, ,

Alex Simmons Talks Kids Comic Con & Archie

Archie #616Alex Simmons is a busy man. Not only is he writing five titles for Archie Comics, including Archie, Archie & Friends, Betty & Veronica, Jughead, and Veronica–and launching the “New Kids off the Wall,” a big new story arc that will introduce a new gang of characters into the Archie universe–but Simmons is also the founder of Kids Comic Con, a yearly event at Bronx Community College focused on developing kids’ imaginations, which also travels to various cons throughout the year. When we spoke, he was about to embark on a week-long trip to Senegal, Africa, where he is presenting a version of his Kids Comic Con and showcasing his “Color of Comics” exhibit, which celebrates all of the different cultural influences in comics. He has since returned with pictures and video of this incredible event–see below!

This, of course, makes him a perfect interview subject for Kids Comics Month. Read on to learn about the genesis of Kids Comic Con, how he’s making Archie less “whitebread,” and what his plans are for . . . Ethel?

TFAW.com: You’ve got your fingers in a lot of different projects. You write, you organize conventions, you do voiceover work, you do a lot of different things. How do you juggle it all?

Alex Simmons: I don’t sleep. I squeeze a family in there, too! I would have to say it started in my youth. I started out with a great love of drawing and writing. I wanted to become an illustrator, but by the time I graduated high school, I was interested in performing. So I sort of combined the three and did theater and extra work in films.

I was doing Off-Off-Off Broadway shows, and when you do that you design your own flyers, and your own promotions and stuff. And I was also teaching and doing a lot of theater workshops and working with kids. And so a lot of that became part of my makeup.

I always had a love of comics. So eventually writing theater led to me writing a couple of screenplays that didn’t go anywhere, which led to writing some comic book concepts, which led to getting published here and there, which, a few years later, led to properties like Blackjack and Race Against Time, and doing some stuff for DC and Archie.

Archie #617Over the years, my interest built and my experience grew, and some things I’d do and leave and come back to, and some things I would continue to do alongside of other things.

TFAW.com: You seem to be quite an activist for kids comics. As a comics lover myself I can see why this is important, but what do you tell people who have never picked up comics and have kids?

AS: It’s funny because I guess by virtue of what I do, I’m an advocate for comics, but really I think of myself more as an advocate of the creative arts and kids’ imagination, and validating that imagination. And comics are one of the ways that stimulate the imagination. When I talk to people who are unbelievers, I talk about the average child and that formula that has existed through time: a child sees something that stimulates wonder and curiosity, they imagine possibilities, and they pretend. And in those moments of pretending and wondering, they sometimes set their goals for the future: “I want to grow up to be a doctor or adventurer,” or whatever it is.

Comics, for me, and for a lot of friends of mine, were one of the ways we went away. We escaped from the mundane, or from the tragic or the abusive. It was a safe haven and it was a place where you could believe anything was possible. All I’m trying to do now is use this as one of many tools to help young people see the possibilities. I feel very strongly that we’ve taken that away from them.

Over the past few years I have seen articles about how–even in some of the more prestigious colleges–abstract thought, problem solving, new ideas, are not as plentiful as in previous years. And that’s probably for a good series of reasons, but one of the reasons in particular is, you’ve killed it. You killed the imagination in kids early. You made them robots, you made them focus on only what they could see and touch and hear and feel, as if that is all that exists. And subsequently, kids can’t imagine, and can’t think outside the box. They can’t even think about thinking outside the box.

Archie #614 New Kids Off the WallBut comics allow us to do that. I regret there aren’t as many genres as there used to be, but I still feel there’s a lot of material–some from the mainstream, but a lot of it from independents, whether it’s somebody who’s just putting together their first project, or it’s smaller companies who are doing some nice projects, whether educational or otherwise. There are a lot more genres in the independent range than there are within the mainstream range.

TFAW.com: I was just at a convention where they were talking about how the mainstream comics industry turned away from kids in the late ’80s and the ’90s. Now, in the last few years, Archie has been getting a lot of press for doing new things with their titles, and Boom! has put out so many kids’ titles. How do you feel about this resurgence in kids comics? Is it enough?

AS: No. Not at all. Not even in the slightest sense, but it is something. I mean, for one, Archie–what they’re doing now is attracting attention, but Archie is one of the few companies that didn’t walk away from the young audience to begin with. That is something that was adamantly stated to me years ago, but I’ve also seen that over the years that I’ve been working with them. I’ve been able to go through their history, and they’ve never stopped publishing, and they’ve never abandoned their audience, and that’s something the [overall] industry did.

I really feel that except for some people, the industry hasn’t come back because they value kids; they’ve come back because of the green stream, the money. “Oh yeah, this is a hot item right now. This will sell. Let’s knock this out.” And you can tell if you look at the quality of some of the books being done in the mainstream for kids: it’s the same old. It’s the formula. I’ve actually worked with editors and run into editors who consider this grunt work, so they can get on a “real” book.

So no, it’s not enough. It’s only enough when you’re talking to people who are really behind it. They want the quality out there, and they really love the audience they’re working for. Yeah, I do adult stuff, too. But when I write a children’s book, that’s not a step down: that’s never been a step down. That’s the audience that I also respect and enjoy. I want them to have a good time, and I want to do my best work for them.

Archie & Friends #148TFAW.com: Why do you think there’s such a stigma within the industry and with creators for kids’ books?

AS: I feel that what happened in the ’70s and ’80s in particular colored a lot of what you’re seeing now. Comics used to be, and I’m talking way way back in the ’40s and ’50s, comics were a legitimate form of entertainment: not necessarily respected, but nevertheless, they were out there. The audience was mostly kids. There were some adults, but really, comics were a kids’ entertainment property, and through the ’50s and ’60s, they were still pretty much considered a kids’ entertainment property.

But then what started to happen, both good and bad, is that people who grew up loving comics and got into the industry, and who were also dealing with the ’60s and ’70s and the social revolution and all that, began to do more mature stories. Race situations began to be discussed and explored, taboos were broken, social issues with drugs and poverty–all of these things started to creep into the stories.

I thought that was cool, personally, as a young audience member at that time. I thought, naively, that this was simply going to be another reading level for comics; I never envisioned giving up one for another. But that’s what happened. And I think that aside from the social issues, multiple crossovers and multiple-chapter stories started to make them more complex.

So we ended up with a lot of adult stories, and very few things that could be considered kid oriented. The things that did exist, like Leave It to Chance, which was very high quality, done by DC and created by James Robinson and Paul Smith, those fragile few didn’t get the kind of push that the more mature storylines were getting. It just wasn’t happening. If you were doing 100 Bullets, you got a lot of attention, you got a lot of media, you were a hot ticket. If you were doing something like Leave It to Chance, you got some mention at a certain point, but then you got left in the dust. So I feel like we burned those bridges.

Archie & Friends #149For a good 10 years we ignored kids–and I say “we,” but I was not a part of that–and so for 10 years or so, kids were not looking at comics, unless they were looking at an Archie or maybe the Disney Donald Duck and things like that. But for the most part, a good percentage of kids were not. Parents weren’t buying them for them. Some kids that I know said, “I’m tired of having to buy 12 or 15 issues of a story in order to get through to the end.” So they stopped.

Well, if you’re not developing that audience base, then who do you think is buying your books? To me, it wasn’t until books that used to sell 100,000 copies dropped down to 40,000 copies that the industry got scared. It wasn’t until Marvel almost went into bankruptcy that it got scared. And right now, it’s a wonderful thing that graphic novels and comics are being considered an educational tool, and they’re being more respected because of graphic novels like Maus and so forth; that’s great. But I even see that as, “Okay, how long is that going to last?”

If we don’t honestly want to put out books for a younger audience and for an all-ages audience, then it’s only going to be what’s cool right now–and the moment that’s no longer cool, it’s going to disappear. You get a halfhearted campaign behind it, the writers and the artists aren’t respected, and before you know it, it’s gone.

TFAW.com: So I’m assuming that’s why you started organizing your Kids Comic Con, which has been running for four years now?

AS: Yes. 2007 was the first official Kids Comic Con, but I’d been trying to get the main conventions to do a section of their convention floors for kids since the late ’90s. When Wizard Magazine bought the Chicago Comic Con, Garrett Seamus let me do what I called Kids Corner. They gave me a section of the convention floor, and I was able to develop events and activities in that area for young people. You had panels, you had guest artists, you had workshops, just like I have in the Kids Comic Con. And we had artists that I knew, as well as people like Kurt Busiek. And they were happy to do something, to sit there for a half-hour or 45 minutes, and talk to kids and teens about their work, and how they liked comics when they were that age.

Teenagers who were forced to bring their younger siblings knew that, “Okay, you’re going to have a 45-minute class on how to draw comics; I’m going to go look at the mature stuff or the outrageous stuff I want to look at and not have to worry about you.” And so it worked really well at that event, and then I was never asked to do it again.

So a few years went by, until a black comic convention called ECBACC, the East Coast Black Age of Comics Con, invited me to bring the Kids Corner over to their event, which I did, and they still do it there. I don’t do it every year, but they still do it.

Betty & Veronica #250Then in 2006, I met Eugene Adams at Bronx Community College. He had found me online through a couple of projects I had done, and he’s the Director of Educational Outreach there at BCC. So we organized through BCC and some of the middle schools and high schools they had relationships with, and I did a number of workshops there. Then, at certain point he asked, “What else do you want to do?” I said I would really like to do a professional development conference, where I have a certain number of professional comic book writers and artists and editors come and speak to a large group of high school and college students about this business, as a business. It’s the art of comics; it’s also the business of comics.

So he said fine, and we set that up, and people thought, well, maybe 15 or 20 students would show up, and we had a conference room, and it was jammed–I think we had more than 200 students showed up, and something like 15 teachers. It was crazy; it was standing room only. And then he asked me again, he said, “Well that went well. What do you want to do next?” And I said I’d always wanted to do an all-ages comic convention for kids that would have certain elements in play that I felt very strongly they would benefit from. It would be a cool, fun thing, but it would also be a learning experience. And again he said, “Fine, let’s do that,” and I put it together with his support and the support of the college, and that was in 2007.

And we thought, again, “Well, I’ll bring in 10 of my professional friends, they’d be happy to do it, because we’ve had these conversations over the years, and we’ll probably get 50 to 100 people from the general community,” because Bronx Community College is sort of out of the way. But word got out via the Internet and the next thing I know, I’m getting “Thank you” emails from the West Coast and Mexico, and people saying, “I wish I could be there, but bless you for doing this,” and I thought that’s pretty cool, and I was getting a number of artists and writers and editors saying, “I’d love to be there.”

I told them, “This isn’t going to be the usual Con, where you’ll make hand-over-fist money. You’ve got to be willing to talk to the kids who come up to your table and really just want to ask questions. That’s what we’re here for. If you sell something, great, but it’s about being there to answer questions and to share with them what you do.” And they said, “No, we want to be there.” So we ended up with 45 professionals at different tables and booths and things, we did panels and demonstrations, and some people just sat there all day and gave away free sketches.

Jughead #204And we wound up with close to 800 to 1,000 people. A brand-new convention on the outskirts of the Bronx–I mean, we weren’t in the desert, but it’s not exactly on the beaten track. We even had people who drove down from Connecticut, who came up from Pennsylvania, and–to my shock–we had two librarians who flew in from Chicago. That was year one, and the amazing thing was at the end of the day, when the last patron had left, the artists and the publishers were standing around in shock. They were giddy with excitement. Many of them were saying, “That’s what I have not seen before. I’ve never seen the kids holding my book. I’ve never seen the kids standing around or sitting on the floor reading.” And they were just so jazzed and saying, “You’re going to do this again!” and I was thinking, “I didn’t mind doing it this time, but the show could be done by bigger entities with deeper pockets.”

But at the end of the day, I was like, “Yeah, we’ll do this again.” And we’ve been doing it ever since, and we’ve actually got a little road show that we put together to take to locations other than New York City, if resources permit. So last year we were invited a comic con in Buffalo, NY, and the Miami Book Fair International, and we did it again this year.

TFAW.com: And you’re planning on going to Senegal, West Africa, right?

AS: That’s right! I’ll be going, along with Eugene Adams and Ray Felix.

TFAW.com: Is that going to include the same kind of curriculum that you have here on the road, or are you creating something geared specifically toward Africa?

AS: Yes, and yes! The beauty of what we do, I do, is there is a template that we put together–a certain outline or structure–that allows us to say this is what the quality is going to be, this is the kind of material that we’re going to provide, this is the kind of instruction that we’re going to provide. But, we did need to be flexible to the environment.

In Senegal, we’re taking an exhibit I co-curated called Color of Comics. It’s an exhibit that’s meant to reflect the diversity of cultures that influence comics, whether they’re created by someone of color of not–that’s of no consequence. We look at what exists already, and rather than complain that that’s not enough, we want to support it and build on it. This exhibit has been around since it debuted in 2008 on the BCC campus, and then it’s been to Florida, where it was last year, and then we had it here in Harlem, and now it’s going to Senegal.

Jughead #205And in Senegal it will be in the city of Dakar, and we’re going to do two smaller venues in two neighboring cities. All of this is co-sponsored by the U.S. Embassy Dakar, Senegal, and Canson Paper Products. We’re pretty jazzed about it. The art exhibit will be up in Dakar in the American Cultural Center, which is an arm of the American Embassy. And then we’re going to be doing workshops in their building, because instead of being in the one school we were going to work with, which had a student body of over 700, the cultural center heard about this, and they said, “Look, we’ll bus kids in if we can open this to the city.” So we’ll be doing about seven days’ worth of workshops, and there will be a conference with African artists, cartoonists and so forth, and there will be a costume parade. All throughout the month of December.

TFAW.com: That sounds amazing.

AS: To my knowledge, nothing like this has ever been done before. It’s a small, community-based event that has grown until we have been invited to go to another country, and to mingle with their culture, and bring what we have, and really, it’s a whole new experience. And I’m really lucky and excited to be apart of it.

TFAW.com: Talking about building on the cultural diversity in comics, I’ve read Parts 1 and 2 of the “New Kids off the Wall” in Archie. I started on Archie as a kid, so I love the title, and the storyline is that Pine Point High School closes, and Riverdale High School gets an influx of new students–a lot of whom happen to be people of color, including some new teachers, but the story doesn’t make a big deal about their race. It’s more focusing on the logistics of having 50 new students and new instructors in the school. How did you approach that?

AS: Fearfully! You know, it’s funny. The idea of the project was really exciting to me, and when you look at all that, all of the things that you just stated, you think, “How will you do that in six issues?” Well, the first thing is, you don’t introduce 50 kids. You introduce the concept of 50 kids. And then you focus on a small cadre of them. And then the biggest challenge became, “Who are these kids?” And how do their personalities energize, or reflect off of, or add to the fun, or challenge the established characters?

Veronica #204At first, you could come up with, “Pine Point had its own kind of Archie, its own kind of Jughead,” but then you wind up with the same kind of characters. Who needs two of each? The bottom line is, you don’t end up thinking about the new “Archie,” because you’ve already got an Archie! So my feeling was, these kids, when they come into this school, they have to bring something that isn’t there, or you haven’t seen on a regular basis before. Something that’s going to challenge the other kids.

So I had to find out who these characters were. Some of them I created, but I was also handed a few, actually I was handed the drawing and the name. So who they were was also brand-new. I could look at them and go, “Okay, you look like you might–” but that was it.

One of the things that went through my mind was, up until this point, Moose had no challenge. There was nobody as big as Moose, there was nobody who could go up against Moose under any circumstances. He was the big dog, physically. And I thought, well, there were some jokes in that, and we certainly played enough of them, but here’s the other side of that: Moose has nobody he can bounce off of. He’s always gotta hold back. So let’s put somebody in there who Moose is like, “Finally!” And now maybe there will be occasions where they will be at odds with one another; they could be on opposite sides of a team game, or whatever, and not everybody is lovey-dovey and kum bay ya all the time, either, and so I said, here’s someone that Moose can bounce off of. Okay, great: that gives me one. And then it sort of developed from there.

Racially speaking, I just wanted to mix it up. There are some characters in the Archie universe that had already been established, but who you see maybe once or twice a year. Someone just mentioned to me recently in an interview that Sheila Wu was the only Asian character, and I said, “Not really, there’s two more: there’s Kumi and Tomoko,” but you don’t see them very much. And so I can understand why people might forget them. So I thought, we have to really think about this the way you would a TV show or a movie. There already are these characters in this universe, and periodically, you have to bring them forward. And you’ve got to give them a scene, or give them a story, or even just put them in the background, even if they have nothing to say, so we are reminded that they are there, that this universe is much more seasoned.

Also, Dilton never had anybody to challenge his genius, but the other side of that is Dilton always had to be the every genius. He had to be an expert on anything, depending on the storyline, and I thought again, that’s ridiculous. In reality, there are specialists. So the new kid that I brought in is named Simon, and his specialty, his passion, his obsession, is oceanography. So all things water-related and water-creature-related, that’s going to be Simon’s world. And Dilton’s going to be able to talk to someone and maybe learn something from him!

Veronica #205So you know, these sorts of things went back and forth, and that’s how you end up with Sheila Wu, who’s actually an amalgam of two girls I went to school with. Neither of them fit the stereotypical mold of the nice Chinese girl. Both of the were wacky people, they were great people. I adored them both, and one of them I hear from periodically, even to this day, but they were wild, they were just kooky like the rest of us, and I said well, here you go! Let’s have a Sheila Wu there. Let’s let her be wacky, and she’s also a challenge to Veronica on the fashion front. Veronica can buy any designer she wants–well, guess what? Here’s a student who can design any fashion outfit she wants and would rather do that. And so they’re going to clash on that level.

So it was always trying to think about how can I mix it up and keep it fun, but also have some people butt heads. Let’s make it less secure and less formulaic every now and then. Let’s mix it up here and see where other writers will go with it.

TFAW.com: Did Archie Comics come to you with the idea, or did you come to Archie?

AS: Archie came to me. Back in ’07, when I first met with Archie, I met with Michael Pellerito, who is now the president of the company, Michael Silberkleight, one of the original owners, Fred Mauser, who was marketing director, and Victor Gorelick, who was like the super editor. Victor’s been with Archie since–I think he’s been there 52 years. Victor is the go-to guy.

So I was in a meeting with Victor, Fred, Michael, and Michael, and we had a lengthy dialogue about the Archie universe, but also about diversity, and about why people consider Archie to be whitebread. Well, look at your lead characters, and then look at your backgrounds. You’ve had Chuck Clayton, an African-American character who, by the way, dated Nancy, who is an African-American character–they’ve been together since the 1970s. And I can’t tell you how many people don’t know that. They don’t even remember Chuck until they’re like, “Oh! Oh him!” Or didn’t even know he’d been there, because Archie didn’t use him very much.

TFAW.com: They’d use him for the sports stories. That’s what I remember.

AS: Yes, they’d use him for sports stories, or they’d use him when a story came up with an African-American theme. And that is unfortunate, and that is also the way the world works a lot. But the bottom line is, we had a big meeting, and we talked about diversity and about how to change that impression of Archie. So in that respect, we’ve been working on that–we being Archie the company, whether I’ve been involved or not–we’ve been working toward that for a long time.

And what’s happened, thank goodness, is that there’s this explosion that’s going on right now. The wedding story kicked it off. That was big. People were ignoring Archie. The comic book media in particular was ignoring Archie Comics for a long time. So even if they’d had Chuck Clayton running for president, you wouldn’t have seen it. But once the wedding story blew the cap off and light came into the house, then people started saying, “Oh, they did that? What else is going on?” And that’s when people started to notice the other things, which generated a desire to do more. And now you’ve got Kevin Keller, and you’ve got other projects going on that will hopefully continue to entertain the seasoned fans, those who have been with us and made this possible, but also will attract new fans.

Alex Simmons in Senegal, Africa
Alex Simmons shares his love of comics with kids in Senegal, Africa.

TFAW.com: Will any of these new Pine Point characters become a permanent part of the landscape?

AS: That’s the intention. It’s not only the company’s intention, as has been stated to me, but it’s most assuredly my intention and the intention of some of the writers and artists I’ve shared conversations and dialogues with–many of whom were very excited about this fresh air. Ultimately, again, you’re giving them more to work with, and that’s exciting. “Oh, I don’t have to do this same old thing that I always do with Jughead or Reggie or whatever. I’ve got these other characters who they can play off of.”

I’m also in the middle of developing something for Ethel, which is exciting for me. I’ve looked at Ethel the way a lot of kids probably looked at her when she was first on the scene, as this goofy, boy-crazed ugly duckling, to put it nicely, just running around making a fool of herself. But since the ’70s, with Women’s Lib and all that, you’ve gotta say, “Now wait a minute. This joke is real old now.” What I’ve seen Archie the company do is alter the look. The buck teeth are gone, the hairstyle is changed, and she’s become Ethel, this girl who’s there. But still, she didn’t have her own thing, and I looked at her one day and I said, “I know who she is.” And I pitched the idea to the team, and Victor has given me the go-ahead, so I’m writing a plot outline right now, and if I get the okay on that, you’ll see another side of Ethel.

TFAW.com: Can you give us any hints?

AS: Lemme put it to you this way: there is a hint in one of the New Kids books, and that has been written and drawn, and should be coming out this month.

Alex Simmons in Senegal, Africa
Simmons' Senegal trip included professional development classes for teachers and workshops for kids.

TFAW.com: You’ve also got Sarah Palin and President Obama showing up in some future issues. Why are they coming to Riverdale, and what are they going to be doing?

AS: Let’s try this: why not? One, we’ve had a lot of good response with stepping outside the box, doing some wild things, and that has been fun and it gets attention, so that’s a reality right there. Second, again, we’re trying to remain true to the established audience, and at the same time we want to be able to speak to this generation and this time in our society, which is a lot of fun.

A lot of the edgier stories that you’re reading in Life With Archie, it’s still a different world than the one we really live in. So what we’re trying to do is, we’re trying to find a way to tell different stories that titillate in ways that we haven’t done before, and that’s kind of cool, that’s all right. But we wanted to do something a little bit further. So what do you do? You bring in two opposing points in our political field, and then you have to make a decision about how political you’re going to get, and again, it’s Archie, so we can’t get too crazed.

But I’ll have to wait and see when people read it if it will work. I was able to give them the safe world of Archie, and at the same time I was able to have a good time with politics. As I said to someone else, neither of these people is pure–we don’t have Mother Teresa here or Martin Luther King. We’re talking about two politicians, so there are going to be some cracks there, things that they’re going to say within the book, that we can take one of two ways. I’ll just be curious to see how people respond to that.

TFAW.com: Am I correct in assuming that Mr. Lodge is a staunch Republican?

AS: Now that’s an interesting question. I don’t ever approach it! I think in something like Life With Archie, that might become more of a question, but in reality, if you look at politics, anyone as wealthy as Mr. Lodge is gonna be in the camp of people who will help him stay wealthy. So whether that’s a Republican or a really cool, enticing deal from the Democrats, it depends on the time on the clock. I think they would play to him more than the reverse.

TFAW.com: What do you have coming up that you’re excited about?

AS: Well, I’m excited about the upcoming story with Ethel. I’m very, very excited about it. I get excited trying to tell a good story, trying to entertain, trying to appeal to the audience–especially the young audience–to help them have a good time. I have to get jazzed about what I do, so that hopefully it translates into the work. So I’m tickled about the possible story with Ethel. I’ve also got something that would be a road trip with Archie, where he sets out on a motorcycle to go discover America. And I’m looking forward to that as well. And who knows what else? There are a couple other things simmering on the stove. It has to do a lot with what happens in the next four months with a certain rock band. We’ll leave it at that.

You can learn more about Simmons’ Kids Comic Con and his recent trip to Senegal, Africa here! Also, make sure to check out the video of Simmons’ conducting a workshop in Dakar.

Have you been paying attention to Archie lately? Check out all of our Archie comics and digests–they’re always great for kids and make excellent stocking stuffers.

VIEW OUR KIDS COMICS PAGE

SAVE 20% ON KIDS COMICS SUBSCRIPTIONS

Have you been enjoying Kids Comics Month? Post your comments below!

Please follow and like us:

Written by Elisabeth@TFAW

Elisabeth has been reading comics since we was a wee girl. She's obsessed with John Byrne, Criminal by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips, and making the perfect scrambled eggs. Follow her on @Twitter to get bonus conversations with her cat!