You’d have to be secluded in the mountains of Myanmar since March of last year not to have heard of Kevin Keller, the first gay character in the history of Archie Comics. We’ll leave aside the jokes about Jughead, Moose, Ethel, and is it Reggie I’ve read speculation about, as closeted characters. Keller’s injection into the Riverdale gang was so popular that Dan Parent returns to the blue eyed, blond haired Kevin in a four part story.
Last year’s big news with Kevin was simply that he’s a gay teen and the debut story dealt solely with conveying a positive message of inclusion with Archie and friends readily accepting the new kid in school. With this new four-part story beginning here set just before and during July 4th festivities, Parent begins to flesh out Keller’s personality and his background with introductions to his family and friends Wendy and William who visit Kevin in Riverdale. The pair of old friends are a convenient device for Parent to flashback to the days when bad hair, bad skin, and body image issues united the trio of social outcasts as friends at a previous school, calling themselves the “Muska-dweebs” to hear Kevin tell it. Sticking together is exactly what they do. Big hearted Kevin goes the extra mile for Wendy to avoid her heart being crushed by the little scoundrel she’s fallen for. They seem equally supportive, or at least unfazed, of Kevin after he confides “my type is more David! Or maybe Scott!” than Brenda or Jackie. If not for Kevin’s father Thomas, an Army colonel, they’d have stayed thick as thieves.
Supportive and positive messages abound in this first chapter, as they should. A friendship thrives without mistaken or mixed signals between a gay boy and a straight one. Family stick by Kevin when he shares his secret with them. Thomas sees Kevin as a son with “heart and courage” and most important, telling Kevin how proud he is of his son. A July 4th parade as the setting for the meeting of Kevin’s old and new friends is pure Americana, implicity stating LGBT people belong just like everyone does. A competitive pie eating contest squaring off the bottomless stomachs of Kevin and Jughead gets thrown a monkey wrench by a ditzy decision from Veronica. Within the context of Archie, I can’t think of anything more exemplary of American culture unless Kevin had hit a home run bringing the team in for a win. Whether as the awkward gangly dweeb or the blond, blue eyed cutie with the winning smile, the message is clear that Kevin is the boy next door. And nothing could be truer and more important to convey since all too frequently we are told that we are somehow defective and less than our straight peers. Everyone of us, however we identify ourselves, whether coming out now or at some point in the past was the kid next door. In the world of Riverdale Keller is on equal footing with every other teen just as he should be. There’s even a two paged “Stylin’ with Veronica & Kevin” page inviting readers to send fashion ideas in. It’s picture perfect.
And yet that might be a concern. I don’t wish to seem unappreciative or ungrateful for the work and attitude from Parent and Archie Comics in their decision to have a gay character in its cast of lovable, tried and true characters. Keller as a character is nothing short of remarkable. As a twelve year old I desperately needed an image like Keller, but in 1970 this would have been impossible. Parent quite impressed me with his earnestness as a panelist on Andy Mangels’ Gays In Comics panel at last summer’s Comic Con. Their effort seems nothing less than sincere. but there is something that bothers me a little. It isn’t suspicion of motivation. Kevin seems as devoid of a marketing gimmick as can be or tokenism, though it potentially could be if Kevin remains the sole non straight person in Riverdale.
In this story though there is an air of ease, a sense that being gay has moved past “it gets better” right to “life is nearly perfect”. Aside from good-natured rivalry and fairly tame disagreements, it’s my impression that bad things rarely happen in Riverdale though now I vaguely recall that Miss Grundy or another long running character died. Excluding the fight he gets in with Wendy’s jerk of a prom date, Kevin appears unscathed in both physical and emotional senses. Coming out can often be a difficult process, but neither Wendy and William nor his parents and sisters had trouble accepting Kevin’s news. Sure, Kevin had concerns telling his father, as unfounded as they proved to be. A best case scenario, which is what we hope for as a reaction in telling family and friends. It can happen, it does happen, and one day none of this will matter at all. Until then, family is all too often where we first experience homophobia and cuts the deepest. In any scenario coming out affects everyone and people often need time to adjust. Please don’t get the wrong message here. An idealized story like Parent tells here is wonderful. However, I think Archie missed an opportunity to include an op ed piece (Dan Savage anyone?) listing resources and giving some advice based on practical experiences. The chance a twelve year old kid in my hometown of Lincoln, Illinois will likely face different reactions to hers or his coming out compared to a peer in Seattle is highly likely, as well as the number of available resources. LGBT youth (and adults) who are rejected by their families are at more risk for becoming HIV positive. Read Olivia Ford’s “Homophobia and HIV Risk: What’s Family Got To Do With It?” for an understanding of the connections.
One note that may or may not be relevant: The cover sports a logo specific to Keller with a big #1 emblazoned in red. Just above it is a smaller #1 in black. Next to this is a grayed out 207. The indicia lists this comic as Veronica Presents #207, not Kevin Keller #1. Archie is simply telling Keller’s story in the pages of another, long running comic, and perhaps technically not giving Keller a stand alone mini series. The reasons for this decision could be numerous, and in any case, remain unknown to me. Is it important? The answer is no on many levels, unless one wants to split hairs or in a narrow historical sense.
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