The Battle for a Comic-Book Empire That Archie Built

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...In 1939, when John L. Goldwater, Louis H. Silberkleit and Maurice Coyne, Mr. Silberkleit’s accountant and partner in his pulp publishing business, Columbia Productions, decided to expand into comic books, their investment was $8,000 apiece. The company, called MLJ, was based in Lower Manhattan.

Mr. Goldwater was the visionary who dreamed up superheroes like The Shield and The Wizard and decided, after a few years, that their Pep Comics series could use a few characters who were not superpowered or monsters. In 1941, he sketched the face of a childhood friend: it was Archie, a girl-crazy, pratfall-prone, boy-next-door type.

The cartoonist Bob Montana inked the original likenesses of Archie and his pals and plopped them in an idyllic Midwestern community named Riverdale because Mr. Goldwater, a New Yorker, had fond memories of time spent in Hiawatha, Kan. The Archie love triangle was another novelty Mr. Goldwater borrowed from his own past. The brand took a few years to catch on, but by 1943 there was an Archie radio program and, by 1946, an Archie comic strip. That year, with Archie selling a million copies an issue, the partners changed the company’s name to Archie Comics in honor of their most popular creation, the gaptoothed teenager who made them all multimillionaires.

After Mr. Coyne retired in 1967, Archie was in its heyday with a television cartoon and a No. 1 pop hit, “Sugar, Sugar,” by the Archies (the record has sold 15 million copies since its release in 1969; alas, Mr. Goldwater notes, the copyright is Sony’s).

The elder Mr. Goldwater and Mr. Silberkleit led the company until 1983, when they were succeeded by their oldest sons, Richard and Michael, both from first marriages. The two heirs apparent had been friends since childhood, working their way up the ladder at Archie. One of their first decisions, besides moving the company, now known as Archie Comic Publications, to Westchester County, where both lived, was to regain control of its stock, made available to investors with an initial public offering in the 1970s. They bought it all back, each controlling 50 percent. Richard H. Goldwater was president, Michael I. Silberkleit was chairman, and they shared the title of publisher....

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