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?

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.

Critics. What would Conan the Barbarian do?

Arnold Schwarzenegger as Conan

Arnold Schwarzenegger in his first acting role as Conan the Barbarian

What is best in life? To crush your enemies. To see them driven before you. And to hear the lamentations of their women…

Okay, so maybe those wouldn’t be your first thoughts in response to such a question, but those lines helped propel a much younger Arnold Schwarzenegger to fame in 1982′s Conan the Barbarian. Despite the governator’s halting delivery of his lines, limited acting skills, the film’s cheesy humour and Harryhausen-style special effects Conan succeeded well enough to rate a sequel, Conan the Destroyer.

Marvel Comics Conan the Barbarian

Barry Windsor-Smith's cover for Marvel Comic's first Conan the Barbarian

Nearly thirty years later Robert E. Howard’s most famous pulp fiction creation returns to the big screen this Friday. I don’t know whether to be excited or anxious for this movie. There have been several trailers released and each of them demonstrates to me a movie which has done an admirable job of capturing the sights, sounds and feel of Howard’s Hyborian age. John Milius did an adequate enough job of it with his version, and certainly in comic books several artists (Barry Windsor-Smith, John Buscema, Ernie Chan, Alfredo Alcala, Richard Corben, Cary Nord) have drawn remarkable versions of the famous barbarian’s adventures for popular runs published by both Marvel and Dark Horse Comics. Of course, the most famous Conan artist was Frank Frazetta whose painted covers for the Lancer paperback collections set the standard for fantasy art.

Everyone’s a critic!

While it’s encouraging to see that one reviewer compares the new film’s look to Frazetta’s Conan art, unfortunately it seems there are more reviews (several, in fact) panning the film.

“Fight, talk, fight, talk, fight, talk, then an enormous throwdown followed by a denouement that dangles the possibility of a sequel (dear God, no) — that’s the basic structure here.”
- Christy Lemire AP Movie Critic

Really? What problem could there be with this basic structure? Too much talking? Dammit, this is Conan the Barbarian! Not Conan the Interior Decorator or Conan the Florist. If you wanted less fighting, less bloody violence and less nudity then maybe you’re at the wrong film. Yes, I know, critics don’t have any choice in what they review, but give it some context. Read the stories or the comics at least and write with an understanding of the genre.

“…you can spend all you want on 3D, locations and topless extras, but Conan isn’t Conan without the lyrical words that capture the barbarian and his barbaric age.”
- Movies with Roger Moore

Okay, so maybe some of the critics are going to the source material and attempting to demonstrate a working knowledge of what makes Conan so popular.

“First Impression: Conan the Barbarian – If original had epic pretensions, this is the shameless grindhouse version.”
- @LarsenOnFilm

So what’s wrong with grindhouse? It’s a legitimate style of film-making, just like film noir, cinema vérité or dogme. Still, it’s just an opinion, right?

Of course there is other baggage attached to this film apart from the critics’ opinions. Director Marcus Nispel is also responsibile for directing remakes of The Texas Chain-Saw Massacre and Friday the 13th. That’s good from the point of view of being able to pour on tension and violence, but did those films really need to be remade? Does Conan?

Re-done or Re-worked?

Jason Momoa as Conan

Game of Thrones' Jason Momoa as Conan the Barbarian

Well, technically this film isn’t a remake, it’s a reboot, much in the same way as was done with Christopher Nolan’s Batman. The elements of Conan’s origin and his motivation in seeking vengance are similar, but otherwise, Jason Momoa’s Conan gets there via a different path from Schwarzengger’s Conan. Also, if you ask any of the countless fans who still follow the character nearly 70 years after he was first created their response is one of anticipation to see their hero in action again. I know I do.

As I said, I’ve been looking forward to this newest version of Conan based on the trailers I’ve seen. Then I began reading the reviews. However, when I first saw Conan the Barbarian at a Drive-In theatre in ’82, I seem to recall that it wasn’t getting a lot of love from critics back then. It was no work of cinematic mastery. Despite that, I enjoyed the movie and have both it and its sequel in my DVD collection.

Who knows? Maybe this time the critics could be right and I might not like this Conan the Barbarian. There’s only one way to find out. I know what Conan himself would do. What is best in life? To crush your critics. To see them driven before you. To hear the lamentations of…

…well, you get the picture.

How many of you have ever been swayed by the thumbs up or down of a film critic? What films have you gone to or stayed away from based on a review? Were you glad about your choice?

Comics. You never forget your first time!

When I was younger, long before I could read, I discovered a magical kind of picture book. It was thin, flimsy, brightly-coloured and printed on coarse newsprint. It was not at all like the glossy nursery rhyme books I had or the school primers my older brother brought home from his grade one classes.


It was battered, worn and missing it's cover but had Spidey, and 3 of his villains: Sandman, Doc Ock and the Vulture. (4 villains if you count an out-of-costume Mysterio)

I was visiting a neighbour’s house and was given a tattered, old picture book to keep me occupied. Flipping through it, I encountered a world of men in funny costumes. One man wore a green outfit and had wings. Another man wore dark glasses and had steel arms snaking out from his body. A third man wore a striped shirt and could turn his hands into blocks as he dissolved into the floor. The main character, dressed in a blue and red costume, could walk on walls and ceilings.

Although I didn’t know it then, I was being introduced to the world of comic books courtesy of Steve Ditko, Stan Lee and Marvel Comics. I’ve since learned that the comic I first cut my teeth on was Amazing Spider-Man #24.

Looking at this comic now, I’m surprised at how much text there is in it. You might think Stan Lee was a “talky” kind of writer, filling the book with lots of dialogue, but any study of comics from that era reveals the same tendency towards wordiness.


Too "talky"? So much dialogue you'd think Stan Lee was being paid by the word.

Despite my rudimentary reading level I was able to move past all the verbiage and into the story. Ditko’s artwork gave enough in action and gesture to tell his tale and get me hooked. Titled “Spider-Man Goes Mad!” the story follows Spider-Man through a series of troubling hallucinations that are pushing him towards a break-down. Along the way, Spider-Man must also deal with the usual teenage angst which he faces as Peter Parker. The image I connected with most strongly was that of Spider-Man entering a room which had been flipped upside down. My pre-school self could “read” Spider-Man’s reaction and see that he was freaked out by what was going on and so was I, but in a good way. Spider-Man’s world was utterly fantastic and I wanted more.

As a kid, I had to contend with my mom’s back and forth acceptance over comics in the house. Sometimes she saw no harm in comics and other times she regarded them as junk that would rot our minds. As a result, my collecting wasn’t as concentrated or organized as it might have been. Over the years I’ve picked up the odd comic or two, drifting in and out of my hobby, but never straying too far from it. In recent years I’ve developed a more academic interest in comics, almost preferring to read about them as much as I enjoy actually reading them.

In future posts I’ll share my other reminiscences and experiences with comics touching on such things as: independent comics; underground comix; black and white horror magazines with EC-like stories; comic adaptations of licensed properties such as tv shows and movies; cross-overs and major event comics; plus cartoons and the like. Of course, I’ll also be talking about what’s coming up in comics, since I’m still buying the odd comic or two, even now.

In the mean time, feel free to share below about your own “first time” with comics. Go ahead, it won’t hurt!

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