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?