SDCC: Spotlight on Kevin Keller Creator Dan Parent

Archie Comics may be 70 years old, but Dan Parent is helping the publisher from becoming stodgy. Not only is he the creator of Kevin Keller, Archie's first openly gay character, the artist/writer also gave Veronica her own comic, wrote the surrealistic "Jughead's Diner" and romantically paired Archie up with Cheryl Blossom in one storyline and Valerie from Josie and the Pussycats in another. Fielding questions from Archie staffers Rik Offenberger and Chris Thompson during his spotlight panel at Comic-Con International in San Diego, Parent opened by telling the audience that like millions of American children, he grew up reading Archie comics -- among others. "I read Archie and Harvey comics and superheroes. I was always drawing, from an early age. I always knew that was a thing I wanted to do; it was a thing I fell back on."

Nonetheless, when it came time for college, Parent prepared to be an English teacher. "That didn't pan out so well. Logic told me I should do something safe and practical, but all I was doing was drawing on my notebooks and concentrating on my art classes in school." Parent remembered seeing ads for the Joe Kubert School in comics when he was growing up, and he had two friends who were going there who gave him the "inside scoop," so he enrolled in the school himself.

"When I was going to the school, in the '80s, Joe was very hands-on," Parent recalled. "I had him every week for Narrative Arts class... Even though my style was a little more offbeat, a little more cartoony, he was very supportive."

Archie editor-in-chief Victor Gorelick used to go to the Kubert School every year to look over the students' portfolios, and he liked Parent's work. Parent started out doing one-page gags for the publisher before he graduated, and then after graduation, a position opened up in Archie's art department. Parent took the job and he has been at Archie ever since, working in a variety of different capacities.

"I worked in production for ten years," he said. "It was great. You learn how to put a comic book together from beginning to end. At the same time, I was freelancing at home, so I was doing production during the day, I would go home at night and do freelance, so I was getting this really well rounded education. Also, after I was at Archie for about a year, I was working licensing, so I started doing toy designs, package designs."

At first, Parent wanted simply to draw, but eventually he and his fellow Kubert School alumnus Bill Golliher began to pitch stories to Gorelick, something which didn't always go smoothly. "We learned to pitch stories by giving him a selection of stories," Parent said. "We would give him six or seven story ideas. One of them has to not be a piece of crap; one of them has to be something they could hold onto. Usually that's the way it was -- he would pick out a story idea that was workable, and then we would take that and work a storyline around that. Of course, the more we were there, the more we'd know the groove of how things worked, and then sometimes they would like a story idea right off the bat. So it got better after a couple of years of knowing what he was looking for. When I look back at some of the story ideas I pitched early on, they were just insane. I can totally understand why he wouldn't want them."

One of those crazy early stories did eventually make it into print, however, as "Jughead's Diner," an off-the-wall Jughead story done in a style reminiscent of the TV show "Pee Wee's Playhouse." "It ended up being a book that I liked, but it wasn't one of our bigger successes," Parent admitted.

As Thompson pointed out, Parent has become known as someone who shakes things up at Archie, a reputation that began when he pitched the idea of a Veronica comic. "That got some media play, because we are a company that has been around for almost 50 years, yet one character that was one of the main characters didn't have her own book," he said. Then there was "The Love Showdown," a 1994 miniseries pitched as the resolution to Archie's Betty-or-Veronica dilemma. "We wanted to shake the Archie love triangle up a bit," Parent said. "We didn't realize it would get the press it got. It was all over the place, 'Today Show,' 'USA Today.' It got a lot of press because we did commit that Archie was going to choose someone other than Betty and Veronica -- we know how long that lasted -- but it did revive Cheryl Blossom. Cheryl Blossom had gone away in the '80s because she was kind of a racy character and they didn't know what to do with her. Bill Golliher and I loved Cheryl Blossom, so we thought that would be the prime way to bring her back." The publicity was so successful, it led to Cheryl headlining her own comic for a few years.

Parent also did the "Betty and Veronica Fashion Spectacular," a comic styled like a fashion magazine. The original "Betty and Veronica Spectacular" was in danger of cancellation, and not only did the special give the comic a new lease on life, it helped Parent finally settle into his own style, artistically. "Maybe it's weird that it took me 20 years to get into a comfortable groove, but it did," he said. "That was when I started to really feel comfortable about my artwork."

Previously, he had been working in the Archie house style set by another legendary Archie talent. "I worked with Dan DeCarlo," Parent said. "I used to finish a lot of his stories -- he laid them out, I finished a lot of work for him -- especially in his last couple of years. It's a great place to learn, but it can kind of inhibit you like you feel like they were looking for another Dan DeCarlo -- and there is only one Dan DeCarlo. I think it is better to take the best of what he teaches and create your own style. That kind of happened when the 'B&V Spectacular' came out. I was able to take the best of his work but really make it my own. I loosened up a lot."

To keep up with current fashions, Parent spends a lot of time looking at fashion magazines, websites and the world around him. "You watch a TV show and something catches your eye, so you either try to remember it or sketch it down really quickly," he said. "It's sort of being observant of what is going on. I know Dan DeCarlo used to do that, too. He was always very aware of what kids wore and would stop someone on the street and sketch their outfit."

Of course, Parent's most significant creation to date is Kevin Keller, the first openly gay character in Riverdale. Parent had actually pitched the character a year before, but it wasn't until co-CEO Jon Goldwater joined the company that he was given the green light to introduce Kevin to the world. "When I presented it to Jon, he was all for it, but he wanted to be sure we would do it well, that it wasn't just some one-off stunt but a real character with legs who would stay around for a while," Parent said. Kevin ended up being male rather than female because he first appeared in "Veronica." "I was working on the 'Veronica' book, and the plotline just came about that this character came into town who was gay and Veronica didn't know it, couldn't figure it out," he said. "She is pretty dense sometimes. That's how it came to be that the gay character was a boy. You have to think of the story first."

One thing Parent knew going into the story was that the story had to be about an all-new character. "It wouldn't have felt right to make Jughead gay," he said. "It wouldn't have been true to the character, even though a lot of people say that he is, jokingly. There has always been that rumor -- he basically doesn't like girls because he watches Archie and Betty and Veronica and he wants no part of it."

Kevin Keller brought Parent acclaim from the outside media, including a GLAAD media award. "It's wonderful to get that attention," he said. "It's good for Archie Comics, it's good for me, it's good for society. It's good to be able to pick up a comic book and there's a gay character in there and it's no big deal. If kid is struggling with their identity, having somebody to relate to could make a big difference." In fact, he said, many of the people who have expressed their appreciation to him for creating Kevin are gay people in their 30s and 40s who didn't see a character like this when they were younger. But, Parent is quick to point out, "We are not on a soapbox or anything. We are just presenting him as a normal kid who is gay.

"Kevin has a boyfriend now," Parent added. "We'll see what happens with him and his boyfriend. It won't be all smooth sailing."

Another of Parent's significant stories, Archie's interracial romance with Valerie of Josie and the Pussycats, came about specifically because Parent wanted to highlight Valerie's character. "She was always the smart and sexy one of the Pussycats, and we never really used her," he said. "It was a good way to get to know her, and the Archie romance just came out of discussions we had."

Meanwhile, the flagship "Archie" comic is approaching its 650th issue, and to celebrate, Archie's band The Archies will go on a world tour. "We also introduce Valerie back into the mix, but then, of course, Archie meets a few new starlets along the way, and Archie can't help himself," Parent said. The new characters include an Indian girl who is into Bollywood. Bingo Wilkins and the Mad House Glads will also figure into the storyline, along with other musical groups from Archie's past. And next month's issue of "Archie," titled "Mirrordale," will feature a Bizarro version of the Archie gang when they look at themselves in a funhouse mirror and see their opposites.

As Thompson pointed out, the panel was about Dan Parent, not about Archie, and although the two seem to be inseparable, Parent has worked on other properties throughout his career, including a black and white "Felix the Cat" comic and licensed merchandise featuring the character. And there's more. "Back in the early '90s, I worked on Barbie stuff, Barbie comics," Parent said. "That was kind of painful, actually. It paid well but wasn't my favorite. The worst thing I ever worked on is 'Bratz.' I hated that. It was awful. 'Bratz' is gone, but it was not enjoyable at all." He also did some romance comics in the 1990s, and he collaborated with Golliher on The Carnies, a story about a family of circus carnies who just wanted to live a normal life in everyday America. He still occasionally does a bit of outside work, including an issue of Tim Seeley's "Hack/Slash" he drew in Archie style, but conventions take up much of his non-Archie time.

And Parent still enjoys reading comics. "I am usually guided by art," he said in response to a question from the audience. "I like Darwyn Cooke a lot, Amanda Conner a lot. I will buy every book that they do, I don't care if the story is bad or not. I wish I could read more."

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