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Archie and the gang welcome first gay character

A detail from the cover of "Veronica 202": Veronica is in for a surprise.

AP/Archie Comics Publications

Riverdale hasn't seen anything like this before.

In an issue of Veronica, a spinoff of Archie comics hitting stands on Wednesday, Archie and the gang will welcome the first openly gay character in the series' 69-year history.

"It shows that Riverdale is in the 21st century," says Veronica writer and artist Dan Parent.

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While a number of openly gay characters have appeared in mainstream comic books in the past two decades, adding Kevin Keller to the wholesome world of Archie marks something of a milestone.

"In the way that we've always been considered a kids' comic, a family-friendly comic, in that way it's groundbreaking," Parent says.

The introduction of the character is being welcomed by gay rights groups.

"It's thrilling to see Riverdale High welcome its first openly gay student, and give readers a window into the lives of gay youth today," said Jarrett Barrios, president of the U.S.-based Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. "As images of gay and transgender people become more frequent on TV and in film, people are embracing and expect to see images of our community across media platforms, including comic books."

Ever since Marvel Comics's Canadian superhero Northstar came out of the closet in 1992, comic books have struggled with putting forward gay characters without at the same time promoting stereotypes.

Some have succeeded, such as when DC Comics reintroduced Batwoman as a lesbian in 2006. The character's sexual orientation is merely a side note to her status as a high-profile crime fighter.

As well, both Marvel and DC - the powerhouse publishers in the world of superhero comics - have introduced gay couples in the past decade.

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Some gay characters, however, seem to be the product of crude stereotypes.

Take, for instance, Bloke, a mutant in the Marvel Universe who first appeared in a tongue-in-cheek series released in 2001. The character hailed from San Francisco, was originally known as Rainbow, and turned pink when he went into fighting mode.

Then there's the Rawhide Kid, a Marvel character from the 1950s who was resurrected as a gay cowboy with a penchant for leather in an adults-only series in 2003.

In the upcoming issue of Veronica, Kevin Keller's sexuality is revealed matter-of-factly. Eating a hamburger at Pop's, Keller tells Jughead why he's not interested in dating Veronica.

"It's nothing against her! I'm gay!" he says. "I guess I should just be up front!"

That is the kind of disclosure that would have been impossible under the Comics Code Authority. Established in 1954 as a response to public concern over depictions of violence and sexual innuendo in comics, the code banned references to homosexuality. Only in 1989 was the ban repealed to allow for non-stereotypical depictions of gays and lesbians.

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But as times have changed, so have comics.

"I see comics publishers today definitely trying to be more reflective of the world we live in today, not just in terms of gay characters but in terms of minority characters and alternative lifestyles of any sort," says Jonah Weiland of the magazine Comic Book Resources.

In the years since Northstar outed himself, "gay depictions in mainstream comics have been far more nuanced and have far more depth," he adds. And by introducing a gay character, Archie Comics is proving its more relevant.

Bringing Kevin to Riverdale High simply reflects the world teenagers live in, Parent says.

"We still like our traditional stories and stuff, but at the same time we do have to be on top of what's going on in the world, because they are teenagers," he says. "We have to stay current."

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