Life With Archie: bringing gay rights to mainstream comics

Life With Archie #16 cover

Archie Comics manages to avoid stereotypes while doing its part to remain culturally relevant in the 21st century.

The book has been out for a month now and I finally sat down and read Life With Archie #16 which features the marriage of Kevin Keller. For those of you who don’t follow (America’s oldest teenager) Archie, Kevin Keller is a relatively new character in the world of Riverdale, making his first appearance in Veronica #202 (Sep. 2010). That issue sold out and was cause for the first reprint in Archie Comics history. Why? Because Kevin Keller’s introduction marked the first appearance of an openly gay character in Riverdale. Now, with LWA#16 Archie Comics score another milestone with the first gay marriage in mainstream comics.

If you haven’t picked up a copy of Life With Archie you’ll be surprised to find that it’s not your grandpa’s Archie comics. For one thing, the magazine-sized book builds on the what-if story from 2009 “Archie Marries Veronica/Archie Marries Betty” which imagines the results if Archie finally ended the long-running love triangle. Building on the concept of two possible futures, LWA follows the Riverdale gang after college and explores issues more common to young adults than teens. The subject matter is more mature than the other Archie comics focusing on serious drama rather than the usual sort of slapstick or yuks.

Kevin Keller in combat

Kevin Keller's battlefield flashback looks more like a page from Frontline Combat or Our Fighting Forces than an Archie Comic.

The opening of issue 16 showing Kevin’s flashback to the Battlefield is further proof that LWA is quite a departure from the usual Archie fair. The scene is offered perhaps as a discreet nod at the issue of gays in the military by portraying Kevin’s ability to serve his country with courage and distinction as a respected officer in a frontline combat situation. As with much of the story, this is done without really calling attention to Kevin’s sexuality.

In fact, there’s very little suggestion of any sexuality at all in this book, not even a celebratory same-sex, post-nuptial kiss, this is Archie after all. The only portrayal of affection between Kevin and his beau is the holding of hands, so haters should have a difficult time suggesting there is anything outrageous, indecent or even morally corrupting about the subject matter of this story (although plenty of them still will).

Northstar and Batwoman Kiss

Marvel and DC Comics go Archie one better at portraying gay love. (top: Northstar and Kyle in Alpha Flight 6 of 8; bottom: Kate Kane and Maggie in Batwoman #3)

In fact, if you wanted depictions of homosexuality in mainstream comics to either complain about or celebrate you’d do better to look at what’s happening with the super-heroes over at Marvel and DC. Alpha Flight’s Northstar came out of the closet in the early nineties and the most recent incarnation of Batwoman, introduced during 2006′s 52 maxi-series, has sparked numerous conversations about lipstick lesbians on comic chatrooms. Both characters have been portrayed in tight clinches on their nights off. Hand-holding? Really!?! Regardless, full marks to Archie comics for finally joining the party and choosing to show the world as it is and not as some would rather it was.

Kevin Keller Married

Lt. Kevin Keller and Dr. Clay Walker-Keller vow to love, honour and cherish, but without the kiss.

Despite playing it safe, and even though Kevin Keller’s gay wedding isn’t the biggest part of the issue (the ongoing soap opera of Archie and the gang gets most of the panels) this is still a significant milestone in comics. It’s important for showing a gay civil union, for daring to feature that on the cover, and because it portrays this happening in the all-too wholesome, whitebread world of Archie. If gay rights can find acceptance in such a staunchly middle-American institution, can full recognition across the land be far behind?

Look who’s talking about the DC Comics relaunch

DC Comics Justice League Re-launch

DC Comics kicked off its New 52 re-launch with the release of Justice League #1

This past Wednesday, the big moment finally came and went. Justice League #1 hit the racks, with many stores hosting well-attended midnight release parties. It’s still too early to determine if DC Comics’ new 52 relaunch will be a success at gaining new fans while holding on to the old ones. From a public relations point of view, however, I think it’s safe to say that DC Comics has scored a big win.

Everybody, and I do mean EVERYBODY, has been talking about DC’s move to reboot their existing lines with 52 new number 1 issues. As I mentioned in a previous blog, the reboot/relaunch is not simply a matter of re-numbering books. It also involves changes to characters, costumes, and plotlines. This caused a lot of chatter amongst comics fans on blogs, podcasts, and in comic shops everywhere. With the beginning of the relaunch (New 52 debut comics will be released over the next 4 weeks) major media players began adding their voices to the discussion with featured articles, reviews and interviews with key figures within DC Comics.

Media heavyweights such as The Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post, L.A. Times and National Public Radio ran stories covering the event. Magazines including Fast Company, PC Magazine, Wired and Christian Science Monitor gave space to discussions of DC Comics’ bold move. MTV and Entertainment Weekly shoe-horned in some coverage and ABC News ran an interview with two of the major archiects of the realunch, DC Comics’ creators/executives Jim Lee and Geoff Johns. Even non-comic websites such as Mashable, Salon and Marketplace gave their take on how the relaunch would impact DC Comics’ sales of print and digital copies.

The media coverage isn’t the only place where DC have scored a win. Not only has Justice League #1 sold out, but many of the remaining New 52 titles are also selling out before their release through pre-orders. This event has been a huge boost for DC both in sales and share of mind with consumers. A keyword search through Google revealed that “DC Comics” came up 673,000 times in online searches versus 368,000 for “Marvel Comics”.

So it seems that a lot of people are talking about DC Comics right now. Will this translate into fan interest and loyalty beyond the debut issues? It will be fascinating to see what sort of impact all this attention has both on DC Comics and the comic industry as a whole.

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Five things to do at FanExpo

2011 FanExpo Floorplan

FanExpo is a very BIG show. Plenty of room for line-ups and a crowd here.

I’m not really good in crowds. Oh, I’m not phobic about it or anything, I can still function. Let’s just say that I prefer smaller groups to larger ones. My chief complaint is that I have little patience for waiting in lines. It’s unlikely you’ll ever find me camping out for the next Apple store opening or even the final acts in George Lucas’ Star Wars trilogy of trilogies.

So why would I go to one of the ultimate geekfest calendar events like this weekend’s FanExpo in Toronto? Opening today, this four day pop-cult extravaganza is a comic book, sci fi, horror, anime and gaming expo all rolled into one enormous, awkward mass of humanity. The event has grown into the third largest of its kind in North America and boasts of hosting Canada’s largest masquerade.

Past guests have included: Stan Lee, John Romita Jr. and Sr., Alex Ross, William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, Patrick Stewart, Carrie Fisher, Malcolm McDowell, Edward James Olmos, Alice Cooper, Clive Barker, George Romero, Wes Craven, Bruce Campbell, Margot Kidder, Elvira and many more. And, guess what? People… Line… Up… That’s right, when they’re not jostling one another around the 700 retail booths, thousands of people will stand patiently (mostly) in line to meet their idols, speak with them for a moment or two, maybe have a photo taken and get their gear autographed.

To be honest, I haven’t really had much experience with comic cons, having only gone to some of the smaller shows. FanExpo will be the biggest show I’ve gone to. So what should I look forward to doing? Here’s five things:

Shopping? Of course!

The vendor booths are one of the largest components of any con. There’s always deals to be had and you never know what gems from yesteryear you might find if you take the time to dig through a few longboxes. All New Comics, the online comic mailing service I use will be there so in addition to being able to chat face to face with Peter and Brian, I’ll also be able to pick up my most recent orders along with a special gift. Thanks guys!

Attend a panel

Historically, this is one of the most important parts of the con experience, the opportunity to see your favourite writers, pencillers, inkers and industry execs discussing what’s hot, new and important in the industry. DC Comics will be there to roll out more teasers about their New 52 relaunch. Marvel Comics will be there to make certain DC doesn’t score too many points as the topic de jour amongst comic fandom.

Check out all the Exhibitors (similar to vendors, only not)

The major companies will be there, so will all the indy companies. They’ll all be introducing their new books, characters, storylines and merchandise. This is a great opportunity to find out what’s coming up in the world of comics through sneak previews, giveaways and deals, deals, deals.

Stroll down Artist’s Alley

I may not line up for much, due to that crowd/standing in line thing, but still, it’s worth a look and a lot of big names in the industry will be there including: Joe Kubert, Andy Kubert, Adam Kubert, Jeff Smith, Chris Claremont, Tony Moore, Matt Fraction, Steve McNiven, Brian Azzarello, Jill Thompson, Ethan Van Sciver, Francis Manapul, Dale Eaglesham, Fred Van Lente, to name only a few.

Try to stare without staring

One of the most enduring clichés surrounding comic cons is that of the over-the-top fan. You know what I’m talking about. The nutters who take their hobby to the next level of extremes and attend events dressed as their favourite characters. The anime and manga crowd are really big on this, to the point of having coined a word to describe this activity: cosplay. This sort of activity is not only encouraged, but also rewarded at such events as the Saturday evening masquerade. If masquerade isn’t enough there’s also the Teletoon Retro Costume Contest.

There’s lots of other things I could do. Take in a sketching duel, go to a portfolio review or have my picture taken with all my favourite costumed characters. But hey! There’s only so many hours in a day and if I have the time I wouldn’t mind catching some of the activity at the sci fi, horror and anime expo portions of the show.

In spite of the crowds, it should be a good day.

Will the DC reboot kickstart their comic line?

Justice League New 52

The New 52 Justice League. There are some slight variations to costumes, but nothing so outrageous as to drastically excite or infuriate fans.

It was the announcement that launched a thousand blog posts, podcasts, forum threads, Facebook musings, tweets, drive-by Google plus-ings and comic shop conversations. DC comics were going to renumber their mainstream comic lines starting everything back at issue #1. A re-boot, re-launch, comics event, call it what you will, but at the end of the day DC would have a “New 52″ comic line-up.

A simple renumbering of existing books is not the only change in the works. Many of the affected characters will receive costume changes, although these appear to be mostly minor, based on images released thus far. Storylines will also be tweaked and re-set, and this is where fans sat up and began to howl.

What’s All The Noise About?

Comic book companies have a habit of re-writing their canon whenever it suits them. Like the old Soviet practice of “disappearing” someone by cutting them out of photographs, comic companies will on occasion reboot their storylines at the expense of prior history. Some characters get killed off, others get brought back from the dead. Sometimes fans like this, sometimes not. For DC comics the opportunity to enrage and engage fans is fast approaching as the August 31st launch date for the “epic” renumbering of their comic book line gets closer.

Why do comic companies risk such wrath from their base of longtime fans? What could possibly motivate a publisher to tinker with beloved characters by making such wholesale changes? DC Comics co-publisher Dan DiDio explained it this way to US Today:

This was a chance to start, not at the beginning, but at a point where our characters are younger and the stories are being told for today’s audience.

“Today’s audience”? I don’t know who Dan DiDio thinks his comics have been aimed at these past few years, but if you pick up a comic you’ll see they’re not the “biff”, “bam”, “pow” Lichtenstein-style, ben-day dot-covered joyful free-for-all from a bygone age. By “today’s audience” I guess we’re to understand they mean a younger demographic. There was a time when comics were thought of as a medium aimed for kids, but this hasn’t been the case in the last twenty or so years even though the myth of that perception persists. Today’s audience is largely male, and skews to an older demographic of guys in their 20′s, and even 30′s and 40′s. That’s right, guys like me. (No surprise that I’m writing a blog) Kids? Not so much.

If the intention was to go after kids and get them hooked into reading comics at a younger age, then you would think the solution would be to create more comics aimed at their reading level with content that is a little lighter in tone and subject matter. But as Phil Hampton discusses in his recent blog post “How Marvel, DC and You Can Save the Comic Industry” this isn’t the case. None of the New 52 books by DC are going to be all-ages books. In fact, DC are only publishing 6 comic books which will be all-ages (these are non-New 52 titles). So, while perhaps the reboot will attract the interest of non-comic book fans, there’s little to indicate that they will be from among the under 12 set.

But who can blame DC for trying? They have do something and so far, there’s a lot competing for the attention of “today’s audience”: video games in the form of Xbox, Playstation and Wii, online games, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. There are too many things to distract kids from the simple pleasures of reading a comic. With that in mind, DC’s reboot announcement also detailed plans to offer same-day digital versions of the comics.

Jump On, Jump Off?

DC are selling the entire package as a jumping-on point for new fans to follow the DC line of Super-Heroes. Cynics are seeing it as a desperate attempt to prop up the number two publisher in a struggling industry.

Struggling? Yes. Despite the massive success in recent years of comic-based movie adaptations, the glory days in which comic books could sell in the millions on a monthly basis are long over. Not since the forties, in fact. Will these new moves benefit DC and comics in general? Maybe.

I’ll admit to being skeptical when I first heard DC’s announcement, and I even wondered if their jumping-on point might not also be a good jumping-off point. I’ve felt burned too often by “event” comics such as Bloodlines, Zero Hour, Batman RIP, the list goes on and on and on, but that’s all for another post. I wondered, like many, if the New 52 with all of its precious #1 issues wasn’t simply another way of reaching into my wallet.

Okay, So Here’s My Wallet

Last week I finally started looking at DC’s New 52 and began making some choices through All New Comics, my online comic ordering service. The creative teams on some of the books have piqued my interest and despite my skepticism I’ll give a few a try.

I’ll keep up my Batman and Detective comics even though I’ll miss the current storyline which has Dick Grayson in the role of Batman mentoring Bruce Wayne’s bastard love-child Damian as Robin. I’ll continue on with Batgirl, although I was enjoying Stephanie Brown in that role and will find it odd to see  Barbara Gordon freed from the wheelchair she has been confined to since being shot by the Joker in 1988′s Killing Joke. And I’ve been waiting ever so patiently for Batwoman because the first mini-series by J.H. Williams was beyond awesome and I want to see more.

I’m looking forward to the DCU Presents‘ anthology series which will start out with the recently revived Deadman. And despite the fact that I’m not a big fan of Moritat’s art from his run on The Spirit, I’ll give him a chance on All Star Western (another anthology series) because I like what Gray and Palmiotti have done so far with Jonah Hex over 50 or so issues and I see that Jordi Bernet will return as artist in the second issue.

I’ll keep up with The Flash, Green Lantern, Green Lantern Corps and Legion of Super-Heroes. And I’ll check out Justice League, Justice League Dark, Swamp Thing and Frankenstein: Agent of S.H.A.D.E (because, as bizarre as the title sounds, Jeff Lemire is writing it).

I’m sure there are other titles that I might give a try for an issue or two. All of the books are on probation as far I’m concerned. In the end, I guess that’s all that DC wants, is to get the chance at more of my dollars. For all the insane chatter their reboot has generated, there’s got to be some potential upside for them. The question is, will they continue to earn fans’ dollars after the #1′s? And more importantly, will the consequences from these changes remain in place, or will DC begin switching things back if the tinkering proves to be an unpopular failure?

It remains to be seen. All the New 52 books roll out starting on August 31 and for the next five Wednesdays.

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