It’s not a spoiler to say that Archie Andrews, he of the long-running comic book series Archie, died this morning. His death-by-shooting, telegraphed for months to drum up interest in the franchise, finally occurred in the final pages of the 36th issue of Life with Archie, an offshoot series about an adult, married version of the titular hero.
Earlier this week, the reason for that death came to light: Archie would take a bullet for Kevin Keller, his best gay friend. In the issue itself, the shooter’s motivation isn’t fully explained. He’s definitely after Kevin, a married senator-elect with big anti-gun plans after another shooter targeted gay victims in the nearby Southport Mall. But it’s unclear whether this shooter is a pro-gun nut or an anti-gay bigot – or both.
What is clear is this: The promotion for this issue, mostly done through interviews with the Associated Press picked up with less subtle headlines elsewhere, has been unfortunately focused on Kevin’s sexuality.
To be clear: Archie’s sacrifice in the comic itself is a selfless act of heroism. He bravely thrusts himself in front of his friends and takes the gunman’s bullet. But others are also protected by Archie’s act, including his great loves Betty Cooper and Veronica Lodge. In fact, judging by the perspective of the art, the person Archie appears to be saving most is Kevin’s husband, Clay Walker.
Yet in this week’s build-up to the release, none of those people were mentioned. Archie was saving Kevin, his gay friend. Period. That kind of marketing doesn’t help the story become any more resonant – if anything, it cheapens it.
In Melissa McCarthy’s recent film Tammy, Kathy Bates’ lesbian character, Lenore, has a particularly poignant moment with the titular character in which she insists Tammy has to work hard even when the going gets tough, just as she did when things were hard. “Gay wasn’t always in fashion, my friend,” she says. And she’s right: Not long ago, having a gay character in a piece of popular fiction – hell, even having a protagonist associating with gay characters – was considered shocking. Kevin himself was only introduced to the Archie universe in 2010. Now, Archie saving his gay friend is a marketing peg. It’s culturally relevant. It’s trendy. It’s in fashion.
So ... what’s the problem with that? Isn’t it good that Lady Gaga can write an anthem about gay people being born that way? Or that two teen gay characters can fall in love on Glee? Or that Macklemore and Queen Latifah can marry gay couples at the GRAMMYs while telling all the haters that “it’s all the same love”? Why is emphasizing Archie’s sacrifice for Kevin a bad thing?
SMH Kevin Keller is more than "Archie's gay friend." Have some fucking respect.— K. Joffré (@meanhood) July 14, 2014
Let’s say Archie saved Betty or Veronica. The love of his life was about to be shot, and like a dashing white knight, he raced in to save her. “Archie Will Save His True Love From Death.” Just imagine the hurricane of essays about why the damsel in distress trope is a tired, outdated mess – and rightfully so!
Or imagine Clay were to be the target: “Archie to Save Black Friend.” That should and would never fly, because it’d be minimizing Clay’s role, reducing him to his race. But headlines like “Comic-book icon Archie Andrews will die saving gay friend” do the same thing to Kevin. Promotion in this manner no matter what the label is nothing but reductive tokenism, designed to attach false meaning to what is already a poignant, altruistic act.
It’s not disappointing that Archie died for his friends. That is in the true spirit of Archie, first designed as an average but genuine guy who would stand out in a sea of comics about superheroes. It’s actually quite fitting he’d die for his friends in this universe. It’s just disappointing that for whatever reason – low comic sales or a culture making gay the Next Big Thing – his death had to be sold with a tacky label attached.