging and awareness and empathy and engagement. How do I know if I put in one of Scarlet’s stories that you read it? There are many stories in the digest, and that’s where Scarlet’s stories would have been found. People can get the story as a digital PDF by contacting me at Nancy.ArchieComics@gmail.com. Scarlet’s stories are to seek out other ambassadors around the globe to highlight that autism is just one part of Scarlet. There’s so much more about her as a whole person. She wants to teach comic book fans and Archie fans all about being an ambassador.
ABILITY: Is Scarlet embedded as a character within the framework of the comics.
Silberkleit: She’s in the stories with our other characters. Her stories are created around the Riverdale cast, the Archie Comics cast. She’s part of Riverdale High. Her stories right now are digital because she wants to have a paltform and make sure you read her stories and hear her message. That’s how they are available digitally. They’re $1.99 on PayPal. That’s the platform that gets me to talk to people, so I get to speak to a lot of people about Scarlet. If they were just in the digest, as an Archie story with Scarlet in it, I wouldn’t have the opportunity to be interviewed by ABILITY Magazine, or get to meet your fans.
ABILITY: At any point, are you looking to integrate her into the digest?
Silberkleit: She’s integrated into the stories. The one that just came out that I love is “Across the Pond with Love.” It’s a play on the royal Archie being born. At some point, I’m sure she’s going to have a special book called Scarlet. There’s no reason she can’t be in the digest, but I want to make it clear that her stories, just like in her, have a very strong emphasis on being kind and inclusive. I do not get to have a conversation with people about these stories that they’re reading in the digest. It’s a story that could be in the digest, but I want to make sure I have an opportunity to spread Scarlet’s message.
ABILITY: How many comic books does Archie Comics put out?
Silberkleit: We have so many I can’t keep up with them. We print digitally and in the books, so we have Betty and Me, Jughead and Pals—there are so many titles. I don’t have the number, because it does change.
ABILITY: Do any of the other characters in the comics have disabilities?
Silberkleit: Yes. We just launched a story—“Betty and Veronica Jumbo Comic”— and it’s the first story in library 288. It recently came out in a digest that has a fall picture on it. We have Scarlet, and then we have Moose, who’s dyslexic. But the one I’m thinking of is Harper Lodge, who’s a fashion maven and also uses a wheelchair. Harper Lodge is Veronica’s cousin. She’s based on a real person named Jewel Kats, a Toronto-based author who was a huge Archie fan. She used a wheelchair. That story is in the digest, and it’s the first story. I don’t think it’s come out in print yet. It’s a digest that can be read at a library for free on the Hoopla platform. And when you read the first story, it will have Harper Lodge, who uses a wheelchair.
ABILITY: You sell subscriptions to individuals. Do you also include selling to schools?
Silberkleit: There’s a program of comic book fairs that I started a long time ago, and I just packed up a box that went to Michigan. The comic books go into the schools, but this time, because of our situation, it was just a flyer, and the schools are able to pick out what books they like and then they send it back to me and I send it out. And I kind of like it this way, because when the books are at the schools, the kids are picking them up and they get bent and some of them get lost in reading them. This way was very easy. I think it was two weeks they had, and I just shipped a box to Michigan. Our outlet is digital, and it’s direct from the company or it’s at your bookstores in Abu Dhabi or the Philippines. I’ve been to the United Arab Emirates and to Dubai, and their bookstores are fabulous.
Our books are in bookstores around the world, but you can order directly from Archie and our comic bookstores. I’m trying to instill in people to contact their comic bookstores and find out about becoming a collector. It could be a lucrative investment. Decades later you could have a comic book that’s worth a lot. But it’s also fun collecting and organizing; it’s beneficial to take care of something. Our comic books are available on many platforms. And for free in your library through sites that have Hoopla.
ABILITY: And you print them all in the US? Or different places, for shipping reasons?
Silberkleit: Different places. I don’t oversee that aspect, so I can’t truthfully answer that question.
Silberkleit: My part is in education, and my partner is responsible for TV, movies and films.
We have picked up a lot of new fans who are reading our classics. Some of the young people who became big fans of the hit TV show Riverdale didn’t know about the classic Archie. So they are exploring that. And also, I have heard many wonderful stories. There’s one story from a 75-year-old grandma who said, “I’ve got to tell you this! I knew my grandchildren would be watching something called Riverdale and I looked into it and I wasn’t so sure if it was MY Riverdale. And when I went down to watch it, I love it!” So 75-year-old people are becoming big fans of Riverdale, which is very different. It’s very dark. But I had mentioned earlier when we first started speaking that Archie Comics, when it started out, it was with the idea of giving something to the eight-year-old female.
But there was a formula, which was to take a bunch of teenage students, put them in Riverdale High, create a little bit of chaos, and let them figure it out without any adult intervention. And that’s the storyline of our talented writers and artists. The formula is, reflect the decade. Reflect what’s coming on. Make it relevant. We don’t want to keep seeing Betty and Veronica in poodle skirts. That formula will reflect what’s going on in society, and that’s exactly what the TV show Riverdale is about. It’s doing exactly what those slapstick stories in Archie do. It gives us a little laugh. It reflects what’s going on in society. What’s happening in Riverdale is reflecting society. It’s very dark. And the writers are taking that darkness. But it’s the same formula.
ABILITY: And you’re not going to stay away from the darkness?
Silberkleit: We have put out some Riverdale stories in digests, so it does pick up the darkness. We have readers who love the stories. But I would say it’s around the 15-year-old and up who is attracted to that.
ABILITY: Since COVID is limiting your travel, what makes up your days now?
Silberkleit: I am so busy! The Diana Awards has me speaking in Athens again. I’m doing it through Zoom. I’m supposed to be leaving for Crete pretty soon. My talk is on a Zoom at the end of the month. I’ve been busy with these talks. I was on one for a Vermont library. That you can look up. I had my interpreter. It’s Winhall public library. I did a talk a few days ago, and I just got a message that they put it up on one of their local TV shows.
ABILITY: Are you looking for any other ideas related to disability?
Silberkleit: I feel that with disability employment, there’s real talent out there that’s being overlooked, and it would be great if I did a story on that. There are a few stories I’m thinking about for Scarlet to get the messaging out there. But it won’t happen for a bit. I launched the story “Across the Pond” right around when COVID happened and not many of them have sold. I’m working on that.
ABILITY: We have been leaders in employment of people with disabilities, building the first job board on the web and an online career fair for job seekers with disabilties. I’m sure we can help with your story.
Silberkleit: That’s a very good point. I don’t know what story I’m doing. There’s a whole spectrum of stories. I don’t know which will be the next. I was thinking about one where maybe dating would be a part of it.
I’m not an expert in the field of disabilities or autism. I try to be relevant, but I realize the power that graphic literacy holds, because it’s those visuals that spark you to expand the story. When you expand the story, you’re incorporating your personal values, and it seems that the bits of information I do want you to get, you internalize it and you’re more apt to hold onto it.
ABILITY: You have Archie memorabilia?
Silberkleit: I enjoy collecting Archie memorabilia. I have a collection that travels around, and it travels around the world with me, it did to Athens. It’s displayed for free. It’s again, how do we engage one in reading? I always feel like if I have these things that you notice, that someone may become a little bit more curious and say, “Oh, they represent some literacy that’s entertaining.” Maybe they’ll pick up one of our Archie Comic books. I try to find different ways to tap into highlighting reading material and hoping someone will get hooked into the love of reading. That’s what this is about. It’s a magazine that did a story on me in 2014. When I came into Archie Comics, I had read no comic books. I had no love of reading. That goes back to how reading was presented to me. I was left back, no one explored my learning style. They couldn’t figure out how to tap into helping me to read.
I finally learned to read, and I went to college, but I had no love for reading. So when I became the co-CEO of Archie Comics, I had stacks of comic books, and I had to read them. I quickly found that I couldn’t put them down. I fell in love with reading. And then I wanted more to read. You would find me going to the library, going to bookstores, opening those pages and reading a book. Right now, I’m reading a book on the suffrage of women. Reading was something I did not do for entertainment. But, as I said, I have this traveling free exhibit of Archie stuff, no comic books, just to get people interested. “What’s that? Where did it come from?” And maybe they would be curious to click on Archie.com and read the books.
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