Publisher kept Archie clean-cut but relevant

Times Staff Writer

Michael Silberkleit, chairman and publisher of Archie Comics who joined the family business as a teenager and strove to keep the comic rooted in an idealized, clean-cut past while allowing it to reflect contemporary pop culture, has died. He was 76.

Silberkleit died Aug. 5 in New York City after a short battle with cancer, the company announced.

His father, Louis Silberkleit, founded the company in 1941 with John Goldwater, who thought up the “every teen” character of Archie Andrews during an era when superheroes reigned. They hired illustrator Bob Montana to realize the carrot-topped Archie and his perennially 17-year-old high school friends in the mythical town of Riverdale.

“Archie is who you wish you were but aren’t. . . . Kids really believe Archie lives because they call here and ask to speak to Archie,” Silberkleit, speaking from company headquarters in 1990 in Mamaroneck, N.Y., told The Times.


Sometimes, he or his business partner -- Richard Goldwater, son of the company’s other founder -- talked to the callers as Archie, who was reportedly inspired by the Andy Hardy movies that starred Mickey Rooney.

The character was an instant success when it debuted in December 1941. Archie soon had his own stand-alone comic book and a wholesome retinue that would include best friend Jughead, girl-next-door Betty and the fashionable Veronica. The first issue reportedly sold 1 million copies.

“Servicemen wrote us during World War II that they dove into a foxhole during battle and when the smoke cleared, they found an Archie comic at the bottom of the foxhole, and they sat there and read it because it reminded them of back home,” Silberkleit said in the 1990 Times interview.

After more than 65 years, the Riverdale teenagers managed to stay current while adhering to “Archie’s Code of Decency,” which meant the comic “has no sex, no drugs, no nudity,” Silberkleit once said, and parents “who may be goofy at times” but are never stupid.


In the 1940s, the characters “would throw spitballs at each other to communicate,” Silberkleit said on the company’s website. “Now they text message . . . and BlackBerry each other.”

As the characters embraced e-mail, the comic might reflect such darker issues as AIDS, drug abuse or terrorism. Yet the overall message would remain optimistic.

In a statement, the company said, “Silberkleit was determined to keep Archie an American institution, pure as childhood, yet up-to-date. . . . For generations . . . Archie and the Gang have represented the wonder and magic of childhood and Silberkleit fought successfully to keep this vision alive.”

For most of the 60 years Silberkleit worked at the company, he helped lead it with Richard Goldwater, who died in October at age 71. They bought the business from their fathers in the early 1980s. With the deaths of the founders’ sons, the day-to-day business is no longer run by a family member, but the company remains privately held by the Silberkleit and Goldwater families.


The second generation of family ownership encouraged the development of new characters and emphasized brand licensing, the company said.

In 1968, the cartoon band the Archies starred in the Hanna-Barbera animated “The Archie Show” and soon had a No. 1 pop music hit, “Sugar Sugar.” A few years later, “Josie and the Pussycats,” a comic about a teenage girl band, was turned into a Saturday morning cartoon and decades later, a feature film.

When Archie Comics’ “Sabrina, the Teenage Witch” became a long-running television series that starred Melissa Joan Hart, Silberkleit served as a consultant on the show.

The company, with annual revenue of about $20 million, publishes more than 10 million comics a year in a dozen languages, the company said. Many of the titles are Archie spinoffs.


Born in 1932 in New York City, Silberkleit graduated from Albright College in Pennsylvania.

At Archie Comics, he started out in the mail room. On his office wall, he kept a photo of an old sailboat with a giant image of Archie on its mainsail.

Asked which of Archie’s romantic interests he would choose -- Betty or Veronica -- Silberkleit responded as Archie might have: “I love them both equally.”

Silberkleit is survived by his wife, Nancy; their daughter, Alexandria; three children from a previous marriage, Susan Berkley, David Silberkleit and Amy Silberkleit; and two grandchildren.