While DC Comics is getting a lot of attention for its recent publishing changes, it's hard to ignore that Archie Comics has often outdone even the biggest publishers with innovative new characters and publishing concepts.
Not only were they among the very first large publishers to release digital material on the same day as print, but they've also pushed into new areas with formats — like the widely distributed Life With Archie magazine — and with characters — like their much-hyped solo series for gay male character Kevin Keller.
This week, Archie announced yet another initiative that intends to outdo competitors: A relaunch of its own Red Circle superhero characters through a unique online subscription service in Spring 2012.
As Newsarama readers probably recall — since the comics are barely off the shelves -- DC attempted to integrate the Red Circle superhero characters into their own line-up by launching several new ongoings in 2009. That effort arguably failed, since the new line of comics barely lasted a year.
While DC's attempt didn't keep past continuity, Archie's new concept for their Red Circle superheroes does maintain past continuity for the characters, although they will appear in a new comic called The New Crusaders. Yet the biggest difference between DC's attempt and Archie's new approach is that these comics are now being branded and distributed specifically for a digital audience.
Through the new subscription service, readers interested in The New Crusaders and other Red Circle characters can sign up for an estimated three to four dollars a month to gain access to new six-page weekly comics, as well as a huge archive of past Red Circle stories.
The creative idea behind the new Crusaders series, which will be written by Ian Flynn and illustrated by Ben Bates, is that superheroes won their battle against evil, so they moved to a suburb they called the Red Circle. But their enemies found them and eliminated them, leaving their children to pick up their former superhero mantles under the direction of surviving veteran hero, The Shield.
Newsarama talked with Archie President Mike Pellerito and Red Circle Line Editor Paul Kaminski for more details about how the new format works.
Newsarama: Mike, it's very odd to hear about the launch of the Red Circle characters because it doesn't seem like that long ago, DC was trying to generate excitement for them. What do you think they did wrong, and what are you going to do right to make sure your comics don't see the same fate?
Mike Pellerito: Oh boy. I'll try to stay professional here.
We love these characters. They're our characters. It's different playing with somebody else's toys in your own sandbox if you're not used to it. Working with Sega with Sonic and Capcom with Megaman, we've learned how to deal with other people's properties and treat them well, but there's nothing like home cooking.
With superheroes in general, people need to treat them with a little bit of love.
All our big events at Archie have been based on love, not breaking a superhero's spine or, you know, rebooting or killing or any of that other stuff. Archie gets married, and it's about love — granted, it's two girls in two universes, but it's about love. And Kevin Keller's a new kid and we love him. We treat everything we do with love. It's all about love of comic books.
And the reaction to the initial image is the same as what we hear at conventions all the time: Superheroes are great, and readers wish they were done right. They want them to be for everybody. Fans are saying, "I want to be 5 years old or 50 years old and sit down and read a comic book that's for me." That's what we're doing differently.
We know how to reach everybody with our books — not just the die-hards, but everyone from the person who comes back after 20 years of being away to the kid who shows up for the first time.
The great line about comics is, every comic is somebody's first comic. But that's a little too naive. Every comic could be somebody's last comic. And that's really important here at Archie, because we know that we're everybody's first comic. And if you don't fall in love right away, it's hard to get you back.
We know Red Circle, given our pretty unique distribution model, is going to be somebody's first comic. So we know we're going to treat these characters with love to make sure it's their first of many comics.
Nrama: How did the idea for the subscription service come about? And why go that direction? Do you think that "all-access" model will work with today's audiences better than the monthly format?
Pellerito: We sat down at Comic Con [International] with Michael Murphey from [digital distributor] iVerse [Media], and he had this brilliant idea about how to do digital distribution. One of the things we've talked about is distribution has always controlled story content. When newsstand was the only way, stories were done-in-one and were built for a casual reader. And the numbers of sales showed it.
When people added a direct market, they focused on the 12-issue maxi-series, and the stories were for the hard-core fan. They kind of forgot the newsstand a little bit, overall. Archie didn't. But there was a shift in storytelling.
Now, with digital, there is this Wild West atmosphere where, "Hey! Comic books are for everybody again!" This for someone who's never read a comic. This is for someone who's read a thousand comic books. And the digital distribution model presented us with a very wide area of audience to figure out where we had to go.
Given the huge legacy of the Red Circle superheroes, we knew we'd get people who read them 20 or 30 years ago, or 5 years ago, and we knew we'd also get people who are reading them for the first time.
Nrama: How will the subscription service work?
Kaminski: The term we've been throwing around is NetFlix for comics. You don't have to sit and read it every week when the new installment comes in. You can stock up a few and read an entire 24 or 26 pages worth, depending on what your schedule is. A ton of this material has never been reprinted before. There will be some stuff from the '60s, '70s, '80s, '90s and even further back, by some really classic creators. This is a way to really connect with the Red Circle characters.
Nrama: It's interesting that you're doing six-page weekly stories. Did your research show that digital audiences prefer that?
Pellerito: Well, every audience is different in what they want. Some people like shorter stories, and some want larger collections. Even some kids will sit down and read and read and read, and it doesn't seem to faze them, and some kids will just dip into a few pages at a time. What we've been looking at is a lot of purchasing, especially with digital. And people are cherry-picking, depending on what type of story and approach they prefer.
With what we're doing here, we put the power of how you're going to follow this story with the audience, because you can follow it week-to-week, you can follow it month-to-month, or you can follow it story arc-to-story arc. With the backlog of the old stuff, it really gives you a lot of control. It's kind of a revolutionary concept in the way people get comic books.
Nrama: From the way you described this "town" of Red Circle and the younger character having to take over for their parents, it sounds like you're keeping all the old continuity, but are having it referenced as background only. How did you come up with that approach?
Pellerito: We started out by asking, how do we keep this tremendous legacy, going back to the Golden Age, the Silver Age, etc. How do we keep that audience intact while presenting it for a first-timer who doesn't know all the history?
We kicked around the premise of the town of Red Circle, and the idea that the superheroes win and that life goes on. So their kids didn't know how cool their parents were, that they were superheroes in the past. And some are really going to embrace it when they find out they have to become a superhero to save the day.
It's a perfect way to keep every bit of continuity, and it's a perfect way to have it as just a backdrop to enrich the new stories.
Kaminski: We went out of our way to tell the old fans that everything they read wasn't for nothing. That's the big frustration when you start revamping things. You feel like continuity is building toward something and then it's all of the sudden not there anymore. This is not what we're doing.
We're keeping the legacy of our old characters and building on top of it in a really revolutionary way. You don't have to know any of the old stories to understand the new ones. But for fans of the old stories, those are still there and are being built upon in the new series.
Pellerito: It controls the information too. If you have to explain, well, this guy's not married anymore because the devil wiped it out, or whatever convoluted history you have to explain, then people have to read, like, I don't know... a couple hundred issues to figure out what's going on.
What we're doing is a very organized approach, a very organized attack, where a character will be featured, and that back catalog will represent it, but you won't be inundated with a bunch of pages explaining things.
You're really guided toward the superhero universe in a way where you can't drown in it. We give you just enough room to swim.Got a comment? There's lots of conversation on Newsarama's FACEBOOK and TWITTER!