Earlier this year, I had some thoughts (here, here, here, and here) on how the Riverdale TV series, based off of Archie Comics, treated Kevin Keller, who debuted several years ago as the franchise's first gay character. I was not pleased by the show's treatment of him, as the portrayal seemed rooted in dated stereotypes and unwilling to go beyond them, so it was with some trepidation that I picked up Riverdale #4, an issue of the associated comic book which focuses on Kevin.
Let's get one thing out of the way: if you hoped this story would expand on Kevin's relationship with Joaquin, or showcase his talents and abilities at anything in any way, or at least give him a shred of more personality than "token gay character," you will be sorely disappointed like I was. Because this comic is all about the gay angst in a way that makes Thomas Barrow's arc in Season Six of Downton Abbey look cheerful.
A large part of the story focuses on Kevin's loneliness as the only openly student at Riverdale High School and his inability to get a date. He doesn't even have any luck with online dating, either--when Veronica spices up his online profile by using a picture of Archie, Kevin's date ditches him instantly when he sees what Kevin actually looks like. Even when Betty and Veronica take Kevin to a gay club, he's still all doom and gloom, and it's no surprise, as 75% of this story is a miserable slog of Kevin feeling isolated, unattractive, unwanted, and utterly alone.
Are these realistic feelings for a gay teenager in a small town to have? Absolutely. Does that make reading this comic any more enjoyable? No. If you have consumed any queer media of any kind that involved a gay teenager feeling like an outcast, you have read this comic book, and it absolutely feels like you have read it before. And as you're reading it, you wonder, "Wait, why the hell am I reading this again?" Because this story is everything you've seen before with any type gay protagonist, with next to none of the heart and certainly none of the gravitas or depth. I don't know why every writer seems fascinated with writing stories involving LBGTQ+ being miserable and persecuted when they could just as easily write them as happy and well-adjusted, but it's a trope that I'm thoroughly becoming sick of, none more so with Kevin's various depictions.
There are some decent moments in this issue, to be sure. Reggie Mantle gets a well-deserved good showing as a savvy classmate who sympathizes with Kevin and gets him a fake ID on the house (link to panel). Kevin and his father share a nice moment together. And there is a bright spot for Kevin at the end (though if you know how his relationship with a character named Devin ended in the main Archie Comics, perhaps Kevin is just in store for more heartache). And Kevin and his father have a nice moment (Link to panel).
But this comic is more misses than hits for me, for several reasons. This comic seems to confirm that while Kevin is friendly with Reggie, he has none of the strong male friendships he did in the original comics--he lists Betty and Veronica as his friends and no one else. (A gay male character who has only female friends? Groundbreaking.) Furthermore, while I understand it was necessary for story purposes of the oh-so-original tale of a gay teen who's sad and alone, the emphasis on just how much more attractive Archie is compared to Kevin seemed unnecessary and bordering on mean-spirited, as if it were trying to point out what a loser Kevin was. Riverdale hasn't let Kevin do much as a character, in either the show or the comic, and now it seems determined to point out in addition to everything Kevin is not, he's also not physically appealing. It's like they're trying to write him as Jerry from Parks and Rec. And the title of this issue--"We Need to Talk About Kevin"--made the most amatuer of mistakes: referencing well-known creative works in your own creative works only invites comparisons, and yours will often be the one compared unfavorably. Not to mention that a previous incident regarding Kevin's gay experiences is mentioned, and it sounds much more interesting and intense than anything that happened here (Link to panel).
But where this story ultimately failed, and failed hard, was giving Kevin even a hint of substance to his character. In the show, he's the sassy gay friend to Betty in the early episodes, and then switches to being Veronica's sassy gay friend who hangs with the girls, gossips about hot boys, and of course, is interested in fashion. He has a mostly offscreen relationship with a gang member, Joaquin. In the comics, he's now the forever alone sad gay character. I know nothing about Kevin's character other than that he's gay, which the writers somehow always find the most stereotypical way possible to remind me of. When Kevin is talking to his father, Sheriff Keller assures him, "You'll meet someone--maybe during your Broadway career," and I have no idea what the hell this line is referring to. Is Kevin supposed to want to be a playwright? An actor? Costume designer? Special effects artist? I don't know, because the show hasn't told me, and this comic book hasn't told me, either. (Also, a gay male character interested in theater? Revolutionary.) I know nothing about Kevin other than him being gay, because the writers want to remind me of that through the most done-to-death cliches at every turn.
I want various things for Kevin, both in the show and the comics. I want him to be able to be good at something, to have talents and competencies like the other characters. I want him to be able to have an onscreen romance like the other characters and be happy. I want him to have story arcs like the other characters do, in the same ways that other characters do (as in, I don't want a story with Betty, Archie, Jughead, and Veronica solve a mystery while Kevin fights homophobia because the writers can't conceive of a gay character doing anything else.) But most of all? I want him to be an actual character rather than a cipher for nearly every gay stereotype in media to ever exist.