About two years ago, my son, now 11, popped the “What does ‘gay’ mean?” question. I answered plainly, and he made a little face. Not in an “I’m Pat Robertson way” but a “Gee, that’s … odd” way. We had a brief talk about it not being odd at all, and then — shiny object! — he went right back to his beloved PSP.
What does this have to do with comics? After introducing Kevin Keller last year, Archie Comics has given Riverdale’s first openly gay character his own series, which hit shelves last week. It’s a typically cute, zany Archie story about pie-eating contests and parade floats. It’s also about Kevin’s coming-out experience, and writer/artist Dan Parent handles it with humor and sensitivity.
Children aren’t reading comics in the numbers that they used to, but they’re still reading them. Archie has long been the gateway book for geeks-in-training or, at the very least, a casual read for the elementary school set. So when a mainstream kids’ comic portrays a homosexual character positively — and puts him on the cover, no less — that’s a big deal. It tells an 8-year-old that being gay is as normal as having brown eyes or, you know, being straight. That’s an important message for all kids, but I can only imagine the impact Kevin Keller’s appearance is having on young, gay readers who may feel isolated or “other.”
There’s a flashback scene in this issue where Kevin swoons as two male cuties walk by, complete with hearts dancing over his head. There have been a bazillion hetero moments like that in Archie comics, and Parent treats this one no differently. Well, except for Kevin’s clueless best friend Wendy’s WTF? expression, which was kinda hilarious. As a character, Kevin couldn’t be more likable. He’s the really good-looking boy next door who gets along with everyone and, frankly, every dude at Riverdale High School might want to step up his game. (I’ll be interested to see how things play out at prom and such, because that boy is too cute and charming not to have some dates.)
There weren’t a lot of black characters in comics when I was coming up, so it meant something when I saw Chuck, Nancy, or Valerie in an Archie book. Tokens? Perhaps, but I didn’t care. Their existence said to me, “Hey, kid. I see you.” To a whole new generation of children who are coming into their own, Kevin Keller is saying the same.