Monday, 28 February 2011

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

For the first part of this interview with Alex Simmons, click here.

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.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

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!
For part 2 of this interview, click here.

Saturday, 19 February 2011

Interview with Cody Pickrodt, Comics Creator

A former teacher in public schools now inspires a new generation of comics creators in Brooklyn and beyond

'Sometimes it felt like babysitting,’ comic book author Cody Pickrodt says of his days teaching in the California public school system. ‘There’s not enough money and not enough choice, when we need something more like a university, which caters to what the kids want to do.’

Cody is speaking to me in Café Grumpy, ‘a perfect café for comic book artists: big tables and not too loud.’ It’s located on a snowy streetcorner in Greenpoint, a world away from the West Coast schools where Cody first became involved in education. As an art teacher within the state, he would drive from school to school delivering sessions which increasingly came to focus on his first love, comic books. Returning to his native New York, Cody turned his passion into a profession as the leader of comic book workshops first for 3rd Ward, and then for Uproar Art.

Cody’s passion for comics in fact began in the city – specifically, in Chinatown. The young Cody’s Chinese-American mother took him on shopping trips where he developed a taste for Asian comic book imports.

‘I went from Disney comics straight to manga,’ Cody tells me. ‘I couldn’t read what they were saying at first, but the pictures told the story nonetheless. After a while, I even learned how to read Chinese, which after all is just another set of pictures. This was twenty years ago, well before the current popularity of manga today. And I actually learned something then, which I can't say for the quality of manga that kids read today.'

Cody feels it’s vital to encourage a new generation even as Hollywood promotes comic adaptations from Spider-Man to Superman and Tamara Drewe to Scott Pilgrim. ‘It’s easy to forget that comics are actually on the wane. Graphic novel sales have dropped significantly in the last year. The boom in comics became a glut, and it’s only now that the industry is shrinking that there’s room to take creative chances. It’s a great time for young, original creators to jump on board.’

Cody has done his part to foster this new generation of talent among both students and teachers, having trained a new generation of instructors at 3rd Ward, including comics teacher Joanne Sherrow.

Now Cody’s workshops are available for all ages from Kindergarten to 12th Grade, via Max Goodman’s non-profit organization Uproar Art, featured last time on Books and Adventures.

Working around a simple 6-panel page format, Cody uses a variety of techniques and tricks to get creativity flowing among his classes. In one activity, students may pass their comic book to a partner between panels, creating a collaborative work.

‘These classes work with all ages from infant to adult,’ says Cody, although he’s particularly impressed by Kindergarteners, who he says ‘focus and really get into it’.

In common with Uproar’s director Max Goodman, Cody believes that many subjects can be taught via creative, practical art activities. The comic book form lends itself to almost any subject on the curriculum. And, taught in small groups – 6 students is the optimum number – Cody’s classes enable students to find their own creative impulses and express them through the comics medium.

Cody’s own journey from those Chinatown manga to his current output has been a painstaking one. Cody's first comic book, Night Swim, boasting a 200 copy print run, was drawn, printed and individually assembled entirely by hand, prior to his experience using computers. Today his work, largely aimed at an adult audience, includes two concurrent narrative comics alongside countless cartoons, illustrations and the art project Men with Whom I Share the Same Height.

Cody works from a movie-style script, writing up to twelve issues in advance and creating thumbnails before moving on to a Zen-like drawing process. ‘It sounds odd, but I try not to think about drawing while I'm drawing. I'll put on a movie or a listen to the news in the background, or just think about something else entirely, daydream even--anything to occupy that analytical part of my brain while I work. You achieve a purer line that way.'

Cody’s current series Francine Way, born during his studies for an BFA in Sequential Art, follows a teenage girl, interested in survivalism, who leaves her home for the nearby woods. Her illusions about a life of solitary freedom are shattered when she meets a feral boy, living rough in the wild, who may be linked to a series of violent and disturbing events in the town.

‘It’s a kind of Nancy Drew story with a twist,’ says Cody, ‘about an outsider girl who wants to find out who’s behind this mystery, but who also doesn’t want to jeopardize her friendship with this fellow outsider.’

More about Francine Way and Cody’s other work – some only suitable for adult readers – is available at

In March, Cody will run a one-day parent and child workshop for Uproar Arts, sharing his expertise and giving families a taste of comic book creation. To find out more and get in touch with the Uproar team, visit

Monday, 14 February 2011

Interview - Max Goodman, Uproar Art

Never mind the nightlife and the skyscrapers, one of the most exciting things about New York is the commitment of the many artists and educators who serve their community through not-for-profit work. Over the coming weeks, Books and Adventures will be speaking to some of these American heroes striving to provide the best possible start for their city’s children.

Today we speak with Max Goodman. Max is a young artist and educator who, in 2009, founded Uproar Art, a Brooklyn-based non-profit organization which delivers weekend workshops and after-school classes to the local community. A talented jeweler in her own right, Max has assembled a team of artist-educators who offer courses on everything from recycled art to creating your own comic book.

Max is a dynamic and independent figure - she created her own first job in NYC by contacting 3rd Ward, who were advertising their own arts classes, and convincing them to take her on as an instructor! Although she had intended to teach in New York schools, the constraints of the system led her to found her own non-profit organization for arts education.

‘When I arrived in January 2009, there was a hiring freeze in the district,’ Max explains. ‘Founding Uproar Art gave me the chance to commit fully to my students without giving up my own art-making practice. It was a great way to give back to the young art-making community without sacrificing my own art.’

Max believes that an artist-educator who remains committed to their own practice can offer students new ways into learning, beyond the traditional classroom.

‘Pattern, rhythm and symmetry can all be used in art, but they're concepts repeated in math and music. Working with paints and metals helps students understand chemistry in a way that a science textbook could only illustrate flatly on a page. Frequently, students who feel they cannot achieve in other subjects are able to find an outlet in the arts, and in this way art keeps students in school who otherwise might drop out.’

Max gives the example of an 8-year-old student who spoke no English when they first met: ‘Her eyes lit up when she was in my art room, because she could follow the visual examples and create a beautiful piece. She expressed herself without worrying about the boundaries of language. That kind of outlet is absolutely invaluable in our world of standardized tests and rubrics.’

We’ve discussed British educational assessment on Books and Adventures before, but Max’s comments highlight the issues raised by testing on this side of the Atlantic, where there is a move to regulate education at a more national level. Max is ambivalent about this move:

‘I believe that funding for education should be sourced and therefore equalized on the national level, but I do not think it's reasonable to expect students everywhere to pass nationalized standardized tests. Individual communities understand the challenges facing their students, and should be afforded more local control over curriculum. A national curriculum should definitely be offered, but expecting students who speak English as a second language, or those with learning disabilities, to test the same as their peers is absolutely unproductive.’

As Max’s home patch in Brooklyn undergoes gentrification, wealth brings new opportunities and resources to the community – but it can also divide a neighborhood. On a recent visit to Bedford-Stuyvesant, I spoke with a local parent who decried the privileged do-gooders who parachuted in to a deprived area – but were free to leave the community’s problems behind at the end of the day.

Max’s team at Uproar Art are sensitive to these issues and committed to the place where they live: ‘We seek to ease tension and conflict - to make sure we're serving the community that has existed before the influx of wealth as well as the newcomers.’

Wherever possible, Uproar Art offers free and low-cost workshops alongside their comprehensive range of classes. ‘Eventually, we'd like to be a resource for children with an interest in the arts who may not have the means or support to pursue it extra-curricularly, as well as for the students that have the support system in place. We’re hoping to offer sliding scale payments for classes over the coming year.’

Max’s ethical commitments extend to opposing the involvement of the private sector in public education: ‘I think no for-profit entities should be allowed to play any role in our educational system. When I was a student in the Philadelphia public school district, a for-profit company sought to take over our schools in order to use them as a fertile captive audience for advertising. Education is for the good of the students and of the society in general, and somebody seeking to profit from that loses sight of these moral truths.’

Uproar is on the cusp of finishing its incorporation process, which will enable it to accept grants for future projects – and Max’s team are already looking ahead to the months and years beyond.

‘Our first year of business has gone well: we've found many allies in the local community, and have been welcomed with open arms into local studios. In the coming year we'd really to work more directly with local schools. It's time to start reaching out to the parts of the community that don't have access to programs like ours.’

In the immediate future, Max is excited by launching her own workshop on Organic Sculpture in Lefferts Garden. It’s based in part on the work of Andy Goldsworthy, who makes temporary artwork from found items in the environment.

‘Before now it's been difficult to find a location that parents and art studios were both comfortable allowing students to make nature based art, but I'm very excited to see what my 6-8 year old sculpture students discover in our own back yard. In addition to teaching Organic Sculpture we also offer a Recycled Art course. Because of our strong community focus we're always looking for ways to blend art making and the environment, and luckily there's no shortage of other environmentally friendly non-profits ready to partner with us - friends like Glenn Robinson at Bags for the People or Annie Novak of Rooftop Farms.

To find out more about Uproar Art and get in touch with Max and her team, visit

Saturday, 12 February 2011

A thank you on behalf of VRH

I wanted to write a brief thank-you note to everyone who supported my fundraising efforts for Volunteer Reading Help in 2010.

I've just heard that, including gift aid, we reached a final total of £680. This will pay for four children to receive one-to-one reading support in this school year.

It is only through the generosity of people like you that Volunteer Reading Help can give this much-needed if you ponied up the cash in 2010...give yourself a pat on the back!