Kevin Keller, Archie and the New Riverdale

kevin-kellerI’m gonna come right out and say it, just so we’re all clear:

We are standing at the dawn of an Archie Renaissance, and Dan Parent is one of the key architects.

The old way of thinking, “nothing ever changes in Riverdale”, is as obsolete as my beloved Commodore 64. Change, real and lasting, is coming to Riverdale, and we are lucky enough to watch it unfold before our eyes. I’m too young (as in ‘not born yet’) to have followed the Apollo program, and I was more interested in “Appetite for Destruction” than the fall of the Soviet Union in the late 80′s, so I feel fortunate to be in the position to chronicle the massive events currently taking shape in the Archie universe.

For years now there has been a stealthy current of real change running through Riverdale, and for the last decade it has been a very subtle, under-the-radar kind of thing. The New Reality of Jughead Continuity evolved gradually over many years, for instance. Leadership at Archie had grown stale through the 90′s, and things were falling into kind of a “status quo” quagmire. There were always good stories, but everything was played very safe and by the numbers. I believe the New Reality of Jughead Continuity was the result of creators looking to change things up in a way that wouldn’t cause waves. It was also a very successful experiment in giving an established character new attributes.

Now that Archie has fresh blood at the top, change is coming in broad strokes. When Jon and Nancy took over as Co-CEOs last summer, there was an interview with EIC Victor Gorelick where he mentioned that there was a spirit of experimentation and creativity around Archie under Jon and Nancy that was comparable to the late 60′s, and had been absent for some time. And he would know, he’s been there for over 50 years. After the first year of their time at the top, it is safe to say that Jon and Nancy are willing to explore new ground and new ideas.

I was skeptical at first, as most fanboys are. I was worried we were going to see change for change’s sake, or morally bankrupt “stunt” issues. I spent innumerable sleepless nights worrying that the core values that have driven Archie for 70 years would be corrupted in the quest for the almighty dollar. One year on, it’s clear that everyone producing Archie comics right now shares my respect of these values and the characters.

This issue of “Veronica”, and the introduction of Kevin Keller is a clear turning point for Archie Comics and the culmination of a decade-long movement to change the perceptions people have of the Riverdale crew.

I mean, seriously, the first thing that happens is that Kevin takes Jug down in a burger-eating contest. This is monumental. Mon-u-men-tal. And it was a fair contest! We’ve seen Jug lose burger eating contests before, but always because he “warmed up” with a dozen burgers, or he “shouldn’t have eaten breakfast”, or he’s ill but still goes through with the contest for the greater glory of Riverdale. This was a fair duel, Jug simply came up short.

This is a shot across the bow if ever I’ve seen one. Kevin represents the New Riverdale, and in the New Riverdale the old clichés don’t necessarily apply.

Later on Kevin and Jug have a chicken wing-eating contest, and Jug only wins by one wing. Compare this to the 60′s or 70′s strips where Jug was an eater beyond compare. Now he’s going to have to fight to hold his title, in the cold Thunderdome of New Riverdale.

And of course Kevin’s addition to Riverdale teaches Ms. Veronica Lodge a lesson. This is where Kevin’s sexual orientation actually matters: for the first time Veronica will simply never get what she wants. Her money won’t change it, her outfits won’t change it, and her charm won’t change it: Kevin will never be her boyfriend. Even though Kev and Ron seem to be heading for BFF Land by the end of the issue, I hope this story thread isn’t abandoned completely. I think there is a chance to explore Veronica’s psyche a bit, and I hope Dan Parent takes it. How would the spoiled, rich girl cope with not being able to have something she desperately wants?

And not just cope with it for one day, but over a significant period of time. When her and Kevin are spending hours at the mall, or chatting into the night, will it rip her heart in two that this gorgeous boy will never be hers? Will her attraction to Kevin and his unavailability lead to Ronnie’s Apocalypse Now?

Which brings us to the biggest change that I see coming in Riverdale: the emotional maturation of the gang. This was very much a big theme in the Archie/Valerie Romance, and it continues here. Read the issue again after the reveal on the last page, and you’ll see that Kevin (as a representative of New Riverdale) is shaping and guiding events to get a read on his new contemporaries. Smart, bright and far from being a patsy, Kevin is in control the whole time. Archie characters are no longer socially-retarded anachronisms, but as quick and savvy as today’s media-polluted teens.

Further proof of this is seen when Ron breaks up Betty and Kevin’s conversation. As opposed to the slap-stick antics of old, the rivalry between Ron and Betty plays out in the subtle gestures and dirty looks between the ladies. The panel that shows Ronnie getting irked at Betty touching Kevin speaks volumes as to the new direction things are taking. It ain’t about sock-hops and Saturday dates anymore, the Archie gang is now en route to becoming as sophisticated as their readers. Three panels later Ms. Lodge has her arm on Kevin to show Ms. Cooper up, a move that I’m pretty sure everyone can relate to.

It isn’t just the audience’s perceptions of the characters that’s going to be shaken up, but the perceptions of Archie as a whole.

For years the snide joke has been that Jughead is clearly gay, and Dan Parent basically sends that joke up in this issue when Kevin hands him a Valentine’s heart. And here’s the interesting thing: Ronnie seemed to totally think that she was losing out to Jug. This marks, I believe, the first time a Riverdale resident has publicly indicated that they think Jug’s lack of interest in women is due to hidden homosexuality.

And I think there’s a possibility that Kevin played along with Jug to find out if this was the case. He seems to be fishing a couple of times for Jug to explain how well they’ve connected, and he could have interpreted Jug’s reluctance for Kevin to reveal his orientation to Veronica as a self-loathing kind of neuroses. Which, really, is better than the truth: That Jug’s actions were fuelled by pettiness and cruelty.

Which is another eye-opener in this issue. Jug isn’t all that likeable, at all. His motives are shallow, and his actions are questionable at best. He attempts to control Kevin for his own ends, not exactly the behaviour of a good friend. I’m kind of hoping Kevin freezes him out over his shenanigans; Jug will regret losing the possible friendship of a kindred spirit and may learn to not be a smarmy dick.

Kevin even poses an age-old question for the audience to ponder: When Ethel is chasing Jug, Kevin asks “Why doesn’t he just tell her that he’s not interested?”. Through the development of the New Reality of Jughead Continuity we’ve learned that Jug is not, in fact, a girl-hater. He has made it quite clear that he avoids romance because he sees the trouble it causes those around. He has openly admitted to dating Ethel, and has gone out of his way to protect her feelings. In the “Freshman Year” stories we learned of Jug’s first love and the heartbreak that followed, giving his reluctance to get serious some depth.

I also don’t think it’s any coincidence that the panels containing this question are the most cartoonish of the issue. Since Dan both wrote and drew the issue, we can safely assume there is a reason for this depiction. The most obvious answer is that Dan is showing that the new citizens of Riverdale (and there will be more as “The New Kids” unfolds later this year) have the same questions and observations as the audience, and they eye the cartoonish behaviour of the gang a little cynically. Through the new cast members Dan Parent will be able to deconstruct all the archetypes inherent in Archie comics, and guide the audience into new ways of looking at the characters.

And what of the classic love triangle? We were told that the Archie/Valerie romance would have a lasting effect and didn’t end with the Pussycat’s tour, so we can assume that Val is still on Archie’s mind. It seems the big stories since Arch and Val got together have mainly been parodies, a vehicle in which the classic triangle can be exploited without diminishing the new direction things are taking.

In this issue the classic triangle is on display, but isn’t really part of the story. Kevin comments on the lunacy of two best friends chasing the same dude, and Betty lets Ron chase Kevin so that she can pursue Archie without her brunette rival, but the romantic antics between the three are pretty subtle. The first time we see Archie reacting to Ronnie’s infatuation with Kevin, it’s left pretty vague as to whether he’s annoyed that she’s throwing herself at another guy or if he’s upset that she’s making a fool of herself. We know for a fact he’s put-out, he has “annoyance lines” emanating from his head, but Mr. Parent doesn’t make it explicit what the cause of his frustration is. It’s subtle shading like this that lends current Archie it’s unique flavour.

Archie demonstrates his ability to project "annoyance lines". Please note: Kevin's eyebrows in the first panel indicate his amusement at the dynamic between Archie and Veronica.
Archie demonstrates his ability to project “annoyance lines”. Please note: Kevin’s eyebrows in the first panel indicate his amusement at the dynamic between Archie and Veronica.

In fact these two “annoyed” panels constitute the sum total of Archie’s reaction to Veronica’s lust for Kevin. Obviously this is a way to maintain the “classic” themes without betraying the bigger story that is taking place (the bigger story being the new level of maturity Archie has discovered through his respectful and honest relationship with Valerie). We later see Archie, Ron and Betty in a panel filled with cartoon hearts, and the three of them argue in the background of one panel. There is no dialog, and the lay-reader probably assumes it’s all business as usual with the three of them. The “heart panel” is clearly there to have Kevin comment on the dysfunctional dynamic that exists with the triumvirate, and like the Jug and Ethel panel it’s cartoonishness is emphasized to allow Kevin to become a surrogate for the reader. The “argument panel” is a visual way to connect with the most recognizable aspects of Archie, and the lack of dialog or exposition leaves it up to the reader what they’re arguing about. Most people will assume it’s the standard dating snafus, but don’t count on it.

Then there’s Archie’s reaction to Ronnie’s hot red dress. The way his hair stands up on end and he proclaims “Yowza” may seem, to some, to be evidence that his heart still belongs to Ronnie. I think it’s foreshadowing of an issue that will test Archie and Valerie: Archie’s adolescent libido vs. his newfound maturity. The Archie of old wouldn’t have left Veronica alone after she shoved him aside, but the new Archie is out of there. His hormones took control for a moment, but then his brain and heart re-engaged and set him straight. Look for Archie’s struggle with this duality to become a recurring theme. Granted, a lot of this is supposition and takes place off-panel, but come on, it’s pretty clear.

Betty Cooper also surprises us in this issue. Have we ever seen Betty ignore the angel on her shoulder in favour of the devil? I don’t think so. In this case she not only ignores the angle, but contemptuously flicks it away. This is another clear sign post of the new direction. Betty as the meek, kind, never-do-wrong girl next door is played out. Betty Cooper will now be a more complex young lady, willing to humiliate her friend in pursuit of her own goals. She even tells her shoulder-angel that she needs to shake things up. This is not a throw-away panel, this is a pivotal moment for Ms. Cooper.

And what about Betty’s second suitor? I speak of course about Adam Chisholm. While he isn’t explicitly named in the issue, Kevin is shown at one point conversing with an attractive young man with light-brown hair. When I asked Dan Parent if this was indeed Adam, he said it “wasn’t intended to be” but if I wanted it to be, to go ahead. I think this clearly illustrates that I’ve been right in my thinking that Archie editorial and the creators are choosing sides in the epic third tier war.

For quite a while the third tier characters have been warring amongst themselves for legitimacy and panel time. I’ve long championed Adam and his quest to woo Betty, but have been dismayed in recent months that Adam is getting pushed out. I take Dan’s response to my question as proof of this. There is no way that a character featured in a panel with the new character is just random. Of course Mr. Parent can’t admit that it’s Adam, there are forces at Archie working against Adam and Mr. Parent is too smart to put himself in the cross-fire. By allowing me to declare that the mystery man on page five is indeed Mr. Chisholm, Dan Parent is giving Adam a chance to stay in the game.

The third-tier players who do get some decent panel time are Ginger Lopez and Kumi Tamura. Kumi has been getting a decent amount of panel time, and it makes sense. I’m sure pretty much every high school these days has a healthy population of students with Asian heritage, so integrating Kumi helps to bring Riverdale more in line with the contemporary world. Ginger has a Hispanic last name, which gets her points, and her two-tone hair sets her apart from the crowd.

What worries me here is that this could be an indication that the only way to compete in the third tier is to have something that immediately sets you apart. Having a good heart and light brown hair just isn’t going to cut it in New Riverdale.

The challenge will be for an Archie writer to find something for Adam that gives him a competitive edge. Somewhere, there must be someone willing to champion this great man. As we explore the themes of responsibility and maturity in the future, it would be a great time to have Betty date Adam seriously. He’s picked her, and only her. He doesn’t give a crap about Ronnie, isn’t tempted by Midge, not into Nancy. He’s the handsome everyman who will treat Betty the way we always wished Archie would. Isn’t that one of the things we’ve seen precious little of in Riverdale? Betty actually being happy and treated well? How many storied have ended with Archie and Ron riding off and Betty with tears rolling down her cheeks? Too many.

With the new characters coming in later this year, Dan Parent and the creators at Archie have a great opportunity to establish a “rival gang” for our characters. Here’s an idea: Adam could be at the centre as the average-joe character! If he had a best friend/sidekick, a nemesis and a girl chasing him (even though he’s interested in another) a fresh new dynamic could be added to Riverdale High. Kind of like the Bizarro episode of Seinfeld. Anyways, watch for the themes Dan has been playing with to become more explicit, and for the changes in our characters to stick around and have impact on the stories.

We really are standing on the verge of a new frontier of Archie, and “Veronica” #202 is a guide to what we can expect.

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