Sunday, April 25, 2010

Sunday Reading

A Rainbow Flag in Riverdale— I read a lot of Archie comics when I was a kid, and it would have been nice to have a role model like Kevin Keller roaming the halls of Riverdale High and hanging out at the Choklit Shop.

Kevin Keller, it’s worth noting, isn’t the first openly gay character in American comic books by a very long shot — he’s just the first character to say “I’m gay” on a panel in an Archie comic book. In superhero comics, it’s old news (and in art comics, it’s very, very old news). The recently announced Batwoman series by J.H. Williams III and W. Haden Blackman will be, as far as I can tell, the first ongoing superhero comic book with an openly gay title character and a Marvel or DC logo on its cover — but “ongoing,” “superhero,” “openly,” “gay,” “title character” and “Marvel or DC logo” are all qualifiers in that description, because otherwise Starman or Renee Montoya or Freedom Ring or Midnighter or any number of other possibilities got there first.

The significant distinction here is that, unlike superhero comics, Archie comics are specifically aimed at kids (well, and at aging collectors who remember reading them as kids, but the kids are the primary audience): They’re a fantasy about what high school will be like. That’s why the addition of Kevin to the series’ endless comedy of desire and disdain is welcome and long overdue. The social fabric of high school is going to include gay people, and the sooner kids (and aging collectors) take that as much for granted as they do the Archie/Betty/Veronica love triangle, the better.

Outside the “safe world for everyone” that Archie Comics’ Jon Goldwater says Riverdale represents, this is, of course, a hot-button issue, and if Archie Comics actually wanted to suggest that it’s no big deal, they’d have just published the story instead of announcing it via press release long before it appears. (Honestly, somebody protesting a fictional character’s entirely chaste homosexuality would be the best possible publicity for this project.) It’s safe to assume that the primary audience for this particular issue of Veronica — which won’t be in stores until September — will be people who haven’t bought an Archie comic in decades, unless they also bought those similarly hyped-up comics a few months ago in which a future Archie married Betty or Veronica.

The comics-historical significance of Kevin’s appearance is that it marks a shift in the Archie franchise’s history. The Riverdale gang appeared in a series of very conservative Christian comic books in the ’70s and ’80s. And in 2003, playwright Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa — who’s also written for Marvel Comics and “Big Love” — wrote a play called “Archie’s Weird Fantasy,” which involved older, gay versions of the Archie characters, and was blocked by a cease-and-desist order shortly before its premiere. (It was promptly rewritten as “Weird Comic Book Fantasy.”)

So how big a deal will Kevin end up being in the long run? Probably not much of one. Parent has noted that the Archie line has been trying to expand the diversity of its cast, but as Chris Sims has pointed out, the last new character who’s actually appeared in Riverdale more than a few times was introduced something like 35 years ago. Even if Kevin sticks around, it’s hard to imagine him having a role beyond “the token gay guy.” That’s just hard-wired into the premise of the last 68 years’ worth of Archie comics: There’s a small, limited group of characters, and everyone gets exactly one personality trait. And it’s safe to assume that the first same-sex kiss in an Archie comic is a good long ways off — the interracial kiss on the cover of this week’s Archie No. 608 was a long time coming, too.

So, yes: Archie’s bosses get points for trying to make Riverdale a slightly less 1940s vision of what American culture is like, because stories for children don’t just reflect the world, they shape it. But the proof that the Archie characters don’t live in a world where everyone is heterosexual won’t be the first story Kevin Keller appears in — it’ll be the 40th.

More below the fold.

“Stick it to the kiddies” — Florida GOP vs. Charlie Crist reaches the classroom, according to Myriam Marquez in the Miami Herald.

Gov. Charlie Crist, after vetoing SB 6, which would have based teachers’ raises largely on their students’ performance, has become Republican Enemy Numero Uno among his once GOP Peeps in Tallahassee.

He’s contemplating independence from the Grand Old Party to run for U.S. Senate, and key GOP legislators are on the war path.

To get even, they’re devising their own devious plan to get back at public schoolteachers whose protests made the veto possible. And to do that, they’re going to stick it to Florida’s already-cash strapped school districts by using some creative accounting for the class size amendment.

The Legislature has had eight years to prepare for the amendment that voters embraced at a time of unprecedented growth and crammed classrooms. It requires no more than 18 students per class in pre-K through third grade, 22 in fourth through eighth grades and 25 students in high school starting this fall.

But for the past two years, as foreclosures skyrocketed and the tax base shrank, the Legislature took class-size money away from districts. So this year — facing a $3 billion hole in the state budget — legislators offered another constitutional amendment for voters to rethink class size.

Happy Charlie agreed — with some caveats built in so that when the economy gets better the class size requirements can be upheld.

And to ensure that districts wouldn’t be penalized this year, legislators would base the class-size requirements on student attendance in February 2011.

Presto — districts wouldn’t be hit with huge penalties — fines of up to 50 percent of the state’s per-student funding per excess pupil — for not complying until they know what voters think this November. They’d buy time.

That’s why the February timeline is key. It gives districts time to find out whether voters will give them some wiggle room — allowing from three to five more students per class depending on the grade — until the economy improves.

Sounds reasonable enough. We are still in the Mother of All Recessions, after all. Except there’s always a side plot in an election year. And this year, it’s ”stick it to Charlie by way of the kiddies.”

How? House and Senate conferees now want to use attendance numbers from October. Districts that have classes with too many students would have to pay the outrageous penalties or come up with the millions needed to meet the smaller class sizes.

Rewriting History — Richard Rayner uncovers the truth about the late historian Stephen Ambrose’s interviews with President Eisenhower.

Nonfiction writers who succumb to the temptations of phantom scholarship are a burgeoning breed these days, although most stop short of fabricating interviews with Presidents. But Stephen Ambrose, who, at the time of his death, in 2002, was America’s most famous and popular historian, appears to have done just that. Before publishing a string of No. 1 best-sellers, including “Band of Brothers” and “D-Day,” Ambrose had made his name chronicling the life of Dwight D. Eisenhower. More than half of the thirty-plus books that Ambrose wrote, co-wrote, or edited concerned Eisenhower, and Ambrose spoke often, on C-SPAN or “Charlie Rose” or in print interviews, about how his life had been transformed by getting to know the former President and spending “hundreds and hundreds of hours” interviewing him over a five-year period before Eisenhower died, in 1969.

Doonesbury — A historical document.