Image by: Steve Polyak, GayCalgary
Recently, Archie Comics raised a few eyebrows and made some history when it introduced Kevin Keller – a gay character. His creator, Dan Parent, was in town in April for Calgary’s Comic and Entertainment Expo, and GayCalgary Magazine spoke to him about Kevin and other changes in Archie’s world.
Introducing a gay character to what some might call the "squeaky clean image of Riverdale," we wanted to know what kind of reaction Kevin got, especially considering how upset some social conservatives became when President Obama recently came out in support of gay marriage.
"The reaction was...at first it was a little bit surprised, because it’s Archie Comics," Dan told us. "Overall it was good. Some people were on the fence...and then of course there’s your negative reaction, but when the book came out most of the Archie fans were onboard, and most of the people who were on the fence were onboard too...they liked the story when they read it. They saw that we weren’t corrupting America’s youth or anything, we were just introducing a gay character."
As to the reason why they added a gay character, Dan’s short reply was essentially why not? The longer version was that the editors and writers were trying to add more diversity to Riverdale. They’d been adding more ethnic characters, and they discussed adding a gay character. The catch was, Archie comics didn’t necessarily want a gay character for the sake of sensation, they wanted a good character. "Basically, they told me if I could come up with a good story line, they would go for it." Dan did, in a way that wasn’t forced or like an after-school special; just something light and fun.
The storyline certainly was that - Veronica falls for Kevin, Jughead knows Kevin’s gay, he’s okay with it but wants to see Veronica squirm, then Betty finds out about it but doesn’t say anything because that means she gets Archie all to herself. If it seems like something out of the movie Clueless or the TV show Will & Grace, that’s exactly what they were aiming for, Dan told me. "The story snowballed into this really fun, sort of sit-com plot."
As for the thought that injecting a gay character into the Riverdale world takes away that world’s innocence, Dan "...couldn’t disagree with that more. We all have gay people in our families...it has nothing to do with morality. People nowadays understand that’s the way it is. Riverdale is still family friendly. A kid could still pick up a comic book and read it." Dan added that Kevin has lots of fans, and his sexuality is not even important to them.
While it might not be important to the fans, I was surprised at the lack of negative reaction, especially considering that not only did they introduce a gay character but they had him pursue a military career. This would seem to be hitting a lot of hot buttons, considering that "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" was being debated (and ultimately repealed) in the American government about the same time, while gay marriage rights is almost constantly in the American news.
The reason for Kevin’s military aspirations evolved as they flushed out his back story. They saw him as having travelled around the world but they needed a reason why. Victor Gorelick, Editor in Chief of Archie Comics, had served in the military. It was he who came up with the idea having Kevin’s background being that of a military brat. They didn’t play up the issue of gays in the military too much – Kevin just wanted to follow in his Dad’s footsteps. "We just felt it was a positive thing to show...a gay kid can follow in his father’s footsteps and it shouldn’t matter."
For me, this seemed like a lot of change coming from Archie comics. After all, this brand has been around for over 70 years. I don’t think of Archie comics as being current – the word I would use is "conservative", not in the sense of politics, but in a sense, unchanging – like a comfort food. You know what’s going to happen when you pick up an issue of Archie comics – and that’s not a bad thing.
The brand remains the same, but there are these slight changes to reflect that modern society is evolving. Another change Dan Parent made in the Riverdale world was the inter-racial romance between Archie Andrews and Valerie Smith (aka Valerie Brown) from Josie and the Pussycats. This has been a real shake-up. Usually Archie may stray a bit and date a new girl, but this time it seems like the new romance is sticking. Consequently, it’s a real threat to the Betty/Veronica love triangle.
The reaction to this new...well, love quadrangle has been really good. "Surprisingly enough, the only time anyone has come up to me with a negative reaction was over that story line, and that was when I was doing a convention down in the South. Someone came up to me and he didn’t like my liberal agenda that I had...he said he was never buying any Archie comics again because of the Archie/Valerie romance. But I don’t think we wanted him as a reader to be honest...but for every person who doesn’t like it you’re going to have fifty people who do like it."
As for any future plans for Kevin, they’re getting him into the dating world. If after a year it goes well, they may introduce a serious boyfriend. The adult Kevin did get married, but that’s in the alternate universe portraying the Riverdale characters as grown adults. Archie comics will just show him dealing with the same problems every teen encounters – for the most part. "Some issues we’ll tackle a gay issue, some issues we won’t. We’re just going to do what feels right."
Now that they have a gay character, the inevitable question will be what about a lesbian character in Archie’s world. "If it comes up in a story, we’ll do it...but we don’t want to do it for the sake of having a lesbian character," Dan said. There has to be a story that is natural. Some people suggested they should have done the lesbian storyline first as people are more comfortable with that. "It’s just the way it is in media too...you watch TV shows, people are much more accepting to that. But we didn’t do it because the story line didn’t work. I worked in the Veronica book and I needed to have a Veronica story that was funny, so I needed a Kevin Keller for the story."
It’s not pushing an agenda, as some social conservatives might say. Archie comics is looking for entertaining stories which will resonate with the fans, and the Kevin Keller storyline, along with the Archie/Valerie romance is certainly doing that. "They just wanted to put out good stories that people will like without compromising the brand either – which we haven’t done." If anything, these changes are making it more realistic and more accessible to a new generation of fans; and appealing to the older fans like myself who are finally seeing their own lives reflected in Archie’s world.
Gay: The New Super-power
LGBT characters in comic books isn’t a new concept: Batwoman, Pied Piper, Moondragon, Northstar, Hulkling, Wiccan, Apollo and Midnighter are just a few characters who in the last decade have come out as gay – and it is interesting to see the mainstream acceptance of LGBT characters.
Besides Kevin Keller, recently we’ve seen several new gay characters show up in comics and cartoons. Newspaper comic Funky Winkerbean recently ran a storyline where a same-sex couple wanting to go to their high school prom together encountered some bigotry. Marvel Comics announced the character Northstar would be marrying his long-time boyfriend Kyle in the pages of X-men.
Furthermore, DC Comics recently announced that one of their major superheroes would come out of the closet. Speculation zeroed in on the Golden Age Green Lantern (aka Alan Scott), with DC comics confirming this June 1st. However, to a certain degree it’s not a complete reversal of a long existing character – they’ve recently (again) rebooted the DC comics universe, and the new storyline deals with a younger Alan Scott on Earth 2 (which is an alternate Earth from the Earth with Superman and the Hal Jordan Green Lantern).
Still, many people would prefer that they create a new superhero who was never trapped in a closet, and there is a lot of debate on whether “gaying up” a previously straight character is a good thing. In the case with DC comics’ announcement, the feeling was this decision both propped up flagging sales and jumped on the gay bandwagon; yet there is no arguing that “queering” a major character does provide a lot of visibility for LGBT issues in comics - if handled properly.
You can read the full Green Lantern press release at: http://www.gaycalgary.com/u471