Jughead, Bughead, And The Need For Asexual & Aromantic Heroes In Comics
Queer representation in comics has been making small but appreciable advances in recent years, but there are some queer identities that comics and all media seem to struggle to get to grips with. Asexuals --- people who do not experience sexual attraction --- and aromantics --- people who do not experience romantic attraction --- are still incredibly rarely represented in fiction, with Archie Comics' Jughead one of the few notable examples.
ComicsAlliance spoke to four comics fans and creators who are asexual, aromantic, or on the asexual spectrum, to get their thoughts on representation in comics, Jughead, Riverdale, and the best comics out there for young ace/aro readers.
Our panelists are colorist Sigi Ironmonger, who is a grey-asexual nonbinary trans-man; webcomic creator Sarah “Neila” Elkins, who is a romantic asexual; webcomic creator Jayelle Anderson, who is demisexual; and literature student LuciAce, who is aroace.
ComicsAlliance: It's been over a year since the character of Jughead was confirmed to be asexual in Chip Zdarsky and Erica Henderson's Jughead series for Archie Comics. Was that an important milestone?
Sigi Ironmonger: Yeah, absolutely! When I heard the news I was super excited. Hearing that is extremely validating and I certainly count it as a big step for aces.
Sarah Elkins: It was a huge milestone when they confirmed Jughead to be aromantic asexual. I remember freaking out about it, celebrating, dancing around the house. Finally we had a high profile asexual character in a well known comic. People would, potentially, know we existed. It was a big thing.
Jayelle Anderson: I have no comment if it is a milestone or not, but it does put a label to how I saw the character. The man loves his burgers and nothing else. Ha ha!
LuciAce: I only started reading the comics after Jughead was confirmed to be ace, and to be honest, I probably wouldn’t have read them otherwise. I can’t say how much of a milestone it was, but having an aroace character anywhere is awesome, and aroace Jughead is especially important to me because he’s just a teenager doing normal(-ish) teenager things.
CA: Jughead's asexuality was speculated about long before it was confirmed; are there other comic book characters that you believe or hope to be asexual or aromantic, but whose identity has yet to be confirmed?
SI: I’ve got to be honest, not many really come to mind, but that might be because the lack of diversity in mainstream comics has kept me from getting particularly immersed into most series. That being said, I’m always hoping for aro/ace characters and I really hope we can see more in the future. Ace/aro people come in all shapes and sizes and maybe one day we’ll get to see that reflected in comics.
SE: That’s a tough one. Every time I get my hopes up about a character in a TV show or a comic, the TV show or comic does something that shoots down my hopes pretty soon after. I think it’s lead me to speculate less about whether a character may or may not be on the asexual and/or aromantic spectrums, because I don’t want to be let down.
JA: I try not to put any expectations on other people’s works, but it is nice when you can relate to a character. Inconsistent writing due to many writers, spin offs, and all of that in mainstream comics makes it difficult to have much faith that anything will stay the same.
CA: Why is it important to have asexual and aromantic characters in comics, and especially in comics aimed at younger readers?
SI: Representation is extremely integral to any under-represented group, especially the younger you are. Kids should get the chance to see that it’s okay to fall outside the currently established status quo. People of all ages tend to look for a reflection of themselves they can confide in in fiction. Comics have a long standing history of providing that and expanding their reach I feel is crucial.
SE: To me it’s important because, growing up, I didn’t know it was a possibility to be asexual. I thought there was something wrong with me that I wasn’t interested in the idea of having sex like other girls my age. Friends called me a ‘prude.’ These were good friends of mine, friends who were also queer, that didn’t know that asexuality is a queer identity. Even among the ‘weird kids’ I was the odd one out.
I think if there was more representation (or any) of asexual and aromantic characters in comics as well as other books aimed at young readers, and other media, that my friends, and myself, would have known I wasn’t broken or weird. I didn’t learn about asexuality as an orientation until I was out of college. I stumbled across it online and thought, “Oh, wow! That’s what I am! This makes so much sense!” I don’t want anyone else to have to go through that, so I write asexual characters in my stuff. I hope to write something in the future, be it a comic or a novel, that’s aimed at younger readers.
JA: It is important to share with young people that it’s okay to not need to date or have sex or want these things. Most people tie this behavior to religion or being a prude, but that can be far from the truth. A lot of kids fall into things they don’t want to do, or shouldn’t do because of peer-pressure, but if some kids had a better sense of their own self identity they have a better chance to stand their ground and say “no.” Sometimes it takes a character they identify with in media to feel they are validated and not a freak.
LA: I think it’s incredibly important to have aro and ace rep in media aimed at younger readers. I only really found out asexuality and aromanticism were real orientations when I was 19, and knowing about them sooner would have made huge difference for me. Representation, especially when it uses the words, gives readers a starting point for more research and lets (young) aces and aros know that they’re okay the way they are. That’s important.
CA: The Riverdale TV show appears to be erasing Jughead's asexuality and aromanticism, despite actor Cole Sprouse publicly advocating for those aspects of the character. Instead the show is putting the character in a relationship with Betty Cooper. How do you feel about that storyline and that decision?
SI: Honestly, as soon as I heard about the erasure, I’ve steered clear of the show, so I can’t speak of the storyline at all. I don’t watch a lot of TV as it is and I don’t feel like prioritizing something like that, you know? I don’t really understand a decision like that and I can’t stand shoe-horned relationships of any kind but especially at the expense of LGBTQ+ ones.
SE: I really had my hopes up about that show before it came out. I was so hopeful I know I dismissed friends who said “you know they’re just gonna screw it up, right?” My friends were right. They announced online that Jughead in Riverdale “wouldn’t be asexual” and that he’d “totally want sex” or something like that. It deflated the big hope balloon I had clung onto that we’d finally have some representation on TV in a show aimed at younger viewers. It was crushing. I can’t even bring myself to look at the commercials for the show. Each time I hear the music for them I mute the TV or change the channel.
JA: Getting rid of this trait in Jughead for the television show just perpetuates the cycle of normalizing often hypersexual behavior that doesn’t fit everyone’s life. Sometimes young people’s only role model are the characters they see on television, so it is important to show that asexuality is a thing, too.
LA: I’m really angry about the way they’re handling things. Having aroace representation on TV would have been huge, and instead, they… made him straight? Because apparently there aren’t enough allo straight characters on TV yet. I’ve never seen a character like myself on TV, and I would have been a die-hard fan of the show if they’d kept Jughead aroace and touch-averse like he is in the comics. As it is, the show just makes me furious and sad.
CA: Do you think Riverdale could still be brought into line with what's established in Archie Comics? Are you worried that Archie Comics might go the other way, and align with Riverdale by putting "Bughead" (the Betty and Jughead romance) in the comics?
SI: Again, it’s hard to say since I don’t watch the show but I really really hope they wouldn’t further twist his identity like that.
SE: I think Riverdale could potentially be brought in line with the aromantic asexual Jughead established in the comics but it would be messy and likely drag up a lot of negative experiences that aromantic asexuals have experienced. For certain they would need to get the input from asexual writers, preferably aromantic ones, as to how to do the storyline in a way that would hurt the community the least.
Do I worry Archie Comics might go the other way and make Jughead romantic? Yes, I do worry about that. I am going to cling onto my hope balloon that they won’t make that mistake. Jughead means a lot to aspec people, he’s one of only two comic characters I know of who are Ace in comics made by larger companies. We get so few instances of representation that we hold on to them for dear life.
JA: They could change it, but it’s never so easy. Any good writer could change the story, but you have networks and producers that will fight on that. TV has the problem of being as edgy or extreme as possible with little thought to if it is actually a good idea or not. As for the comics, I don’t have much faith that anything will stay the same. I really have no interest in reading Jughead being romantic with anyone. I just hope that other comics aimed at kids and young adults might show some representation.
LA: The way things are looking right now, I’m not sure the show can be fixed. From what we’ve seen so far, it’s clear that the people working on it don’t respect asexuality and aromanticism. It might still be possible to make Jughead aroace, but I’m not holding my breath. As for the comics... I’m extremely worried. The Jughead comics have a new writer now who’s been… disrespectful to aroaces in the past, and from what I’ve seen of the new storyline, there’s reason to worry.
CA: Do you think major publishers understand asexuality and aromanticism? Are you optimistic about publishers developing an understanding?
SI: From what I see, major publishers don’t seem to fully understand more widely known and “accepted” LGBTQ+ narratives (though I will give credit things are thankfully starting to change... slowly) so I doubt they understand asexuality or aromanticism very well yet. As more fans and artists speak up, I do think it could be possible. Until then I’m like many other people: swinging into webcomics with open arms in the interim and looking for that sweet sweet representation.
SE: No. I don’t think major publishers understand asexuality and aromanticism. I am optimistic about them developing an understanding over time, but I’m with Sigi in the feeling that folks in webcomics are going to be leading the way regarding LGBTQIA+ representation.
JA: No. Especially since, according to the publishers I’ve been with, sex sells. Or at least it’s a sale that doesn’t take much effort, and anything that goes against that philosophy is often shot down. There might be individuals within the companies that try to push something, but trying to get that past editors and producers isn’t always easy. Asexuality is often misunderstood for many things and a lot of the times it just takes fans to tell the company just how much they loved what they did with a characters like Jughead and say how much it meant to them.
LA: No. Even outside publishing, asexuality isn’t something that a lot of people seem to understand, and aromanticism is even less well-understood. Am I optimistic? ... not really. There’s some asexual representation in publishing right now, but I can’t think of one published or upcoming book with good aromantic representation. I’m sure it will happen eventually, but I doubt it’ll be anytime soon. I’d love to be wrong about this, though.
CA: Are there any independent comics you would recommend to young readers who are looking for ace or aro representation?
SI: I have nothing! I hope I’ll come out of this interview with at least one recommendation from someone else lol.
SE: Yes! Webcomics ahoy! Hoi Butt on Tapastic/Tapas is a cute autobio webcomic about two non-binary asexual comic creators. It is super heartwarming!Mistlands, also on Tapastic/Tapas, has an aro/ace spectrum character too and stunning artwork! My own webcomic, Magic Remains, follows an alloromantic asexual magical girl through a dystopia, it’s also on Tapastic/Tapas.
I just learned from PixelPrism, the creator of the webcomic Tamberlane, that Belfry is asexual in the comic, although it hasn’t been stated in the book yet. Tamberlane is about a clumsy bat named Belfry adopting a lost human child in a forest full of anthro characters.
On the indie print side of things there’s Atomic Robo, who I just learned is essentially romantic asexual. Atomic Robo’s comic is about action scientists fighting Nazis and monsters. I know there are many many more webcomics with asexual and aromantic characters, and I’m sure some indie print comics out there. My mind is blanking on them right now.
JA: At the top of my head I can’t think of any that outright label their characters as ace, but I hope people will list some in comments. In my opinion, keeping a character constant can be just as powerful as a label when it comes to getting a message across. My own personal webcomic Anaria has several demisexual and asexual characters, though I don’t put labels on any of my characters since it isn’t fitting within their world. (It is written for adults, but safe for all ages.)
Floraverse has Beleth, who is ace (there is a NSFW site, but it’s clearly labeled) LeekFish is currently making an LGBTQ comic, but she is asexual, at envelovecomic.com (always all ages and great for kids).
Sigi Ironmonger is currently working on colors for issue #19 of Hero Cats and #2 of Galaxy Man & Cosmic Girl, both of which are all-ages comics You can find him on Twitter @sigironmonger, on Tumblr at s-iron.tumblr.com/, and at DeviantArt at s-iron.deviantart.com.
Sarah “Neila” Elkins is currently writing a cell phone novel for Tapas called By the Blade about an asexual woman entering a sword fighting tournament to the death. She writes and draws the webcomic Magic Remains, also on Tapastic. HerTwitter handle is @NeilaK20, and you can find her on Facebook at facebook.com/SarahNeilaElkins, or on DeviantArt at neilak20.deviantart.com.
Jayelle Anderson has worked in merchandise design, comic art, and writing, and is currently working on her fantasy webcomic Anaria, about witches, friendship, love, and loss. Find her on social media at twitter.com/JayelleAnderson, or facebook.com/KayleeLaturell.
LuciAce is a student of English and Literature. You can find them on Twitter at @justLuciAce.