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CEOs’ clash roils company behind comic hero Archie

- Associated Press - Monday, February 20, 2012

NEW YORK (AP) - The past three years have been upbeat ones for Archie, the everyteen hero of one of America's most enduring comics. He's gotten married _ twice, no less. His social circle has expanded to include his first gay friend. He's even appeared on a postage stamp.

But behind the scenes, a bitter and sometimes bizarre feud has brewed at the company that produces the more than 70-year-old comic. Its two CEOs, a son of one founder and the daughter-in-law of another, are accusing each other of all sorts of funny business.

He and some other staffers say she's a volatile, abrasive menace who has sexually harassed employees with vulgar remarks, made bad business moves and even paraded a former football player around the office to intimidate people. She says he's a scheming chauvinist who has demeaned her, kept her in the dark about Archie Comic Publications' finances and invented allegations to try to force her out and seize control of the company.

He's asked a court to strip her of her role at the company. She's sued him for defamation and $100 million in damages. A judge has at least temporarily barred her from the company's suburban New York headquarters, fined her $500 over the ex-football player's visit and vowed to appoint a temporary receiver to protect the company's assets amid the fight if the two sides can't choose someone on their own by Wednesday.

Altogether, it's a far cry from the congenial environs of Riverdale, the fictional town where Archie, Betty, Veronica, Jughead and friends have navigated dating quandaries and high school hijinks for generations.

The corporate tug-of-war has gotten tongues wagging in the comics world, where "it's pretty much the same as if two movie studio bosses fell out," said Rich Johnston, the founder of Bleeding Cool, a London-based comics news and gossip site.

It's unclear whether the clash has had any financial impact on Archie Comic Publications Inc., which declined to release sales figures. But "it's bad for image" at a time when the company has been eagerly looking to line up movie and other deals, said writer and comic book historian Mark Evanier.

There has been some concrete fallout: A Cleveland-area group cited the court fight in canceling speeches that Archie co-CEO Nancy Silberkleit was to give at three schools in December, according to news reports. And the other co-CEO, Jon Goldwater, has cast the stakes in dramatic terms.

"An iconic American company is in serious danger of failing and being liquidated" if Silberkleit stays, Goldwater said in court papers.

The trouble began after the 2007 and 2008 deaths of former Archie Comic leaders Richard Goldwater and Michael Silberkleit, sons of two of the company's three founders. Silberkleit's widow, Nancy, and Goldwater's half-brother, Jonathan, became co-CEOs in 2009.

Nancy Silberkleit, a former elementary-school art teacher, was to oversee scholastic and live theatrical endeavors. Jon Goldwater, who'd been a rock and pop music manager, would have final say on everything else, according to her employment contract. Each controls 50 percent of the company.

Redheaded, letter-sweater-wearing Archie Andrews has been a fixture on funny pages and beyond since his 1941 debut, spawning everything from the 1969 bubblegum pop hit "Sugar, Sugar" _ a real-life single by the fictional characters' band, the Archies _ to the "Sabrina the Teenage Witch" TV series in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

It's hard to measure Archie's current place in the comics market, especially because industrywide comic-book shop sales aren't considered a good gauge for Archie, which sells more on supermarket racks.

While characters and themes have been tweaked with the times, Archie's publishers have been mindful of its wholesome image and heavily teen and preteen audience. It's sometimes been seen as old-fashioned in a comics universe that has become edgier and more adult in recent decades.

But "in the last few years, they've done a very good job of making the storyline more current and getting some attention for it," said Milton Griepp, the publisher of ICv2, a website and magazine that covers the comics industry.

Romantically torn for decades between haughty, sultry Veronica Lodge and good-natured girl-next-door Betty Cooper, Archie finally got married _ to each of them, in alternative story arcs that leapfrogged into the future and generated a mass of headlines. Back in the high school timeframe, he dated an African-American character in the comic's first representation of interracial relationships. And the 2010 introduction of its first openly gay character, Kevin Keller, prompted a second printing for the first time in the company's history.

But tensions were roiling inside the company, and they boiled over into public view when it sued Silberkleit in July. Goldwater filed another suit against her in January.

The suits portray her as an erratic figure riding roughshod through Archie Comic's 25-person office in Mamaroneck, N.Y., launching into expensive and ill-advised business ventures while alienating and harassing the staff.

She said a female employee owed her job to her physical endowments, pressed for firing staffers she said were too old or too fat, repeatedly referred to men by an anatomical term for their sexual organs and asked some to pull down their pants in the office, according to sworn statements from Goldwater and other staffers.

Silberkleit denies the allegations. She says they're concoctions of a Goldwater campaign to drive her out of the company and sell it.

"I'm the one being harassed and abused there," she said at a Jan. 31 hearing.

Goldwater has thrown out her files and cut off her company email, gotten employees to reject her requests for information on the company's finances and activities, fired the company accountant without telling her and called her "stupid" and "despicable" in front of others, she said in sworn statements and in her slander suit, filed last month.

For his part, Goldwater has denied disparaging his co-CEO and says she has unrestricted access to the company's books. The company says it's not for sale; Goldwater has said in court papers that he's been courting investors to pitch in "outside capital to realize (the company's) potential."

The court fight became even more heated after Silberkleit stopped by the office a couple of times in December with Howard Jordan, a children's book author who also happens to have played football.

Silberkleit says he was there to talk to her about children's book fairs. Goldwater and some other employees, however, said she shepherded the 6-foot-2-inch, 240-pound Jordan around the office in a show of force. Jordan himself said at a Feb. 2 hearing that the situation made him uncomfortable enough to reassure an employee he "was nobody's muscle."

Concluding that Jordan was brought there for "the wrong reasons," Manhattan state Supreme Court Justice Shirley Kornreich fined Silberkleit $500, saying she had violated the court's order from last fall to limit her contact with staffers.

Kornreich has yet to rule on Goldwater's bid to boot Silberkleit as co-CEO, which courts can do under a state corporation law. But the judge ordered her this month to stay away from the Archie comic offices in the meantime, though Silberkleit can continue to work from home and draw her more than $125,000-a-year salary.

Goldwater, the company and their lawyer declined to comment on the case.

As for Silberkleit, "the only concern that she has, and has always had, is the financial well-being of Archie comics," said her lawyer, Howard D. Simmons. Through him, she declined to be interviewed.

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