09 December 2011

Kevin Keller #2

Introduction by Johanna Draper Carlson:

Archie Comics' traditional approach focused on capturing trends once its older writers and artists heard about them, leading some to say that you know fads are over once they appear in an Archie comic. Now, under new management, Archie seems to be chasing hot topics as a way of gaining free publicity, especially among the wider mainstream media. So, between "Archie gets married" magazines and an "Archie meets KISS" licensed story comes this political football. Kevin Keller #2 (actually Veronica #208 in indicia labeling) cover-features the new gay kid character praising (with four visual flag elements) his military dad, alluding to recent real-life events involving gays in the military and the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" several months ago.

The actual story isn't as focused or patriotic. Kevin's family wants to plan a party for dad's birthday, and since Veronica is always hanging around, she gets involved. (The two characters most often paired with Kevin in the stories he's appeared in so far are Veronica, who seems to view a gay best friend as a key accessory, and Jughead, whom Kevin has a large number of characteristics in common with, hmmm.) The family event gives Veronica an excuse to "snoop through [Kevin's] private stuff", as he puts it, including photos that result in flashback stories of Kevin's life as a military brat.

Kevin is bullied as a younger kid but learns to stand up for himself through athletic accomplishment. Kevin misses his dad, stationed away from the family. Kevin protects his friends when they get picked on. This isn't much of a story, more a collection of feel-good reminders of how one should behave in dealing with difficult circumstances.

The art is standard current Archie look, with simple lines and faces and bright, eye-catching colors. It has energy, as figures are always gesturing or posing, in spite of the stories being driven by dialogue instead of images.

Readers looking for stories specifically focusing on life as a gay teen will be disappointed, as only one of the incidents deals with hazing specifically for that reason, and it's phrased in terms of Kevin seeming effeminate, not gay. That gives Kevin's story a normality and universality that's a good thing, but it also ignores the part of his character that makes him particularly distinctive. I hope the two remaining issues of this series show Kevin dating, just as the other teens do. While we're told every issue that Kevin is gay, we have yet to see that in the visuals.

Roger Green:

I may not be reading lots of comics these days, but even I knew, from general media stories, that Kevin Keller was supposed to be this "revolutionary" character in the Archie Comics universe. I hadn't read any of the stories, though. Yet this second issue, scripted and penciled by Dan Parent, could serve as an origin issue for both Kevin and his family.

Kevin is talking with Veronica Lodge in a living room when Ronnie overhears Kevin's sister and mom making plans. Veronica, always the buttinsky, inserts herself in the scheme for a surprise party for Kevin's dad. In doing so, she unearths the Keller family history from Kevin's parents dating to life as a military family, with Kevin needing to be the "man of the house." She, and we, also discover Kevin, always the new kid in class, had been bullied, but eventually grew strong enough, physically and emotionally, to overcome.

I found the story enjoyable, even occasionally moving. Kevin had come out as gay in high school, but that doesn't even warrant a mention until the 10th page and is disposed of by the end of the 11th. Some might find Kevin's conversion from victim to protector not credible, but I did; there is always a bit of trying harder when one is the outsider. The narrative shows a level of patriotism that, for the most part, was not TOO cloying or xenophobic. The ending, though, seemed to go on a little long, and the word "musketeers" was misspelled a couple times.

As for the artwork, it looked like old-style Archie work. I mean, it's not Dan DeCarlo, but no one is. There are some long shots that are not well drawn, including one of the Archies band, but most of it is quite decent. The last Archie book I had read was a "new look" story penciled by the great Joe Staton. And while I grew to like it, I'm traditional enough to appreciate the standard look. One other thing: Kevin's eyes in this story are SO blue; Paul Newman blue, and I briefly found it distracting, but forgot about it after a while.

Christopher Allen:

In the past year or so, Archie Comics has taken steps to introduce at least one aspect of real life into their humor books with the introduction of openly gay teen, Kevin Keller. I haven’t read a lot of them, but it’s obviously a difficult balancing act, as sexuality has historically had very little place within the Riverdale universe. Archie may vacillate between Betty and Veronica, but aside from a little kissing, it’s not clear what he would do with either of them.

So, in Kevin Keller, we have a character whose sexuality as a generator of story material is restricted mainly to how others perceive him, not really what it means to him. Kevin is gay because we are told so. There are no indicators in his speech or body language. As such, he could present a broad canvas upon which readers can paint their own frustrations, pain and triumph, whether gay, straight, teenaged, pre-teen, or older, in a way that the late ‘70s-‘80s Uncanny X-Men did, young mutants as a metaphor for anyone disenfranchised or persecuted. But, at least with this issue, Kevin is instead a relatively untroubled young man, overcoming any obstacles or resistance with guilelessness and a can-do attitude.

The story for this issue, such as it is, involves Kevin, his mother and sister planning a surprise birthday party for Kevin’s dad, a retired Colonel. Kevin’s friend, Veronica, offers to help with the decorations, and the tiny bit of comedy and drama in the story comes from her going overboard and almost ruining the surprise by putting balloons and signs OUTSIDE. Ha. Equally clumsy is the artwork, which seems to have taken the tack that in order to become more relevant, let’s lose almost all traces of the recognizable Archie house style and leave only the most workmanlike elements: coloring book-style thick outlines on figures with incongruous, too-fine lines for everything else. Inker Rich Koslowski needs to keep working on his tablet settings.

But, while the surprise party plot is rather weakly structured and unfunny, the issue does succeed in certain areas. Kevin’s mother’s pride in her husband and his military service is nice, as are the flashbacks where Kevin first overcomes homophobia via superior athletic ability, and later by paying it forward and helping a younger schoolmate going through similar bullying. It’s also hard to come down too hard on the relationship between Kevin and his dad. Yes, it’s less interesting to have uncomplicated mutual love and admiration — stories are after all about conflict — but if anyone not experiencing this gets a bit of encouragement that things can get better, great. The Archie books have historically been a lighthearted escape from reality. It would probably be unfair to expect these baby steps into reality to go much farther than this.

Alan David Doane:

The primary purpose of Kevin Keller, the comic book, seems to be to send a positive message to teens and other readers that being gay isn't evil, wrong or disgusting. Kevin is a funny, good-natured dude whose life history is looked at in this issue, and although we see that he's experienced some bullying and bullshit that will be familiar not only to gays but to most kids who've been through high school (I lived a variant of the pudding incident seen herein myself, and it's the most humiliating memory of my teenage years), he and his family have survived bigotry and hate and feel like a healthy and fully-drawn family.

The depiction of a 21st century family requires a three-dimensional approach to storytelling that demands all the rest of the regular Archie characters be just a little more complex and nuanced than they usually are in their other, more solely entertainment-minded titles. It's a welcome development and a good sign for society as a whole when a publisher the size of Archie Comics makes a bold move to just be honest about the fact that it's okay to be gay, or have a gay family member, without being particular pedantic or preachy. The script even acknowledges the risk of such an approach, when Veronica says "this is like one of those greeting card commercials! Does Kevin do anything wrong?" It's a chance to acknowledge that gays are people too, with good points and shortcomings, like any other human being. The story and art are up to the usual Archie standard, in addition to being educational, positive and progressive in its nature.

When I was a kid reading Archie Comics, the only Archie offering similar to this was the vanilla-coated Spire Christian Comics featuring the Archie characters. I haven't looked at those in decades, and can't say if they were as positive a cultural development as the creation of Kevin Keller is, but it seems unlikely. Kevin Keller seems to say that we should rely on our family and friends for support and try to develop our own strength (both inner and physical) as a way to respond to life's challenges. That seems to me a far better, more humanistic and mature message to send to readers, and if the overall end result seems more well-intentioned than brilliantly executed, it's still one that the folks at Archie Comics are to be applauded for.

Joseph Gualtieri:

Ten years ago, I never would have thought that Archie Comics would not only still be around but thriving after reinventing itself as their titular franchise heads towards its seventieth anniversary in a few weeks. That’s not shabby for a property rooted in nostalgia for Depression-era Haverhill. Like a lot of comics readers, I briefly read Archie comics alongside other entry-level comics like GI Joe and Transformers. Up until the company began modernizing itself a few years ago, my only relationship with the company for about 20 years was chuckling at covers dug up by bloggers. In the last couple of years though they put out some intriguing download-only comics and I certainly couldn’t resist checking out the first issue of the new Life With Archie series (and the company smartly put out a trade for adults who don’t want to wade through Justin Bieber pictures).

That brings us to the comic up for review this week, Kevin Keller #2. Keller, the first openly gay Archie character, is another key part of the company reinventing itself for twenty-first century. The most remarkable thing about this comic is that it’s not remarkable at all; Keller’s simply portrayed as relative newcomer to Riverdale who happens to be gay and comes from a military family. The latter element is actually more a part of the story than Keller’s homosexuality. The issue of bullying comes up, but the comic depicts it was being something that anyone who’s smaller and more awkward than the bullies goes through, not just “girly boys” (as one of the bullies calls Keller).

The comic isn’t perfect in terms of representation though. While it does a terrific job of depicting Keller as normal, he’s also Cam-and-Mitchelled. It’s actually hard to tell that Keller’s gay from the comic; sure the bullies hurl insults at him, but I can’t help but wonder if someone reading the comic without knowing that he’s gay would think Veronica’s his girlfriend and the bullies were just mocking him. The Keller in Life With Archie is due to get married, but the company should make sure that the contemporary version actually dates. This is just one issue, so I’m not going to judge it too harshly for not showing Keller dating.

Overall, if I had kids I’d be more than happy to hand this comic to them. The level of craft involved is what I expect from Archie and while it could be a little better in terms of representing Keller’s homosexuality, I’m pretty happy that it shows Keller as just another part of Archie’s world.

Jason Urbanciz:

Kevin Keller is the latest addition to the ageless cast of the Archie universe. Though I don’t think I’ve ever read a single Archie comic, the basics are familiar to anyone, as if they are ingrained on the genetic memory of all Americans of a certain age. This issue, the second of Kevin’s solo title gives us a quick run-through of Kevin’s personal history and his relationship with his Dad, an Army Colonel (named, appropriately, The Colonel) while Kevin and Veronica ready his home for his Dad’s big birthday party.

Kevin relates his pre-Riverdale history to Veronica through the lens of having to grow up without his Dad around a lot. Since Kevin is gay that meant dealing with bullies, but also helping people who were in a similar situation to him and it’s all handled very well, and with kid-appropriate revenge upon the bullies (a locker full of pudding). Heck, Kevin even notes he got detention for the pudding incident, as if to tell the younger readers there are consequences for even the most well-intentioned bits of mischief.

The book definitely takes aim at communicating some heavy topics at its young audience, including an injury the Colonel incurred while in the Army (presumably on the battlefield). While writer/penciler Dan Parent generally hits the topics head-on, he does so with a soft touch, and his bright, colorful art keeps the mood light.

I’m sure that because of Kevin’s sexual orientation, some people will want to assign a political viewpoint to what is a kids' comic, but the simple message is that gay people are people too who deserve basic human respect. It says something when that in itself is a shocking message we need to shield our children from.

It’s a fun comic, with some funny jokes and a good message for kids to not be jerks and stick up for people who need it.

Yan Basque:

I read a few Archie comics when I was a kid. After that, they fell almost completely off my radar for a decade or more, but I started paying attention again last year when they introduced Kevin Keller. I was curious about how this openly gay character would fit into the world of Riverdale, which from my recollection seemed to be perpetually frozen in a 1950s nostalgia.

Kevin Keller is definitely a contemporary character. Not because he is openly gay, but because his homosexuality is both his primary defining characteristic -- his entire reason for existing as a fictional construct, in fact -- while it is simultaneously treated as being of absolutely no importance. By avoiding every gay stereotype, they've created a character who is exactly like everybody else. Had I not known before reading this comic that he was gay, I would have been very surprised when he casually mentions on page 11 that he had "already come out" about a year ago in high school. This statement and the little anecdote that follows, where his classmates call him a "girly boy" and he humiliates them by winning a race (yawn!), are the only evidence of him being gay that I found in the story.

Since I haven't read any of Kevin Keller's previous appearances in Archie comics, I don't know how much of a backstory he's been given. Has he had any boyfriends? When did he come out to his parents and friends? This comic hints at some trouble with bullies when he was younger, but the cause of the bullying is not specified. I don't want to suggest that the only stories featuring a gay character that matter is those of him coming out or making out with other boys, but I'm finding it very difficult to relate to this character when everything about his life is so... unproblematic? (I'm struggling to find the right word here.)

It's not that there is no conflict or drama in the story. It's just that the problems the characters face are impossible to take seriously when they're easily resolved in a few panels and don't have any lasting consequences. An absent father during childhood doesn't leave any emotional scars. Being bullied and beaten by schoolmates is no big deal -- you just cope with it. Your dad gets injured and feels guilty about having to retire from the army? Just write a front page newspaper article about it and make him realize that he's a hero.

In the behind-the-scenes discussion for this week's edition of Flashmob Fridays, I suggested that having a gay character in Riverdale and addressing very topical issues like gays in the military and gay marriage were inherently political. Upon further reflection, though, I think my biggest disappointment with this comic is that it is so profoundly apolitical. It doesn't seem to have anything to say about anything at all.

Am I happy that this character and this comic book exist? I guess so. I mean, if Archie comics are going to continue to appear on the stands, then I'd rather they do so with an openly gay character as part of the cast. And Kevin Keller is consistent with the universe in which he exists. I don't know if Archie comics could have done an openly gay character any differently without completely changing the rest of Riverdale.

Scott Cederlund:

Kevin Keller #2 (or Veronica Presents #208, whatever you prefer to call it) has something a lot of comic books don’t have; it has a message. And it’s a good message. Rather than assume stereotypical roles for Kevin, a gay boy, and father, a military man through and through, and recreate a typical antagonism that’s best characterized as “you don’t tell, I won’t ask,” Dan Parent writes a story about a somewhat typical suburban family that’s trying to throw a surprise birthday party for their father. It’s the stuff of 1950 era sitcoms that’s still fairly simple and easy to relate to still in 2011. “Oh, look at the antics of the Keller family. They’re like I Love Lucy only I don’t think Ricky Jr. was gay.”

Parent’s story is filled with good role models, good lessons and good sentiment. It’s “good” in the way that Mr. Rogers or Sesame Street is “good” but it’s not a story. Parent puts together a string of events and memories but there’s very little development that happens in this issue. Nothing at the end of the issue is any different than anything at the beginning of the issue other than a party is thrown. We find out a bit about Kevin, growing up as a military brat and the troubles of being gay during high school but it’s just a recital of recollections of a character that does not know how to build any drama.

At the end of the issue, you’re supposed to feel good (there’s that word again) about Kevin, his family and maybe even your own feelings about the character. And you know that you are supposed to feel that way because all of the characters are laughing, smiling, playing jangly music and feeling generally up with life. They’re doing that because they haven’t gone through anything this issue. Parent runs down the events of Kevin’s life but there’s never any drama in those events. There’s never any movement forward or growth for the characters because they haven’t gone through anything that really challenges them in this issue. Even the bullying displayed because of Kevin’s homosexuality comes across as little more than typical school bullying because Kevin always faces it with a smile and a wink as he shows the bullies just the kind of man he is. Events are on display in this issue but they are never explored to understand just how these events affect anyone involved.

This book has a good heart and the depiction of a supportive family and loving friends is admirable but it’s only a message showing us how to act without showing the consequences of our own hurtful actions to others. It’s a book with a fine agenda. Kevin Keller #2 doesn’t have much of a story but it’s got a good message for its readers.

Buy Kevin Keller HC from Amazon.com.

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