Since his debut in August 2011, Kevin Keller has captured the attention and the imagination of the public. As the first openly gay character ever to appear in Archie Comics, the novelty of Kevin’s creation created headlines in major media outlets in the summer of 2010. However, Kevin Keller quickly became more then just a token curiosity, and Archie fans immediately embraced the character. When copies of his first appearance in Veronica #202 quickly flew off the shelf, the book went into multiple reprints – a first in Archie publishing history. His popularity in both the press and with fans led to his own four-issue miniseries, which is currently on comic book stands. Most recently, at this year’s San Diego Comic Convention, it was announced that Kevin Keller would be getting his own regular comic series in 2012. Kevin Keller is clearly here to stay.
Yet, despite his immense popularity, Kevin Keller is just one of a host of characters that make up the larger world of Riverdale USA, beyond the classic Archie characters that we all know and love – Archie, Betty, Veronica, Jughead, Reggie and all their friends. In the last decade, Riverdale has grown and diversified to include characters from various walks of life, ethnicities and sub-cultures, making Archie’s world enriched and modern. While the regular characters that we grew up with are still the focus of the entire line of Archie Comics, a number of second- and third-tier characters now populate the books as well, giving a larger world of personalities and characters for writers to play with. Although some of the characters might not be recognizable to casual fans, to Archie readers they are immediately identifiable and have fan followings of their own.
Archie artist and writer Dan Parent has had a big part in creating many of the new and popular faces in Riverdale, with his most notable creation to date being Kevin Keller. Associated with Archie Comics since 1987, Dan was a graduate of the famous Joe Kubert School of Cartoon and Graphic Art, where he was immediately recruited by Archie editor Victor Gorelick and worked closely with fabled Archie artist Dan DeCarlo. In the years since, Dan has become one of Archie Comics most important creators, with a fresh approach to both writing and art. His stories, such as the now classic Love Showdown, featuring the return of Cheryl Blossom, and the recent romantic pairing of Archie with Josie and the Pussycat’s bassist Valerie Brown, have made headlines and shook up the status quo, while his artwork has become some of the most recognized images for Archie Comics in recent years.
One of my favorite comic creators currently in the industry, it is Dan’s contribution to Archie Comics that has helped ignite my personal growing interest in the classic series, putting Archie books at the top of my weekly comic pile. I was thrilled when Dan agreed to take time out of his increasingly busy schedule to talk to me about Kevin Keller and the other “pals n’ gals” that he has brought to Riverdale High over the years.
CONFESSIONS OF A POP CULTURE ADDICT PRESENTS
A CONVERSATION WITH DAN PARENT
Sam Tweedle: When you first created Kevin Keller, did you think that he was going to become the phenomenon that he has become? I mean, it was obviously unique and newsworthy that a gay Archie character was going to appear in comics, but did you think Kevin was going to get as much widespread attention and acceptance as he has gotten?
Dan Parent: I sort of knew at first it would, because it is such a new thing, but I didn’t know how long the character would endure, but he has seemed to have connected with people and readers, and people seem to like the character, so he seems to have been catching on.
Sam: Well, beyond just being a gay character, Kevin is actually quite charming and likeable.
Dan: Well, that’s the thing with him. We had to make sure that he is an all around interesting person, because he can’t be just about being gay.
Sam: A lot of the mainstream superhero companies have tried to do gay characters over the years, but not with the same success that Archie Comics has had with Kevin. What do you feel they do wrong that you guys have done right?
Dan: Well, it’s kind of tricky what they did, because theirs were doing adult characters and I think they were scared to put them in relationships and make them fully-rounded. Where with Kevin, with him being a kid, we have the luxury of starting out slow, and moving forward from that point. I think that even though we started out slow, a lot of people have been surprised. People weren’t sure if we could use the word “gay.” Whether we would show him coming out. We’ve gone a little further then people thought we would.
Sam: I really enjoyed the first issue of the Kevin Keller mini-series, and I was surprised and delighted with the stories that you did tell, like the sequence where he came out to his friends and his family. It was a nicely put together read.
Dan: A good thing about him having his own book is that we were able to go back and do some of that.
Sam: Are you ever going to go so far as to show Kevin in a relationship?
Dan: Yes. That will happen. We don’t know when. Eventually, of course, we’ll have to. You can’t really have a fully evolved character until you get to that point. I think it’ll be a slow build to that, but it will happen.
Sam: Obviously you’re treading a fine line with doing family-oriented comics. It’s great that we’ve evolved into a society in which gay characters can be incorporated into family oriented books, but what sort of playing field are you guys dealing with when it comes to Kevin and the subject of romance? Do you feel that you have any restrictions?
Dan: Really, the same restrictions that we have with the regular Archie characters. We can’t show them really making out, or any heavy petting. Of course we show the characters kissing, but nothing sexual. The key is to really build characters you like, and then people will want to see Kevin with someone.
Sam: I was surprised by the military theme that you put in Kevin’s comic. How did that twist come about?
Dan: Well, that we can thank Victor Gorelick for because Victor was in the army himself. We just were thinking of interesting back-stories for Kevin, and we liked the idea of him traveling to different places around the world, and we were thinking that military people travel and Victor came up with the military angle. Then we took it further and thought about Kevin wanting to be in the military, like his father, and then the ball kept rolling form there.
Sam: I think it’s interesting due to the fact that the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” rule is currently being overturned in the US military.
Dan: It was funny, because when I was writing the story was when the debate was going on. I think I was just finishing the story when, back in December, Congress finally overturned “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” So of course it was in my head, and I knew people would relate that to the story.
Sam: But it’s interesting because you’ve been able to incorporate current politics into the story.
Dan: That’s probably the most political I’ve ever gone with the story. Part of it is that it is political, but it makes a good story and it’s an interesting angle. I don’t mind taking something from a headline if it makes a good story.
Sam: In the first issue of the Kevin Keller mini-series, you introduced readers to Kevin’s family, as well as his own friends, William and Wendy. With his own cast of characters, will Kevin be part of the regular Archie series, or go off and have his own series like Sabrina, Josie and the Pussycats or Bingo Wildkin, where they interact in the Archie Universe but are their own unique property?
Dan: We’ve discussed that too, but right now we think we’ll stay with the Riverdale characters, and especially Veronica. But I can see him going the other way too. As we start bringing in more of his friends, like Wendy and William, I can see a little bit of both. Right now, I like the way he plays off of the Archie characters, but it’d be great if he were strong enough to spin on his own.
Sam: Kevin’s first appearances are getting difficult to find. Is there going to be a Kevin Keller graphic novel?
Dan: Yes. There will be a trade coming out in December, and it’s going to be a hardcover back. It’ll have the two issues of Veronica that he was in, and the four issue mini series.
Sam: Now Kevin Keller isn’t the only Archie character that you’ve created. In the expanding world of Riverdale you’ve been responsible for a lot of fan favorites. This year a lot of interesting new characters were created in The New Kids storyline. What sort of part did you play in creating those characters?
Dan: The New Kids characters were created by a combination of Alex Simmons, myself and Fernando Ruiz. Fernando and I sketched out a lot of the characters, and Alex took them and created characters from those. Then Alex came up with ideas for characters we hadn’t created, and we came up with designs for those.
Sam: What’s the challenge of creating new characters and putting them into an established franchise like Archie Comics?
Dan: The thing is that you always want to keep things fresh. There are certain things that you can do, and that you can’t do, with the established five [Archie] characters. The have traits that are pretty much set in stone. So, to bring in new sort of angle stories, that’s when you bring in new characters. For example, as far as Reggie goes, he’s a bad guy but can’t do anything really terrible, but you can always bring in a new character that can do something pretty nasty. So you sort of bring in a bunch of new characters and you see which ones click. Some sort of fall by the wayside and some of them will really click.
Sam: I really like some of the New Kids and I am hoping that we’ll see more of them. Some of them were forgettable to me, but some of them did make an impact. It seemed that there were back stories being created which made me want to read more. Are some of these back-stories going to come up again?
Dan: Yeah. Actually, in an upcoming Archie book we use some of the New Kids characters. Shrill, who is one of the girls, she’s the Goth chick, and we use Danny, who is the skateboarding guy with the long hair. Actually, he’s in one of the Kevin Keller books coming up. There was a prom issue of Betty and Veronica that came out and we used a lot of the characters in that. We’ll definitely keep using them, and you can always tell which ones are clicking because they are the ones that we are using, and some of the others have already been forgotten.
Sam: For the record, my favorite of the New Kids are Shrill, and I’m glad to see that she’ll be getting more panel time, and I really liked the sensitive back story that you guys gave Vic.
Dan: In the upcoming issue of Archie, Shrill is the main character that we’ll be using. Vic and Betty seem to have a bit of a connection and we’ll probably use him again.
Sam: How many different characters have you created?
Dan: Obviously they don’t have the same popularity as Kevin, but I created Veronica’s cousin Marcy who is the nerdy girl; Brigid who is a singer, and is sort of a big girl; and some of the crazy Sabrina characters. I created Ginger Lopez and Jughead’s little sister Jellybean.
Sam: I remember when Jellybean made her debut, although I wasn’t even reading Archie Comics at the time. What made you decide to give Jughead a little sister?
Dan: Well, Betty has a brother and a sister, but except for her everybody in the Archie Universe is a single kid. Even Big Ethel, Midge, Moose, Dilton – none of them have siblings. We thought that was kind of odd, so we decided to give one of these characters a brother or a sister. We thought it’d be interesting to see how they’d react to it, and Jughead seemed like the character that we thought would be interesting. We ran it for about a year or so. We kind of ran it in real time where [Jughead’s Mom] was pregnant so we could build up the storyline for a while. They named [the baby] Jellybean because on the way to the hospital a jellybean truck overturned and they couldn’t get to the hospital because of the traffic jam.
Sam: Now my all time favorite Archie character of them all is Ginger Lopez. I absolutely love her. I don’t know what it is about her, but forget Betty or Veronica. I’m a Ginger Lopez guy. Ginger has had a strange and complex history in Archie Comics. She was, originally, a Cheryl Blossom replacement.
Dan: We recently addressed that in Betty #192 when she says that she is not some second rate Cheryl Blossom substitute.
Sam: So what is the background on the creation of Ginger Lopez? What happened that you had to write out Cheryl Blossom, and how did Ginger Lopez come out of that?
Dan: Well, [Archie Comics] thought that it would be a news worthy event if Cheryl Blossom moved out of Riverdale, but it really wasn’t. Nobody cared. Part of it too was that there was a Dan DeCarlo lawsuit going on, and Dan either created or co-created Cheryl. I don’t know the details of it, but what I do know is that they weren’t going to be using Cheryl for a while and they just wanted to sort of fill the bill. At the time I noticed that they had a few Hispanic characters. We had Maria Rodriguez and her boyfriend Freddie. So I thought I’d created someone new. I was thinking about Jennifer Lopez. Ginger came about and at first she was going to sort of be a third wheel for Archie, but it didn’t quite work out that way. She just seemed to work out as a friend to Betty and Veronica. We didn’t have that instant villainess, but it worked out better that way. Otherwise, it would have seemed really obvious that she was a Cheryl replacement. It just didn’t seem right. Of course, they were reprinting Cheryl stories in the digests and they were recolouring them to be Ginger. That was a big mistake. Well we weren’t really sure what we were going to do with Ginger, but when Cheryl did come back, Ginger was in the background again. So we had to figure out what to do with Ginger. So we decided to make her friends with Cheryl in the Battle of the BFF’s storyline, and the last couple of times we’ve used her she hasn’t been so nice, or so sweet, to Betty and Veronica. Not totally bitchy like Cheryl, but we’ve given her a little more edge and a little bit more personality. It works a little bit better then having her just be nice and sweet all the time.
Sam: Ginger isn’t going to be going away anytime soon?
Dan: No. I don’t think so.
Sam: This is a little off topic, but one way that you shook up the status quo with the Archie characters in the last two years was by developing what seems like a very natural romance between Archie and Valerie Brown from Josie and the Pussycats. Where did the inspiration to hook those two characters come from? It seemed so random, but it worked beautifully.
Dan: Well, part of it was, once again, that we are trying to show a little more diversity and Archie has never dated an African American character. But when I was fleshing out the story, we talked about Archie and Josie, but they were kind of too similar.
Sam: I can’t explain it, but Archie and Josie wouldn’t have been right. For some reason he just gels better with Valerie.
Dan: Well, that’s the thing. It was just one of those things where you wing it and see how it goes, and when we put the characters together it really seemed to gel, and those two characters worked better then Cheryl Blossom did, or any of the other characters other then Betty or Veronica.
Sam: Well, I actually thought that Archie seemed to work better with Valerie than Betty or Veronica. For some reason it just made more sense.
Dan: Valerie has become the biggest threat [to Betty and Veronica] because there seems to be some real substance to their relationship. In the storyline that’s coming up they reconnect and I think there is some real chemistry there.
Sam: Is this something that you’ll continue to play with in the future?
Dan: Definitely. It’s one of those things that you wouldn’t have expected it. I wouldn’t have expected that they’d connect so well until I wrote the story. It was just one of those stories that wrote itself. It was very easy to write.
Sam: Isn’t it interesting when characters take a life of their own?
Dan: That was definitely one of those stories. It was one of the easiest stories I ever had to write.
Sam: I think it’s interesting that throughout this conversation we’ve really been talking about how the world of Archie has evolved so much in the last decade, but essentially, it is still the same books and the same characters that it has been for the last seventy years. Archie continues to maintain without any reboots or reinvention. How is it that Archie Comics is able to stay so current and fresh and evolve without rebooting itself?
Dan: I think that it’s just a matter of knowing the characters and knowing how far we can go. We know we have to keep a certain look and we know that we have to maintain a certain image, but at the same time we know we have to grow so we can’t do exactly the same thing. [By adding] Kevin and new characters, it is shaking things up a little bit, but at the end of the day that when you read a Kevin book, it’s still an Archie story. There is a formula to it that has always worked. Things are generally positive in Riverdale. Things are going to always be upbeat. The stories will always be pro-Riverdale. We always want the readers to want to live in Riverdale and really they are feel good comics.
You know, I could talk about Archie Comics forever, and talking to one of the people responsible in breathing life into the Riverdale Gang is always a thrill. The work that Dan Parent, and all of the folks at Archie Comics, are doing has been truly incredible over the last few years. Even though Archie characters are still the ones you remember as a kid, the stories themselves are a lot different. The plots are smarter, more involved, and include a sense of continuity and a touch of cleverness that appeal to an audience of all ages. Gone are the “done in one” books, and while Archie books were often guilty of dumbing themselves down for the all ages audience in the past, the current production team at Archie Comics realize that kids today are far more sophisticated, and that a large part of Archie’s audience are the adults who have always loved them. As a result, Archie Comics has managed to find that fine line between their two audiences, providing smart and enjoyable all ages stories that can be enjoyed and collected by both kids and adults.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll probably say it again in the years to come – Archie Comics are the industry’s best-kept secret. If you haven’t picked up an Archie Comic since you were a kid, now is the time to do it. Riverdale has never been this good, and after a day of Mutant mayhem and DCnU headaches, there is nothing better than than going down to Pop’s Chocklit Shoppe and grabbing a malt and a burger with your favorite pals n’ gals.