MAMARONECK, N.Y. The entry vestibule at Archie Comic Publications is a glass portal to childhood innocence, sunny summer days and endless nostalgia: The back end of a vintage white Cadillac, circa 1948, with its killer shark-fin fenders and leather interior intact, has been retrofitted to function as a sofa. Two salvaged audio hookups from an extinct drive-in movie theatre complete the Memory Lane montage.
Framed posters of Archie, the gullible Riverdale High School redhead, and his equally colourful entourage invigorate the walls.
But to gain access to the company’s administrative offices, you must pass through a reminder of its troubled present: double-locked doors and security cameras primarily installed to keep out a single designated intruder, the company’s cochief executive, Nancy Silberkleit, who since January has been under court order to stay away from Archie.
At the last of the privately run mom-and-pop comic book dynasties, Silberkleit, 59, the daughter-in-law of a company founder, Louis H. Silberkleit, is deadlocked in a court battle for control of the company with Jonathan Goldwater, 52, a son of another founder, John L. Goldwater.
Like Betty and Veronica, the two are feuding over Archie’s future, but there is nothing comic — or friendly — about their rivalry. Each accuses the other of endangering the family legacy, Goldwater by wanting to expand Archie into a megabrand with help from outside investors and Hollywood uber-agent Ari Emanuel, Silberkleit by vowing to keep the company’s traditions intact and preserve family ownership, ostensibly leading to stagnation.
The hostilities are withering. She says he defamed her and conspired with their employees against her in order to steal control of the company. He says she poisoned the workplace by threatening longtime employees with termination and spewing sexual insults.
Meanwhile, they both claim to love Archie dearly, almost like a son — a son who’s pushing 71 yet retains a head of lush red hair, abundant freckles and the top spot in a famous love triangle.
Competing lawsuits lay out a litany of bitter allegations. He punctured her car tires, destroyed her website and claimed that she sexually harassed employees. She ordered him to fire several longtime employees because they were too old, too fat or too buxom, and let her dog, Willow, roam the offices and defecate in the art department.
In a suit where Archie Comic Publications was coplaintiff, Goldwater sought and obtained a restraining order against Silberkleit in fall 2011 that limited her contact with Archie employees. When she failed to comply, the plaintiffs sought and obtained a preliminary injunction, and in January she was banned outright from her own memorabilia-filled office.
At stake is the future of a company that was established in 1939 and became renowned for emphasizing family values and enduring friendships. Over the decades Archie expanded into an international teenage icon: in 2008, the company published 10 million Archie-related comics in 12 languages. Its app has been downloaded four million times, suggesting that Archie, besides inspiring nostalgia, has 21st-century cred.
The two sides are in court-approved mediation, but it seems unlikely they will resolve their differences quickly or easily — if at all. If mediation fails, Goldwater will resume his quest to make Silberkleit’s absence permanent; she will presumably continue to pursue a $100 million defamation lawsuit against him and the company.
“I have to wonder how much of a succession plan was in place,” said Johanna Draper Carlson, a comic book critic and blogger. “Two CEOs can be a recipe for disaster. It’s unfortunate because Archie really is a unique company.”
Indeed, its historical peers, DC and Marvel, are both now corporately owned: Warner Brothers Entertainment is the parent of DC and Marvel was acquired by Disney for $4 billion in 2008.
In 1939, when John L. Goldwater, Louis H. Silberkleit, and Maurice Coyne, Silberkleit’s accountant and partner in his pulp publishing business, Columbia Productions, decided to expand into comic books, their investment was $8,000 apiece. The company, called MLJ, was based in Lower Manhattan.
Goldwater was the visionary who dreamed up superheroes like The Shield and The Wizard and decided, after a few years, that their Pep Comics series could use a few characters who weren’t superpowered or monsters.
In 1941, he sketched the face of a childhood friend: it was Archie, a girl-crazy, pratfall-prone, boy-next-door type.
Cartoonist Bob Montana inked the original likenesses of Archie and his pals and plopped them in an idyllic Midwestern community named Riverdale because Goldwater, a New Yorker, had fond memories of time spent in Hiawatha, Kan.
The Archie love triangle was another novelty Goldwater borrowed from his own past. The brand took a few years to catch on, but by 1943 there was an Archie radio program and, by 1946, an Archie comic strip.
That year, with Archie selling a million copies an issue, the partners changed the firm’s name to Archie Comics in honour of their most popular creation, the gap-toothed teenager who made them all multimillionaires.
After Coyne retired in 1967, Archie was in its heyday with a television cartoon and a No. 1 pop hit, Sugar, Sugar, by the Archies. The elder Goldwater and Silberkleit led the company until 1983, when they were succeeded by their oldest sons, Richard and Michael, both from first marriages.
One of their first decisions was to regain control of its stock, made available to investors with an initial public offering in the 1970s. They bought it all back, with each controlling 50 per cent. Richard H. Goldwater was president, Michael I. Silberkleit was chairman, and they shared the title of publisher.
In an odd twist, both men died of cancer within months of each other: Richard Goldwater in October 2007 and Michael Silberkleit in August 2008. Victor Gorelick, who joined Archie in 1958 and is still the editor-in-chief, took over on an emergency basis.
Jonathan Goldwater, a son of John Goldwater and his second wife, Gloria, acknowledges he was not predestined to inherit an executive role, but Richard revealed that his illness was terminal and told Jonathan the day might come when he would have an opportunity to buy into the company.
In spring 2009, Goldwater left the music business for the family business. “Unintentionally, I wound up following in my dad’s footsteps,” he said. “But I have to admit I felt at first that Archie had become a little irrelevant and fallen off the radar of the national consciousness.”
Jonathan Goldwater and Nancy Silberkleit, Michael’s widow, had never met until, in a move designed to preserve family control, they became cochief executives. They were supposed to consult on major decisions. But in an affidavit filed in support of the preliminary injunction, Goldwater testified that their working relationship had soon atrophied: “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.”
The company reported $40 million in sales for 2009 but was, according to Goldwater, floundering financially and operationally. The overhead was too high; the morale was too low. By 2010, Silberkleit was, he said, exerting an increasingly “toxic” influence on the employees and refusing to hold meaningful discussions with him about critical upgrades like digitization.
Nor was she receptive to two creative diversifications of the Archie storyline: adding a gay character, Kevin Keller, and moving forward with plans for a spinoff series that projected Archie into fantasy marriages with both of his long-term love interests, Betty and Veronica.
The hugely enthusiastic response to Kevin Keller’s September 2010 debut (Veronica’s crush is unrequited because of his being gay) necessitated a second printing, unprecedented in Archie history, and the Keller miniseries for 2011 sold out. So did the Just Married edition in the Life With Archie magazine series that chronicled Archie’s two possible marital futures.
Silberkleit testified in January that she felt ostracized and disrespected by Goldwater and the staff; she denied the allegations of directing sexual slurs at employees, though Gorelick and Goldwater both described an episode in 2011 where she walked into a meeting, pointed in turn at each of the male editors present, and said “Penis, penis, penis.”
What Goldwater refers to as “the boiling point” was reached in May when a female employee threatened to file a harassment complaint against Silberkleit. Goldwater hired a lawyer and commissioned a human resources consultant to investigate the accusations of workplace abuses; Silberkleit was the only member of the company who declined to be interviewed.
The report, released in June, concluded her absence or removal was advisable, and in July, Goldwater began legal action against her.
After a series of court rulings against Silberkleit that included a $500 fine and responsibility for $59,000 in legal expenses accrued by the company, the hostile parties agreed to take their problems to mediation. Silberkleit’s 50 per cent share of the company is not in jeopardy, but her job may be.
Her $100-million defamation lawsuit accuses Goldwater and the company of ruining her credibility and preventing her from doing the job she was hired for. She claims Goldwater not only pulled the plug on her comic book fair programs but destroyed her website and excised her files.
Each side dismisses the complaints filed by the other as “frivolous.”
Meanwhile, Goldwater, a married father of two, is running Archie solo. An Occupy Riverdale comic and an animated Sabrina the Teenage Witch series are imminent.
“In spite of all this litigation, Archie, for fiscal 2011, is going to turn a profit,” Goldwater said. “There is no financial jeopardy. We’re leaders in everything digital. I think we’re feeling unchained creatively. Nancy was very resistant to change, but I am fearless. That’s how confident I am in this brand.”