Saturday, January 15, 2011

"Swash" Buckler Saturdays: Red Circle/Archie Adventure: The Inside Story

In the mid-eighties the comics direct market was up and running--and beginning to thrive. I'm still not so sure that was a good or bad thing. It's taken me years to even be able to talk about those days at Archie Comics, which for me had such a bright and promising beginning and then became so dark and nightmarish on the business side.So, to begin, the publishers at Archie Comics came to realize that there was a viable opportunity opening up to once again present their super-hero properties (MLJ & Mighty Comics characters) to the mainstream comics readers.

The word came to me via comic book fan and publisher John Carbonaro. I had done some work for John on his independent comics for the Thunder Agents property (which he had the rights to), and we knew each other fairly well. He had tried his hand at independent publishing first, but with modest success. His idea at this stage was to get Archie Comics to publish those characters.

I am a big time Jack Kirby fan (no secret, that), so getting a shot at reviving the Simon & Kirby creations (Lancelot Strong, The Shield, and The Fly) owned by Archie Comics was very appealing. I remembered fondly in my young fan years buying the Mighty Crusaders (the "Mighty Comics" version) and having big expectations. This was in the 1965 during the "campy" Batman craze, and the stories and art were anything but what I had expected or hoped for. I was also familiar with the much older MLJ characters from my early comics fan days.

RICH BUCKLER'S back cover for The Fly #1
So John and I decided to throw in together and John set up a meeting with publisher Richard Goldwater (John Goldwater's son) at their Manhattan offices. Together John and I made a presentation with a plan to bring back The Mighty Crusaders, The Fly and The Shield, along with a separate title for Thunder Agents. Our initial offer was for both John and I to co-edit and spearhead the whole thing--since the publishers were pretty much clueless about anything "non-Archie". They were very interested in the money-making possibilities. We, on the other hand, were really just a couple of overcharged comic book fans with very little good business sense--ahh, but that's hindsight.

Sensing a somewhat golden opportunity, Goldwater was immediately receptive and played along while apparently having much bigger plans.

Subsequent developments led to John being sidelined, which I got blamed for but really had nothing to do with. Richard Goldwater did not know the comics direct market or how it worked, and for that matter didn't have a clue how to do a super-hero comic for the comics readers of that day. His partner, Michael Silberkleit, knew even less about the subject. The impression I got was that I was really Archie's expertise and credibility in the marketplace at that time.

I remember in a later meeting Richard started making flippant references to John's proposed participation in all of this, and commented: "We've got you. What do we need John for?" Like he and his partner had discussed this already and decided that John wasn't going to fit into things.

So, when I was appointed Managing Editor, John was out, and I took the heat. That sucked. After that, understandably, John became embittered. I stood up for him as best I could but they were having none of it.

The reality was that these two guys, Goldwater and Silberkleit, were playing John and me, one against the other. That was one of their favorite tactics. The other favorite was playing one editor against another (which would come later). The name of the game folks was get what they wanted, not what we wanted. The reality was that John and I were both considered expendable--we just didn't know it.

That was the deal and how it went down. No contract, nothing written down. Just a "gentleman's agreement" (hah!). Hey, what did I know about it? These guys were the publishers of squeaky clean family-friendly Archie Comics, for crying out loud. Surely they could be trusted.

At a subsequent meeting with Goldwater and Silberkleit, I was tasked with setting up everything for direct market distribution, and the publishers laid out their proposed line-up of new books (which was coincidentally, for the most part, exactly what John and I had planned). They decided to revive the Red Circle imprint (which I designed for them) for marketing purposes--and to avoid association with Archie and humor comics.

I was asked: "So, what do you need to get started?" In my boundless enthusiasm I replied: "Give me an office and a telephone, and I'll take things from there!"

Well, to be honest, I had no idea what I was in for. So I shifted into high gear and called up friends of mine, fellow comics professionals, and I started giving out assignments. That was the easy part. My extensive contacts in the industry were probably a major factor in my being hired, and I knew a lot of "heavyweights."

Believe it or not, the publishers actually were hoping to compete with Marvel and D.C. Comics. I told them that was unrealistic, but they seemed undeterred. They immediately understood that publishing comics for a non-returnable market, printing from advance orders, was a no-lose high profit proposition. If it is beginning to sound a bit like Goldwater and Silberkleit were a couple of clueless self-serving manipulative scoundrels, stay tuned--it gets worse.

John Carbonaro kept coming in to the Archie offices almost every day. I don't know how he found the energy for it. He pitched in whenever he could to help. I could tell, though, that he did this a bit grudgingly and was barely hiding his resentment. I regarded his treatment at Archie as unfair, unprofessional and even at times abusive. Neither one of us were on Archie Comics' payroll, so virtually all of the work we did to launch this publishing effort was done "on spec" (you know, promises of money later--maybe).

I don't know the details of John's dealings with them, but I was coming in nine to five six days a week, with no salary or up front money--only an official-sounding title, "Managing Editor", and promises of a royalty further on. What kept me going? Well, I was there for the creative opportunities--certainly not for fame and fortune.

My job as Managing Editor was much more than I was prepared to handle. I was determined to somehow make a good show of it anyway. Victor Gorelick was in charge of production and scheduling--he was personable, tough and exacting. As I worked closely with him, it became apparent that I was surely way over my head in the task set before me and that I needed some expert help in keeping track of everything.

Enter Robin Snyder. Robin had extensive experience as an assistant editor at D.C. Comics and to me he seemed to perfectly fit the bill. Prior to this he and I had gotten along well and I was confident that taking him on as my editorial assistant would help keep everything moving along on schedule. I was not prepared for how things would later play out, but I will say that he was very smooth and capable and professional, almost to a fault. I should have been alerted to troubled times ahead when one day he told me: "Better to go ahead and do it, and just say you're sorry later." Ominous words, considering what was to follow.

I hired Steve Austin (a friend of Robin's) as a production assistant. Then I proceeded to hire all the main talent to kick things off. Alan Weiss was a fan of Lancelot Strong, The Shield, and my first choice for that title. Jim Sherman was passionate about The Fly. John Severin was a lucky catch. I hired Steve Ditko at Robin's recommendation. Then there was Dick Ayers (one of my all-time favorites), Jack Kirby, Rudy Nebres, Adrian Gonzales, Tony Dezuniga, Alex Toth, Frank Giacoia, Ricardo Villagran, Eduardo Barreto, Brian Buniak, Gray Morrow, and Jim Steranko.

My favorite writers were Cary Burkett (on Mighty Crusaders) and Martin Greim (on Shield and Thunderbunny). The whole line-up of writing and art talent was, I thought, a comics fan's dream.

But, then again, on the creative side, the whole operation at least initially was comic fan based and initiated by professionals who were absolutely passionate about comics. Nobody was on a power trip, or ego trip. I was in comics creator heaven once again. Or so it seemed.

My friend and mentor Jim Steranko was a hard sell to the publishers. They thought he was too expensive. I thought we got the better end of the deal. Jim supplied not only brilliant artwork but also color, logo, and final printing separations!

So Red Circle had a strong showing with their first few titles (over 100,000 copies for Mighty Crusaders #1 and Fly #1). Sales were strong--in fact, they exceeded my initial expectations. We still had a tough row to hoe. I knew it wasn't going to be easy selling these characters to a mainstream audience. Not everybody who read comics would know these characters or even care about them. We had to make them care. To many readers what we were doing would be totally new.

I cautiously advised Goldwater that number one issues always do fairly well if the promotion is done right (which it was), and that they should be prepared for a drop in sales after that (which they weren't, of course).

Whether you liked the Red Circle line of books or not, what actually saw print was, I believe, the absolute best that our creative people were capable of (myself included). I'm not one of those guys who knows everything or pretends to, and I'm not always right. But the creative energy behind all of those comics was right--and it's too bad that greed and bad decision making on the publishing side brought Archie Comics' super-hero offerings to such an early demise.

It was just before Archie Comics' offices made their big move to upstate New York that some early warning signs began to appear--small indications that all was not as it appeared to be, and things were beginning to veer off course and out of my creative control. Even after the move I continued to commute (amazingly) to the offices at least two or three times per week. By that time, I had no office space and the editorial chores were divided up by what I gradually perceived to be a rather ruthless and manipulating Editor-In-Chief (Goldwater).

When it all started to come apart I was told by Victor Gorelick that all the publishers ever wanted from me was to draw Mighty Crusaders. Really? And all the rest that had preceded that moment--the title, the office, the hard work--that was just some delusion on my part? Where oh where did I get this silly notion that what I had sweated on for the last six or eight months would all be worth it somehow?

I had been totally clueless for the longest time, but things had not gone south for me without a little help from saboteurs within. I found out just how foolish my entire involvement in this project was--and, you know, it's not a pleasant thing to admit you were played for a fool. I remember that from day one I had made it clear that I hate taking meetings and "office politics". My view was that things would come together and work best if the publishers let me do what I do best and let the people I hired do what they do best. There was to be no "iron hand" ruling things, no inter office memos or secret meetings, no shenanigans--just everyone working hard and enjoying producing good comics!

Of course that was naive and hopelessly idealistic. I didn't see it coming--that once everything was organized and set in motion, I had unknowingly worked my way out of a job.

The editorial shake up that had resulted in a dividing up of editorial chores began the day I hired Bill Dubay. My actual realization that my helping him was a foolish mistake came later.

Why did I do it? I should have known better from past experience. It was actually a favor to my sister (who was married to Bill at the time).

RICH BUCKLER'S Red Circle Logo Design
She had pleaded with me to help him out, at a time when he was "down and out" financially and had run out of career opportunities. I did not, in my creative zeal, see any real problem there--surely if I helped him out, there would be no serious competition on his part and he would be thankful that his problem was solved, right? Almost immediately after Bill began to work for Archie Comics, there began to appear more indications of schisms ahead.

Well, wouldn't you know it? I didn't find out until it was too late, but it turned out that Bill and Robin were close friends and had been for years--and considered themselves my competitors. They had been in collusion all along, from what I was able to piece together. Hey, I could be wrong. Maybe the plan was not to sideline me (like what had happened earlier to John Carbonaro) and take over the editorial helm at Archie. It sure felt like that's what had happened though.

So the whole Red Circle/Archie Adventure thing inevitably turned out to be a bit of a debacle for me. The entire show was surreptitiously taken over by Robin and Dubay--and the creative direction of things was seeing a dramatic shift away from all of the groundwork I had carefully laid.

At one point, they decided to clue me in at a private meeting in Manhattan at Bill's art studio, It got ugly and confrontational at one point. Then Bill gratuitously offered to write the Mighty Crusaders title for me. He would take no pay or credit for this (and even pay for the tax on that income!). Mighty generous of him. A carefully planned takeover? Nahh, couldn't be.

RUDY NEBRES' back cover for Mighty Crusaders #3
But why, I wondered, were Robin Snyder and Steve Austin (both guys who I had hired--weren't they on my side?) standing next to him there at the time, both with grins on their faces, and both of them working for Bill and his Cartoon Factory? And why was most of the production on the books now handled out of office by the Cartoon Factory?

My comic book fan sensibility had clearly gotten the best of my business sense. I was playing with the "big boys" here, and they knew the game. What a monumental dupe I had been! I was always so buried in work that I never saw any of this coming.

Gradually I came to my senses. I had to threaten legal action to get Richard Goldwater to agree to pay for my editorial work. Shame on him. This is the guy who had told me with a straight face in one of our earliest meetings: "It's got to be fun! If it's not fun, we don't do it." What kind of fun he was referring to is anybody's guess. I was having fun until everything turned ugly.

I wonder, was it a fun idea to kill off both of my characters, Darkling (Crusaders) and Dr. Malcolm Reeves (friend of The Web), the only new characters in the Mighty Crusaders that Archie Comics didn't own? Just coincidence I guess. And as Dubay's titles got darker and more sinister and became more expensive to the company (and also started running late on the schedule), I suppose that was somebody's idea of fun.

I know that some friends who worked for me were bewildered by these developments. Some even felt betrayed. I was so aggravated and disheartened by it all that I couldn't even talk to anyone about it. Up until now they probably never had a clue as to how many internal problems there were for this company.

Sure, I got a shot at being Managing Editor for a brief time--a sort of captain on a ship that was doomed from the beginning to end up crashing on the rocks, with a crew that planned to mutiny from the get go. This was ultimately a sad and disappointing detour for me, and I am sorry that so many people I worked with got jerked around and finally axed without explanation.

But, hey--who says the folks at Archie didn't have a sense of humor? They still publish Archie, right?


  1. Rich, thanks for going into so much detail on this matter. As painful as if may have been, it made for a fascinating & insightful read.

    Wow, what a mess!

    I never bought any of these books on the first pass, but all of the covers and artwork that you've included really makes me regret that. I guess I'm gonna be "eBay-bound" in order to track these books down and enjoy them.

    As long as I've been a fan and as much as I've read about similar behind the scenes machinations, it never ceases to astonish me the things people have done to their peers - all for a lousy buck - in this juvenile-oriented industry.

  2. The first time I met Rich (and the first time I saw an artist handling his own original art) was the summer after the Red Circle titles started. It was at my first convention (Memphis, TN). Rich was the guest of honor and a joy to see and a gentleman and a friend to all the fans who swarmed around him. How sad to learn of what he was dealing with behind the scenes.

  3. These were some very good comics and I have them and still break them out and read them from time to time.

  4. Did John Carbonaro patch things up with Archie during the latter part of the whole Red Circle thing? He published the final issue of his THUNDER Agents series in Blue Ribbon #12.

  5. Such a shame. But on a happier note, I just got a copy of one of favorite childhood Buckler beauties - Spectacular Spider-man #103, where some college kids burn him in effigy...

  6. The first issue of Mighty Crusaders has one of my all-time favorite captions. It says something about about a "mountain-top in Southern New Jersey."

    As a South Jersey native, I always found it hilarious (since there are no mountains here).

  7. I have always been a huge fan of the Red Circle/Archie Adventure line and i have collected all of them in my travels, and still enjoy re-reading them.

    I've always considered Rich Buckler a real-life hero, and am glad to see him back working on this line with Archie again now.

    Still and all, it's VERY insightful to hear exactly why one of my two favourite comic book franchises of all time went south so inexplicably at a time when the creative output was better than it'd ever been before.



Blog Widget by LinkWithin
Note to "The Man": All images are presumed copyright by the respective copyright holders and are presented here as fair use under applicable laws, man! If you hold the copyright to a work I've posted and would like me to remove it, just drop me an e-mail and it's gone, baby, gone.

All other commentary and insanity copyright GroovyAge, Ltd.

As for the rest of ya, the purpose of this blog is to (re)introduce you to the great comics of the 1970s. If you like what you see, do what I do--go to a comics shop, bookstore, e-Bay or whatever and BUY YOUR OWN!