From the romantic triangle of Archie, Betty and Veronica, to Jughead’s obsession with hamburgers, generations of readers have been fascinated with the high school hijinks of Archie Comics. Our own Professor of Fictional Psychology Maria St. John digs deep into classic and new stories to reveal the psychological issues bubbling just under the all-American surface of Riverdale.
The Reggicization of Betty: A Review of “Sue Sue Baby” from World of Archie Double Digest #26
Fabulously drawn by Dan DeCarlo, this story takes on the thorny issues of sex and rivalry and, to a lesser degree, living in a litigious society.
As usual, Betty and Reggie are stuck playing second fiddle when Archie lacks sufficient funds to take Veronica out. Today, Betty appears to take the doormat approach — “you can get sweet music from a second fiddle,” she muses — but soon the reader comes to witness an undercurrent of resentment that leads to Betty’s moral downfall. Reggie, the lonely egoist who lacks true friends, his own worst enemy, here, makes the most unlikely alliance with the usually-purehearted Betty.
Archie, Veronica and Betty meet on a sidewalk in their suburban neighborhood. As Archie and Veronica simmer in sexual frustration due to Archie’s money problems, Reggie runs Archie down with his skateboard. In a moment of homoerotic subtext, Archie lies prone on the sidewalk due to Reggie’s machinations. Veronica seizes the opportunity to threaten Reggie with a frivolous lawsuit, claiming Archie is badly injured and demanding $100,000 in damages. Reggie, alerted to her motives by Betty, offers Veronica passes to a disco, and Archie bolts from his prone position on the sidewalk, accepting the settlement. As he and Veronica race toward the disco like itchy lovers racing for cheap hotel room, Betty and Reggie share a wicked laugh. Turns out the disco is no longer in business, and that the reader has just witnessed a rare moment of partnership-in-crime between these two unrequited lovers, an act which could well threaten the psychosexual dynamics of the group. Perhaps for the very first time, the reader can picture Betty and Reggie finding some quiet spot to vent their sexual frustration in a forbidden liaison, the mean jock bedding the virtuous heroine. Such irony — there is, in fact, a little bit of Reggie in Betty.
Some may have misgivings about this development, but I was pleased to see Betty fed up enough with being used by Archie to ally herself with Reggie in foiling their plans. To see Betty’s darker self reflected in Reggie’s black eyes is exciting to behold, and I’m hopeful this relationship dynamic will be further explored.
“Sue Sue Baby” originally appeared in Archie’s Girls Betty and Veronica #159, March 1969.
Maria St. John is the byline of a published writer and performer hailing from the East Coast and currently living in northern Los Angeles County. She has been overthinking Archie Comics since the age of 7.
Confessions of a Cranky Comic Book Cartoonist: Ten More-Or-Less Current, More-Or-Less Mainstream Funnybooks That I Actually More-Or-Less Enjoy – And Why!
Columnist Scott Shaw! brings his perspective as an experienced professional cartoonist and active participant in the comic book industry for more than 40 years. Get an insider’s look at the art form from someone in the trenches every day.
By Scott Shaw!
It may surprise some of you that I still read current comic books. Since writing and drawing allegedly humorous comic books is one aspect of my career as a cartoonist, it’s a matter of keeping up with the competition when it comes to reading funnybooks that are actually funny. But I also dig other genres, too. I’ll admit, I don’t purchase many new comics anymore, but between those I buy, borrow or browse at the local comic book emporiums, I’ve compiled this list of those I can recommend.
I’ll start with a few superhero series I dig, since that genre still seems to dominate the racks. Let’s face it, most superhero comics adhere to that old unwritten rule: “Create the illusion of change without ever changing anything for long.” Instead, the fun of the Marvel Universe – much more than DC’s dour, drab and depressing “New 52” – is in how the playing pieces are moved around in new and interesting ways.
Marvel’s Fantastic Four will always be my favorite superhero title and I’ll buy it as long as Marvel keeps publishing it. That dedication is due to my first reading it back when Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, Chic Stone, Joe Sinnott, Dick Ayers and others made sure that it really was “The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine!” Since those first hundred-or-so issues of Fantastic Four, the series’ quality has been wildly up, down and all over the place, but rarely approaching the compelling “sense of wonder” and fun that the Kirby/Lee team achieved. Most of those assigned to the title over the years seem to be attempting to re-create stories from those first hundred issues… and they never seem to quite “get” it. The current version plays with many of those classic elements – the Inhumans, Doctor Doom, Atlantis, the Kree, Annihilus and the Negative Zone, etc. – but writer Jonathan Hickman and rotating artists Steve Epting, Ron Garney, Barry Kitson and others seem more interested in telling new sense of wonder stories with them, even if I’m the one who sometimes winds up wondering exactly what is going on in Hickman and company’s sparely presented storytelling. At least I feel like I’m reading new exploits of the FF, not more rehashes. (Speaking of the FF, that Hickman-written spin-off – featuring the young members of the Future Foundation, overseen by a civilized version of Dragon Man – is a tougher read, especially due to some extremely off-putting artwork by Juan Bobillo.)
That moving-around-playing-pieces has been an enjoyable part of Marvel’s Thunderbolts since its inception back in 1997 by Kurt Busiek and Mark Bagley. Writer Jeff Parker and a variety of artists have been the latest folks on the series for the last few years and their approach to crafting the ongoing adventures of multiple teams of bad guys – both rehabilitated and otherwise – all overseen by Luke Cage, has been a lot of fun. Twists, turns and double-crosses abound, with the team’s headquarters unanchored in the time stream to complicate matters. (This lost-in-time wrinkle provided an amusingly uneasy team-up with Captain America and the Invaders during WWII.) In recent months, the book has been re-titled Dark Avengers after Norman Osborn’s team of badass stand-ins for some of the heroic Avengers’ stalwarts. By comparison, Luke’s team almost seems like the good guys they pretend to be. The unexpected arrival of Dr. Doom (direct from Mark Millar/Bryan Hitch‘s “realistic” stint on Fantastic Four from a few years back) is yet another player sure to challenge the small-time supervillains’ internal politics. To my knowledge, this is the only series focusing on bad guys that’s lasted so long and it deserves to hold the record over such lame and lesser attempts such as DC’s Secret Society Of Super Villains or Marvel’s Super Villain Team-Up. But whether his book is called Thunderbolts or Dark Avengers, Jeff Parker provides a lot of evil fun.
Over the years I’ve heard or read a variety of arguments before and against the categorization of Elzie Segar’s “Popeye The Sailor” as the first modern superhero. (You’ve gotta admit that the notion of a tough-with-his-fists human male who gains phenomenal super-strength after ingesting a special substance and who is utterly unkillable 24/7/365 certainly sounds like a superhero!) Depending on my mood, I could easily support either stance, but one thing is constant: I love Popeye and he’s one of my all-time favorite characters, especially his original incarnation in Segar’s Thimble Theater syndicated comic strip. My first exposures to the sailor man was in Fleischer Studios’ animated “Popeye” cartoon shorts and Bud Sagendorf’s stories for Dell’s Popeye comic book and I love those, too, but IDW’s version is modeled on Segar’s original. Writer Roger Langridge (Snarked!) really captures the delightfully peculiar personalities and voices of Segar’s Popeye, Olive Oyl, J. Wellington Wimpy, the Sea Hag and the rest of the cast. So far, the second issue, featuring terrific art by Ken Wheaton, has been my favorite, but I’ve liked ‘em all a lot.
Then there’s Erik Larsen’s Savage Dragon for Image Comics. Erik insists that his character is anything but a superhero, but the strip reads like a 1970s Marvel comic as interpreted by a talented underground cartoonist under the influence of Jack Kirby, Gil Kane and some killer acid. Although Savage Dragon started out as a typical Image book (after all, Erik’s one of the publisher’s original founders and its former publisher), after a few years, Erik found his muse and ever since, the one thing you can count on from Savage Dragon is that the characters, stories and tone can turn on a dime. You never know what to expect from Savage Dragon and Erik rarely disappoints. Standouts have been (for me, at least): a long story arc in tribute to Kirby’s Kamandi; a honeymoon sequence that was originally conceived as a pitch for a Savage Dragon syndicated comic strip; a galaxy-conquering despot who looks like a cute little toy; a male Captain Marvel-esque superhero whose secret identity has been both a woman and an infant; a decidedly non-jolly green giant Osama bin Laden; an unauthorized appearance by the fabulous, furry Freak Brothers; and of course, Erik’s legendarily offensive “Don’t FUCK with God!” page. Now you see why I always pick up every issue of Savage Dragon; who knows what I might miss!
And although it’s not an actual superhero title, DC’s All-Star Western starring the latest iteration of “Jonah Hex” by Justin Gray, Jimmy Palmiotti and Moritat certainly depends on Batman for its central concept. This series explores the Gotham City of the mid-19th Century by dropping the disfigured and morally raw Civil War vet into the middle of it. (I assume the inspiration was the 1970 TV series McCloud starring Dennis Weaver.) Anyway, Jonah has been summoned by Dr. Amadeus Arkham (founder of Arkham Asylum) to solve a chain of serial killings. Along the way he runs afoul of Gotham’s Mayor Cobblepot (an ancestor of the Penguin) and even plummets into the caverns beneath what will someday become the real estate that Wayne is built upon! It’s a fascinating look at a retrofitted version of Gotham City, and Gray and Palmiotti have long proven their skill in writing Jonah Hex over the last few years. Moritat, last seen on the DC’s “First Wave” version of The Spirit, does a good job, although he needs to learn how to draw more than one look for a woman’s face. There’s also been a number of solid backup stories with a general Western setting, including “El Diablo” drawn by Jordi Bernet, “The Barbary Ghost” drawn by Phil Winslade, “Bat Lash” drawn by José Luis Garcia-López (!), “Nighthawk/Cinnamon” and “Terrence Thirteen”. I know I’m not the only comic book pro who considers All-Star Western – edited by Joey Cavalieri – to be the best of DC’s “New 52” by a wide margin.
Stan Sakai has been writing and drawing his Usagi Yojimbo for over twenty years and yet there are still a few people out there who dismiss it because it features talking animals. Dark Horse has been publishing Usagi Yojimbo for a large part of that time, and as his many awards verify, Stan just keeps getting better and better. Over the years, I’ve drawn my fair share of “funny animal” comics and during that time, I’ve heard the term “anthropomorphic” comics bandied about. I’m still not certain I completely understand the difference, but I can acknowledge that Usagi Yojimbo is definitely more “anthropomorphic” than “funny animal” and that Stan has become a master of subtlety as well as action, of nuance as well as the written word. However, we won’t be seeing any new issues of Usagi Yojimbo for a while, because Stan is temporarily putting his Ronin rabbit aside to concentrate on the upcoming 47 Samurai, a limited series written by Dark Horse publisher Mike Richardson and starring a cast of historical humans. I’ve only seen a few pages but I think that it’s some of the most impressive work I’ve ever seen Stan draw and he rises to the challenge beautifully. I think that 47 Samurai is going to change a lot of minds regarding Usagi Yojimbo.
IDW’s ongoing Ghostbusters series has one foot in action, one foot in horror and one foot in comedy. (Three feet? Hey, what did you expect?) There have been quite a few stabs at adapting the ghost busting gang from the 1984 and 1989 films, but frankly, their quality has been all over the ectometer. But I think that this version has finally nailed it. First of all, Erik Burnham’s scripts have been terrific, with interesting new situations and crackling and clever dialog that’s extremely faithful to the specific on-screen personas of Bill Murray as “Dr. Peter Venkman”, Harold Ramis as “Dr. Egon Spengler”, Dan Aykroyd as “Dr. Raymond Stantz” and Ernie Hudson as “Winston Zeddemore”. These stories have been so well-done that I could easily see them as the basis for new Ghostbusters films, animated series or video games. (As if!) And speaking of animation, I’ve got a sneaking hunch that the series’ artist, Dan Schoening, has a background in that field, because his representations of the cast, while not actually caricatures of the property’s key actors, evoke them well enough to be instantly recognizable. Erik Burnham and Dan Schoening really “get” Ghostbusters and it shows. I think that this funnybook iteration of Ghostbusters is about as good as it can get, possibly even equal to Evan Dorkin’s legendary run on Marvel’s Bill and Ted’s Excellent Comic Book… and as the guy who suggested BATECB to the Eisner judging committee, that’s really saying a lot.
Archie’s Kevin Keller by Dan Parent has gotten a ton of press due to the fact that it’s the first funnybook from “America’s most wholesome comic book publisher” to star an openly gay teenager. But outside of the gay press I’ve seen few if any reviews that point out that it’s genuinely a lot of fun. Now that such longtime Archie Comics creators as George Gladir, Stan Goldberg and Bob Bolling are rarely (if ever) given any new assignments, Dan Parent is arguably the company’s top creator in terms of writing and drawing the classic Archie characters with authority and appeal. Kevin Keller is no exception to that, especially when Dan wrings funny situations born of Veronica’s frustration that a cute, hip kid like Kevin Keller isn’t straight. But to Dan’s credit, the issue of Kevin’s gayness isn’t the only basis for his stories. But what I’ve especially dug about Kevin has been Dan’s terrific alternative covers for every issue of the ongoing series. Just as he drew for the initial Kevin mini-series, each one pays homage to the great Archie styles and themes of the past. One in particular that I love features Kevin – dressed as the old school Archie Andrews of the ‘40s and ‘50s – shrugging to the reader as if saying, “Can you believe how crazy-acting these straight teenagers are?”
Image’s Reed Gunther by Shane and Chris Houghton just finished up its initial 10-issue run but it’s not too late to pick up the two trade paperbacks that reprint the whole wonderful thing. I’m not a particular fan of westerns, so it’s kinda odd that I’ve got two of ‘em on this list, but if you think that All-Star Western sounds unusual, check out Reed Gunther. Reed is a roving cowboy who’s a magnet for trouble, much the same as James Garner’s private eye character in the classic 1970s TV series, The Rockford Files… except that Jim Rockford never had a grown grizzly bear for a best friend and steed. That’s right, thanks to Sterling, Reed is the Old West’s first (and only) bear-riding cowboy. Accompanied by the beautiful tomboy Starla, Reed become snared in an eldritch mystery of increasingly Lovecraftian nature and proportions… but instead of being terrifying, these monster-filled tales are hilarious! I can’t quite put a finger on why, but Reed Gunther somehow reminds me of European comic albums starring characters like Asterix, Tin Tin and Lucky Luke – and that can’t possibly be a bad thing, right? The maddeningly young and gifted Houghton brothers are currently turning their attentions to a new project, but they promise to return to Reed Gunther someday. Meanwhile, don’t miss the chance to savor Reed’s memorable first story arc.
Sergio Aragonés is arguable the World’s Greatest Living Cartoonist, and Bongo Comics’ Sergio Aragonés Funnies is, in my opinion, the best thing he’s done lately in a career that’s chock-full of “best things”… and I don’t write that just because El Maestro included a cameo appearance by Yours Truly on the cover of Sergio Aragonés Funnies No 1. Every issue includes a few short genre stories, a handful of puzzles and games, a pantomime gag or two and best of all, at least one (often two) autobiographical stories from Sergio’s amazing life – all written and drawn by Sergio himself! Unlike most of his other material, Sergio’s autobiographical pieces aren’t necessarily intended to be funny; many time they’re more poignant than you’d expect. His work for Mad and Groo The Wanderer has always been wonderful stuff, but these stories are special, even for him. (Let’s face it, Sergio’s one of the only cartoonists who’s ever had a life interesting enough to chronicle in funnybook form.) Sergio Aragonés Funnies has been on a temporary hiatus due to a passing problem with El Maestro’s back, but Sergio’s been on the mend for a while now – if anything, he’s doing even better than ever – and has jumped back into producing this now-bimonthly, Bill Morrison-edited series with a vengeance. So keep your eyes peeled for Sergio Aragonés Funnies No. 8, coming soon!
And finally, Keith Knight is one of the most talented and prolific cartoonists I know – I gobble up his stuff like junk food that’s actually good for me – yet he’s the only creator on this list that hasn’t done any actual comic books, but I’m gonna add it to my recommendations anyway. (Hey, it’s my list, my column and I’ll make and break the rules if I feel like it; consider it a bonus from me to you.) Fortunately for us, Keith’s The Knight Life (an autobiographical daily syndicated comic strip), The K Chronicles (his longtime autobiographical weekly comic strip) and (Th)ink (his weekly panel feature) have all been collected in a variety of reprint books published by Keith himself. Keith’s writing is hip, funny and smart, his drawing style reminds of Harvey Kurtzman’s (although he swears the Mad creator isn’t a particular influence) and his outlook on racial relations and humanity in general encompasses everything from sweetly cheerful (“Life’s Little Victories”) to hopelessly pessimistic. Visit Keith at kchronicles.com, read a healthy sampling of his stuff and order any and all of his books – Chivalry Ain’t Dead (The Knight Life), The Incredible Cuteness Of Being (The K Chronicles) and Too Small To Fail (Th)ink) are his latest – I promise you won’t regret it.
Not that any of my recommendations mean much in the greater scheme of things, but most (if not all) of these titles absolutely deserve better sales figures, so by all means, if what I’ve written here intrigues you, please, check ‘em out!
All I ask is that you leave a copy of each comic for me.
– Scott Shaw!
Next up: How and why I grew to love and embrace the once-reviled term “funnybook”!
Scott Shaw! — yes, that exclamation point has adorned his name since junior high school — currently writes and draws comic books starring the Simpsons for Bongo Comic, The Adventures of Captain Rochester for Rochester Electronics, and his autobiographical comic strip, Now It Can Be Told! for Act-I-Vate, as well as performing his live Oddball Comics show. He just finished storyboarding four episodes of Cartoon Network’s Annoying Orange animated show, is finishing a new 8-page Now It Can Be Told! story for Dark Horse Presents (“I Covered Myself With Peanut Butter To Become…The Turd!”) and will be drawing an upcoming Mark Evanier-written Garfield comic book story for Ka-Boom. He’s currently writing and drawing on the first Annoying Orange graphic novel – split with Mike Kazaleh – for Papercutz.
Confessions of a Cranky Comic Book Cartoonist: What Is it About That Little Blue Hedgehog That Girls Love So Much?
Guest columnist Scott Shaw! brings his perspective as an experienced professional cartoonist and active participant in the comic book industry for more than 40 years. Get an insider’s look at the art form from someone in the trenches every day.
By Scott Shaw!
San Diego’s 42nd Annual Comic-Con-International came and went a few weeks ago and I’m finally settling back into my normal routine, which includes writing this column. As always, the massive event was a lot of fun and fortunately – since I’ve never missed a single day of Comic-Con since its inception, I oughtta know what I’m talking about – it seemed to lack that dread Day Of The Locust vibe I sometimes get overwhelmed by there. I had an especially good time at Gilbert (Wonder Wart-Hog; The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers) Shelton’s drawing demonstration for the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund (Gilbert’s one of my biggest influences) and (as always) really enjoyed participating in Quick Draw! with Mark Evanier (The Garfield Show; Crossfire), Sergio Aragonés (Mad magazine; Groo The Wanderer) (looking feistier than ever) and our terrific guest-drawer, the great Keith Knight (The Knight Life; (th)ink; The K Chronicles), and my “Sex, Drugs And Rock ‘N’ Roll” edition of Oddball Comics Live! drew a very appreciative, SRO audience.
But oddly enough, none of those were the high point of my SDCC1 ’12 experience…
One day during the convention, during a rare quiet moment at my exhibit hall table, a young lady from Rhode Island named Jade approached me. After confirming my identity, Jade – who seemed strangely emotional about meeting me – revealed that, although she still looked like a teenager (and Rock ‘N’ Roll High School’s P.J. Soles), she was in fact 29 years old and was a high school art teacher who was also a fine artist. So why was she so excited to meet an old cartoonist like me? Well, it turned out that the issues of the first Sonic The Hedgehog miniseries I drew back in the early 1990s for Archie Comics are what inspired her to become an artist and, in turn, inspire her students to follow their own creative muses. Jade then went on to explain to me exactly why she loved my Sonic stories so much – the expressions, posing, staging and sense of appeal — and it quickly became obvious that she knew what she was talking about in regards to my approach to cartooning in general and that speedy blue hedgehog in particular. One aspect that particularly pleased me was that Jade didn’t care for the manga/anime-style Sonic; she dug my version because she thought it was a warmer, more traditional approach. To say I was floored would be an understatement, and I immediately envied Jade’s students for having such a smart, sweet and passionate teacher. I drew a nice color shot of Sonic zooming along that she could show to her classes.
Yeah, I’m one of those guys who believes in “passing it on”. With professional cartoonists such as Gene Hazelton (The Flintstones syndicated comic strip), Bernie Lansky (Seventeen, a syndicated comic panel) and Jack Kirby, how could I not want to keep their positive energy rolling with a new generation of young cartoonists?
But beyond meeting Jade, I also saw a few other young female cartoonists at SDCCI ’12, all who seem to share as an inspiration, those issues of Sonic The Hedgehog I drew back in the early 1990s. I enjoyed my stint on Sonic, but I never would have guessed that it had an effect on certain readers until only recently. One of them, Heather, is by now off to college on a full scholarship to study to become a brain surgeon. (When you’re a cranky old cartoonist, it never hurts to have a fan who’s also a brain surgeon!)
But I’m still humble enough to know that I didn’t create Sonic, I was just the first person to draw funnybook stories starring the little blue speedster. (Sonic The Hedgehog was co-created by Japanese video game designers Hirokazu Yasuhara and Yuji Naka over twenty years ago.)
So what is it about Sonic that makes him so appealing? I was drawn to the character because his design reminded me of Felix The Cat, one of the most enduring cartoon characters ever. Like Astro Boy, Sonic is cute but not too cute. He’s a series of circles and ovals but has some pointy angles; Sonic has super-speed but his limbs are still of the “rubber hose” variety, like many early animated cartoon characters. Between his pleasing design and his cocky attitude, boys seem to like Sonic as much as girls do. But as I can now attest, some girls and young women don’t consider Sonic to be just another video game character; to them, he’s an icon.
Archie Comics has done quite well with its Sonic The Hedgehog ongoing comic book (at 239 issues and counting; it’s by far the longest-running comic book series based on a video game) and a variety of Sonic The Hedgehog spin-off titles, including: Sonic & Knuckles; Sonic The Hedgehog Archives; Sonic The Hedgehog Firsts; Sonic Legacy; Sonic The Hedgehog Triple Trouble Special; Sonic The Hedgehog, The Beginning; Sonic The Hedgehog: In Your Face! Special; Sonic Universe; Sonic Vs. Knuckles “Battle Royal” Special; Sonic X; Sonic’s Friendly Nemesis Knuckles; Sonic Quest: Death Egg Saga; Super Sonic VS. Hyper Knuckles; and a number of original Free Comic Book Day special giveaway editions of Sonic. In fact, Sonic The Hedgehog has been Archie Comics’ best-selling comic book series for quite a while, and the first issue of the first Sonic mini-series (No. 0, which I drew) had a special 16-page giveaway edition that was printed in the millions of copies and distributed to Toys “R” Us toy stores. Holy hedgehogs, that’s a lotta funnybooks!
(In an attempt to catch a similar bolt of lightning in a bottle, Archie Comics has been publishing a Mega Man comic book series for a year or so, but let’s face facts, the Mega Man video game franchise doesn’t seem to have remotely as many followers as Sonic does.)
So, if Sonic is such a popular character – especially with young females – why aren’t there more comic books out there that contain similar, perhaps original, non-video-game-derived material? Aren’t other comic book publishers aware of the phenomenal success that Archie has had with Sonic The Hedgehog for nearly twenty years? If you boil down Sonic to his basics, he’s a “funny animal”, a genre of humor that was a solid-selling staple of the comic book industry for well over three decades but one that withered and died with the exit of Western Publishing from comics in the mid 1970s. If comic book publishers are still interested in providing content to attract young female readers, perhaps the genre of funny animals deserves revisiting.
Disney’s Perry The Platypus Comics, anyone?
– Scott Shaw!
Scott Shaw! — yes, that exclamation point has adorned his name since junior high school — currently writes and draws comic books starring the Simpsons for Bongo Comics, The Adventures of Captain Rochester for Rochester Electronics, and his autobiographical comic strip, Now It Can Be Told! for Act-I-Vate, as well as performing his live Oddball Comics show. He just finished storyboarding four episodes of Cartoon Network’s Annoying Orange photo-animated show, is finishing a new 8-page Now It Can Be Told! story for Dark Horse Presents (“I Covered Myself With Peanut Butter To Become… The Turd!”) and will be drawing an upcoming Mark Evanier-written Garfield comic book story for KaBOOM!
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.
The first installment in a story teaming up Archie and his Riverdale pals with the legendary band KISS was released yesterday from Archie Comics. To celebrate the event, KISS co-founders Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley were joined by Archie’s writer Alex Segura and artist Dan Parent for a signing last night at Golden Apple Comics in LA.
Jaded comics readers were quick to deride the idea of an Archie/KISS team-up when it was first announced over the summer, but it’s actually not only picking up on several traditions but it’s just plain smart marketing. KISS has a long history with comics, going back to their 1977 special published by Marvel Comics and printed with their own blood mixed with red ink. KISS also has extremely loyal and enthusiastic fans, and a number of those fans are passing their love for the band down to their kids, and they will gladly check out whatever the band produces. The crossover is also reminiscent of the bizarre meeting of Archie and Marvel’s gun-toting vigilante, the Punisher.
I checked out the signing at Golden Apple last night. The first one hundred to show up at 10 am were given wristbands to stand in line for the signing. And the fans definitely turned out. The store had the line weaving around the store and out the front door. The other rule was that they would only be signing the comic (so no signing records, etc.). With 100 people and only an hour to sign, some pressure was on, but Simmons and Stanley treated their fans great. They also reminded them of who actually made the comic, frequently directing attention to Segura and Parent. Simmons in particular is a definite comics fan with extensive knowledge of who worked on what going back to the ’50s and ’60s. And unlike some celebrity-related comics, he was very hands-on in the approval process. Having a rock ‘n’ roll star direct focus to the art form is nothing but good news in my book. How many other comic book signings does the LA Weekly cover? Sure, the only reason they were there was because Gene Simmons was in town. But it still resulted in the LA Weekly photographer enthusiastically getting shots of Segura and Parent in front of big Archie Comics banners, and the LA Weekly reporter taking pains to get it right of which one did “the words” and which one did the art.
Is it the biggest victory ever in getting the act of reading comics back in the consciousness of America? No, but how many other comics are reaching out to glam and heavy metal fans who otherwise maybe wouldn’t buy a comic? A great reminder that almost every demographic not reading comics now is worth pursuing.
While still a fraction of print sales, digital comics continue to grow. (Digital comics being comic books you read on the web and mobile devices like the iPad and Android phones.) Great news, right? I’m a big believer in digital comics. But it’s not so easy to know exactly how much they’re growing or whether everyone’s just really excited about a lot of unsubstantiated press release hype.
Within a week of each other, the largest comic book publishers in North America both claimed that sales of one of their digital comics surpassed their own records for digital sales. In both instances, the record-setting digital comic was released on the same day as its print counterpart was released in comic book stores. DC Comics announced in this interview with Salon the good sales news for Justice League #1 by Geoff Johns and Jim Lee, the launch title for their ambitious and highly publicized New 52 initiative.
Jim Lee: [B]ased on recent numbers, certainly Justice League No. 1 has surpassed the recent highs in comics sales. [...] It’s also setting records digitally. I can’t give numbers, but on the first day it set a record for us.
Salon: Once you compared the volume of DC’s digital comics sales to dental floss. Is it up to dental tape now?
Jim Lee: It’s too early to say.
Marvel Comics later issued a press release for their announcement regarding Ultimate Comics Spider-Man #1 by Brian Michael Bendis and Sara Pichelli, where the webbed adventures begin for the half-black/half-Latino Miles Morales.
The trick? Neither publisher actually revealed any concrete sales data.
This has caused a bit of consternation among comics industry watchers, who are trying to understand the actual strength of digital comics and sales of comics in general. As The Comics Reporter‘s Tom Spurgeon wonderfully puts it, sales figures are usually only hinted at or used for hype by publishers like DC and Marvel, resulting in the “I have a girlfriend in Canada” of sales analysis.
Looking outside of comics, most entertainment companies don’t share honest sales numbers because they consider that proprietary information, but those other industries have something comics doesn’t have – a third party tracking sales through reasonably objective means. Put bluntly, comics needs a Nielsen. The best we have are the sales estimates put together by ICv2, John Jackson Miller’s The Comics Chronicles, and a few others. These are best guess estimates based off charts provided by the largest distributor of comic books, Diamond Comics. But they’re only counting comic book stores in North America. There’s little to no coverage of book stores, no coverage of subscriptions, no sales to libraries and schools, nothing from the UK and other countries, no newsstand sales (meager but still out there), no sales from other outlets like grocery stores. To be sure, North American comic book stores are the dominant sales channel for print comic books. But it’s not the entire picture. What’s more, the sales estimates are determined by using Diamond’s odd index numbering system constructed around everything’s relative sales to that month’s issue of Batman. So if you figure out the sales of Batman in any given month, you can figure out the sales of everything else in that same month. Why Batman of all things? It’s mostly arbitrary but its sales have been historically pretty stable due to the character’s popularity and longevity of the series. On top of all that, the numbers only reflect what comic book stores are ordering. We have almost no idea about sell-through to actual paying customers beyond anecdotal reporting and the assumption that most stores are ordering month-to-month close to what they think they can sell. Needless to say, the accuracy of these estimates has been disputed and called into question. Some say it gives a fairly reasonable picture and is better than nothing, which is true. But numerous comic book creators have gone on record to say that the estimates are wrong when compared to their royalty vouchers and other internal accounting statements.
So we’ve got an entire industry more or less groping in the dark trying to feel out the shape and size of their own business. But it’s the best we’ve got, so numbers are put under the microscope. At least there’s something for print comics. Digital comics have vague statements of modest to booming success. ICv2 estimated earlier this summer that digital comics sales are generating between $6 to $18 million a year, with sales doubling from 2009 to 2010. Archie Comics boasted nearly 2 million downloads back in January. ComiXology, the undisputed largest digital comics provider, trumpeted surpassing 1 million downloads at the end of 2010, and their main Comics app was recently the second grossing iPad app, outselling the popular app for the Angry Birds game. IDW Publishing announced over 1 million downloads of their various digital comics apps back in April. Plenty of similar announcements have been made. It’s great news because it confirms that there are a lot of people interested in comic books. But how many of those downloads generated money. It’s free to download almost all digital comics apps, and there are plenty of free comic books available to download within each app. How many of those millions are paying?
What we do know is that digital comics is one of the biggest growth sectors for comics. The independent comics publisher SLG Publishing recently announced they were switching to digital first distribution. The transition will see the end of print comic books from the publisher. Issues will instead be released only as digital comic books that will eventually be collected and released for the first time in the physical world as print graphic novels. While several publishers have abandoned the single issue comic book format to strictly graphic novels, this is the first significant comics publisher to transition their serialized stories to the digital space. SLG was among the first publishers to embrace digital. They are one of the few that allow full ownership of their digital comics through their Eyemelt store, which sells .pdf, .ePub and .cbz that can be used anywhere. (ComiXology and other digital comics providers are technically leasing you the right to view images of comics files, which can be and have been taken away or locked.) SLG comics are also available on iBooks, Barnes & Noble’s Nook, ComiXology, iVerse’s Comics+, Graphicly, and Panelfly.
According to SLG publisher Dan Vado, much of the company’s marketing has not been focused on digital, so their sales there have been promising but not exceptional. In fact, in a surprising break from the above trend, Vado was willing to make public some of the company’s digital comics sales figures.
The best selling downloadable comic we have had is The Griffin #2 at around 200. This is like a 20 year old comic I did for DC Comics.
Most of the other books have struggled to get to triple digits.
How does that one digital comic stack up against the digital sales of Justice League #1 and Ultimate Comics Spider-Man #1? I’d like to believe there’s a significant difference but who can tell? For whatever it’s worth, Justice League #1 has 318 reviews on ComiXology, while Ultimate Comics Spider-Man #1 only has 58, at the time I’m writing this. Not everyone that buys and reads a digital comic will submit a review of whether it was a 5-star comic but that seems like a bare minimum at least. Except that anyone can leave a review whether they’ve read the comic or not, as long as they’ve logged in.
As The Beat’s Heidi MacDonald points out in the above link, SLG’s most popular and well known property is probably Johnny the Homicidal Maniac by Jhonen Vasquez and that will be released digitally next year. Vado expects that to be their top digital seller very quickly, especially since they will have ramped up their marketing efforts focused on new readers instead of readers that already own the print version. If Vado continues to be as transparent, SLG could be a very interesting case study of a publisher transitioning to digital. And in the process, he could give us a better idea of the actual strength and success of digital.
Archie Comics is a lot like Disney.* Both are all-American, wholesome, and harken back to a simpler time. They both use a consistent and comforting house style instead of encouraging individual expression. Both have historically been pretty conservative and safe in what they depicted in their entertainment.
But over the last few years, Archie Comics has broken away from that last aspect, becoming surprisingly progressive while still maintaining the same Americana aesthetics. They broke away from the tried and true love triangle plot formula with Archie, Betty and Veronica (Archie Marries… by Michael Uslan and Stan Goldberg), they published a mixed race relationship between Archie and Valerie (The Archies & Josie and the Pussycats by Dan Parent and Bill Galvan), and they’ve introduced Riverdale’s first homosexual character (Kevin Keller by Dan Parent).
The first got a lot of headlines. The Archie Marries… story was essentially a “what if-?” story set in two possible futures while the love triangle held fast in the rest of Archie’s comics. It was a great idea but for those that didn’t want to see a 20-something Archie pick between Betty and Veronica, they still had plenty of comics that kept right on telling the same kind of Archie stories they’ve always told. The Archie Marries… story was such a huge sales boost that the stories have been continued in a new Life with Archie magazine. The mixed race relationship also got some headlines, and probably got some racists upset, but for much of the world it may not seem like that big of a deal. Plus it was just one story, and then Archie went back to being indecisive about Betty and Veronica.
But Kevin Keller has been a big deal in that Kevin Keller has been an addition to the regular cast of characters. And the move directly ties into modern events that involve a minority currently fighting for equal rights and recognition. And it did so brilliantly. In fact, Archie Comics may have handled the introduction of a gay character into a fictional world the best way possible – as though his being gay isn’t a big deal. And even more so, they used it for the gag of the story without being demeaning or insulting. The joke was that Veronica just didn’t get why Kevin didn’t like her, hilarity ensues as she makes a fool of herself. No After School Special, no Very Special Episode. Kevin Keller is just the newest addition to the Archie gang, and oh by the way, he has crushes on guys not girls.
That probably would’ve been enough, but in the subsequent 4-issue story, they acknowledged the gays in the military controversy by establishing Kevin as an Army brat that’s proud of his father’s service.
It was a daring step to make a permanent addition to the cast knowing how some people respond to homosexuals in the real world and in fiction. It’s still entirely common to hear or read comments from people unambiguously stating that gays don’t belong in entertainment because it’ll teach kids to be gay or some such nonsense. Considering that Archie Comics is one of the few comics publishers that actually still target children, that’s a bit of a gamble for them, and is the kind of thing that seems boycott-ready for certain groups. Fortunately, the sales response to Kevin has been so big, that Archie Comics is spinning the character off from his first appearances in Veronica to star in his own Kevin Keller comic book series starting February 2012.
Now comes word from Archie Comics that in January, Kevin Keller will appear in the future stories of the Life With Archie magazine that continues the Archie Marries… tales. Not only does this further cement him as one of the regular cast members of Archie Comics, but they’ve also announced Kevin will get married in Life With Archie issue #16.
The debate over same sex marriage in the United States has gotten particularly heated over the last 5-10 years. Here in California, there was the notorious Proposition 8 to ban same-sex marriage after the California Supreme Court struck down an earlier proposition defining marriage as between opposite genders. Proposition 8 passed but has been frozen after a tidal wave of protests and lawsuits. Similar changes to state laws have been presented to other states across the country, some succeeding, some not. While public opinion seems to be gradually evolving toward acceptance of same-sex marriage, the fight is far from over and will no doubt heat up once again as the November 2012 elections approach. It’s a daring stance for a publisher that has historically told stories that reflected traditional values. So far it’s paid off for them, winning them new readers, media attention, and critical recognition. And if this story is handled with the same savvy as those first Kevin stories, they could end up providing some of the best examples of acceptance and equality.
*All credit to the Disney comparison goes to Graeme McMillan.
The issue of gender in comics has been getting a lot of attention over the last few months. One of the recurring criticisms is the lack of female creators. The grassroots anthology Womanthology proves that there is an abundance of very talented comic book creators ready and willing to work, and that there is a very enthusiastic audience ready and willing to pay for such material. And yet most comics publishers still have a significant minority of female creators. Or in some cases, none whatsoever.
To get a better understanding, I’ve taken a look at nearly 25 comic book publishers and the products they are planning to release this November.
The only publishers that have an even split or majority of female credits are manga publishers Viz Media, Yen Press, Go Manga/Seven Seas, and Digital Manga Publishing. Publishers with a more literary or alternative focus, such as Fantagraphics and Drawn & Quarterly, have 1/3 female creators. Of the major comic book publishers, proportionally Dark Horse probably has the best female representation, but still a minority. Despite criticism leveled against DC Comics for the lack of women creators in their New 52 marketing blitz, they are not the worst of the larger publishers. Archie Comics surprisingly has only one female writer.
Jenny Frison appears to be the busiest with 7 credits, mostly for cover art, such as the image here.
What does all of this prove? Manga captured a greater female readership for a reason. It’s a lesson that the rest of comics could stand to learn, just as it was learned by the producers of the sitcom Community. Despite all of the numbers, it’s not a quota. Hitting an exact 50% or more really isn’t the goal or the point. The idea is that if you want to speak to a demographic, you hire that demographic. And it works.
This doesn’t mean that men can’t produce work that appeals to women or that they shouldn’t be hired. There are plenty of examples and reasons why that doesn’t hold water. There are enough comics (and jobs) for everyone, especially if more people are reading comics because of the increased diversity.
And of course the other lesson is that real diversity and experimentation often happens first outside of structured publishers. That’s why there are so many fantastic female creators making web-comics with varying levels of financial success. The establishment will eventually catch up.
Click through if you want all of the nitty-gritty numbers. Corrections welcome. Read the rest of this entry
Happy Independence Day, America! Not bad for 235 years old.
During World War II, there were tons of patriotic superheroes popping up. The first was The Shield but Marvel’s Captain America was the big hit that brought the parade of copy cats and twists on the theme. The first issue of Captain America Comics famously featured Cap slugging Adolf Hitler months before the US officially entered the war. Although there had been plenty of tactical and policy support from the US, a lot of Americans were against getting involved. The American propaganda machine was revving up to win support for active participation, and the use of a real world villain like Adolf Hitler in the still-young superhero comic was unique. Comic books had never taken such an overt political stance on current events. The comic was a huge hit and soon the original hits Superman, Batman and Captain Marvel were following Captain America’s lead. Within months, every superhero ever was a dyed-in-the-wool patriot, even characters who had no reason to fight so passionately on behalf of the United States, like the undersea hero Namor the Sub-Mariner.
Here’s a parade of some of the flag-themed heroes during those times. Happy Fourth!
In case you haven’t heard, the Los Angeles Times reported Tuesday that former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger secretly fathered a child with a member of his household staff nearly a decade ago. That secret was kept even from his wife, former First Lady of California Maria Shriver, until just recently. The two had announced a separation following 25 years of marriage last week just prior to the information being made public.
Yes this makes for sudsy gossip for some but what does it mean for Schwarzenegger’s plans to enter the world of comic books? At the end of March, he announced through Entertainment Weekly that a combination comic book and animated TV series would launch starring the former Hollywood action hero as a crime fighter. The character and concepts were created in collaboration with Stan Lee, co-creator of such flawed and troubled superheroes as Spider-Man and tons of other Marvel Comics characters. While Stan Lee will forever be remembered for his classic work with seminal artists like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko in the early 1960s, he remains remarkably active today. Stan Lee’s POW! Entertainment helped develop a new line of superhero comics for Boom! Studios and even superheroes for the NHL, to name just two recent projects. He’s even a prolific Twitterer.
So will this scandal sink The Governator? Perhaps cause Stan Lee to distance himself from the flawed and troubled Arnold who may no longer be the best example of a real world hero? According to the LA Times today, probably not.
An outline obtained by The Times says the lead character was to juggle the responsibilities of being an “action hero” and “family man.” One potential theme was to have been when Arnold’s mission was complicated by “remembering to buy Maria a gift for their anniversary.”
After the couple confirmed their separation last week, [Stan] Lee told the Associated Press that plans to include Shriver had been dropped, and that the break-up wouldn’t affect “anything at all, except we can probably have a lot of girls having crushes on our hero as the story goes on — which we probably would have done anyway.”
That quote, given prior to the recent revelation, seems a little harsh now in light of the scandal. For now, I’m sure all parties are waiting to see how public perception evolves, and with so much put into The Governator so far, will try to launch it anyway. If it lands on a network and makes it to print, how will it be received? Will it become the next Spider-Man, or the next Stripperella? I bet Maria Shriver has an opinion.
UPDATE, 5/20/11: This morning, as reported by Entertainment Weekly, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s lawyers released a statement that his acting career was now on hold while he dealt with “personal matters”. That was followed by another statement from the production companies behind The Governator:
Less than two hours later, the statement was revised to saying the project was “on hold.”