Over the past 50-plus years, Victor Gorelick has held nearly every position imaginable at Archie Comics. In 2007, the company’s one-time art assistant was named its editor-in-chief. Now 68, the Brooklyn native continues to be the lead editorial voice for America’s oldest high school students.
To the casual onlooker, not much appears to have changed about the Riverdale gang over the past five decades. To Gorelick, however, evolving the characters to fit the ever-changing times has proven a delicate balance—an attempt to maintain those qualities that have made them perennial favorites, whilst adapting them for changing fashions, technologies, and social attitudes.
We spoke to Gorelick about the successes—and failures—of keeping one of comics’ most beloved franchises forever young.
Do you feel like you’ve seen major changes to the Archie characters, over the years?
Yes, there have been. Each decade we’ve needed to make changes, whether with fashion, whether it’s with attitudes, whether it’s with fads—those things change with each decade, and certainly the way the characters’ lives have changed is all part of it, and they’ve all changed throughout the years. We’ve had to keep up with political correctness [laughs] in a lot ways. Attitudes and the ways the characters act towards each other—it’s important.
Are there any examples you can point to specifically? Anything that jumps out at you?
A couple of things. The first thing is, over the years, Moose and Midge have been an item—boyfriend, girlfriend. And every time someone would go up to Midge and try to flirt with her, or ask her out on a date, Moose being very possessive—in a humorous, cartoon way—would beat up whoever it was and stuff them in a garbage can. But in this climate, there’s an awful lot of jealous boyfriends going around—and girls as well—who might inflict some real serious harm on whoever was trying to talk to their girlfriend. You see it every day in the newspaper, so I had to tone it down, a little bit.
Is the worry that the comic will ultimately be an influence on readers?
Oh yeah. A lot of our readers—and us around the office—talk about these characters like they’re alive. We receive letters and e-mails written to Archie and Betty and Veronica, asking for advice and things like that. They write to them as if they were Liz Smith or somebody [laughs].
That’s one of the more…I don’t know if ‘controversial’ is the word—
It’s a social problem, I think. That’s one thing. In a lot of ways we’ve said that Archie is a typical teenager, and in a lot of ways he is and yet he isn’t. Riverdale High is probably not like any other high school in the country. There are no metal detectors to go through and there are no guards walking around in the hallways. And still it’s a comfort zone for our readers, because they haven’t gone to high school yet.
Is that just a case of things having changed over the years, or do you think Riverdale’s always been something of an idealistic setting—that things were never quite as neat as they were for Archie?
What’s changed is reality. In a lot of ways Riverdale hasn’t changed in that respect, as far as the high school goes. We have done some stories over the years that have dealt with bullying or other problems that kids might have in school. We even did a story back in the 70s that dealt with drugs and one that dealt with the Vietnam War. We did a few stories, here and there, but nobody stood on a soapbox. The subject was part of the story, without saying if they were for the war or against the war—certainly no one’s for drugs [laughs].
But comic books are for entertainment. Believe me, our readers get enough preaching from their parents, from teachers, from the clergy. Everyone’s preaching to them, telling them to do this and don’t do that. When they read a comic book, there should be escapism, entertainment—nothing more than that. So we really don’t do that to them. There have been instances where we did custom comic books for organizations. We did a custom comic for the FBI. In fact, millions of copies went out over the years, because a lot of them were distributed through the Elks organization.
What were the specifics of the FBI storyline?
The storyline was ‘Peer Helping,’ where older high school kids—in this case Archie and his friends—would be counseling younger kids from middle school and younger who had problems. It could have been a parent with a drinking problem, it could have been some other problem at home. But it wasn’t a newsstand comic book, it was done for the FBI, and this was a subject that they wanted to approach and endorse that program in high school. They felt that younger kids sometimes would open up a little bit more to someone who was their peer.
In terms of partnerships and licensing, I imagine you’ve been approached a lot, over the years. Have you turned down a lot of offers?
Well, not really. Some of them were more commercial, like the one we did with Kool-Aid. We did many over the years. We did one of the custom books for Alcoholics Anonymous—though not with the Archie characters. The same thing with Radio Shack. We also did one with the county of West Chester up here, on under-aged drinking.
Did that feature the Archie characters?
That featured Archie characters—certainly none of the Archie characters were drinking, but they were dealing with the problem. And not only did we do the custom comic book, but the county had these huge bus posters made up, saying, ‘think before you drink,’ showing the Archie characters saying different things like that on the sides of huge buses. That went on for over a year.
In terms of commercial endevours, I imagine you’re pretty protective of the characters.
Yes, we are. There are certain things that we would probably stay away from, but we take each one as it comes. The most recent thing that we did was for DC Comics, which had to do with conserving electricity, for Con Edison. For San Diego years ago, we did something on toxic waste disposal.
Again, featuring the Archie characters?
Featuring the Archie characters, yeah. The thing is, kids probably have a bigger influence on their parents with disposing of things like you take out the oil from you car, what are you going to do with it? Put it down into the sewer? Wrong [laughs]. Or paint. It teaches kids how to dispose around things in the house when you’re done with them. That was a custom comic. That was huge.
[Concluded in Part Two]