Jon Goldwater was riding his New York commuter train, just two weeks into his new job as co-chief executive of Archie Comics, when a fellow passenger tossed off a remark that blindsided him. The fresh executive had an Archie folder on his lap, Goldwater recounts, “when a woman sitting near me turned and said: ‘They still make those?!’ ”
“It. Freaked. Me. Out,” Goldwater continues. “I almost got sick to my stomach.”
Yet he also took home the underlying message from the encounter several years ago: “If we didn’t change Riverdale, we would risk becoming irrelevant.”
Led by Goldwater, the creative minds at Archie Comics decided to “update” their characters, which hark back to a mid-century era of malt shops and letterman sweaters — when the jalopy chassis and presumed chastity went hand-in-hand. In 2010, Archie Comics entered the current century by introducing Kevin Keller, Riverdale’s “first openly gay character.” The result: headlines and turned heads that culminated in its “Marriage of Kevin Keller!” issue selling out this year.
To comics fans, none of this is new and surprising after decades of gay characters and relationships from mainstream publishers. But in the wake of President Barack Obama’s newly stated support of gay marriage, current examples of gay romance in comics have stepped into a klieg light of broader cultural resonance.
Last week, Marvel Comics announced the proposal and same-sex nuptials of Northstar, its first gay superhero, in “Astonishing X-Men” No. 50 (published this week) and No. 51 (it’s a June wedding). And just days before, DC publisher Dan DiDio said at London’s Kapow comic convention that a major DC character would soon become “one of our most prominent gay characters.”
“It was only natural that when New York legalized gay marriage last year,” says Marvel’s Tom Brevoort, editor of the “Astonishing X-Men” project, “our thoughts would turn to what impact this might have on Northstar and his ongoing relationship with his partner, Kyle. The story grew organically from there — and the zeitgeist at the moment gives it even greater relevance.”
Is 2012, then, a flashpoint for depicting gay relationships in mainstream comics, or is this just an editorial blip made brighter by the glare of electoral politics?
Tom Batiuk, an Akron native, Kent State graduate and Medina resident, is an Ohio man through and through. So it struck particularly close to home last year when he read about a parents’ group in the southern part of his state protesting a high school’s “tolerant attitude” toward gays.
“I still go out to my old high school,” says Batiuk, who was a classroom teacher before launching his syndicated comic strip “Funky Winkerbean” 40 years ago.
Batiuk knew then that somehow this picketing would make its way into his school-set strip, which has dealt with such non-traditional “funny page” issues as teen suicide and pregnancy, alcoholism and capital punishment. In 2008, Batiuk was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for “Lisa’s Story,” the arc in which one of “Funky’s” main characters battled breast cancer.
On the comics pages this month, Batiuk’s response to the parents’ protest has played out among “Funky’s” characters at Westview High. Two male students sought to attend the prom together, sparking what the cartoonist characterizes as a generational showdown. King Features says the story arc is now concluding.
“I’m not trying to proselytize here,” Batiuk says. “I had a viewpoint and I knew which side I came down on. It’s less an issue of [being gay] and more an issue of tolerance and intolerance. And that idea has been in ‘Funky’ from the very beginning.”
Goldwater knew what he was risking with his creative shake-up.
Yet Keller’s transfer to Riverdale High provided a sales boost, Archie Comics says, and in March, the company announced that “Life With Archie #16: The Marriage of Kevin Keller!” had sold out. (Archie Comics would not provide exact sales figures.) Goldwater also notes that he has received no subscription cancellations over the same-sex nuptials, and “not one person has called” to complain.
Keller is “the most important new character in Archie history,” Goldwater has said. And last year, Archie Comics contributor Dan Parent received a GLAAD media award nomination for Keller’s creation.
Goldwater does acknowledge that he’s mindful of the political climate. “We work in a bubble [here] while feeding off the climate,” he says. “We are not immune to what’s going on in the world and the rhetoric and the attacks that political parties are throwing at each other. . . . Readers deserve that we reflect some of what’s going on in society, and part of that is the political process. At Archie, we have a very strong point of view.”
Goldwater, like Batiuk, believes being relevant to the next generation is a creative imperative.
“We have to speak for the youth and to where the cultural shift in this country is going,” he tells us. “They’re the ones who are going to pick up the flag and wave it.”
Unlike “Funky Winkerbean,” Paige Braddock’s online comic “Jane’s World” relies on gay as well as straight characters as a consistent source of humor, which means the strip faces a specific set of challenges when trying to break into the mainstream.
“Over the years, I’ve definitely had some interesting conversations with newspaper editors and syndicate editors,” Braddock says of her strip, which debuted in 1998. “I had one editor tell me that ‘Jane’s World’ wasn’t gender-specific enough to be in papers. When I asked for clarification, he said that the comic didn’t deal with traditional female issues, like dieting, children, etc.”
This for a strip that bills itself as “the lesbian heir to hard-luck Charlie Brown.” The link to the great “Peanuts” strip isn’t just casual — the San Francisco area-based cartoonist is also the creative director at Charles Schulz’s studio in Santa Rosa.
Because “Jane’s World” is primarily an online comic, Braddock says she doesn’t hear from many detractors over subject matter. “I only hear from readers who are actually looking for gay-related content, or at the very least aren’t turned off by the gay content in ‘Jane’s World,’ which most of the time is pretty PG-rated. . . . And I’ve had quite a few straight readers email to thank me for giving them a glimpse into what it is to live as a gay person.”
Among mainstream syndicated comics, Garry Trudeau’s “Doonesbury” has featured gay characters, and Lynn Johnston was a Pulitzer finalist for a “For Better or For Worse” story line that addressed a youth’s homosexuality. But Braddock doesn’t think those occasional stories change the game and market for her. And she also doesn’t think prominent gay-themed graphic novels by such cartoonists as Howard Cruse and Alison Bechdel alter the playing field for mainstream newspaper comics, either.
“I’m proud of Lynn and Garry for doing these kinds of stories. I think when you are a well-established cartoonist, then the ‘powers that be’ will tolerate a potentially politically charged topic in your work once in a while,” Braddock says. “But as a general rule, a new strip couldn’t pull that off.”
All of these challenges leave “Jane” — as a gay-themed comic — at a creative crossroads.
“I’m considering what the next direction is for distribution,” Braddock says. “And I’m not sure I’ve settled on the answer yet, but I’m pretty sure doing a comic daily online will never be a way to create a viable income stream for cartoonists. . . .
“I’ll let you know when I figure it out.”