x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Serious side of a comic boss

The Life: Comic books are a relevant tool to instill reading abilities among beginner readers, says Archie Comic Publications' co-CEO Nancy Silberkleit.

Nancy Silberkleit has overseen the introduction of smartphone apps to attract a new generation of readers to Archie Comics. Satish Kumar / The National
Nancy Silberkleit has overseen the introduction of smartphone apps to attract a new generation of readers to Archie Comics. Satish Kumar / The National

From entering Archie Comic Publications' corner office as its first woman executive to handing out business cards with feminine fragrances, Nancy Silberkleit is proud of her journey.

A former art teacher untrained in the corporate world, she stepped into the big shoes of her late husband Michael Silberkleit, the son of Archie Comic co-founder Louis Silberkleit, a year after his death.

Archie Comics was first published at the height of Second World War in 1941, celebrating growing up in small-town America and starring a freckled and blond Archie Andrews from Riverdale High School and his friends.

As comic books struggle to reinvent themselves and stay relevant in the digital world, Ms Silberkleit is on a difficult mission - trying to revive the interest in the word bubbles and the graphic strips, and making their case in the development of a child's reading abilities as well as education. Coming up with new ideas for the comics is her forte, she says.

"I have been an art teacher for 25 years and never repeated a lesson," Ms Silberkleit said on the sidelines of a trip to Dubai for this year's Comic Con.

Archie Comics, like similar publications from across the world that have survived the years, is competing with the newer players in the market and interests of the younger generation. The publishing house has developed smartphone apps and is producing a film to attract the new generation. And Ms Silberkleit tours across the United States and attends events such as the Comic Con to spread the word about the importance of comics.

"It's a powerful academic tool to communicate," Ms Silberkleit says of graphic novels and comic books.

Her focus is on the beginner readers. "Even with seven-year-olds, I have the audience anxious to look at graphics and be a part of the story," she says. "It is calling to concentrate and expand upon the word." With graphic novels, "you are decoding the story for the young child, asking them to look at the graphic and create meaning, read and sequence," Ms Silberkleit says. "And graphic novels have a great pairing with technology."

The family-owned 72-year-old Archie Comics, based in Mamaroneck, New York, unveiled its smartphone application through which readers can pay to get access to their books back in 2009.

"Teachers are the first ones to see what's on the horizon," Ms Silberkleit says. "I told my husband years ago to put books up online but he was afraid of piracy."

She knows education and environment are two hot topics. Rwanda, which in 2008 banned use of non-biodegradable plastic, will be featured in this month's Archie comic book over eight pages.

Ms Silberkleit has often told in previous interviews how she had to repeat a class as a child, and that the trauma has stayed with her.

One of the reasons that aggravated the experience was the drab remedial books, Ms Silberkleit, 58, recalls.

"I would twist them, shove them, and I realised I was hiding my shame," she says. "I never talked about it to my husband, and I started bridging by reading and by reading comic books."

Besides leading the company, she is also looking to publish another line of theme-based comics as part of her non profit Rise Above Social Issues Foundation.

She started by investing US$15,000 of her own money and publishing 20,000 copies dealing with bullying that she hands out to people she meets at schools, libraries and conventions.

Books on themes such as autism, epilepsy and diabetes could be on the way as Ms Silberkleit looks for investors, who would in turn own the book. The comic books industry is seeing a quiet revival of sorts with Amazon.com announcing last month it will come out with its own imprint called Jet City Comics.

For Ms Silberkleit the journey she took on without any knowledge of the industry continues as she hopes her daughter will follow in her footsteps.

 

ssahoo@thenational.ae