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.