It might seem odd to say aloud, but Archie Comics has found a way of promoting itself in both the comics and mainstream press. From the much-publicized "Archie marries..." stories imagining different outcomes for the indecisive redhead if he'd tie the knot with either Betty or Veronica to the recent word of a new superhero saga starring writer Stan Lee, the publisher of grocery store checkout slices of Americana has been creating stories tailored to bring its comics back into the spotlight. And in its latest noteworthy move, Archie is introducing a cast member to Riverdale High that many never expected to see in the perpetually Middle American milieu: an openly gay teenager.
Debuting in September's "Veronica" #202 is Kevin Keller, the first gay student to grace Archie's various series. In this first story, he's an object of affection for the titular rich girl. But while the story has certainly gained some traction online since it slipped out at the recent C2E2 convention, "Veronica" writer and artist Dan Parent assured CBR News the introduction of Kevin shouldn't be seen as stunt casting.
"The key is to bring this character into the future of the Archie characters and the town of Riverdale. We want to make sure Kevin can continue on and won't be just a one-shot, which he's not going to be," Parent told CBR, adding that he and his editors took care to make sure the story was handled in a respectful and common-sense way. "We did have to revise the story a few times. It wasn't like writing a regular Archie story because we were aware of what we were doing. That I'll tell you, we were aware of what we were doing. We were aware we were doing something that could be controversial even though it shouldn't be controversial.
"The bottom line is this: the story has to be a good story, and the character has to be well-written. We've still got a lot more to explore with the character. He's just introduced here, and the angle is more on Veronica. She's the one who has the hots for the character. So we learn a few things about him, but he's just like your typical teenager moving into a new town and trying to fit in. That's really the gist of the character. They discover he's gay, and they accept it. And I'm not saying that's the way it always happens everywhere across the country, but in Riverdale, the Archie characters accept him as another friend. That's where we're going with this. Riverdale is a tolerant town and everybody is welcome in Riverdale. With this whole diversity movement we're working on, we couldn't not have a gay character. Everybody has to be invited along. If you look at a high school now, there are a lot of gay teens who are open. That's the reality now, and it didn't seem right to ignore that."
Parent explained that from the start, introducing Kevin Keller into Archie's world was part of a broader strategy at Archie Comics to make Riverdale more diverse while avoiding the pitfalls of stereotypes and parody. "The way it came about was that we had discussed, in general, the changes we were going to make and new characters we wanted to bring in, and one of the ideas we had was to bring in a gay character," Parent said. "We had discussed that we were going to do it in the future, so I just went and wrote up a synopsis shortly after that. Then we had some meetings about it and decided to go forward. So I guess I was in on the initial phases of it, but once we had the okay that it was part of our plans, I just went and did it.
"We do have Jon Goldwater, our new CEO, and he's behind this idea to keep things moving forward. And we've got new blood in the company. We've always tried to be diverse and in the past several years we've gotten really aggressive with that and have brought in a lot of different ethnicities, and we'll continue to do that this year. It's just about being relevant and modern. We're trying to keep up with what's up in pop culture and society. From introducing Kevin to doing parodies of modern TV shows, it's all about staying fresh to our readers."
As the regular writer/artist on "Veronica" and "Betty & Veronica Spectacular," many of Parent's stories are initially generated in discussions with the full time staff at Archie. "I come up to the office every few weeks and we have story meetings and discuss covers and all that," he said. Of late, the focus for everyone at the publisher has been finding new ways to tell more in-depth and relatable stories with the characters across the line. "We're definitely looking forward to doing graphic novels, and the multi-part stories have worked well for us. The longer stories are working well for us because even though the five-pagers are good and funny, you can do so much more with a longer story. You'll definitely be seeing a lot more of those."
While discussion about bringing a gay character into Archie Comics has just begun, Parent knows he has to focus on telling stories with all the characters one issue at a time. "I can only focus on writing good stories and doing the best I can do," he said. "I know a lot of discussion will come out of this, and it will probably make the national news. What will happen is that it will get a lot of attention up front, and then a few months later it'll die down. Then, the character of Kevin will become a regular part of Riverdale, and people will get used to it."
Kevin Keller debuts in "Veronica" #202 this September. The series celebrates in landmark 200th issue this month, while issue #201 ships in June.