- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 6, 2012

PHILADELPHIA — There are wedding bells in Riverdale, but not for Archie and Betty or Veronica. They’re for Army Lt. Kevin Keller and the physical therapist who helped him overcome his war wound - Clay Walker.

Meanwhile, in the comics pages, Gil is an 8-year-old boy being raised by his divorced factory-worker mom, and Dustin is 23 and living at home, unable to find a job after graduating from college.

Comics always have been a portal for escapism and fantasy, but also have labored to reflect a contemporary climate, a process that shows no signs of slowing whether it involves supervillains, breast cancer or other complicated realities of modern life.

Writers and artists fold real-world events into their fictional worlds, blending boundaries to make readers not just laugh and escape, but also reflect and think.

“Comics have always been a reflection of our world,” said Brendan Burford, comics editor at King Features Syndicate in New York. “People want to see a reflection and, chances are, if the reflection is something that rings true with their world, their life, their family and their friends, they can relate and laugh.”

The title character in “Gil” is an elementary school student, slightly portly and always picked last for sports, who lives with his mom. He would love a nuclear family because it would mean he’d have superpowers.

“Growing up in a single-parent family during America’s first ‘Great Recession’ wasn’t always easy, but I look back on my formative years fondly,” said cartoonist Norm Feuti, who debuted “Gil” in January and has based it, partly, on his own experiences.

He noted that with the national divorce rate rising, there are parents and kids who can probably relate to his title character, an 8-year-old quintessential underdog who lacks the latest toys or electronic gadgets.

“Gil is a very personal comic to me,” Mr. Feuti said. “It’s a celebration of the resiliency and indefatigable spirit of childhood.”

In another strip, Dustin has finished college but is living with his parents, unable to find a significant job or afford his own apartment, experiences not uncommon among many recent graduates.

“It’s humor therapy for people,” said Steve Kelly, who, along with fellow cartoonist Jeff Parker, created “Dustin” in 2010 and has seen it expand to some 300 newspapers since then. “If you were to sit at home and you were unemployed and you thought you were the only one, that would be a lot more difficult to deal with.”

But seeing it in the comic strips, or in the comic books, may soften the blow, he said.

“In these tough economic times, there are a lot of people sitting in their parents’ houses and they think you’re making fun of them and, honest to God, we’re not,” Mr. Kelly said. “I’ve been unemployed - worked at the newspaper in San Diego, got fired and was unemployed for a year. I know how you can feel isolated and depressed and you wonder what the future holds.”

Sometimes, the topics can be rife with politics or challenge different social values.

In Riverdale, longtime home of the high school hijinks of Archie, Betty, Veronica and others, issues ranging from gay marriage to cancer are finding new readers and story lines, bringing up topics not typically found in the funny pages.

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