Alex Simmons is a comic book writer, educator, and the founder of Kids Comic Con, which has brought kids and creators together for four years now in several different locations, and the Color of Comics exhibition, which focuses on comics by creators of color. He also is a regular writer for Archie comics, where his credits include Jughead Jones, Private Eye, The Cartoon Life of Chuck Clayton, and a huge crossover event that’s going on right now, New Kids Off the Wall.
Recently, Alex was asked to bring his love of comics to Senegal, in order to encourage literacy among children there. To fund the trip, he set up a Kickstarter page. His fund-raiser runs until September 16, and so far has fallen short of the goal, but as you will see, Alex is eternally optimistic. We took the opportunity to talk to Alex about his hopes for the Senegal trip as well as his work for Archie comics.
Good Comics for Kids: When I heard you were bringing Kids Comic Con to Senegal, my first question was: Why? What is the literacy situation there, is there a local comics scene, and how do you expect to make an impact?
Alex Simmons: I went into this the same way I do most of these situations … I know that among kids everywhere there are those who need bit more incentive to read, or they may not have a strong sense of self worth. Or might simply enjoy discovering some new characters, or stories, and a chance to create their own. What we do serves all those purposes organically.
But I have since learned that just like here in this country, there are children in Senegal who need even more support than the ones I’ve mentioned. They cannot read, or they struggle with it fiercely. There are teachers who need another tool to help them engage their students in academic studies, especially boys. So now the staff at the Senegalese American Bilingual School and other educators there have asked that we also offer our professional development workshops while we are there. To my knowledge, this is one of the first times a program and event like ours has been offered such an opportunity.
As to the comic scene—I know that a number of European comics and graphic novels can be found in some book store. I also know that a number of the African comic books I seen tend to reflect the non superhero genre more than anything else. I’m learning more about that as time progresses. The beauty of what we do is that our methods work with any genre, age group, or gender. So we know we can serve this population well.
GC4K: Why did you choose Kickstarter to raise the funds?
AS: The Kickstarter concept seemed to be the best way to reach a huge community of people all over the country who would want to support our efforts. We had a four-year history, references, quality participants, and solid goals. This way many people could pledge a little and we could reach our goal. Also Kickstarter has a great failsafe structure—they do not take the money the moment the person makes a pledge. The money is not credited until the amount of pledges hits the project’s goal amount. And if a project does not reach its exact goal, they do not receive anything, even if they are only $100 below the amount. So if we do not reach our goal no one loses anything. If we reach our goal, everybody wins.
Even in the 11th hour I am hoping for a miracle. If 1500 people pledge $10 each… If sixty people got 5 of their friends to pledge $60.00… Or if 600 people pledge $25 between now and 10 AM September 16th, then we get to help thousands of children, parents and educators in Senegal and the U.S.
GC4K: Do you have any other backers?
AS: Aside from the individual supporters, we’ve received support from Canson Paper Products, the non profit arm of Random House, and from the children’s publishing company called Emotes. These are all groups that we have worked with and know the quality and value of what we do.
GC4K: Have any comics creators committed to making the trip? If so, who?
AS: Oh yes! Independent artists and publishers Ray Felix, and Dawud Anyabwile jumped on board instantly. There are two others who are trying to work it out. Also writer/animator Steve Garrett from a company called The Giggle Group, in London plans to join us. All are eager to do demonstrations, workshops, and discussion panels.
GC4K: What costs would your budget cover?
AS: Airfare for myself and 2 other professionals, instructional supplies for the artists and students, technical equipment so we can record and share this and other creative arts and education experiences, interviews, lessons, etc., with kids around the world. We also need to mount and frame or mat over 100 pieces of artwork for the Color of Comics exhibit. Plus we need to ship it to Senegal with the hardware to hang the show, if it is not available there.
Last, on several occasions we’ve been asked to take our Kids Comic Con Road Show and the Color of Comics exhibit to other places in the U.S. But unlike our experiences in Buffalo, NY, or Miami, Florida, these locations do not have the resources to bring us there, or to give the kids art supplies for our workshops. And we cannot expect some of our company supporters to donate enough paper, pencils, pens, and things for hundreds of students. So we want to use some of this money to help us answer the call in at least two other locations.
GC4K: OK, I know you are a writer for Archie Comics, and I also wanted to talk about that—your double life, as it were. Which comics have you written for them?
AS: Wow, that is almost a whole ‘nother story. Since I started writing for Archie Comics, I’ve written 5 mini series for them: Archie’s World Tour, The Cartoon Life of Chuck Clayton, Cyrano Jones (Jughead as Cyrano DeBergerac), Jughead Jones, Semi Private Eye, and the latest (a six-parter) New Kids Off the Wall. I’ve also written 4 individual stories for them, one which involves a most unlikely, and challenging team up.
GC4K: Is there any particular character or story you have “made your own”? How do you think you have changed the Archie line?
AS: Two actually. The Chuck Clayton story really resonated with me, not just because we’re both of the “chestnut hue.” When, then editor, Mike Pellerito approached me about doing the project he said two things: 1) Can you make him like you, teaching creating comics workshops to kids? 2) And if you do, do you think you can come up with more than one story? I did both, and was tremendously flattered to be asked. Since the books were released I received a number of complements, and I understand the graphic novel version has really sold well for the company. I’m proud of this. Of course a great deal of what I do with the creative arts and kids is in that story—and maybe that’s part of why it works so well. And Fernando Ruiz’s artwork sure made it shine.
My other favorite has been creating the Cyrano story for Jughead. I really enjoyed writing the story and exploring some aspects of the character that I have always liked. And wait until you see what Fernando has done with the artwork—WOW!
GC4K: I know you are working on the big “New Kids” crossover, which launches next month. Can you describe that project and how you are approaching it?
AS: You might not think so, but this has been the most challenging to write. I was given the go to basically create 6 to 8 brand new supporting characters for the series—to add some variety and diversity to the arena. To me, that meant not just new faces, or looks, these kids had to have their own distinct personalities. They could not be clones of the leads. So I came up with a few totally out of my head, and I developed personalities and histories for some based on sketches submitted by artists Dan Parent, and Fernando Ruiz. All in all, I’ve tried to juice it up by giving a couple of our leads new opposite numbers to play off of, and a couple of challenges to shake up relationships. I’ve even added some new teachers to knock the staff off balance. And it has set up one or two exciting events that will play out in up coming issues.
GC4K: What is the biggest challenge of writing for Archie comics, and what is the best part?
AS: The biggest challenge has been trying to come up with some fresh approaches and ideas for a series of characters that have been around for almost 70 years. Archie and the gang are possibly the most iconic teenagers in American literature. And yes, I consider comics to be a form of literature. I always tell my students that it is what an artist brings to the table that makes their work different from someone else’s. That has always held true for me, especially when I was writing iconic characters like Sherlock Holmes, Batman, Superman and Tarzan. It even held true with Scooby Doo.
The most fun has been seeing my tales coming to life through the talents of artists like Rex Lindsey, Fernando Ruiz, and now Dan Parent. Creating good stories, like giving a great performance onstage, offers a satisfaction like no other I know. I have truly been blessed to have had this opportunity in my life. Any wonder I am so committed to helping children discover that same sense of elation? I think not.