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updated 9/1/2010 10:43:03 AM ET 2010-09-01T14:43:03

The often-quaint world of Archie Comics is set to become a lot more diverse this week. “Veronica” #202, on sale at comic book shops Wednesday, marks the debut of Kevin Keller, the first openly gay character in the publisher’s 71-year history.

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Kevin’s introduction is just one of several progressive moves this year from a company whose comics have historically been distinguished for their timeless quality. Earlier this year, Archie Comics depicted a rare-for-the-publisher interracial relationship — between flagship character Archie and Josie and the Pussycats band member Valerie — plus released timely parodies of megapopular media franchises “Jersey Shore” and “Twilight.”

Jon Goldwater took over as co-chief executive officer in June 2009, with a clear goal of modernizing the company’s comic book line.

Story: Archie CEO talks Stan Lee partnership

“One of the things that we immediately identified is that we had to make Archie culturally relevant,” said Goldwater, son of late Archie Comics founder John L. Goldwater. “I sat down with all the writers, and all the creators, and all the artists, and said, ‘Look guys — you’re completely unshackled. Go do what you want to do. Make it as fun as it can be.’”

Attention and criticism
This forward-thinking approach has led to widespread mainstream media attention, with the April announcement of Kevin’s debut covered by CNN, Entertainment Weekly and the Washington Post. Sales statistics have shown steady increases in Archie's market share at comic book retailers since Goldwater took over.

Video: Archie comics' first gay character (on this page)

No dramatic changes will please everyone, and the announcement of a gay teenager interacting with iconic characters such as Archie, Jughead, Betty and Veronica was met with some inevitable criticism.

“When it was first announced, I got some calls, and there were some people who were upset,” Goldwater told Newsarama. “And there were people who were very disappointed that we were changing the dynamic of the Archie universe. But that was really the minority.”

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Goldwater is quick to dash any skepticism that Kevin is simply a sales stunt who will disappear after the hype dies down.

“Kevin has permanently moved to Riverdale,” he said, referring to Archie’s fictional hometown. “He’s already in three or four more stories going forward. Kevin is here to stay. He’s part of the Archie gang. This is not a one-off.”

Reaching out
For Goldwater, part of growing an audience means reaching out to a new readership beyond kids. The magazine-format title “Life With Archie” debuted in July, depicting two stories each issue, with a grown-up Archie married to Betty in one and Veronica in the other. Fittingly, it deals with grown-up issues —unhappy marriages, serious illnesses, anger management and economic woes.

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“We are looking to embrace a different audience,” Goldwater said. We are looking to embrace a little bit of the older reader, give them a little more of an ongoing storyline. Something that’s a little bit more deep, a little bit more grown up.”

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Future plans include increasing the publisher’s digital presence (the company was one of the first to offer comics on the iPhone), a “Glee” parody in “Life With Archie #3” and revitalizing many long-dormant characters from the publisher’s back catalog.

Goldwater assures that no matter how much Archie Comics may change under his watch, they won’t stray from the central concepts that have made them successful for seven decades.

“The core of the Archie universe is the love triangle — it’s Archie, Betty and Veronica,” Goldwater said. “And that will never change. When you inject a new element into the mix, you have to be very conscious and very aware of upsetting the karmic world that is Riverdale.”

Story: Art, Franco bring Archie, Tiny Titans together

© 2012 Newsarama.com. All rights reserved.

Video: Archie comics' first gay character

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