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NEAL CONAN, host:

Riverdale High, home of the wholesome, the upright, the relentlessly mainstream, has a new student.�The all-American school, home of Archie and Jughead, enrolled Kevin Keller in September. And Kevin is interested in neither Betty nor Veronica, because he's openly gay. And while Kevin Keller is hardly the first gay character in a mainstream comic, Riverdale represents something very different than the X-Men's New York or Superman's Metropolis.

Joining us to talk about it is Glen Weldon. He blogs about comics for NPR's pop-culture blog, Monkey See. He also reviews them for npr.org. And he joins us from Studio 3A. And Glen Glen, I have to - are you sitting in my seat, Glen?

GLEN WELDON: I am not. They actually asked me not to.

CONAN: Oh, good.

WELDON: Yes.

CONAN: Well, we appreciate that. That's all right. Of course, we want to hear from listeners as well. How important is that Riverdale reflects the times? Should Riverdale remain in that timeless bubble of the malt shop instead? Give call us: 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. You can join the conversation at our website, npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And Glen, how is Kevin Keller introduced?

WELDON: Well, it's important that you stipulate openly gay, Neal, because, you know, the jury is out on Jughead. He has been fending off Big Ethel for decades now. And you know, Professor Flutesnoot has always personally pinged my gaydar. But yeah, they introduced him the way they introduce a lot of characters into the Archie mythos. I hesitate to call it a mythos. He moves to town. And through no fault of his own and perfectly unwittingly, he upsets the delicate equilibrium that exists between the five principals. In this case, he is hanging out with Jughead, Veronica comes over, falls kind of madly in love with him because he's a very attractive young man, and in so doing insults Veronica - and he takes it upon himself - Jughead does - to get revenge on Veronica by making sure that nobody tells Veronica that Kevin is gay.

So again, this is the normal way that characters are introduced -hijinks ensue. Lessons are learned. Everybody leaves friends. What remains to be seen is how much he's actually going to be hanging around Riverdale after this. They've introduced several African-American characters, several Asian characters, several - an Indian character, Hispanic characters. And then they kind of tend to cycle into the background.

So there is plan - there are plans to bring Kevin Keller back. Already they've stated that. And that's certainly more than has happened with, say, Tamiko(ph). But there are a couple of African-American characters who've kind of made into the second tier...

CONAN: Tier, yeah.

WELDON: Yeah.

CONAN: The B-list of students at Riverdale High.

WELDON: Your Mooses, your Midges, your Big Ethels, your Dilton Doileys. Chuck and Nancy are two African-Americans, are kind of in that same thing. So whether or not Kevin makes it to the big time or if he's just sort of (unintelligible) remains to be seen.

CONAN: They did say, in a press release, that he would not be a one-shot, that they did plan to bring him back with three or four episodes at least.

WELDON: Mm-hmm. And that's the interesting thing about this character. Riverdale, as you said, has this interesting - the "Archie" books have this interesting tension. They have to attempt to adapt to the times while pretending that the times don't change.

CONAN: Right.

WELDON: So how they dealt with this character, how they introduced him, which was a very - in the way of the "Archie" books, innocuous to the point of blandness. You know, that was an interesting and very matter-of-fact, non-apologetic way of presenting him, and it was really interesting to see.

CONAN: It is interesting to look at who the audience - intended audience - we think about comic books - well, most of them are sold these days to people over 30 years old.

WELDON: Yes.

CONAN: They're not really intended for young people. Not so with "Archie".

WELDON: Geeks like me is what you're trying to say, yes. Yes.

CONAN: And me too.

WELDON: Yes, okay. Well, yes, especially superhero books. It might surprise some parents to realize that a lot of the books that involve people in capes and cowls beating up on each other to fight crime aren't necessarily going to be guaranteed kid-friendly. The "Archie" books are kind of pointed toward tweens. But you know, comics are a medium, and they're a broad medium. So the "Archie" books are kind of - tended to be all ages. There are adult comic books, and there are a lot, a lot of great comics for kids, especially interesting(ph) for kids. The problem is you don't find them in the supermarkets. You don't find them in the grocery stores. You find them - if you find them at all - in libraries and in comic book stores.

CONAN: Which is a completely different marketing system than existed before. Riverdale also, there have been previous attempts in history to bring "Archie" up to date. And indeed, well, we all remember, "Sugar, Sugar."

WELDON: Of course. They were rocking in the free world, "The Archies" were. Yeah. The - what's interesting is that the creators of "Archie," the publishers of "Archie," have always tended conservative. In fact, in 1972, they leased - well, I should say licensed the characters of "Archie" to a Christian publisher who then proceeded to take the characters and publish a series of 20 or so religious tracts. So - and they were evangelical Christian, unsubtle. And, you know, it was weird to see Jughead kind of hectoring you about the evils of divorce and witchcraft and sex education.

But those books are out there. And if you can find them, they're a lot of fun. But, yes, to kind of go from that in 1972 to having the presentation of a very matter-of-fact gay character is quite a long way.

CONAN: Here's an email question from Eli(ph) in Anthony, New Mexico. Does this apply to the Mexican version as well? I grew up reading that one. I'm not sure this would go over too well back home.

WELDON: Well, this book, we introduced Kevin in a book called "Veronica," which is one of many, many, many in the "Archie" oeuvre.

(Soundbite of laughter)

WELDON: It - and the ones - the "Archie" comics that you find in supermarkets tend to be really thick digests printed on really cheap paper. There's new comics - there's new stories and they're mixed in with reprints. "Veronica" is not that. "Veronica" is one you would find in a comic book shop. It looks like a regular comic book. So he hasn't appeared in - throughout the (unintelligible) Archie universe yet, but it's - the year is young.

CONAN: We're talking about "Archie" comics and their entry into the 21st century. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. And we'll start with Matt(ph). And Matt's on the line from Cleveland.

MATT (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi, Matt.

MATT: Hi. I was just calling to say that I was more upset by Archie choosing Veronica over Betty than I ever would be by a gay character being introduced in the comic.

CONAN: You did, of course, see the following issue where, in fact, it was Betty who was the choice and not Veronica.

MATT: Oh, was it? See, I didn't even hear about that.

WELDON: Yeah, just...

CONAN: Oh, you just dropped them like a rock after he chose Veronica.

WELDON: These were all...

MATT: (Unintelligible) that kind of changed the whole dynamic of everything, I thought.

WELDON: Yeah. But see, nothing ever changes in Rivendale(ph). I mean, if it - in Riverdale, if it happens, it happens very slowly. That was an imaginary story...

MATT: Ah.

WELDON: ...as opposed to the hard-hitting gritty reality of Riverdale. But, yeah, that was just sort of a self-contained little imaginary story that they did...

MATT: Okay.

WELDON: ...to get attention and mainstream press, which they really did in a big way.

MATT: (Unintelligible).

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call.

MATT: No problem.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's go next to - this is Kevin. And Kevin is with us from Hampstead in North Carolina.

KEVIN (Caller): Yeah, hi. I just wanted to mention that when this story originally came out at - of the new character - my name is actually Kevin Keller.

WELDON: Ha.

KEVIN: And, man, there were howls...

(Soundbite of laughter)

MATT: ...coming from my workmates because I'm, you know, I'm a male nurse.

WELDON: Mm-hmm.

KEVIN: You know, I (unintelligible) for most of my life, so this character has, like, long, you know, flowing blond hair and all my friends and family thought this was an absolute riot...

WELDON: Mm-hmm.

KEVIN: ...for not only having my first name, but you know, first name, last name as well.

CONAN: Kevin, I will confess that the high school I graduated from was Riverdale.

WELDON: Huh.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KEVIN: Yeah. No such linkage for me. But I think that was quite enough.

(Soundbite of laughter)

WELDON: Did you have letterman jacket, Neal?

CONAN: I did have a letterman jacket.

WELDON: Awesome.

CONAN: I - no sport. You got one for working at the newspaper.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Kevin.

KEVIN: Thanks, guys.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's - I wanted to ask you well, let's see if we can get another caller on the line. And let's go to - this is Bob, Bob with us from Beaverton in Oregon.

BOB (Caller): Yes, sir.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

BOB: Yeah, I'm 63 years old. I'm a retired school teacher and also a football coach. And I just wanted to tell you that I think it's great. I'm all in favor of it. I think it's about time. And I just wanted to tell you that it's a character that's much needed. And I lusted for both Betty and Veronica, too. So...

(Soundbite of laughter)

BOB: As many people did. So, anyway...

CONAN: Do you think...

BOB: ...I think I'm all - and I read them all the time when I was growing up, all the time. And so...

CONAN: Do you know anyone who reads them now, Bob?

BOB: You know, I have to confess, I don't think I do. I don't think I do. I'm sorry about that, but I don't think I do. But I'm glad you're doing it and I'm glad you're running a segment and I'm all in favor of it.

CONAN: All right.

BOB: So that's all I want to say.

WELDON: Thank you.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call. Bye-bye.

BOB: Thank you.

CONAN: It's - the eternal triangle of Archie, Betty and Veronica, this of course can never be resolved because this is one of the great conundrums of Western civilization.

WELDON: Yeah.

CONAN: It's along there with Ginger and Mary Ann, I suppose.

WELDON: Yeah, yeah. It's the central plot of these books. I mean, really, there are five characters, but it's - it comes down to those three. And you know, when people get upset about the introduction of the gay character, what I say to them is, well, what is more worrisome to you, that this comic acknowledges that gay people exist or that its only two real female characters are in - almost entirely defined by fighting over a dude? You know? I mean, you have to kind of put things in some kind of perspective here.

CONAN: Let's go next to - this is Joe, Joe with us from Oakland.

JOE (Caller): Yeah, hi. My question is basically in two parts. And I should say upfront that I really don't care if they introduce a gay character or not. But Kevin Keller - first off, okay, it's well and good that he says he's gay. But if he doesn't have a boyfriend or ever expressed a romantic interest in any other - of the other men - young men at this high school, isn't that kind of a very vacuous form of gayness?

And for that matter, if they do at some point introduce a love interest for him, is it just going to be another shallow love interest, or are they going to try and develop that character too? And (unintelligible) my answer off the air.

CONAN: Vacuous and shallow are words we would never associate with Archie.

(Soundbite of laughter)

WELDON: Yeah. Well, I mean, actually that's a good point. I mean, certainly there is a lot of kissing going on in these books between Archie and Veronica and Betty. It's a public health nightmare how much kissing goes on. A lot of that happens on the cheek and, you know, a little heart appears above their heads as this kiss happens. But, you know, are they going to take it to the next level? He has, when he's introduced, he is texting his friend William quite a lot in the town that he's from and hoping that William and his other friend will come to visit. So remains to be seen.

CONAN: We're talking with Glen Weldon who blogs about comics for NPR's pop-culture blog Monkey See and reviews them at npr.org. If you'd like to see the panels in which the new gay character - openly gay character at Riverdale High is introduced, you can go to our website at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And, Glen, there are interesting fashion choices made here for Ken as well.

WELDON: Yeah, yeah. Okay, so, yes. He has a tank top. Okay, he's the only person in Riverdale to have a tight-fitting tank top. I mean, okay. That's fine. But the rest of time, he's just - he's dressed like everybody else. But, yeah, the tank top was a little worrisome.

CONAN: And there is other efforts - there have been parodies in "Archie," in recent weeks of "Jersey Shore" and an upcoming one about "Glee."

WELDON: Absolutely. They know their marketing, these guys. They introduced a gay character so that you and I would talk about it. They got Archie to marry Veronica so that people would pick up on it. They also experimented with this new look, which was they basically created books in which the characters were drawn to be a little bit more realistic looking. And let me tell you, Neal, that was deeply unsettling. It just was creepy, because without that little tic-tac-toe sign on his head, it's just not Archie.

CONAN: And the way - have you ever tried to walk the way they walk in "Archie" comic books?

(Soundbite of laughter)

WELDON: That's right.

CONAN: You can fall down and hurt yourself.

WELDON: Absolutely.

CONAN: Kate's(ph) on the line from Williamsburg in Virginia.

KATE (Caller): Hi. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

KATE: I just wanted to say that I have loved "Archie" comic books. I could remember being six years old and living in Yorktown, Virginia, and filling my wagon filled with comic books and then going around the neighborhood to all my friends' houses and trying to trade for "Archie" comic books. And then coming home and just feeling - it was the best feeling in the whole world to know that that evening I could spend just about the whole night reading "Archie" comic books. It was just fabulous.

CONAN: And you realize at this point, had you kept those "Superman" and "Green Lantern" comics you traded away, you could put your grandchildren to college.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KATE: I probably could have, now that you mentioned it.

WELDON: Yeah.

KATE: They're gone. I'm so disappointed in myself.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KATE: No. And I love the gay character. I think that's just - it's wonderful, and it's a darn shame they didn't do it years ago. Okay.

CONAN: Thanks very much, Kate.

KATE: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

WELDON: People really shouldn't dismiss these books, their staying power. They're light. They're breezy. They're bright. They're simple entertainment in a way that a lot of superhero comics aren't. And, you know, who won the war? "Archie" comics are still in supermarkets and all the superheroes have fled to the comic shops because they just didn't hold the sales.

CONAN: Let's see if we can go to Tony(ph). Tony with us from Nevada.

TONY (Caller): (Unintelligible) in California.

CONAN: Okay. Go ahead. I do have to get new glasses.

TONY: Yeah, you guys mentioned that comic books are only available in comic stores and in a few grocery stores nowadays. But there are apps for the BlackBerry, for the iPad, for the iPod and for the iPhone where you can get hundreds...

WELDON: Right.

TONY: ...of comics. And many of them are available for free...

WELDON: Right.

TONY: ...as an entry of course.

WELDON: That is an excellent point. I mean, there are all these comics for kids out there. There's all these comics out there, but especially comics for kids. And parents need to know they exist. And digital distribution is going to go a long way toward that, I think.

TONY: Comics on the iPad are incredible.

WELDON: I agree.

TONY: Thank you.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call.

WELDON: Yeah. Your listeners should know about - if they wanted just a nice one-stop shop, it's SLJ, which is the School Library Journal, slj.com. They have a blog called, simply enough, Good Comics for Kids. It's all you need.

CONAN: And the other thing you should remember about "Archie," you don't have to worry about getting the next issue to find out what happened.

WELDON: They are done in one. There's none of these six-issue storylines, except for, of course, the Archie-Marries-Veronica-Archie-Marries-Betty thing. That was an experiment, and apparently, it did very well.

CONAN: Lisa(ph) is with us from St. Louis.

LISA (Caller): Hello. Thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

LISA: I just wanted to call and thank you for talking about this. It's -I actually saved - I'm in my 40s. And I saved all of my - well, majority of my "Archie" and Betty and Veronica comics from when I was young. And now my 10-year-old daughter - we saw them in a box and my 10-year-old daughter sits in her room - whenever she's not doing homework, she gets in her room and takes my comics out, my tattered, worn, ripped comics, and she reads them all the time.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

LISA: It's just wonderful that the stories are - they had such staying power.

WELDON: Yep.

CONAN: And have changed so little.

LISA: Yes. Anyway that's...

CONAN: Thank you very much for the call, Lisa.

LISA: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. And, Glen, we want to thank you for your time today.

WELDON: Welcome.

CONAN: Nice to have you there in Studio 3A. We'll be together again next time.

WELDON: That's great. Good to be here, Neal.

CONAN: Glen Weldon blogs about comics for NPR's pop-culture blog Monkey See, reviews comics for our website at npr.org. And again, you can see the moment when Kevin Keller comes out to Jughead on our website at npr.org. And we want to thank member station KQED for having us today. Special thanks to the engineering team, that's Paul Lancour and Bonnie Carlos(ph).

Tomorrow journalist Katherine Ellison about her new memoir on parenting her son with ADHD. Jennifer Ludden will host. I'll see you again on Monday.

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in San Francisco.

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