2020 has been a year no one expected, including Archie Comics. But they've rolled with the proverbial punches, and have made several announcements in the final months of 2020 as they prepare for Archie's 80th anniversary in 2021.
In the past 30 days, they have:
- Made a deal for all their comics to debut day-and-date on comiXology Unlimited as it will in comic stores.
- Partnered with Webtoon to begin original Archie webcomics on the platform.
- Signed a deal with Spotify for a series of audio drama podcasts.
While its flagship title Archie remains on hiatus, it has already made plans to resume the publication of new Archie Comics through the end of 2020 and into 2021.
With everything going on, Newsarama reached out to Archie Comics' co-president Alex Segura to get a big picture look at the company, its plans, the impending 80th anniversary, and the hiatus of the main Archie title.
Newsarama: While Diamond is distributing, it's very hard for an outside observer to gauge how Direct Market comic book publishers have been and still are affected by COVID-19. Before getting into any specifics, can you describe at all how the challenges are still affecting your publishing operations and how you're responding to them?
Alex Segura: The pandemic has been a challenge across the board, and we're certainly not the only publisher dealing with it. To our staff's great credit, we were able to pivot quickly when Diamond shut down. We had to work on two fronts - first, how could we try and help retailers? We made best efforts to make our product returnable so the risk was minimized to those stores that remained open or were eager to re-open, we tried our best to be transparent and communicative when it came to changes in schedule, and honestly, just tried to put a human face on communications and discussions that are so often pure business.
We are all in this together, so we tried to be mindful of that. In terms of production, like much of the industry, we had to put some projects on hold - some of which you're seeing pop up now and some you'll see in 2021. It was simple math - with no money coming in from our comic shop distributor, and fewer comic shops open to sell your product, it didn't make sense to proceed as originally planned merely because it had been scheduled that way. The world had changed and we needed to adjust to those changes.
The mentality during those early days of the shutdown was to hang on and be flexible. We tried to do the best we could, make sure we were putting out product that could entertain and distract during these extremely difficult times. Most importantly, it was about ensuring the safety of our staff and families, and that meant working remotely and changing the way we communicate with each other. Again, we're not alone in this - it's a global situation.
But to your point - yes, Diamond is back and we're thankful for that, and we're extremely grateful to the comic shop retailers who are engaging with customers and selling the books we create. Running a comic shop has never been an easy job, and we're all blown away by their passion and perseverance during these unprecedented times. And the response from retailers to the product that we are currently producing has been incredible - it's clear that the direct market wants new Archie Comics and we're listening and reacting accordingly.
In terms of challenges - we have to be more judicious than ever before. We're not a huge corporation like Disney or AT&T. We have to be mindful of every book we produce and ensure the investment matches the risk. It doesn't mean we don't take flyers - I think anyone can see that Archie, at least over the last decade under Jon Goldwater's leadership, has been all about taking risks and realigning how people perceive our iconic library of characters. So, the idea has been to spread out the publishing slate we'd planned for 2020, and let some of those books roll into 2021, with an eye toward back-checking those launches and making sure we're confident and comfortable before moving ahead.
We're also rethinking how we engage with our backlist. We have almost 80 years of content, with new material being scanned and remastered every week. We are always trying new ways to package and distribute those classic stories, whether it's through print collections or digital releases, and there continues to be a healthy appetite for traditional 'classic' Archie content. It's the perfect, light, escapist fiction that's persevered over the years and appeals to all ages of readers.
I will quibble a bit with your classification of Archie as a Direct Market publisher. Since the beginning, Archie has shown its ability to be flexible and relevant in a variety of markets, whether it's the bookstore, newsstand, digital or other avenues. We're always eager to find new ways to get comics in people's hands, and I think that was a factor in riding out these uncertain times. Our newsstand and bookstore distribution and publications were mostly undisturbed during the shutdown period and that helped to maintain a steady flow of content out the door, notably in our digest and graphic novel collections.
We've simultaneously expanded into new markets and retailer outlets that were previously unavailable to us - places like Costco or grocery store chains that hadn't stocked some of our products before. We continued to supply products through our webstore, selling directly to fans, and created new digital exclusive material to fill in some of the gaps in the schedule that opened up. We began publishing free stories on our social media pages which helped brighten the days of many fans during a difficult time. We had to think about how to serve our various readerships in ways that allowed us to stay nimble and responsive to not only the direct market, but publishing and distribution as a whole, and I think we did that well - it's a testament to how we came together as a company to stay focused and moving forward.
Nrama: All that said, and more specifically, when do you foresee returning to a schedule with more new, original material, ala prior to the April shutdown?
Segura: You're seeing it start to ramp back up already but in formats that are maybe a bit different than what we were doing before. We just released our first-ever original graphic novel, Betty & Veronica: Bond of Friendship, in comic shops and bookstores last month. That right there is the new content equivalent of a five-issue mini-series, and we have an all-new Riverdale OGN launching in February. Again, that's the equivalent of five issues of new content but coming out all at once and in a complete package designed for the book market. A new Madam Satan one-shot is launching in just a couple of weeks that we're very excited about, and that was in the works prior to the shutdown. During our New York Comic Con panel, we announced a new Riverdale Presents: South Side Serpents one-shot and two new digest series which will feature extended new lead stories in their debut issues.
And new lead stories in the 'classic' Archie style are returning to our digest publications beginning this week. All of these decisions were made months ago - it just takes time to start to get things back in motion and out the door - especially now with a remote workforce.
We've also 'gone green' on a number of projects that we had to, unfortunately, put on hold right as the shutdown hit and were replaced with more evergreen material. Some of these unannounced books would have been released this past summer but are being retooled and rescheduled for a better chance at success in 2021. When we are closer to soliciting the books we will make those announcements - we're being careful not to reveal too much, too quickly, and make sure each release has time to shine. We've also discussed some new, unexpected things that came up during the pandemic.
I think, if anything, this time has just taught us to hunker down and be much more mindful of not only the creative side of what we put out - which Archie has always been energetic and proactive about - but the best way to put out the project in terms of format and frequency. I think the era of hundreds-issues long monthly series is ending. You're seeing a lot of ongoing series in this industry that are, truly, mini-series. We're doing more one-shots and original graphic novels. We're expanding partnerships with publishing partners and seeking out new ways to get our characters out there, whether that's through OGNs, children's books, podcasts, etc. So while you may not see all of this new material reflected in the Previews magazine month-to-month, the work being done here at Archie and with our partners is something we're very excited about and can all be proud of.
The Webtoon partnership is another step toward making sure Archie - its characters, stories, and world- are accessible to fans everywhere, in various forms. The Webtoon platform is hugely popular and an untapped audience. The kind of stories that tend to resonate there run parallel to the very DNA of Archie stories. Like our partnerships with Scholastic, Spotify, and Little Bee, the Webtoon deal is another way to get Archie in front of new and different fans - which is a big part of Archie's appeal and overall strategy.
Nrama: On that note, we've noted the publication pause of the main Archie comic book. Super-specifically, any updates there.
Segura: While I get the immediate concern - Archie is our longest-running series, and to many our flagship - it's something we were looking at prior to the shutdown. As I noted earlier, you get diminishing returns on long-running ongoing books. Which is why we pivoted and did a "series of mini-series" - with Archie and Sabrina, followed by Archie and Katy Keene, all under the umbrella of the ongoing Archie book, but still with clear, #1-like jumping-on points for readers. That did well enough for us, but not so well that we felt confident riding out the shutdown publishing new issues. The end of Archie and Katy just dovetailed with the Diamond shutdown, so it gave us a minute to rethink and re-tool. There was a project that we had slated in for this summer that would have fit in this spot very nicely but we had to reschedule it. We'll have a few major announcements relating to the mainline Archie series fairly soon - keep an eye on this as we head into the new year.
Nrama: Is your new deal with comiXology Unlimited a reaction to the events of the last year or something you think Archie would be doing this year either way?
Segura: No. We've been in talks with our friends at comiXology for a while, predating the shutdown. It was in the cards from the beginning of the year. We pumped the brakes on it a bit when the shutdown happened because things were so uncertain and our main concern was, as I mentioned, making sure our staff was taken care of and also trying to be as helpful as a company our size could be to comic shop retailers and customers. But it was always something we wanted to tap into and expand on. A lot of people tend to forget that Archie was the first major publisher to go day-and-date, meaning our books were released digitally on the same day print hit. It was a hot button issue in the long-ago days of 2011. But we saw a market and we determined it wouldn't affect our print sales, and we were right. We have a vibrant and engaging fan base on comiXology, we've done a comiXology Originals series with them that fans seemed to enjoy with Josie and the Pussycats in Space, and we've seen the response go up in general to our digital backlist. As a whole, the digital space is moving toward a streaming model. People want to just sign up for a service and get everything, they don't want to shop a la carte as much, and so this is a response to that. ComiXology is the premier destination for digital comics, so it made sense to make that switch there and ensure we were serving the readers that come to comiXology for Archie titles.
Nrama: What does this mean for Archie Unlimited? Will your service continue and what will it offer now not offered on comiXology Unlimited?
Segura: Yes, Archie Unlimited will continue and we have additional changes on the way. We see it as two different audiences. There are comic book fans who read Archie, and they primarily read their digital content on comiXology. There are also Archie fans who only want to read Archie Comics (and we're incredibly thankful for them!), and a service like Archie Unlimited is ideally suited for them. We've been offering a 30-day free trial to the service, exploring additional subscription options, and working with our partners at Madefire to improve all aspects of the experience, including making it easier to sign-up.
We're also increasing our direct promotion via our channels - so if you're an Archie fan and you just want to get a pass to read everything we put out each month, you can do that. If you read a variety of comics, you now also get Archie titles day-and-date via comiXology Unlimited. I hate to sound like a broken record, but our goal - at least as long as Jon has been CEO/[ublisher - has always been about access. Archie should be everywhere, accessible to anyone that wants to read our books in whatever market.
We want to make it easy, and it'd actually be harder for fans if we shut down Archie Unlimited, because we have a vibrant, Archie-centric audience there. So it's about threading the needle and seeing how to best serve those two readerships.
Nrama: In comic book terms we're about to head into the new year (January solicitations). What can Archie fans look forward to in 2021 and/or what do you have coming up to expand your fanbase?
Segura: Next year is Archie's 80th anniversary, so you'll see a lot of content geared toward that - celebrating the past but also pointing to the future. Our new Archie 80th Anniversary Digest and World of Betty & Veronica Digest series are a part of that. Fellow co-president Mike Pellerito has been putting a greater focus on our digest line and how we can expand and improve upon the great work being done there. We've seen great growth in our digest line - we sold over 1 million digests in 2019 and are on pace to top that in 2020.
We'll have a major, Archie-centric announcement in the coming months, plus some news on other properties that I can't get into now. Additionally, we'll continue our Archie Blue Ribbon line of original graphic novels with Riverdale: The Ties That Bind, by writer Micol Ostow and artist Thomas Pitilli, a new Riverdale Presents: South Side Serpents one-shot by David Barnett and Richard Ortiz, and a few other surprises.
In addition to that, we just announced our partnership with Webtoon and that we'll be creating new comics content specifically for their platform in 2021. We're also building and expanding on the great successes we've had with current partners like Scholastic and Little Bee, who've brought greater awareness to our amazing characters in the YA and children's book markets. There's a lot to look forward to in 2021 and I'm eager to see how people respond to it.