CHAT Nancy Silberkleit of Archie Comics on why comics are a great tool for literacy
If you were to ever confess to a peer that you had not read Archie comics while growing up, you would probably be greeted first by a disbelieving silence and then a torrent of insulting laughter. You’d find little to defend yourself, except the knowledge that Nancy Silberkleit, the co-chief executive officer of Archie Comics, was once in the same position as you.
In India to speak at the second edition of the ‘One Globe: Uniting Knowledge Communities 2013’ conference, Nancy revealed that when she assumed her current role in 2009, “it was a problem” for her. “Not only because I did not have any business experience but because I had never read a comic book. I had no love of reading.”
“Archie is targeted at seven/eight-year-olds. Where was I at that age? I happen to remember. I was going into second grade, and my mother announced to me ‘you are not going into second grade. You are going into first grade. You have been left back because you cannot read.’ The remedial books they gave me — I would bend them, fold them, twist them and shove them into a little handbag that I carried to hide my shame,” she says.
“It has nothing to do with your intelligence. The way knowledge was presented just shut me up. I remember the way the books looked, the way they smelt — they weren’t exciting to me. If they had given me a comic book with colours and life and vibrancy I am sure I would have wanted to connect the word with the picture and that would have opened up the process of the love of reading.”
Nancy’s mission at Archie has been to position the comic as a tool in literacy. This borrows as much from her nearly 25 years’ experience as an art teacher as her belief in the potential of comic books. “I didn’t realise the wonderful English words you’d find in the comic book and in the SAT. Stan Lee always told his writers, ‘get out that dictionary and throw those dictionary words into your comics.’ I don’t know if our writers were conscious of this, but I found wonderful lessons on how to conduct oneself in a good way through Bettie, Veronica and Jughead.”
In the over seven decades of Archie’s existence, America has changed a lot. As Nancy herself points out, Archie’s vision of family continues to be the formulaic rendition of the ’50s — a stay-at-home mother with a single kid. But in other areas, walking the line between honouring the brand’s legacy of over seven decades and staying relevant to the times isn’t so tough after all. Archie comics embraced homosexuality recently.
“I say it’s always a right time for Archie. If you were a fan ten-twenty-thirty years ago, the beat still goes on. As long as you have kids, Archie is here. We would emulate decades, now we emulate every moment,” she says.