Real-Life Author Inspires New Disabled Archie Character

In the past few years, Archie Comics has become a much more diverse place, both in its publishing line -- thanks to titles like the zombie horror of "Afterlife with Archie" and the grown-up angst of "Life with Archie" -- and also within the fictional realm of its comics. Archie made headlines in 2010 with the introduction of Kevin Keller, the company's first openly gay character, who has since become a full-fledged part of the Riverdale gang.

With June's "Archie" #656, written and drawn by Keller's creator Dan Parent, another new character joins the crew: Harper, Veronica Lodge's cousin. Harper is a fashion designer, multiracial and a wheelchair user, following a car accident when she was a young girl. Though she's a part of the often over-the-top world of Archie, Harper was inspired by a real person -- Jewel Kats, a Toronto-based author who has written multiple books looking to empower children with disabilities. Parent and Kats met at last year's Fan Expo, stayed in touch and their discussions helped spark Harper's creation, with Kats getting a "special thanks" credit in "Archie" #656.

CBR News spoke with both Kats and Parent about Harper's creation, the importance of representation in media, Archie's growing diversity and what might be next for the character.

CBR News: Dan, Jewel, can you tell the story of how this character came into existence, and how the two of you got to know each other?

Jewel Kats: For me, meeting Dan Parent was like a fairy tale. I've been reading his work for half my life. We met at the 2013 Fan Expo in Toronto. I actually had a booth, promoting my graphic novel, "DitzAbled Princess." I knew Dan was there, and I had a bone to pick with him -- so I did. I wheeled right up to him and I looked at him square in the eye, and I said to him, "Why isn't there a character with a disability in Riverdale? How is that possible?" Dan didn't have an answer prepared, obviously, but he gave me something that was way more important. He gave me his contact info. From there, I started messaging him, and I told him how I felt about Archie, I told him why this character was so important and I sent him writing ideas. Eventually, the new character was hatched.

Dan Parent: I just found Jewel to be very inspiring. She has a lot of fans, a lot of attention at her booth. She's just a very exciting girl. Harper was definitely an inspiration from Jewel -- Harper's full of personality, too. Seeing the work that Jewel does is inspiring. We're trying to bring diversity to Archie, and Harper is another character that we can bring into the mix.

Fan Expo 2013 was less than a year ago, so that's not that much turn around time -- Jewel, have you continued to be involved as the character has taken shape?

Kats: Yes and no. I sent Dan writing ideas, and from there he wrote up a draft, which I looked at. But the final draft is going to be a surprise for me, and I'm going to actually read it with the readers.

Parent: Jewel had some great pointers and tips for Harper, being that she's in Harper's world. She knows when I'm drawing a wheelchair, what I'm doing wrong. And I was doing stuff wrong. Even though I researched as much as possible, there's just certain things I can't grasp. Jewel was great because she would come in and she would tell me what I did wrong, or what was said wrong. She was a great help there.

That's something I'm curious to hear a little bit more about -- obviously sensitivity is an important thing, and just getting things right. Not making the disability the defining aspect of the character. How did you approach that, Dan?

Parent: When you bring a new character in, you want them to be part of the gang, you want it to be character-first. You don't want it to read like an after school special, where it's all preachy. And you want it to be fun. But at the same time, you can't avoid the issues at hand. You want to talk about the characters, what they're about.

Harper was fun, because even though she's in a wheelchair, she certainly is not a shrinking violent. She's outspoken, and she's fun. She and Veronica have this great banter that goes back and forth. She's just accepted as Veronica's feisty cousin. The disability is there, but it doesn't completely define her. Jewel, that's how I sort of think of you -- you don't shy away from your disability, but there are many more facets to you, too.

Kats: It doesn't own me. In my eyes, Harper's basically the epitome of confidence. It's not easy growing up different. People stare, and they glare. Like me, Harper's turned her differences into gifts. She's proud of her disability, she owns it. She's eccentric, she's sassy and a total diva. I'd even go as far as to say that Harper's role in Riverdale is critical. She represents inclusion, and that's what Riverdale is all about. People with disabilities can look up to Harper -- her character is just that powerful.

Parent: She does add another dimension to Riverdale. In the last few years, we've been trying to add characters that add [diversity] to the Riverdale gang. She's another piece in that puzzle.

I think people are going to really like the character. I think she's funny. She kind of hits it off with a character who you wouldn't expect her to hit it off with -- I don't want to give too much away. She brings a lot to the table.

What inspired connecting the character to Veronica?

Parent: Jewel reminds me a lot of Veronica. Harper reminds me a lot of Jewel. It was not a real stretch to make Harper Veronica's cousin. That made sense. Harper's all about the blinged-out stuff, and the fancy clothes, and that just goes into that whole Lodge world.

One thing that was important four years ago when Kevin Keller was introduced was that the character wasn't in just one story and then disappeared. Archie showed a commitment, and he's become part of the regular gang. There's only so many Archie comics and so many pages to go around, but is the plan for Harper to have an existence beyond this story in June?

Parent: Oh, absolutely. Harper will be a recurring character, for sure. A lot of it depends, of course, on fan reaction and things like that, which I'm sure is going to be good. Actually, people have already notified me about Harper, just from the images they've seen in previews -- and we've only released the cover. I'm quite sure that people are going to like Harper, and she's definitely going to be here to stay.

Speaking of the diversity that's been brought to Archie in the last few years and the importance of it -- Dan, from your perspective as someone that's been with the company for so long, how do you view the progress? And do you think there's a lot more that can be done in this area?

Parent: I think there's always more that can be done. We've made tremendous progress in the last five years, which is a big part of [Archie Comics co-CEO] Jon Goldwater coming on board, allowing that. There's always a lot of work to do. It's just important to keep our eye on what's going on in media and pop culture, and doing the "Archie" take on it. The last few years have been really great for Riverdale. I think there's been more that's gone on in the last three or four years than the 20 years before that.

Hearing about Harper reminded me that there was a previous disabled character in Archie in the early '90s named Anita Chavita -- Dan do you remember that character at all?

Parent: Yes, I do. It was great that they put the character in there, but they didn't really flesh the character out very well. But it was great that they included it, that was definitely a positive step. It's great just to show it visually, but the great thing with Harper now and working with Jewel, is that we can really add some dimension to the character.

Jewel, can you share a little more background about you as a creator?

I work as an award-winning children's author. I pen a series called "Fairy Ability Tales." My best known works are "Cinderella's Magical Wheelchair" and "The Princess and the Ruby: An Autism Fairy Tale." I have eight books right now in print, four new books that will be published later on this year. I've also written a reality series graphic novel about my life. It's called "DitzAbled Princess," and I basically spill my beans and poke fun at my disability in a comic strip format.

I'm so awe-struck at the idea of inspiring a character. If someone had told me 10 years ago that I'd inspire a character with a disability, I'd seriously think they were crazy. Empowering kids with disabilities is way behind a privilege. It's a dream. I've always wanted figures in the media that I could relate to, and now Harper exists. She's not just here for me, but she's here for every kid with a disability. Harper's a role model. She's here for everyone, and that's why she's so important.

Parent: When kids are reading comics, they want to see people that reflect them. People said with Kevin, when kids are growing up gay, they didn't have any kind of role model in the media -- kids who are in a wheelchair, or have some sort of disability, they want to see that, too. When you do see it, it makes a huge difference; that we've learned.

Is there anything else readers should know about Harper at this point?

Kats: I just want to add why Archie is so important to me. I can't honestly remember who introduced me to Archie Comics, but I do remember I was an inpatient at the sick kids' hospital in Toronto. Following my car accident, I spent hours and hours and hours reading Archie, and Archie has continued to see me through some tough times. I survived sexual abuse in my teens, I survived anorexia in my 20s, and Archie helped me cope with divorce as an adult. Even now as an author, I turn to Archie to relax. I have chronic pain, I have low bone density and arthritis. I just love the artwork, I love the guaranteed punchlines. I love the simplicity of Riverdale, and I'm honestly a lifelong fan because Archie was there for me, and it is still there for me.

Parent: Archie is like comfort food to a lot of people. It's something that people grow up with. It's always there -- the constant in many people's lives.

"Archie" #656 is on sale June 4.

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