Archie Comics Introduces Kevin, its First Gay Character
by Neil Ellis Orts
In 1941, Archie Andrews made his first bumbling appearance, creating a line of comics that has survived nearly seven decades of uninterrupted publication. The whole Archie gang—primarily Betty, Veronica, Jughead, and Reggie—has permeated the culture, appearing on radio, TV cartoons, and pop music charts. In 1974, the very white, idealized hometown of Riverdale saw Chuck Clayton, the first African-American character, move in. Ever since, Archie Comics has been introducing other characters of various ethnicities, but has never dealt with sexual minorities.
This month, Veronica #202 hits the stands with the first appearance of a teenager named Kevin Keller, who moves into Riverdale not hiding the fact that he is gay. In a phone interview, I spoke with Kevin’s creator, Dan Parent, about Kevin, what his presence means to readers, and how Dan handles stereotypes.
Neil Ellis Orts: Can you tell us a little bit about the genesis of Kevin?
Dan Parent: It all began with the editorial meetings where we discuss story ideas. I mainly work on the Veronica book, and Veronica is always chasing different guys in the stories—whether it be Archie or any of the other new characters we introduce. I was thinking, what would be the unobtainable guy for Veronica? Well, a gay guy would be the one guy Veronica wouldn’t be able to get. As we were talking, we thought it would be really funny because Veronica is so oblivious to everything. We could see her chasing after this gay character, other people figuring out that he’s gay, but Veronica being so wrapped up in her own narcissism that she’s not even seeing what’s going on. So we thought it was a framework for a very entertaining story. Then we were discussing whether or not we could do it, because we’d never had a gay character in the book. At the time we were discussing this, we had been introducing a lot of new characters, really trying to become more diverse. We really tried to put our best foot forward to create new characters to populate Riverdale with young kids from every walk of life. So we decided that if we want to really be diverse and show true diversity, the time was right for a gay character.
Can we say you created the character?
I created the character as far as writing and drawing the character. We went back and forth about whether they thought it was a good idea and whether we could do it. Then when I got the approval to do it, I started to sketch the character and do the framework for the story. A lot of writers and artists work for Archie Comics, and we are all assigned our own books. For example, I do Veronica and the Betty and Veronica Spectacular. The characters that are in each book are created by whoever is assigned to the book, and I happen to be on the Veronica book.
You’ve mentioned in interviews that you have a daughter who has influenced you a little.
Yeah, I have a daughter who is 17, and I’ve noticed how different it is in her school than when I went to school 30 years ago. It’s just not an issue. She’ll talk about a friend and then it’ll come up in conversation that he or she is gay—it seems to be a total non-issue. I don’t know when that changed—I think it’s been in the last decade or so, from what I can tell. There are gay clubs at her school, so it just seems to be very accepting. I’m not saying it’s that way at every school or with every student, but it’s definitely a lot more progressive than we were 30 years ago.
Where are you?
We’re in Pennsylvania. We live in a fairly conservative county.
Do she and her friends read the books?
It’s funny, because she has some friends who are pretty avid readers of the books—more so than my daughter, actually. I mean, she reads the books, but maybe because she sees them all the time and sees me working on them all the time, it’s not really a big deal. But she does have friends who follow the comics and will point out things to her. Like, I do use things that happen in our real lives in the stories. So if I have an argument with my daughter or something is happening in school, sometimes her friends will pick it up before she does. “Alex, uh, didn’t you have an argument with your dad about your texting?” And then it’ll be in a story and my daughter will ask me about it and I’ll tell her yeah, it’s based on reality.
It sounds like Kevin will be an ongoing character, so do you have the second story scripted already?
The second script is done, and we have another storyline mapped out, which brings us into 2011. The next storyline is mostly about him settling into Riverdale, and who he’s forming friendships with.
So, how does a gay teenager be gay alone? The whole premise of Archie comics is Archie dating Betty and Veronica, so will we get to see him have a date or crush anytime soon?
At some point we will, of course, have to address that. The next story is all about him and Veronica. We really never got to tap into that relationship in the first book. Even though he’s debuting in the Veronica book, it’s basically about Veronica chasing him around and we didn’t want to leave it there. So the next issue is about their friendship. As we see more of Kevin, we will have to address that. It won’t be right away. Also, we’ll have to get into where he’s from. We see him talking to friends on his cell phone and we’ll be meeting more of his friends, too.
Who is he making friends with?
He hits it off with Jughead right away. They have a lot in common—not that Jughead is gay. Everyone thinks Juhhead is gay, but he’s not. They just hit it off because Jughead is eating all the time and Kevin has that going on, too, so they’re both like foodaholics. They have that bond and just hit it off and become friends. There’s going to be an interesting relationship with Veronica. In the first issue, Veronica is so distraught that she can’t have him, so we’ll pick it up from there in the next issue. And it’s pretty funny, there are a couple of things that you wouldn’t expect to happen in the next issue which, I’ll just say, kind of involve Betty, too. We see him and Betty sort of forming a relationship that’s not quite what you’d expect. And not to give too much away about future stories, but with Archie, [Kevin] becomes the one guy Veronica can hang around, and Archie encourages it because when she’s around Kevin, she doesn’t worry about any other guys.
I have a Best of Archie book here that reprints a couple of early Chuck Clayton appearances. I was surprised with how directly they addressed racial prejudice in those stories. How directly do you foresee tackling things like homophobia?
That’s one of those things where we’re just going to see how it plays—see what the reactions are. The one thing we wanted to be clear about, when we first started with Kevin’s character, was that there was no prejudice among the kids in Riverdale. We still want it to be an idyllic place for kids who pick up the book. You just want to be part of that world. And of course, it’s a fantasy—we know there are still rough patches that gay kids go through, and we don’t want to gloss over it. But on the first time out, we wanted to make it seem like it was a non-issue that he was gay. We had toyed around with him being the new kid in town, and maybe having a crush on someone, or get into what it’s like to move into a new town, especially when you’re gay. We backed off on that because really the main thing was that we had a funny story and we wanted it to be funny. Job number one is to do an entertaining story that’s funny. Fortunately, we put out a lot of magazines and we have time to explore that. The main thing was to get him in there with the gang.
To move beyond Riverdale, I imagine that the Archie Comics office has had some hate mail…
It’s shocking how little they’ve had. I won’t lie and say I wasn’t a little nervous [about the possible] backlash. Of course we got some, and of course there are some people who just aren’t going to handle it right. But I’ve done four or five conventions since this has come out, and I haven’t had one negative comment. Now maybe the negative people aren’t saying anything to me. But I’ve had so many people with kids come up to me and say “Oh yeah, you created the gay character, will you draw a sketch for my daughter?” From what I see, there seems to be much more conversation between people and their kids about gay people. Another thing is that so many people have openly gay family members, whether it be uncles, cousins, sisters, or brothers. There doesn’t seem to be as much stigma as I thought there was going to be. You know, my mind goes back 30 years to when I was growing up in school, when we all knew who the gay kids were but they weren’t telling anyone. It just wasn’t talked about. I can’t speak for every area of the country, but it just seems to be much more openly discussed.
I grew up on Archie comics. I’ve been reading Archie Comics since I was five, so I know the whole Archie universe. Riverdale is such a fantasy world for so many kids growing up, and it’s good that we’re about to open up the world of Riverdale a little bit. I’ve had a lot of people come to me and say, “thank you for doing this.” I don’t think I’ve done anything—I didn’t cure cancer or anything, but it’s nice to know it means something to people. The day after we broke the news, some kid found me on Facebook, and he was like 13 or 14, and he said thank you for creating this character. You hear things like that and think wow—you don’t think about the way it’s going to affect certain people.
Well, I looked at the news and thought holy cow, how would my life have been different if I had this in 1970? It’s a lump-in-the-throat thing. So this middle-aged queer says thank you, too.
Well, we’ve been on this whole diversity thing and we felt like we weren’t all the way there. We were like 90 percent of the way there, but there was something missing, and when we put Kevin in there that was the final piece of the puzzle. And it would have been nice to have done it sooner, but it was a big deal for us.
My first introduction to gay life—or what little I could find out about it—tended to be a little seamy.
I’m glad you bring that up. The few negative comments we have had have been, “When are the sex scenes going to start?” [They assume] that because he has a sexuality, there’s going to be sex scenes. Archie and Betty and Veronica have a sexuality, and we don’t have sex scenes with them.
I’m glad there now exists this sort of image out there. We all know the Archie gang is a little more squeaky-clean than anything in real life.
Right, and that’s the thing. Some people will be disappointed that we don’t go further, but we’re still Archie. We’re still living in a very squeaky-clean world. Of course at some point we’ll explore Kevin and dating, but we can’t make everyone happy. There are going to be people upset we brought Kevin into the picture in the first place, and there are going to be people upset we don’t take the character further, faster.
Besides being Veronica’s new friend, what else is there about Kevin? Is he into sports or theater?
He wants to be a journalist and a writer. That’s where we have him right now. I’m hesitant about the drama thing. I’ll give you one little snippet of a future story. Veronica makes a comment about, “Don’t you love this Broadway album?” He says something like, “Are you assuming I like Broadway?” And Veronica giggles because she’s doing a little stereotyping herself. It’s just a little passing joke. On the other hand, I guess people could say we’re already playing a stereotype because he’s good-looking and kind of metrosexual in his style, and if he becomes really good friends with Veronica, is that going to be like a Will & Grace thing?
Well, Archie likes sports and girls, but if that were all there was to him, he wouldn’t have lasted 70 years. There are straight boy stereotypes, too.
Sure, and I also have stereotypes of my own—like I had it in my head that every religious person was going to be up in arms about this, because that’s what you see in the news. Whenever there’s anything gay being protested, it’s a lot of ultra-religious people. So I was getting caught up in the stereotype of every religious person picketing Archie.
Well, the next thing you have to do is to introduce a lesbian.
Well, that’s another thing a lot people asked me—why didn’t I do a lesbian first, because that would have been easier since people seem to be more accepting of lesbians. Basically, it’s a selfish reason, because the story wouldn’t have worked with a lesbian. If the story would have been funnier with a lesbian or with a lesbian angle, that’s what we would have done. But as a selfish writer, I wanted the story to work—and it worked best with Kevin.
Neil Ellis Orts is a frequent contributor to OutSmart magazine.