In 2008 East Hampton resident Nancy Silberkleit took over as co-CEO of the iconic, 75 year-old Archie Comics. What makes Silberkleit unique among CEOs today is where she was just before taking the helm of the Pelham, New York based publisher. For over 25 years she was an art teacher. Having now spent eight years in the business world, Silberkleit says it was her experience as a teacher that made her transition possible. “The art of patience learned and taught in the classroom has been a great support for me in business,” she explains. Fortune magazine found the idea of stepping out of the classroom and into the boardroom so interesting, they called her “Archie’s accidental boss” in a 2010 profile. Silberkleit now wears that title as a badge of honor.
With dual credentials in hand, “the accidental boss” is whole-heartedly attempting to make a difference in the field she long worked in. Case in point: the Brownsville Independent School District in Texas is planning to introduce a new curriculum based on an eight-page comic book, See Something, Say Something, which Silberkleit wrote. The book is intended to educate young people regarding hot topic issues such as gun violence, anger and the need to say something if they see or hear something that could portend a problem. “The content,” she says, “is a springboard to empower students to recognize warning signs and to be practical in monitoring their school for safety.”
But comic books in the classroom!? “Comic books deserve enormous credit,” Silberkleit explains. “They welcome the reader into a literary experience to expand the story. Today you find all types of academic work in this format. It presents a topic that may seem dry or boring as interesting. Sequential art invites the reader to expand the story, interpret information and internalize in a way that makes sense to them.”
Not only are comic books—or graphic novels—important in today’s fast-paced, consumerist culture; so is, Silberkleit argues, arts programming in schools. “The arts not only promote critical thinking, but allow, provide and encourage risk taking, truth seeking and discovery. The arts lends itself to a world we do not know until the student is allowed to explore and present.” In her 25 years as an art teacher, her primary goal was to teach her students to be advocates for each other; “to teach them to grow in a direction that would never harness a cruel heart,” she says.
There are several ways such goals can be accomplished and Silberkleit is hard at work. In addition to See Something, Say Something, Silberkleit is also creating an award for women writers and artists in the comic book genre. As a female executive in a fundamentally male-driven industry, Silberkleit has yet another unique perspective. “Not only have I had firsthand experience on how tough the folks in this industry can be to a woman,” she says, “I’ve heard many war stories that inspire me to seek out female pencillers or graphic writers and encourage them to do what they love and go with their passion.” Silberkleit continued: “The stories women will tell in comic form will reflect their own different experiences of life and highlight where we need to focus our energies to improve society.”
Events like the Comic Extravaganza, which Silberkleit spearheaded, bringing comic book artists and related vendors to its East Hampton debut last year also raise awareness of the genre and its importance. Silberkleit anticipates the event will pop up again this summer and hopes set a date soon.
And what about Silberkleit’s tumultuous tenure as co-CEO of Archie Comics? Would she do it all again if she knew what awaited her? “Yes!” she exclaimed when asked, “And wrap that in a speech bubble with the spiky edges!”
Visit the Montauk Library at 871 Montauk Highway in Montauk to see a traveling Archie Comics memorabilia collection in the basement of its facility.