Growing Up a Gay Comics Reader Part 4: Archie, the Unexpected Trailblazer
For a special weekly series during the month of June, guest columnist Dane Hill shares his experiences as a gay comics reader and the power of being represented. Read Part 1 here, Part 2 here, and Part 3 here.
There are some institutions that have come to represent the ideal way of life in our country. Cultural heritages that are recognized the world over as “All-American”: Baseball. Apple pie. Ford. Cowboys. Hollywood. Within the comic industry, that honor belongs to Archie Comics. For 70 years, they have been the “Middle America” of comicbookdom, never wavering from their small town style of stories, seemingly stunted since the ’50s in their business model. If you wanted an old-fashioned story deemed safe for the kids, you visited the townsfolk of Riverdale, where light-hearted humor was a mere chocolate malt away.
I, on the other hand, couldn’t have cared less about Archie and the Gang growing up. As All-American as I came across, to me, Archie was simply that bland out-dated line of kiddie books meant for the older generation of a bygone era. I had read one, maybe two, issues in my entire lifetime. Riverdale was just too saccharine for my tastes. I didn’t get the appeal. Did you have to be in your 60s to appreciate that “gee golly” humor? Relevance certainly seemed to have passed it by long long ago. No, my heart belonged to the spandexed superheroes battling through the modern world, thank you very much.
Little did I know, however, the changes that were going on behind the scenes the past couple years. In early 2010, Archie began dating black bandmate Valerie from Josie and the Pussycats. Not much odd about that you might think. Except that it was the first time an inter-racial relationship had been depicted with Archie. Forty-three years after the Supreme Court struck down miscegenation laws, the company finally felt it safe enough to test the waters with its readers. Did the editors debate putting out such a storyline for several decades, or was it a spontaneous idea cooked up in a meeting mere months before? Whatever the case may be, it would turn out to be the first indication of bigger and more daring things to come from the industry’s most conservative publisher. Still, Archie was not on my radar yet.
Truth be told, around this time, I was also burnt out on the event books being churned out by Marvel and DC Comics one after another. Most titles came across as money grabs. For the first time in a decade or two, I felt my passion for the medium begin to ebb. Even the gay characters that were popping up here and there were not holding my interest any longer. The gay side of their storylines didn’t have any teeth. As progressive as the various publishers were becoming, they all still seemed to be playing their hands a bit safe.
Around early summer of 2010, in a random blog interview, Archie artist Dan Parent would casually confirm that they too had plans to bring an openly gay character to their line. Barely newsworthy for any other company, this on the other hand was Archie Comics making the announcement for God’s sake. The news exploded overnight. How do you reconcile 1950s doowap and poodle skirts with the idea of homosexuality? It would be like your grandfather announcing plans to marry a 20-year-old. And that 20-year-old just so happened to be another man. The brain just has a hard time going there.
Parent’s announcement and the ensuing media hoopla grabbed my attention like a bonfire in the night. I held a cynical curiosity of the train wreck that was undoubtedly coming, visions of another Rawhide Kid-caliber disaster in mind. But, you know, it was cute they were trying. Good for them.
And so it came, in September 2010, Veronica #202 was released, and the world was introduced to gay Kevin Keller. I was expecting an uninspired stereotype. What I got was a slam dunk debut in every way. After reading the issue, all I could think was… how in the $%@& did Archie Comics come up with the most relatable and inspiring gay character in comics?!? My second thought was… when, if ever, would we see Kevin again?? I made a deal with the Devil that I would give up all my remaining Marvel books if Kevin’s debut would be popular enough to warrant further stories. Boy, did He deliver! (And boy, do I miss my Marvel! Or not. I totally went back on my word within a month. What! I’m only human.) Kevin’s debut set records for the company, and he quickly became their most popular new character in years.
As I said, the character was a revelation. In one single issue, I fell in love with the Archie universe. I suddenly got it – the appeal, the entire 70-year history, its newfound relevance unfolded before me like a map of Treasure Island, where X marked the spot on Kevin.
So what made Kevin’s debut so special? You might say the fact that the reveal wasn’t special made it special. He was that every day high school student who just so happened to be gay. The issue received universal praise in its nonchalant depiction of being gay. No angst or coming out drama. The fact that he was gay was a complete non-issue to the folks of Riverdale, its significance merely to be used as a ploy in Jughead’s ever on-going battle of wits with clueless yet love-struck Veronica of Kevin. No stereotypes. No controversy. Just a kid moving to a new town where everyone is welcomed, and oh by the way, just happened to be gay. The subtlety was a master stroke by Parent and for the publisher. The story immediately sold out and resulted in the company’s first ever second printing of an issue in its 70-year history. The character has since become one of the company’s most high-profile characters. It was also the final indication needed, you might say, that being gay in America was at last accepted.
And yet, Archie did not just stop with the character’s introduction. Oh no. Not resting on their laurels, in the year that followed, they went after the hot topics defining today’s debate on the subject, and gave it the ol’ Riverdale spin: Gays in the military. Gay marriage. Even combining together in a single issue of Life With Archie #16 a gay marriage between inter-racial military men. You could almost hear the publisher daring the conservative right to protest the company. The issue created a firestorm of attention, and subsequently sold out within days.
Meanwhile, after a trial mini-series, Keller proved popular enough to warrant his own regular series, which debuted this year.
With essentially no backlash, tons of media attention and critical praise, and heavy sales, it was only a matter of time before Marvel and DC stepped up their efforts in gay visibility. While they may have laid the foundation for that visibility the past number of years, Archie Comics grabbed the bull by the horns and has led the way with bold risky storylines, including a gay marriage in the midst of a national debate, a stance on DADT prior to its repeal, etc. For a company that on paper should be most concerned about what Middle America thinks of its lily white Americana image, its defiant integrity in the face of profit risk of late is perhaps the single most unexpected development in the industry the past several years. It’s a remarkable stance for any true blue American company to take, let alone one aimed towards kids.
Is it any wonder that Marvel is now proceeding with Northstar’s own marriage 9 months after Kevin’s gay marriage was announced? Is it coincidence that after seven years, Wiccan and Hulkling of Young Avengers are finally shown to kiss? Was it always planned that DC would re-introduce one of its oldest characters from the ’40s as gay, even after saying last year that no pre-existing characters would be turned gay? Even the rebooted Godzilla series from IDW Publishing introduced a new hero (enemy?) seeking revenge against the monster for destroying his gay wedding, killing his fiance. Archie’s newfound approach to storytelling has suddenly trailblazed the way for the industry.
So, what might the future hold for gays in comics? Expect to see a continual expansion of different gay characters – heroes, villains and side characters. There will be less trepidation with showing intimacy, and less hesitancy to treat them with kid gloves. Perhaps a gay sidekick to a major hero such as Batman or Captain America, or a gay disciple to a major villain such as Joker or Kingpin. Perhaps one of the plethora of gods will come out. Although Hercules’s sexual fluidity was hinted at by Marvel recently. Perhaps an all-gay super-team. Or maybe the child of a major character will be gay. I’d like to see a story exploring why homosexuality exists, such as a form of population control, or the “gay uncle” theory where families with gay members tend to be stronger and more successful.
Whatever is to come, we have definitely turned a major corner in recent years. There’s a bright gay future ahead for the industry, and I couldn’t be more proud.
Southern grown Dane Hill has worked in the dot-com industry for the past 15 years, having put his Drama degree from the University of Virginia to good use. His passions have been comic books and baseball since he was knee-high to a grasshopper.
Posted on June 22, 2012, in Growing Up a Gay Comics Fan and tagged Alan Scott, Archie, Archie Comics, Dan Parent, DC Comics, gay, gay marriage, Gay Pride Month, Godzilla, Green Lantern, IDW Publishing, Josey and the Pussycats, Jughead, Kevin Keller, Life With Archie, Marvel Comics, Northstar, Riverdale, The Archies, Valerie, Veronica, Young Avengers. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a Comment.