What makes Archie Comics relatable to every generation?

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According to Nancy Silberkleit, the co-CEO of Archie Comics, she realized that comics, based on firsthand experience, could teach children and other people of all ages how enjoyable and valuable literature is. Covers from ARCHIE COMICS

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — When former elementary school art teacher Nancy Silberkleit became co-CEO of Archie Comics in 2009, she was wandering into uncharted territory. “Believe it or not,” she confesses, “I hadn’t read an Archie comic book. Reading for entertainment was not my thing.” When she picked up one of the digests, however, it didn’t take long for her to find herself surrounded by piles of comics: ones she thought held important messages, ones she found funny, ones with striking covers. And she couldn’t put them down.

“Like magic, I started reading books,” she recalls. “I found a love of reading at age 54.”

Tasked with spearheading the company’s educational endeavors, Silberkleit quickly became an advocate for literacy. She realized that comics, based on firsthand experience, could teach children and other people of all ages how enjoyable and valuable literature is. From this, she came up with a central vision: “Comic books plus children equal reading, knowledge, confidence, and creativity.”

Outside of Archie Comics, Silberkleit founded Rise Above Social Issues, a foundation dedicated to her cause. Alongside talks, workshops, and other efforts to spread inspiration and literacy, she has published comics on social issues such as gun violence, healthy eating, and bullying — the art for the latter was even done by the late Archie Comics artist Stan Goldberg.

IMG_8865.JPG Nancy Silberkleit became co-CEO of Archie Comics in 2009. Comics, according to her, help us bridge cultures, and impart to us not only great life lessons, but also fun facts and vital information. Photo courtesy of NATIONAL BOOK STORE

“The language of graphics is a special language that really emphasizes a deeper meaning,” says Silberkleit. Comics, according to her, help us bridge cultures, and impart to us not only great life lessons, but also fun facts and vital information.

CNN Philippines Life sat down with Silberkleit, who is in the country for the Philippine Readers and Writers Festival, to discuss how Archie has adapted through generations, the significance of diversity and representation, and how the comics have impacted lives around the world. Below are edited excerpts from the interview.

I’ve been an avid reader of Archie Comics since I was very young, and I remember how protective the brand was of its characters. They were always so wholesome and all-American, and I think the newer ongoing titles, especially the horror ones and of course “Riverdale,” have been taking them to darker and edgier dimensions. What brought about these decisions?

Well, Archie Comics has been around for 76 years, and there’s always been a formula to creating Archie. And the formula is taking a bunch of teenagers, putting them in a school setting, and reflecting the decade and creating a little chaos, and then letting the teens work it out without any adult intervention. I respect the characters as who they are because in the comics, they’ve always been very supportive and true to one another. Their friendship bond is something that we would all want to emulate.

As I look [at “Riverdale”], I see the same thing going on. Pulling from that same formula, taking from the decade. What we have going on today, it’s dark. It’s serious. And it’s impactful, but it happens to be what viewers like to watch.

Do you think the comics many people grew up with and “Riverdale” both have the power to make the same sort of positive impact?

The classic Archie, it was the same formula, but it was slapstick, [but it created] this value in your gut that could stick with you forever. I had a fan tell me he learned about the art of gift-giving at a very young age. I said, “Tell me about that!” So he said there was a few panels that showed Betty and Veronica in competition over what to get Archie for his birthday. Did you read that story?

Definitely! It’s a classic.

Yeah! So Veronica, of course, bought him something very lavish, and Betty painted a picture of Archie’s red jalopy. Archie was over the moon with the painting. He was very touched. So that reader, he learned that it was not about the money, it was about, you know, getting to know what matters to the person. That story, he carried with him up until adulthood.

So with this show, I think it’s very powerful. The same thing is happening. In the second season, there was a scene where the kids are at a party, and drugs are going around. It’s reality. So when they get to Veronica, she says yes. When they get to Betty and Archie, [they say] no. But the drug comes around again, and peer pressure is at its height. Archie says yes this time. Betty? She says no. It was a real eye-opener to what happens to our children when they’re at parties. And maybe someone got an idea watching that show, a teen would say, “Gosh, I want to be like Betty.” I think that show [has made] a huge impact on young people.

I believe in doing what Plato said: “Never force a child to learn. Discover what harnesses their mind.”

Archie” has always had some of the most diverse characters around. How important is it for you to have representation when it comes to different genders, cultures, and backgrounds?

When we came in, it was very important to launch a character that represented gender diversity, so we had Kevin. Now I just launched Scarlet, [who has her own series available digitally], and she represents the autistic population. We’re always trying to represent the people of the world because Archie belongs to them. This is a brand that belongs to the people, because it was their conversation that propelled it around the world. You can’t really find anyone who doesn’t know about Archie.

What sparked me to do this is: The autistic person desires friendships, but they have a great deal of difficulty relaying that. So I thought opening it up with graphic literacy was the way to go. So I’m proud that Scarlet has been very well received. Inclusion is huge, and is something that is desired around the world.

In what ways can comics become tools toward literacy and educational development?

I was an art teacher, but I believed in teaching as much as you could in one lesson. At the end of a lesson, my students would say, “Hey! You taught us science! You taught us history!” I believe in doing what Plato said: “Never force a child to learn. Discover what harnesses their mind.” There’s so much to teach, and why not teach it in a spectacular way where everyone is engaged and excited?

[In the comics], we have this wonderful story, “Getting Drastic with Plastic,” and I wanted teachers to remember to utilize comic books as a tool to bridge reading. So I created some teacher study guides for some specific lessons, to help the teacher bring stories into the classroom. This is a science lesson, and [the students] read it, and I have some ideas for the teachers on how to get the best out of the panels. You’re bringing in graphic literacy, you’re bringing in environmental issues, you’re bringing in language, you’re bringing in conversation.

Why do you think Archie Comics continues to resonate, and how does it keep its legacy intact?

It seems that if a person has not experienced Archie Comics, their childhood is not complete. It seems that no matter where you are on this globe, Archie Comics has made an impact on one’s life. So it’s the people. They are propelling the legacy. We can’t stop it.