Comics in New Zealand Education: Interview with Steve Malley

Today, Books and Adventures continues a series of posts exploring the use of comics in New Zealand education. You can find my New Zealand Education Gazette piece on the subject here.

Artist, author and comic book creator Steve Malley
Artist, author and comic book creator Steve Malley

A fine arts graduate turned tattooist, then comic book creator and novelist, the American Steve Malley was already a wandering soul before a tattoo commission from a Christchurch librarian drew him into the world of New Zealand comic book education.

Minnesota-born Steve abandoned a career as an artist in the US to develop his skills in tattooing, eventually taking his trade to a new home on the South Island of Aotearoa.

Steve wandered into educational work after doing a full sleeve tattoo on a librarian, as he told me over a pint on the outskirts of Christchurch’s quake-shattered Central Business District back in May.

Read more

Alex Simmons Interview, Part 3. Kids Comic Con: ‘Giving Comics Back to Kids Again’

Click for the first part of this interview with Alex Simmons.

‘When your children are growing up, you suddenly realise – I’m not Batman, I’m Batman’s Dad!’

Comic creator, writer and educator Alex Simmons’ main community endeavour these days is the international Kids Comic Con, which gives children their own comic book event at a time when so much of the industry seems focussed on marketing to geeky adult males.

The Comic Con originated when Alex provided a children’s activity area at Wizard World’s Chicago Con around 1998. Many visitors used the area as a babysitting service while they toured the convention, but that small side event was enough to provoke Alex’s creative streak.

‘That experience validated what I already suspected – that we needed events specifically for kids. Overall, the comic book industry is geared towards selling to guys in their thirties – and in economically depressed times, they’ll continue to follow the money.

‘It’s another symptom of the way we are short-changing our children in society at large. We keep giving them failure, anger and frustration. They are the future – and that doesn’t just mean training up a new generation to look after us in our old age – it means giving them their own lives, their own opportunities and choices.’

Alex’s yearly Comic Con brings together artists and publishers, librarians and educators, to give children and their caregivers just such opportunities to explore the world of comics. Attendees participate in workshops and meet with the men and women behind the adventures of their favourite characters. In 2010, the Convention went to Senegal to bring their brand of fun along with an art exhibit called, ‘The Color of Comics‘ to an African audience of children, fans, educators and – hopefully – future comics creators!

Alex couches his sense of mission and personal responsibility in terms of comic books. ‘I love sidekicks like Robin from Batman or Short Round from Indiana Jones – as a kid, I was inspired by junior heroes who were an integral part of helping the hero win. Later I went through the stage of life where you identify with Batman. And then your children are growing up and you suddenly realise – I’m the parent that gets killed now! I’m not Batman, I’m Batman’s Dad!’

Alex’s acceptance of his role as a parental figure and mentor is part of his unique success as the mastermind of Kids Comic Con – ‘How come it was me of all people who set this up? It wasn’t that i was the only one on the planet who could do it… But i was the one committed to making it happen. Obsessed, even. I had the contacts in the comic book industry and the connections with educators too.’

Alex didn’t do this alone, though. ‘Much of what we’ve achieved would never have happened without Eugene Adams, Director of Collaborative Education at Bronx Community College. Working with him is endlessly remarkable, endlessly rewarding. He’s been a kindred spirit who gave the Comic-Con a plan, a venue, and a staff of volunteers. If we hadn’t made it happen with all that support, then we’d have been asleep at the wheel.’

A large part of the work of Kids Comic Con involves empowering young creators with the latest technology, using free workshops and outreach sessions to give a taste of the software used in modern comics production. My recent interview with Cody Pickrodt showed how hard it can be for young creators with no computer skills to work in this medium.

Kids Comic Con offers a wide range of opportunities for young people to develop such technical skills. Even the convention website was originally designed by students at Borough of Manhattan Community College.

Alex says, ‘The future is in danger of separating us into technological haves and have-nots. People need access to the means by which they can make a living, and more and more that means technology. Not every child we work with may grow up to be a graphic designer, but they’ll surely need more from a computer than just Facebook.’

Kids Comic Con brings together many strands of Alex Simmons’ work over the past 20 years: a sense of social and historical consciousness, seen in his 1930s adventure stories; a duty to empower young readers and writers with critical thinking, as found in his Archie-meets-Obama story; and above all, a sense of wonder and desire to explore and engage with the world around us.

‘No child is born with a desire to fail. It’s our mission to fire their sense of wonder and of possibility. To empower them to believe in the thoughts which occur to them, and give themselves time to consider the value of their own ideas.’

Check out the Kids’ Comic Con website for more information.

 

Alex Simmons Interview, Part 2: Archie Meets Obama and Palin

Click for the first part of this interview with Alex Simmons.

Comic creator Alex Simmons’ most recent work has been a two-part story for Archie Comics. In it, Barack Obama and Sarah Palin visit the high school at Riverdale, home to all-American teen Archie Andrews and his friends since the 1940s.
Archie’s World Tour by Alex Simmons
Alex has previously written numerous stories for Archie, including Archie’s World Tour and a series which reimagines the easygoing Jughead Jones as a hard-boiled private investigator, but writing two of the most recognised political figures in America today was a special challenge…
Alex Simmons reimagines Jughead Jones as a ‘semi-private investigator’

‘Victor Gorelick, the Senior Editor at Archie, called me requesting a story featuring President Obama and Sarah Palin. My first pitch was based on environmental issues, but we felt this was too edgy. A comic like this is not a soapbox for political views – although we also don’t want to paint these heavyweight politicians as sweet or innocent. The challenge was finding a way into these real-life characters through the Riverdale mindset.’

Barack Obama and Sarah Palin visit Riverdale in Archie Comics issues 616-617, written by Alex Simmons

Alex’s finished story focusses on spin and media manipulation. Rival candidates for the class presidency, Archie and Reggie both lose sight of their moral compass when their respective campaign managers, Veronica and Trula, encourage them to pose for photographs with Obama and Palin! The implied endorsement sends their popularity skyrocketing, but the politicians catch wind of the media manipulation and descend on Riverdale to assert control of their public images.

Alex explains how the media came to be at the heart of this high-profile political story:

‘This comes back to the idea about balance which shaped my Blackjack story about the Touaregs: one man’s insurgent is another man’s freedom fighter! I felt I couldn’t weigh in on specific issues which divide the parties. But politicians are politicians – they have to do certain things to get where they are – and it’s important that we hold them to account. So the message behind my story is one of responsibility for your actions in the public arena.’

Archie and Reggie eventually repent and redeem themselves by taking responsibility for the media spin done in their name by Trula and Veronica. For this plot twist, Alex drew inspiration from Republican presidential nominee John McCain’s personally gracious defeat speech on the day of President Obama’s victory, in which he stepped back from what had been an aggressive campaign and chided those among his supporters who booed Obama’s victory.

‘In the Archie story, I wanted to show what should happen – politicians being true leaders and taking responsibility for things done in their name. Comic books are fun, but especially when they’re aimed at children, a positive message never hurts.’

Next time on Books and Adventures, we look at Alex’s greatest contribution to comics for children, the international Kids Comic Con convention. Click for the third and final part of this interview with Alex.

Alex Simmons Interview, Part 1: Blackjack

This week, our Books and Adventures interview is with Alex Simmons, who has written for the stage, screen and radio alongside work as an educator, performer and comics creator.

Over the course of a 20-year career, Alex has founded the Kids Comic Con and taken it around the world from Buffalo, NY to Senegal, created the African-American comic-book adventurer Blackjack, and even brought Barack Obama and Sarah Palin to Riverdale in a special two-part story in Archie Comics.

In a conversation that covered everything from 30s movie serials to the outreach work of Bronx Community College, Alex demonstrated that Books and Adventures are his business.

Appropriately for Black History Month, we began by talking about his character Arron Day, a globe-trotting soldier of fortune known to the world as…Blackjack.

‘In the 1930s, we were prepared to go out and explore. To inspire kids to be good adults.’

In his teens, Alex Simmons attended a film club on New York’s West 40th Street, showing old movie serials such as Captain Marvel, King of the Rocket Men and The Phantom. One particular show stayed with him.

Daredevils of the Red Circle stood out,’ Alex explains. The 1939 serial followed a trio of acrobats turned private investigators, who seek revenge for the death of a family member. ‘Daredevils had a black character: he was the butler to one of the main characters…and his name was “Snowflake”!

Fred Toones aka “Snowflake”

‘He was an awful stereotype, rolling his eyes, with this high-pitched voice, but I remember one episode where the heroes were trapped in a garage filling with fumes…The stereotype suddenly falls away, Snowflake helps break into the garage and rescue the others. It’s his one moment of competence. Of course, nobody even acknowledges this, and within a minute he’s straight back to the old characterization.

‘Watching that serial made me think – this was the 1930s. There was a black presence. We were there. And not just rolling our eyes and waving our hands in the air! I wanted to tell stories about the African American presence in this time, when parts of the world were still full of mystery and wonder, when we were willing to go out and explore! Unlike now when we’re so jaded by technology and shaped by the media that the devout can go to confession through an iPhone app.’

Alex came up with Blackjack in 1988 as a conduit for telling stories about the 1930s and writing an African-American presence back in to our vision of those times. Arron Day, adventurer for hire, grew up travelling the world with his soldier-of-fortune father. As he takes on enemies both foreign and domestic, he explores his father’s legacy and rights the wrongs of a blood-soaked past.

Arron is a two-fisted protagonist in the style of Indiana Jones, but also a thinking man’s action hero, perceptive and astute. In the Blackjack stories, Arron’s ability to pick out a face in the crowd or spot a secret glance between two conspirators is often the key to his survival and ultimate success in saving the day. Alex, who wrote the stage play Sherlock Holmes and the Hands of Othello, acknowledges a certain debt to the man from 221b Baker Street:

‘I’m a big fan of Conan Doyle’s writing and I wanted Arron to be an intelligent hero, without being a carbon-copy Sherlock. He doesn’t pull together evidence to make elaborate deductions, like Holmes – but Arron is supremely observant.’

Arron is accompanied in his adventures by Tim Cheng, a dignified Asian servant who Alex wrote as an intelligent and independent figure – ‘my apology for Charlie Chan.’

Tim falls into Arron’s service after Arron wins a New York brownstone ‘and everything in it’ during an unseen adventure prior to the first Blackjack story.

The Blackjack comic toys with the old Green Hornet/Kato dynamic by having Arron suspect that Tim resents being ‘owned’ by another man. In the storyline Blood and Honor, Arron and Tim are called on a mission to China, during which Tim’s trustworthiness is put in doubt – but Tim’s secret loyalty proves to be to his family, rather than Blackjack’s enemies. By choosing to live in New York with his bride, alongside Arron as a friend and partner, Tim ultimately redeems the loner hero whom he serves.

Alex’s commitment to redressing past prejudice extends to the villains Arron confronts on his travels. The first Blackjack comic sends our hero to the Middle East, a location suggested to Alex by his mentor, the celebrated editor-illustrator Dick Giordano.

‘We wanted to open the Blackjack series with a story that showed Arron to be a globetrotting hero. This got me thinking of those prejudiced old Thirties movies again. I couldn’t have all the Middle Easterners be dumb bad guys who go ‘Aieeeee!’ when they die. So I focussed on the Touareg people, nomads who had fought against the colonial powers.

‘In Second Bite of the Cobra, Arron faces a principled, intelligent villain – a Touareg rebel gone sour, robbing from his own people. So the final showdown between hero and villain is also a crisis of conscience, with the Touareg leader forced to recognise that he’s betrayed his own beliefs.’

Alex always envisaged Blackjack as a legacy character whose heroic mantle is passed down through the generations. Arron’s father Matthew appears in the series seen through the prism of his son’s memory, and Alex even played Matthew, alongside his own son as the young Arron, in the flashback scenes of a 2001 radio play. Alex also laid plans for a sequel series running in the present, where Arron’s estranged grandson finds himself drawn back into the family business.

With comic books and even a radio show to his name, Blackjack remains a compelling character and a great contribution to the roster of African-American heroes. But his greatest adventures are surely yet to come…

Next time we move from Alex Simmons’ original creations to a famous American comic-book brand, which Alex took into the 21st century by bringing Barack Obama and Sarah Palin face to face with none other than…Archie!