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Ask Chris: Archie and the League of Skull-Faced Villain

Here at ComicsAlliance, we value our readership and are always open to what the masses of Internet readers have to say. That’s why we’ve given Senior Writer Chris Sims the punishment pleasure of stepping into the grand tradition of the Answer Man as he responds to your reader questions!

Q: Archie Comics has been making bold moves the past year, especially with today’s news [about gay character Kevin Keller]. What do you make of them lately?phillyradiogeek

A: As ComicsAlliance readers have probably figured out by now, I’m actually a big fan of the Archie books. I actually read every single core Archie title (by which I mean every book they put out that wasn’t “Sonic the Hedgehog” fan-fiction) for over three years when I was working at the shop, and while I eventually quit owing to the unholy trinity of stagnation in storytelling, entire issues that would go by without a punchline and the increasing cost of other comics, it’s starting to look like I picked the wrong time to give them up.

This past year has seen a concerted effort by the makers of Archie to do more with their properties than just warming checkout line shelves, and I’m all for that. Admittedly, some of these efforts come off like a desperate stab at maintaining relevance (the “New Look” stories, which always involve extreme melodrama and end up being less distinctive than the core DeCarlo style) and some of them are just plain not very good (Archie’s alternate-future weddings to Betty and Veronica were just a chore to read, and the company seems intent on squeezing every last dime out of it), but there are also some hugely positive steps. I’ve already written at length about Archie’s upcoming relationship with Valerie Brown and the huge change it means for the company that was recoloring black characters as Caucasian as recently as 2008, but even the fact that they got “Robot Chicken” writer Tom Root to write the actually hilarious “Jughead” #200 is a huge step forward.

But that all pales in comparison to the news you’re referring to:

Kevin Keller: Archie’s first openly gay character.
This is a huge deal for Archie, and even in light of the baby steps they’ve been making in catching up to the rest of culture, if you’d asked me a week ago when we were going to get a gay Archie character, my answer would’ve been somewhere between “years from now” and “never.” And yet, here we are, with a character that’s not only gay, but actually says “I’m gay” right on panel, with Jughead reacting like it’s no big deal.

That’s fantastic, especially since it’s coming in a comic that’s still being directed at kids, in what feels like a direct reaction to the people whose go-to argument against homosexuality in the media is “but how will I tell my kids!” as though children are somehow less able to wrap their heads around new concepts than adults.

Is it a stunt? Yes, of course it is. And there’s a good chance that — as the newest member of the cast to actually get a regular recurring role was Chuck Clayton, added circa 1974 — there’s a pretty good chance that he’ll make his mandatory two or three appearances and then quietly fade into the background. But that’s less a prediction based on Kevin being gay than on Kevin not being named Archie, Jughead, Betty, Veronica, Reggie, Moose, Midge, Dilton, or Miss Grundy; outside of the core cast, characters just tend to fade away. I mean, how many stories total have we gotten out of Raj Patel? Or Kimiko? Or even Veronica’s nerdy cousin Marcy and Principal Weatherbee’s niece Wendy?

But I might be wrong, and in the meantime, writer/artist Dan Parent is taking a huge step with this one, and it’s one that I’m really looking forward to seeing.

Q: Best Villain with a skull mask? Taskmaster, Crossbones, or La Parka? WBXylo

A: Rarely have I been faced with a question of such incredible complexity. Probably best to take this point by point.

To start with, we have Crossbones, who, let’s be honest here, is basically just a punching bag for Captain America. Yes, he’s got his moments — unleashing a squad of M.O.D.O.K.s during “Cap: Rebirth” is pretty high on the list — but even that was done in his role as the Red Skull’s eternal lackey, which brings up an even more important point: He’s not even the most sinister skull-faced guy Captain America fights that day.

Taskmaster, on the other hand, is one of Marvel’s all-time greats. Much like Ultra Boy (who has all of Superboy’s powers but can only use one at a time!!), his super-power are the perfect distillation of the kind of thing kids love about comic book characters (he has all of the physical abilities of the Avengers, but he’s eeeeeeevil!!), and his role as one of the few purely mercenary characters in super-hero comics makes him unique. Also, while I’m one of the few people who actually enjoyed the Udon redesign he sported in Gail Simone’s “Deadpool” and “Agent X,” his original George Perez costume is one of the all-time greatest designs ever. Heck, I like it so much that, along with Beta Ray Bill and Union Jack, whose costumes I also love, he’s one of three characters I broke my “no mini-busts” rule for. He’s easily one of Marvel’s better villains, and he works in just about any kind of story.

But does he really hold a candle to the Chairman himself, La Auténtica Park, a rudo luchador and dressed like Johnny from “The Karate Kid” who routinely breaks out into his signature chicken strut to taunt his opponent?

Probably. Actually, I’m going to go with “yes.” But he’s still better than Crossbones.

Q: Looking over Morrison’s B&R, it’s clear some artists are more game than others in tackling the writer’s scripts. My question: Should Morrison bear some of the responsibility when a project turns out confusing to readers due to the failure of the artist? Should Morrison be dinged for writing above the level of the artist he’s paired with? I hate to suggest it, but should Morrison hold back when he knows he’s teamed up w/ anyone not named Frank Quitely? sequentialmatt

A: I’m not sure if I should be having a discussion about whether a writer or an artist bears the responsibility for an artistic failure with a guy who draws a comic I co-write, but for the sake of academia, here we go:

Grant Morrison often writes scripts that have a complexity that’s a cut above normal super-hero comics, and while that’s great to read, it requires a level of ability and commitment from an artist that’s not often there in the guys he’s paired up with. Philip Tan, for instance, is not the guy you want drawing Morrison scripts. I don’t mean to pick on the guy — but he’s a recent example and I happen to have a copy of the “Batman and Robin” hardcover sitting right here — but while there’s stuff he does well (the “Killing Joke” homages), there’s the problem that I have no idea whatsoever where the last issue of his run is supposed to take place.

I know what happens, but I can’t for the life of me figure out where. It looks like they’re on top of a building, as evidenced by scenes where Batman almost falls off a cliff (?!) into a cityscape (?!) that looks an awful lot like the colorist had to shade in some buildings, so maybe it’s the top of a skyscraper, but it’s also connected to a highway and there’s a bulldozer there? I have no idea. And having read as many Morrison comics (and Morrison scripts) as I have, I’m pretty sure it says in the script where he is.

Also, there’s at least one page where he straight up forgets that Scarlet is supposed to have a grotesque doll-face mask. And we know it’s not Morrison, because the stories on either side of Tan’s arc are perfectly clear. Although really, sticking that guy between Frank Quitely and Cameron Stewart just wasn’t fair.

That said, a huge part of writing comics is collaboration, and yes: You have to write for the limitations of your collaborator. Frank Quitely can handle just about anything you throw at him and make it look great, but other artists struggle, and the end result often comes out muddled
and confused, torpedoing a great script with sub-par art.

But by the same token, part of editorial’s job is to find the right team for the book. As much as this has been a problem for Morrison throughout his super-hero work, whether it’s “JLA” or “X-Men” or “Batman,” any top-tier artist should be able to handle a Morrison script. That’s why they’re the-top tier artists. And if DC’s not putting their best artists on titles like “Batman” and “Justice League,” which, along with “Superman,” should always be the flagship books of their company, then there’s a problem there that has nothing to do with Morrison and everything to do with editorial.

And now, the quick hits:

Q: What do you think of the direct-to-DVD animated features that Marvel and DC have been putting out for the last few years? Which company does it better? Favorite and least favorite? Rob, via email

A: I haven’t seen too many of them, but of the ones I have seen, I prefer DC’s, probably because by this point, they’re used to putting out really solid animated content. I will admit, though, that I was a little let down by “New Frontier” (most likely owing to how much I love the original story), but I thought “Wonder Woman” was a good time, and barring some sketchy morality from Batman, I loved the crap out of “JLA: Crisis on Two Earths.”

Q: My wife is a big Survivor fan and I often watch with her. For some reason I was thinking about which DC character would be the best at Survivor. The obvious answer, of course, is Batman because he is the best at everything. But I was thinking about it more and I realized that there was someone who might be even better at the game: John Constantine. This guy can survive anything, and he is the just about the most devious back-stabbing character around. So anyway, who would win on Survivor: Batman or John Constantine?Charles Hargrove, via email

A: Batman is, of course, the best at everything, but John Constantine is the ultimate survivor, and from what I understand about the game, it relies heavily on trickery and backstabbing, two things that Constantine excels at more than anyone else on the planet. As much as I hate to admit it, Batman would lose this one. But hey, he’s already got a million bucks.

Q: What is a good starting point to get into “Metal Men”?Sean_Hollenhors

A: At the beginning, with the Showcase volumes or, if you’ve got money burning a hole in your pocket, the Archive hardcover. Those early stories are quite possibly the craziest comics ever printed.

Q: Who watches the watchmen? I mean when they’re peeing –radiomaru

A: What do you think all those monitors at Ozymandias’s base are for?

Q: What is your least favorite Batman story arc?mmckellop

A: I’m pretty sure that history’s going to bear me out when I say that Kevin Smith is the worst Batman writer of all time, but as I’m perfectly happy pretending those stories don’t exist, I’ll go with my usual answer: “The Cult,” a four-issue mini-series by Jim Starlin and Berni Wrightson. With those two guys, it should be so awesome, but as I explained in a previous column, it is not.

Q: Favourite Shakespeare? IanWally

A: William.

Nah, just kiddin’: “Macbeth.” The action movie of five-act tragedies.

That’s all we’ve got for this week, but if you’d like to have your question answered on ComicsAlliance, tag it on twitter with “#askchris” or send us an email with “Ask Chris” in the subject line!

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