Archie comics aren’t necessarily where people go for cutting edge content. They’re supposed to feel like home: safe, warm, welcoming, ever the same. But change keeps on coming to Riverdale, driven in part by co-CEO and Publisher Jon Goldwater, who has made it part of his mission to diversify the classic pages. September 2010 brought Riverdale its first openly gay character, Kevin (much to the dismay of One Million Moms). Another first for Archie is due later this month: Harper, the first character in the comics with a disability, will make her debut in Archie issue #656, which is slated for a June 18 release. I talked to Archie writer and artist Dan Parent about the new girl in town, her wheelchair, and what her arrival means for comics.
Harper was inspired by a real person, the author Jewel Kats. But had you given any thought to writing a character with a disability before you met her?
Actually, it really was pretty much inspired after we met Jewel… We’d mentioned it before, but it came into our minds again after meeting Jewel.
What’s the process like for creating a new character?
We do some sketches and some design for that character. And then we’ll write down a little biography for the character. With Harper, we made her a cousin of Veronica’s. That’s how we introduced her into the fold. So we do a little design work, and a little bio, and then we wing it.
How did you settle on this aesthetic for Harper?
Jewel is a really snazzy dresser. She’s got this blinged out wheelchair. She’s very fashion conscious. So that was in my head. Veronica has that personality also, so it’s natural to make Harper connected to Veronica. So that’s really how Harper’s look came about. She’s a good cross-breed between Jewel and Veronica.
I saw in your Reddit AMA that you like writing Veronica more than Betty because of Veronica’s “wealth, glamour, biting personality. Of course, Betty is sweet and lovable (the girl you’d want to marry in real life). But this isn’t real life, so it’s Veronica!” Did that influence your decision to make Harper more like Veronica—because you knew you’d have more fun?
Yeah, being that she was going to be a cousin of Veronica’s, and she is kind of a sassy character. They’re a little more interesting to write. Betty is very sort of girl next door, whereas Veronica and Harper have a little more edge to them.
CREDIT: Archie Comics
Tell me about the storylines for Harper. How do you integrate her disability into her story without making it like an after school special, where it’s all about the wheelchair?
The important thing in creating a character with a characteristic like Harper: you do want to address it, but you don’t want to make a whole story about it. And in future stories, it probably won’t come up. Or it will, but only when it needs to. You don’t want the character to be only about that. With Harper, we acknowledged her disability, but we also acknowledged how it doesn’t define her, and it’s not all she’s about. And she uses her disability to empower other people. So we address it, but we don’t make the entire story about it. We want it to be entertaining. You don’t want to do it by preaching, just giving a list of characteristics without a story.
Did it take a long time to figure out what her first storyline would be?
The initial story kind of moved forward pretty fast. The story was going to be about the gang going to a dance – that’s something the characters always do – and a scenario with a high school dance, and Harper goes along with them, because she’s visiting Veronica, and see how things unfold in her world. She can get around and socialize and even dance, and get along with the characters just fine. So the scenario sort of worked right off the bat.
Harper’s disability comes from a car accident. How did you decide that’s what would have put her in a wheelchair, as opposed to this being a disability she’d had from birth?
That’s kind of similar to what happened to Jewel. Jewel was in a car accident… And also because, as Jewel read the story over and consulted on it, from her firsthand experience, she was able to make sure we were doing it properly: that our terminology was right, that we weren’t missing anything important.
A huge part of the appeal of Archie comics is that they’re this idyllic, escapist world. Everything always works out in the end: people fall in love, they stay friends, they never really age or leave. How do you stay true to the always-upbeat world of the comics while also being honest about the nature of a disability like Harper’s?
Well, people always know that when they read an Archie comic it’s a safe place. No matter who you are, your disability, your color, your sex, it’s a safe place to be. It’s a welcoming community. And that’s sort of why we’ve sustained for this long, because we are an escapist reading material. People always know that it’s going to be like comfort food. It’s going to be a place where you feel good, and that won’t change. So when we bring in characters like Harper, they will be handled in a very welcoming atmosphere.
The last time you introduced a new, different-from-the-rest character was Kevin, the first openly gay character in the comics. Was the response to him positive, and did that encourage you to expand the universe even more?
Kevin got a lot of attention. because we’d never had a gay character. [Of that] attention, 99% was good. The fans, the readership, really was open to him. There was a small amount of criticism from some very conservative people. For the most part, it was overwhelmingly positive. [And] we’re definitely encouraged to introduce as much diversity as we can. Jon Goldwater has been our new CEO for the last five years, he came in with a forward thinking attitude: “We want Riverdale to be part of the 21st century.” We’re definitely always trying to increase diversity in Riverdale: different ethnicities, disabled characters. We want Riverdale to look like the world.
Well, if you didn’t do that, you probably wouldn’t stay relevant, right? People would stop reading the comics if they hadn’t evolved since the ‘50s.
Absolutely. The Riverdale of the 1950s is not the Riverdale of now. America looks different now. So it’s natural to reflect that. And it makes the stories we do, and the books we put out, so much more entertaining, so much richer.
Is there a last taboo in comics, a kind of final frontier for Archie? What’s the one thing you all are still struggling to do?
I don’t know if there is a taboo. I think that we’re always going to try to bring in characters of diversity. As long as it’s a good character, I don’t see a reason why we wouldn’t bring a character in. We’re always trying to add to our rosters.
How progressive do you think comics are, relative to other worlds: sports, movies, academia? Are comics ahead of the game or do you have some catching up to do?
I think comics are pretty much on tap with most of pop culture. Maybe pop culture is a few years ahead of us, Movies and television are probably a few years ahead of us. For the last twenty, twenty-five years, there have been gay characters in comics, and maybe in the last decade, they’ve been strongly given their own spotlight. I think comics are slightly behind the rest of movies and television, but we’re catching up. Whereas the sports world and certain areas of entertainment, where they’re just starting to get on board.