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.
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.
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.
I’m busy pitching woo with the one I love, so to tide you over here are a bunch of comics or semi-comics pictures celebrating love and the Holiday That Hallmark Built. Enjoy!
Who would have thought? A publisher often viewed as very traditional and conservative like Archie Comics is leading the way toward digital comics.
The New York-based publisher announced yesterday morning that starting April 1, all of their comic books will be available on their Archie Comics app the exact same day and date that those same issues are on sale at comic book stores and newsstands. Print comics will remain at $2.99 an issue. Digital versions will be priced at $1.99 each. The app, developed by iVerse Media, has been downloaded from iTunes nearly 1.8 million times for use on the iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch. That number is expected to grow significantly when Verizon carries the iPhone next month. A version for Android phones and tablets is planned this March.
This is definitely a big deal. Archie Comics is one of North America’s oldest publishers, right alongside DC Comics and Marvel Comics. Like the two superhero publishers, Archie has iconic characters with a huge recognition factor both nationally and internationally. That a major publisher like Archie has made the jump to simultaneous releases is a huge vote of support for digital comics. Most have felt that for digital comics to truly work, this would need to happen. Marvel, DC and other publishers have toyed with one-off day-and-date releases, usually pricing them equal to or more than their print versions.
There is a lot of concern amongst comic shop retailers that digital comics will steal away their business. So there has been a lot of careful walking on eggshells on the issue because publishers don’t want to damage their relationship with retailers. Archie having the courage to do this probably has a lot to do with them not having as big of a reliance on the comic book store market as other comics publishers. Archie has had a strong presence in grocery stores and other newsstand outlets for some time, and their comic shop sales have been historically weaker due to that market’s preference for superheroes. Archie primarily publishes comedy and teen romance comics, although they have some adventure comics, such as the licensed Sonic the Hedgehog comic.
Reflecting their forward-thinking approach, one of the first comic books to be released simultaneously will be the first issue of Kevin Keller, a mini-series starring the first gay character in Riverdale. Also confirmed for simultaneous print and digital releases: Archie, Archie & Friends, Betty, Veronica, Betty and Veronica, and Jughead. There will also be a digital exclusive release, Reggie and Me.
Archie’s press release states “all Archie titles” but some news reports have stated that may not translate to their entire publishing line. It’s unclear at this time whether Archie’s licensed comics, namely Sonic the Hedgehog and the upcoming Mega Man, will take part. There is also the Life with Archie magazine, which continues two what-if story lines of Archie living a married life with Betty and Veronica.
Also no word yet on whether the same release schedule will apply to ArchieDigital.com, a subscription-based digital comics platform for desktop reading instead of mobile devices.
Speaking to the retailer fears of losing business, there’s also this article from Comics Alliance’s David Brothers on exactly who is the audience for digital comics and what they’re buying. There’s still a lot of unknown but initial information seems to suggest that they are not the same people going to their local comic book store every Wednesday. Whether this data and Archie’s bold move will encourage other publishers to adjust their release schedules will remain to be soon, but general consensus is saying it’s a matter of when, not if.
For more: The Archie news was picked up by the New York Times, USA Today, MTV and the Associated Press, which has been picked up by ABC News and other news organizations. Interviews and coverage naturally occurred at all of the comics news sites like Comic Book Resources, Comics Alliance, iFanboy and IGN.