Archie Comics: Corporate Brawl Over Sexual-Harassment Charges

Nancy Hass talks to the embattled comic book exec who denies sexual-harassment charges brought by her co-CEO.

Archie Comics shocked the world in 2010 by introducing a gay character, Kevin Keller. Little wonder Kevin made headlines around the globe: Archie and the gang from Riverdale USA had always been the squeaky-clean squares in the dark, geeky world of comics, a “safe” alternative to increasingly tortured superheroes, something a middle-American mom could reach for at the supermarket checkout line.

But the controversy over Kevin turns out to be nothing compared with the real threat to Archie’s family values: a struggle for power between the families of the men who founded the company in the 1930s. At stake is an iconic brand that is the last of the big comic-book makers to remain independent (DC is owned by Time Warner; Marvel was gobbled up in 2009 by Disney).

“This is a huge thing,” says Richard Johnston, who blogs for Bleeding Cool, an influential London-based comics-industry site. “Everyone is on the edge of their seats wondering what will happen.”

The fight surfaced this summer, when Jonathan Goldwater, a son of one of the founders and co-CEO of the company, sued Nancy Silberkleit, the daughter-in-law of another founder, Louis Silberkleit, for sexually harassing employees in her role as co-CEO. The sensational complaint included an allegation that in 2009, Silberkleit had barged into a meeting, pointed at the room full of men and yelled, “Penis, penis, penis.” Goldwater filed another suit in mid-January attempting to remove Silberkleit from the firm. Last week, after Goldwater alleged that Silberkleit violated an order to limit her exposure to employees, a judge in New York State Supreme Court barred Silberkleit from the firm’s office until the matter could be resolved and forbade her from speaking publicly about the charges.

"Obviously, she thinks this is just another way to silence her and intimidate her,” says Paul Jaffe, one of her lawyers. “And she has no intention of backing down. She is 100 percent committed to protecting the future of this company.”

Neither Goldwater nor his attorneys returned calls seeking comment. But in his court filings, Goldwater maintains nothing less than the future of Archie comics is at stake. “Unless Silberkleit is removed as a director and an officer, the company—an iconic American company—is in serious danger of failing and being liquidated,” his legal papers allege.

Archie, which is estimated to have annual revenues of $40 million, had always had a Goldwater and a Silberkleit at the top. Founded in the early 1940s by Louis Silberkleit, John Goldwater and a third partner, Maurice Coyne, who was later forced out, the company was built around characters inspired created by Bob Montana and Vic Bloom. Montana’s inspiration was the kids he met in his small Massachussetts town, as well as Andy Hardy, the clean-cut character embodied in the movies by Mickey Rooney.

Jonathan Goldwater and Nancy Silberkleit, both in their 50s, had come to the company and taken over the leadership spots only a couple of years ago, under unusual circumstances. Jonathan Goldwater’s older brother, Richard, had long run the Westchester, N.Y.-based firm with Nancy Silberkleit’s husband, Michael Silberkleit, but the two men died, suddenly, within a year of each other, in 2007 and 2008, respectively. Jonathan, who had previously been a concert promoter and the owner of a small record label, stepped in in 2009. Months later, Nancy Silberkleit, Michael’s second wife and widow, and a third-grade teacher, joined him. Silberkleit controls half the shares of the company; Goldwater owns 25 percent and also controls the remaining 25 percent owned by his brother’s widow. Under their employment contracts, Silberkleit was supposed to see to educational outreach and theatrical tie-ins for the brand; Goldwater was in charge of the rest of the company. They were each supposed to “meaningfully consult” each other over major decisions, court papers say.

Within weeks, the arrangement proved unworkable, according to Goldwater’s court filings. Silberkleit told the Daily Beast last week that he subjected her to constant verbal abuse. Goldwater hired a private investigator who gathered anonymous statements from a slew of employees, attesting to bad behavior by Silberkleit, an excitable woman with a sweep of long graying hair who met her husband 25 years ago through the personal ads in New York magazine.

Silberkleit, who spoke with the Daily Beast before the injunction barred her from speaking publicly, calls Goldwater’s claims “completely untrue.” She was indeed appalled by testosterone-driven work environment at Archie, she says (similar observations about the male-dominated comics world are common), but she insists she “loves working at the company. I really embraced the mission. When my husband was alive, I didn’t really get involved, didn’t care or know anything about comics. I agreed to step into a leadership role because I deeply believe in the idea of continuity, of having someone from these two families here, like they always have been. My partner may have problems with the situation, but I don’t.” Her lawyers suggest that Goldwater’s problem with her stem from her increasing discomfort at how internal finances and expense reports were being handled. They say that the harassment charges are merely a way to force her out and damage her reputation. During her time as co-CEO, Silberkleit says, she helped establish the brand among educators as a literacy tool, creating reading fairs throughout the country, and explored the possibility of bringing an Archie musical to Broadway (in court papers, Goldwater alleges that her literacy efforts cost $100,000 and brought in only $10,000. Silberkleit’s lawyers responded that such efforts were intended as a marketing tool, not a profit center). She kept a jar of candy on her desk for employees. “I am as far from a harasser as you could be,” she said in a phone call from her home, as her poodle mix barked in the background.

Ironically, in view of the tumult within, Archie’s image is stronger than it has been in years. After decades as the butt of industry jokes (“Archie is where old editors went to die,” says Johnston, the comics-industry blogger), the company seems to have rebounded in eyes of the industry analysts. Widely assumed to be unprofitable (as a private company, it does not release results), just a few years ago, its only perceived assets were long-ago negotiated deals for supermarket distribution. But lately attention from the Kevin Keller story line has given it new life. The first issue in which the character appeared sold out within hours, prompting a second press run, something the company had never done in its history.

The company announced this fall that it would resurrect a digital version of its defunct superhero stable, now to be called “The New Crusaders,” and would publish a graphic novel by J. Torres, a wildly popular Canadian comic book artist born in the Philippines. In an industry that has had a lot of bad news— the past few years haven’t been kind of comics publishers; sales of single issues are down by more than 10 percent, as young people’s attention has been siphoned off by other media and independent comic-book shops struggle to survive—Archie’s revitalization has provided an upbeat narrative.

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“Suddenly Archie is being looked at as the most progressive of these companies, a real turnaround,” says Laura Hudson, editor in chief of the Comics Alliance, a Portland, Ore.-based blog. “In a world where most of the big companies have become really corporatized, it would be sad if a place like Archie couldn’t survive independently.”

Archie’s fate, however, at least as a company, remains unclear. The buzz in the comics world—there is always a lot of buzz in this most insular of subcultures—is that Jonathan Goldwater wants to sell the company, a move that would be impossible unless Silberkleit agrees, which seems unlikely at this point. For now, barred from the office, she spends time with her cadre of lawyers. “I will never sell,” she says. “It’s not about the money to me. It’s about family.”

As for Kevin Keller, such squabbles inside Archie haven’t stopped him from living his two-dimensional life to the fullest. In an “alternative future” offshoot issue published in January, Keller, now an Iraq War vet, married his boyfriend, the African-American doctor he met in the hospital while recovering from post-combat traumatic stress. The world, it seems, marches on.