Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Dear Jon and Nancy, an open letter to the CEOs of Archie Comics

For those unfamiliar with Jon and Nancy, my blog post titled "Archie-the foundation" provides some crucial back story.

Dear Jon and Nancy,

First off, I'm a fan. Sincerely. Not just of Archie, but of yours. These past 8 months have seen the revitalization of Archie comics through the "Proposal" story and the overwhelming success of Archie for mobile devices, and I have no doubt that this "Riverdale Renaissance" is due to the two of you.

Great job.

I worry though, about your new deal with CAA.

I understand the allure of Hollywood money, and the merchandising bonanza that could surround a feature film, really I do. I'm not naive, I know money talks in this world. I can see how it makes total sense to try and get Archie on the small and silver screens. I'm not questioning it as a business decision.

As a creative decision it seems like a one way ticket to mediocrity and creative ruin, the first step on a slippery slope that can only end in tears.

Your families have spent 65 years building something truly, truly great. Isn't that why you both stepped in to run the company rather than see it sold? Archie isn't just a character, or a property or a franchise.

Archie stands as a testament to ideals and values our consumption-driven society has discarded.

Proof of this is the fact that Archie is still a family business. Marvel Comics long ago became a corporate monster, with no higher ambition than cynically churning out more product than their Direct Competition to capture a higher market share. DC Comics, a subsidiary of a giant entertainment conglomerate, at least showed a glimmer of creativity for the last few years, but it's all over now with the recent executive shake-ups. Somehow, Archie Comics has always been run by your two families, and continues to be. You guys are one of the only successful family companies left that hasn't been consumed by an uncaring behemoth.

More important though, is the fact that Archie hasn't yet been compromised. We've never had to endure "Dark Archie" (OK, Betty went Goth once, but she just wore a
black dress and lipstick), Reggie has never gotten in to drugs, there are no pregnancy tests or alcohol problems. Archie Comics, under your families' stewardship, has never relented in its quest to publish wholesome, moral stories (the less said about the Christian Archie comics from the late 70's the better) with a healthy dose of slapstick thrown in. Who can argue with funny 5 page morality tales that teach us fair play is best, honesty is the way to go and messing with Midge Klump is bad for your health?

And then there's the humour. Archie gags are timeless. Sure, some of them are kind of tired, but the majority of them are quite funny. While everyone else have lowered their standards in a quest for the cheap laughs and an easy buck, Archie Comics has stayed strong. You are one of the only shows in town for comedy that isn't aimed at the most vulgar common denominator.

Take a look at this quote from the Variety story on the deal: "this comes as Hollywood is quickly gobbling up established branded properties, as evidenced by Disney's pending acquisition of Marvel Entertainment and Warner Bros.' recent exec overhaul of DC Comics." All Archie is to Hollywood is a proven profit generator, nothing more.

Don't let Archie become just a property. It's good that there are still things left in this world that have real heart behind them, not just sales projections and focus groups.

There are many, many ways to bring the characters off the page without resorting to this.

Remember, the easy way is the path to the dark side.


Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Identifying the third tier characters

Let's be clear about one thing: The gang's parents, with the exception of Mr. and Mrs. Mantle are second tier.

Raj Patel: The gang's Indian friend. An aspiring film maker, the gang travelled to India to visit his uncle, a video game developer.

Trula Twyst: One of the characters involved in the NRJC (more on that later). She has the ability to anticipate Jughead's every move, and foil any of his hijinx. Also has romantic designs on Jug.

Ginger Lopez: Latino friend, used sparingly and mainly as a foil to Betty and Veronica together. Her most striking feature is that she has a blonde streak in her hair.

Kumi: Recently introduced Japanese student, no last name given, no real personality traits aside from "does not speak English".

Googie Gilmour: Another character shaping the new reality of Jughead continuity. She lives next door to the new house the Jones' moved into. Her main identifier is her devotion to healthy eating, and her quest to get Jug to eat better.

Adam Chisholm: Of all the new continuity characters, Adam bears the closest scrutiny. For quite a while he has been an under the radar presence, competing for Betty with Archie. While it seemed for some time that he was somewhat disposable, he has recently been identified by Hal Cooper as a rival to Archie. His main identifier is brown hair.

Frankie Valdez: Popular "latino" character of the 60's and 70's. The quote are due to the fact that while he was identified as Latino, he was as white as everyone else in Riverdale. Depicted as a great skateboarder, and obsessive compulsive about his hair. Has been making a play for second tier lately with a lot of stories involving his musical prowess.

Maria Rodriguez: Girlfriend to Frankie Valdez, and again is a very white Latino character. Her main identifier seems to be that she is Frankie's girlfriend.

Brigitte: New continuity character with a strong singing voice, and often works with Frankie, which causes triangular tension with Maria. Dilton is smitten with her, and her main identifier is that she is, shall we say, "wide of hip"?

Anita Chavita: Paralyzed black character from the 80's, who has seen some recent action in reprints.

Raul and Claude Hopper: Archie's breakdancing buddies. More than one crime has been thwarted thanks to the remarkable "breaking" skills of Claude and Raul.

Kim Wong: Bland Asian character who has been making a play for regular continuity, to no avail. Set up once as a rival for Dilton, this quickly fizzled.

Tomoko Yoshida: Her main identifier was that her boyfriend (whose name I can't remember) wanted to play on the Riverdale baselball (or beseboru as we call it in Japan) team and needed Archie's help. Then Archie needed his help to get his grades up.

Ramon Rodriguez: Former vice principal of Riverdale High, and uncle to Maria Rodriguez.

Aim for the Roses, an explanation

Aim for the Roses is the title of my imminent record.

It is the true story of Canadian daredevil Ken Carter, and his quest to jump one mile over the St. Lawrence River in a rocket powered car.

The man, the legend.
The record contains several seemingly disparate elements, but much to my continued amazement they seem to work together very well.

Narration: All direct quotes from Ken Carter, performed brilliantly by local stage legend Andrew Wheeler.

Songs: 11 songs throughout the record tell parts of the story. Some of the most talented folks in town helped me out with this including Scott Bellis as the Radio Announcer, David Marr as the Ramp Engineer, Joelysa Pankanea as the Statistician, Rick Maddocks as the Fuel Tank Team, Dave Gannett (who is also the engineer/producer) as Evel Knievel, and Tom Pickett as Harry Shermet (Assistant Manager of Westgate Speedway).

Loops: There are a ton of bass loops on this record. Under the narration are tonal bass loops, and in the songs the percussion is all bass loops. Try spending a 14 hour day doing nothing but looking at each individual loop. It hurts.

Pi: The structure of the whole thing is a musical representation of pi to 499 digits, realized through a solo bass part. This runs through the whole album, and all the songs, chords and everything had to fit into this structure.

Double Bass: With the exception of the voices, and an acoustic guitar part on each song, every sound on the record is made by my double bass. Yes, I'm that much of a nerd.

The Canada Council for the Arts was kind enough to give the project some completion money, for which I thank them.

Early in the New Year, before the Olympics make it impossible for me to leave home, there will be a listening release at the H. R. MacMillan Space Centre, or Planetarium if you like.

Like most projects, this one is way off schedule and over budget. The number of hours I've spent on it is horrifying, but it's almost done.

I swear, it's almost done.

The evolution of the rack

Lately I've been mourning the fact that digests are getting fewer and farther between. Around my place the Mac's, IGA, Shoppers and Super-Valu used to all have several displayed proudly at all times. In recent months all four have cut back on their periodicals. I've also noticed that the new hardware each store has for magazines aren't conducive to more than one digest at a time. The racks all seem to be smaller and there's fewer of them. The Shoppers doesn't even carry Archie any more, their one digest slot is given to Soap Opera Digest. The Super-Valu only has Archie on two checkout lines now. It used to be on all of them, and the first checkout had a large dumper rack that would hold 6-8 digests. This was a golden age, to be sure. The IGA is down to two digests from six about a year ago.

Aside from the obvious availability issue, there is another problem here. It's always been very mildly embarrassing to buy Archie Digests. At both the IGA and the Super-Valu they don't scan, and the cashier has to punch them in. This always causes a lull in the line as they scour the cover for the price, or look up the code for assorted magazines. A few times I've just told them what the code is, and the price. This gets me really funny looks. All of this was a minor inconvenience, and one I was more than happy to tolerate for the cause. Now I have to get people to excuse me so I can get around them to look at the Archie selection, if I'm not going to be using the line where the digests are. I get some funny looks for this, but whatever. The other day I did this, but already had the two digests that were in the rack. The lady who let me in thought it was funny that I was looking at Archie in the first place, and when I didn't pick one up she said "What, do you have them all already?" and laughed. Sigh.

There is a point to all this.

I've been wondering why the Proposal story has been playing out in single issue Archie and not the digests. All the DNL stories are in digests, as are most other events (with the exception of "Freshman Year" which played out in single issues, but i haven't read it because I'm fucking sick of prequels) so it seemed like an odd marketing choice.

Then today, in the MAc's, IGA and Super-Valu I saw Archie 600 (the first proposal issue) in the magazine racks. A brilliant play by Jon and Nancy. Not only will they get a lot more legs out of the whole thing, but in all these places they're the only comic in sight. Getting the mag distributers to take on a comic book again was probably pretty easy with all the media attention this story has gotten.


More DNL

"Archie Goodbye Forever" Part 2, a DNL story.

The second part of this story is every bit as crappy as the first, but there are some interesting points.

Bert and Alice are being drawn 10-15 years younger than Fred and Mary, which is interesting. And Alice is totally hot, unlike Matron Mary. I'll be interested to see what other parents show up.

The art in general is kind of messedup. Archie really looks like he belongs in a twisted, far-right evangelical comic. Seriously. I like Moose, Midge and Dilton though. Ron looks pretty cool, Reggie doesn't, and I can't tell with Betty because she's all over-wrought all the time.

I'm not a fan of decompressed stories in Archie. It doesn't work. The story is long, like 28 pages, and it sucks. There's about four pages of Reggie being a douche about Archie moving, then breaks down and admits he will really miss him. That's two panels, maybe three. Not four pages.

In the first part Betty and Archie rambled on the six or seven pages about some picnic at some pond, and in this issue they decide to go back there for a picnic but it's all polluted and skungy. Archie, looking creepy as shit, decides he'll get his scout troop to clean it up. I wonder if this will in some way impact his father's new promotion?

There's also been more financial talk in this story than I would have thought, like Alice asking Betty if the Andrews would be OK financially without the promotion. They've really played this promotion of Fred's up as the opportunity of a life-time, and tons more money etc. I'm pretty sure some part of the resolution will echo Mr. Lodge's story in "My Father's Betrayal", and Fred will decide that a quality life with good friends is worth more than money.

There's also been a retarded amount of mention so far about Archie's clumsiness, so clearly that's going to play into it. Maybe he's going to fall into this pond, get really sick and Fred will find out his company is to blame. He can either blow the whistle or keep his job. Who knows?

This is all playing out behind the scenes of Betty's meltdown that I'm 100% convinced is derived from Twilight. In fact the last page is Archie in his bedroom window looking up and he has that vacant Robert Patinson thing going on. And since we're seeing him through a pane of glass at night he's all a grey/blue shade. An undead shade, if you will.

A DNL critique

"My Father's Betrayal", the DNL story running through BVDD 169-173 is finished.

As predicted, it bore a ham-fisted message about business and the environment finding a way to coexist peacefully. How bad is it? To hammer the message home they have Mr. Lodge say "Industry has to work with environmentalists, not against them."

At the end of the day, the forest is saved by Mr. Lodge reducing the size of his industrial park and cutting his profit, a "personal sacrifice I am willing to make for the environment". The gag at the end is that Veronica's allowance will be reduced since Hiram is making less money on the deal.

This story contained some elements that kind of surprised me. The whole conflict ends up being between townspeople who want to save the forest, and those who want the jobs the new industrial park will create. This culminates in a large demonstration that turns into a violent riot, with both the "tree huggers" and "enemies of the environment" being equally to blame. The violence is quelled when Hiram takes over a bullhorn and convinces the people that he can find a way to have the forest and the jobs. After a week of secrecy and working around the clock with his lawyers and engineers they reveal their brilliant plan to the town: make the industrial park a bit smaller and save the forest. I was really hoping for some kind of fantastical, futuristic plan, but that was clearly hoping for way too much.

For me there is only one interesting aspect to this story: The resurrection of Sandy Sanchez. Sandy was Jug's love interest in the DNL story "The Matchmakers", and not only does she appear in the story, but her father does too. This is significant as it is the only time one of the disposable characters created for a DNL story has come back.

It is doubly significant since Sandy originated in a Jughead DNL story, showing that the NRJC may reach beyond the "classic" strips and into the DNL world.

The art, I'm convinced, is the next big step in establishing a new standard look for the gang. In past DNL stories the characters were drawn quite different from their classic looks. The differences between Betty and Ron and Arch and Reg were exaggerated, and Jug was drawn very different from the norm. The art in this tale is basically the classic look through a DNL filter. I don't think it works, except for Mr. Lodge. Hiram has never looked better, and they've drawn Hermione as much hotter and younger (easily 20 years younger than Hiram) than ever before.

For the past few years Mary Andrews has been getting hotter all the time, but Hermione Lodge has been static, so it's nice to see her updated. Curiously, in the "Goodbye Forever" DNL story (which sucks balls) Mary is drawn very matronly, and not at all the MILF we've been seeing in regular continuity for a while.

Oh yes, and for those keeping track (which I'm sure is just me) the disposable character is Prof. Higgins, a biologist.

Archie-the foundation

For simplicity's sake as we continue:

AD= Archie's Digest
ADD= Archie's Double Digest
BVD= Betty & Veronica Digest
BVDD= Betty & Veronica Double Digest
JFD= Jughead and Friends Digest
JDD= Jughead Double Digest
PGD= Pals-N-Gals Digest
PGDD= Pals-N-Gals Double Digest
TFRD= Tales From Riverdale Digest

DNL= Dynamic New Look

NRJC= New Reality of Jughead Continuity. This is my personal theory on the direction and recent history of the Archie universe. As time permits I'll post here about it so you can all be in on the truth.

2009 is also going to mark a turning point in the Archie universe. This summer Jon Goldwater and Nancy Silberkleit took over as co-CEOs of Archie. Jon's father John L. and Nancy's father-in-law Louis were the creators and founders of Archie comics (along with another guy who was bought out at some point and whose family wasn't involved). Jon's half-brother Richard and Nancy's husband Michael had taken over from their fathers and had been running Archie for decades, and both died with in a year of each other over '07-08. Rather than sell the company Jon and Nancy stepped in to keep it in the family.

Jon has been a music promoter for a long time, and I think he's going to bring the snake-oil salesman vibe that promoters have to Archie. Sigh.

A digression: I have no doubt that the marriage is his first big project, and it seems to be working out. Just wait until the fall when Archie decides to take the other fork and proposes to Betty, and the publicity machine cranks up again as "all the Betty fans (like Stephen Colbert) get their wish". If I was a betting man, I'd say the story is going to end with Archie realizing that the important decisions a teen faces are all about college and jobs (a very strong theme in the first issue), and I'd further wager that Betty turns him down. Probably it will be related to her having a great career or some grand adventure in front of her, and isn't willing to give it up to stay with Archie in Riverdale.

Jon (I'm sure) is also behind the push to Archie digital comics, which I think have been very successful at the iTunes app store. He also talks a lot about turning Archie into a media powerhouse, which I find a bit alarming. I suspect he looks to Marvel for his model of a great comics/media company, and this breaks my heart.

Nancy is the beacon of hope for me. As co-CEO she can keep Jon in line (although he bought a large stake in the company this year, so he may have more power unless Nancy's husband left her his stake when he died), and she has spent the last 20 years teaching art in the New Jersey public school system. Her first big projects are all about using the Archie brand as a tool for childhood literacy, and creating an Archie product for high school fundraising (instead of chocolate almonds or whatever the poor fuckers in band have to sell). I like both these ideas more than Jon's proposed Archie TV show, feature film and new Archie's music.

Thankfully they both seem totally on board with not messing with the characters or the wholesome vibe, and have promised there will be no push to make the comics more mature or edgier (Jon said there would never be drugs or sex in an Archie comic).

The continued presence of Editor-in-Chief Victor Gorelick is also promising. Victor has been with Archie for 50 years, and I've suspected for a long time that the NRJC is his work, and will be his legacy to the world of Archie.

Off track again: Victor created many characters including Cheryl Blossom in the 1982, and was the man behind bringing her back in the "Love Showdown" story line from the 1994. This story brought Archie a ton of mainstream media attention, since Archie was supposed to finally choose between Betty and Veronica. Of course he didn't really, but the story did bring Cheryl back to regular character status. For some reason she's been banished after last year's election story (where readers chose her new boyfriend), with her family promptly moving back to Pembrooke one or two stories later. There seems to be some half-hearted attempt to create a rival gang with Cheryl and (her brother) Jason's friends in Pembrooke, but these stories are usually pretty weak and are occurring less and less. As far as I can tell George has only appeared once since he won the reader vote, and the story was about him and Cheryl realizing they didn't have much in common after all.

Victor has said recently that working at Archie now has much the same feel as it did in the late 60's and early 70's, a time when experimentation was encouraged and there was a greater push to have Archie projects beyond the comics. Without saying so, he seems to imply that the era of Richard and Michael was not particularly inspired.

Last summer, when the company was in upheaval, there were several meta stories that involved Victor interacting with the gang. The biggest one (Man of the Year) celebrated Victor's 50th anniversary with the company and was very good and well deserved. The other couple I remember involve Victor as editor encouraging writers to put Archie through more and more, and Archie pleading with Victor for a simple story where he doesn't have to fall down. At the time I wondered if Victor's increased presence was just due to his 50th, but it now seems this could have been some kind of political power play. Before Jon and Nancy stepped in, there was a lot of uncertainty at Archie, and it's been hinted that several stake holders simply wanted to sell to the highest bidder. These meta stories may have been a public way to establish his "turf", or they could have been a good-bye if he thought his time was limited depending on who bought the company. The fact that he supported the Jon/Nancy partnership is very encouraging.