08.30.10

Archie Comics Character Comes Out

What does it say about progress when the most mainstream, Middle-American comic book introduces a gay character? Barbara Spindel on Archie’s cool new heartbreaker.

A teenager has come out in Riverdale, and no, it's not noted "woman-hater" Jughead Jones.

If ever there was a sign of changing attitudes toward homosexuality, Archie Comics, the aggressively mainstream and relentlessly wholesome comic books featuring redheaded Archie Andrews and his friends, will introduce gay teen Kevin Keller in Veronica No. 202, on sale September 1.

Veteran Archie artist Dan Parent says he'd been toying with the idea of a gay character for a while. Kevin finally came to life in a story meeting Parent had with Jon Goldwater, the co-chief executive of Archie Comic Publications, and editor in chief Victor Gorelick.

"We're batting story ideas around and Dan says, 'What if Veronica, who's able to get everything she wants, isn't able to get something? What if a new good-looking boy comes into town and Veronica wants to date him and he turns her down?'" Goldwater recalls in an interview. "And I say, 'Why would he do that?' And Dan says, 'Because he's gay.' And I say, 'Now that's funny. That's a good premise.' "

In Parent's story, titled "Isn't It Bromantic?," Kevin arrives in Riverdale and immediately piques the interest of rich, spoiled Veronica. After Kevin and Jughead enjoy some homosocial bonding at a hamburger-eating contest, Jughead warns the new kid that Veronica isn't likely to stop pursuing him until he returns her flirtations. "It's nothing against her. I'm gay," Kevin explains nonchalantly, showing how much more casual coming out has become since the X-Men superhero Northstar made headlines in 1992 with this clunky announcement: "For while I am not inclined to discuss my sexuality with people for whom it is none of their business—I am gay!"

“I love the idea that when Jughead finds out Kevin’s gay, his reaction isn’t, ‘Whoa, that’s weird!’ but, ‘Hey, I can totally use that to prank Veronica.’”

Far from being labored, Kevin's coming out feels entirely relevant to a comic book about how teens relate. What's more, Parent uses Kevin's sexuality as an ingenious plot device that fits seamlessly within the well-worn Archie narrative. "Kevin is going to tell her that he's gay, but Jughead tells him not to because he enjoys seeing Veronica making a fool of herself," Parent explains. "Everyone knows he's gay except Veronica. Betty doesn't push it because she realizes if Veronica is chasing Kevin then she's got the time for Archie."

If Kevin's sexuality isn't immediately obvious to Veronica—who, as Riverdale's most urbane resident, should supposedly have the most sophisticated gaydar—that might be because of how Parent has drawn the character. "He's well-dressed, but I didn't want to make him too flamboyant," the artist says. "He can be metrosexual, but I didn't want to play up to the stereotype. But he is fashionable, as many young guys are." (He's even more fashionable when imagined by Donatella Versace, who created the above rendition of Kevin exclusively for The Daily Beast.)

Kevin's arrival was announced in April, and Goldwater didn't worry about protesters storming the gates. "I really think what we're doing reflects what goes on in the world. I'm really thrilled with how people have reacted," he says, adding that the few angry readers who have canceled their subscriptions have been far outnumbered by supporters who've become new subscribers because of Kevin.

"There has not been that much backlash," says Parent, who notes that his daughter and Goldwater's daughter, both teenagers, had been nudging the company in this direction for a while. "I was prepared, but really it's been overwhelmingly positive. Anyone under 25 thinks it's a non-issue. Even friends of mine who are very conservative, I wasn't sure what their take would be, but they're at least saying, 'I understand it. It's 2010, it's a different world.' "

By way of comparison, Gorelick, who's worked at the company for 51 years, cites the May 2009 announcement of a comic book that depicted Archie settling down with Veronica. (It was eventually followed up by a book imagining an alternate future with the more obvious choice, Betty.) "You should have seen the backlash we got when we announced that Archie was marrying Veronica!" laughs Gorelick.

Chris Sims, a comic-book writer and senior writer at ComicsAlliance.com who blogs at Chris's Invincible Super-Blog, is among the Archie fans applauding Kevin's introduction. "I think it's great," he says in an email. "This is Archie Comics, the last bastion of idealized small-town life, going, 'Yep, this is totally OK.' Plus, I love the idea that when Jughead finds out Kevin's gay, his reaction isn't, 'Whoa, that's weird!' but, 'Hey, I can totally use that to prank Veronica.' "

Sims also voices his approval for other recent innovations at Archie, which include Twilight and Jersey Shore parodies and digital comics. "A lot of the Archie books have this feeling to them that they're like old folks trying to make jokes that kids like. They do gags about text messaging, but from the way they set the jokes up [it seems] they're not quite sure what exactly text messaging entails," he says. "Lately, though, they've really been stepping up their game."

Much of this change, summarized in a recent New York Times profile, can be attributed to co-CEO Goldwater, son of John Goldwater, who co-founded the company in 1939. "One of my big missions coming in was to contemporize Archie," says Goldwater, who took over following the death of his half-brother in April 2009. "I felt like the world was moving forward and Archie was not."

As for how Kevin will move forward, Parent says the character's next appearance will be in Veronica No. 205. His sexuality "is brought up again," Parent says. "There will be stories where it isn't an issue.

We're establishing the fact that he's gay and then it'll come up when it's necessary."

For the foreseeable future, however, expect Kevin Keller to be to Archie Comics what Matt Fielding was to Melrose Place: the gay guy who plays a supporting role in the drama of the straights without generating much drama of his own. "We haven't planned anything like that at this point," Gorelick says when asked whether Kevin might get a boyfriend down the road. "He still has to get into the swing of things with being a student at Riverdale High."

But while it may be years before Kevin gets to bring a date to the sock hop, the folks at Archie, aware of the social message Kevin projects—"Riverdale is accepting of everybody and we hope the world is accepting of everybody," Goldwater says—promise that he'll be a permanent member of the gang. "Especially in the gay community, we've reassured people that we're not going to dump him after this," says Parent. "The Kevin character is here to stay."

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Barbara Spindel is a writer and editor who covers books and culture. She has contributed to Time Out New York, Details, Spin, the Barnes & Noble Review, Newsweek.com, and other publications. She has a Ph.D. in American studies and lives in Brooklyn.