Always Bet on Black

My friend, Mia Imani (CEO of Star Legacy Media), and I are at it again.  We’ve turned away, for the moment, from political conversations towards discussing wonderful things some very creative people are doing.  In this interview we would like to introduce you to Mr. Alex Simmons — a talented, visionary writer and creator spanning multiple genres.  Among the many hats he wears well are: professional freelance writer, teaching artist, public speaker, arts and education consultant.  Alex is the founder and co-producer of Kids’ Comic Con, which provides an age-appropriate environment for children, families and educators to enjoy and explore areas of the arts, literature and science.

Simmons’ work is as interesting as it is diverse; he has written plays, children’s stories, song lyrics, a dozen interactive mysteries for the electronic game ‘Who Done It’ and three movie novelizations for Disney.  He has also authored three biographies, including one on Denzel Washington.  Nerds at heart, we have fallen in love with his writing as a comic book author;  Alex has written for comic series such as ‘The Archies‘ to ‘Batman‘.  In this interview we are spotlighting the critically acclaimed, fan-favourite graphic miniseries BlackJack: The Adventures of Arron Day.  The series is about the adventures of an African-American soldier of fortune globetrotting during the turbulent 1930s.  The series found fans around the world — kids and adults — both male and female.  We are intrigued by and enamoured with Blackjack and we are willing to bet you will be too!

Dames:  How did you get started writing a comic/graphic series?

I was an only child.  I kept myself entertained by reading and acting out my own fictional adventures.  Growing up I watched foreign films, television shows and read books that influenced me and helped expand my imagination; I was able to travel the world through movies and literature.  Kids are born curious but, often, society will suppress their natural curiosity to understand how the universe works and where they fit in it; they are often trained to accept a dull, unimaginative existence.

I was blessed in that my mom, who was a single mother, created an environment for me where my innate curiosity was allowed to thrive and flourish.  So, I started by imagining a character and then I did the research to support it.  I am a fan of movies from the 1930s and ’40s; I grew up watching them.  I have also read a great deal on the actual history of the times and, through my research, I discovered a lot of black ex-pats who fought and died in various wars around the globe.  When faced with the bigotry and segregation back in the States, many opted to remain abroad.  In the series and shows from the era of the 1930s and ’40s I never saw images of blacks and other people of colour that I knew surely existed at that time, reflected accurately, if at all.  Even in the popular retro shows of the 1990s (Lost World, The Gold Monkey, etc.) we were conspicuously absent.

How could black people have fought in all these wars, traveled to the North Pole, and have been in all these places throughout history, yet there were no tales of their high adventures?  Not seeing myself and my people represented in the role of the hero – I created one.

Dames:  Blackjack?

Yes.  Blackjack:  The Adventures of Arron Day. The character first appeared in comic form back in 1996 published under DAP (Dark Angel Publishing) comics. The first three-issue mini-series was called ‘Second Bite of the Cobra’ and introduced Arron Day to the world.

Dames:  How did you come up with the name Blackjack for the series and the unique spelling of Arron for the lead character?

I’d originally intended to use the professional name, The Dark Angel but that was already my production company name.  While trying to come up with another name, my mind wandered to the obvious synonym for dark could be black, and sense he was a type of hunter, I looked up an alternate name for that.  At the time, I read somewhere that Jack means hunter.  Thus the name, Blackjack which, by the way, I tend to see as one word.

Dames:  Is Blackjack solely available in comic book form?

I have always imagined Blackjack across the wide media spectrum.  Even going back to the ’80s, there is material for a play, movie and a comic strip series.  I have imagined his adventures as radio shows;  I’m a big fan of old-time radio comedies, dramas and mysteries.  In 2000 a theatrical group performed a radio play I wrote called Blackjack: Retribution before a live audience at the Museum of Television and Radio in New York City.  I played the role of Arron’s father and my son portrayed a young Arron.  I think that radio plays are like time machines that allow people to use their imaginations and capture the pulse of the culture at that time.

Dames:  Is the creation of Blackjack a collaborative effort?

I am a writer, not an illustrator.  I have many talented illustrators who work with me.  At present, we are working to develop an 80-page anthology and a web series for Blackjack.

Dames:  You have a background as an educator. Do you think this series helps promote literacy?

It isn’t just about literacy for me. It’s about stimulating and validating imagination in young people.  Last year I was at an ‘Archie Comics’ Christmas party speaking with producer Michael Ulsan’s wife; she is doing remarkable work with literacy and kids in the U.S. and in Rwanda.  When we met that evening she said she had heard of about my work with Kids’ Comic Con in the US and Africa.  She, too, asked if I thought my work was about literacy — I had to take a beat/pause to think about it before I replied.

I have worked with kids from age 6 to college age, and from every aspect of the social strata – they are basically the same.  What makes a difference is how their culture or environment impacts them.  To me, you have to get back to letting kids imagine possibilities. Then you have to give them the tools to achieve the dreams you are showing them are possible. With comic characters, it’s creating and imagining stories out of nothing. If you can do this, imagine what else is possible.

Dames:  Who, if any one person, is the inspiration for the Blackjack/Arron Day character?

It wasn’t one individual that inspired an epiphany.  As the character took shape in my mind, I knew I had to do it right, on several levels, so from there I did the research and Arron came to life organically. I saw his adventures, and that helped me determine what kind of person could deal with this, what had they seen, and what must their think.  I took what I knew from history mixed it with what I imagined and from that the character of Arron Day and the series Blackjack was born.

Dames:  There are an array of colourful characters from many different ethnic and cultural backgrounds in the series. Is there a multicultural theme to this series?

When Blackjack came out in 1996, people said it would only appeal to basically a black audience. Yet I have had fans comment from Cairo to Copenhagen telling me how much they love it and how they are looking forward to more.

I have the desire to do accurate and authentic ethnic/cultural representations when his adventures take him to other countries. The character doesn’t allow his own experiences with bigotry or racism to impede his ability to resolve issues or surmount challenges.  Bigotry is a disease anyone can catch if they aren’t careful; it has been my own personal experience that if I don’t want people to be that way towards me then I need to exorcise those traits within myself.

Arron Day is more than just a “bad-ass mercenary”, or soldier of fortune capable of doing amazing things physically;  he is a complex character – a human being with cracks and fissures in his psyche that he is still learning to navigate.  In order to know who we are as individuals, we have to look at ourselves — flaws and skills alike — all that we bring to the table.  The character of Arron is no exception.

I believe that we are all human beings deserving of proper representation in fiction and real life.  People of every color and culture deserve to have a good life on this earth; anyone standing in the way of someone else’s chance at happiness is what I try to challenge, especially in my writing.  Through The Adventures of Blackjack, which is the creative project I am most passionate about, I am exposing (and hopefully righting) certain wrongs, as well as sharing important and often hidden truths.

I grew up watching people in black and yellow face telling stories that I enjoyed, while slowly growing aware that the character portrayals in those stories were stereotypical.  So now my intention is to tell entertaining tales, in an authentic manner, that accurately represent characters across a broad spectrum of ethnicities and cultures.

Dames:  Is there a little bit of Arron in you?

Yes.  Arron loses his mother and father at a young age.  I grew up without a father – his choice.  I didn’t have any malice towards him because of my mother.  The reality is, to my mother’s credit, she kept me from pursuing the same path in life that lead to my father’s early demise; her influences on me are similar to the way Arron’s mother’s input shapes his life.  Understanding, knowledge and literacy are very important factors in the life of Arron and his sister; this is very similar to my background and the way my mother influenced my life.

You can’t allow others to limit your vision.  I grew up around people from a wide variety of cultures; this has impacted my experiences the same way traveling with his parents’ broadened Arron’s view of things.  The character of Arron grows as he interacts with other cultures.  I want to use the series to go to the places that pulp adventures took me as a child, yet I want to portray those cultures more honestly.



Race and cultures are not the only elements I want to shine a light on; in my life, as in Arron’s, there are female characters who have had a significant impact on the man I/he came to be.  In the Blackjack series, good or bad, female characters hold their own; they are not contrived, vacuous characters, planted as convenient visual stimulation (eye candy), to vaunt the heroes’ valor.

Dames:  We really appreciate your nuanced depiction of female characters!

My portrayal of the female characters is to show women as diverse and multi-faceted as they are in real life.  I seek to remind people of what was and is possible through what has already taken place historically.  There are just as many fascinating female characters of color throughout history.  They, too, have been greatly underplayed or ignored in serials, comics and literature alike.  I try to put sustained thought into giving my female characters genuine depth and identifiable layers.

Dames:  How do you typically finance your projects?

Originally the series was presented to DC Comics back in the ’80s; it looked like it would go, but at the last minute it didn’t work out.  The first time I tried independent publishing, back in 1994, I had financial backers.  I also had a 5-year plan, but the backers came on board for just about 3 years.  During that time period my team and I had built a substantial following but we were not making back the money we were investing so we had to stop.  The last Blackjack was published in 2000.

Literally every year since then, I’ve been approached by people in Hollywood and video game production who want to see this character and story revived.  Agents, writers, producers and directors all get it – but the studios don’t seem to have the same faith so it’s up to me —  with a little help from my friends and fans.  Right now, we’re using a Kickstarter campaign to help fund the revival of Blackjack.

Currently we are working on a 3-tier plan for Blackjack Returns.  It’s our goal to put as much visual material out there to remind existing fans what was, as well as launching a concerted effort to attract new fans.  The second tier will be to publish an anthology in October consisting of a 60-page novella, with spot illustrations and two comic book formatted stories that are 8 pages each.  The third tier is new stories debuting in the fall as a web comic on the Blackjack Adventures website.

http://www.blackjackadventures.com/

If all goes well with the fundraiser the third tier is slated to debut simultaneously with the anthology.  The majority of funds raised through Kickstarter are to go towards publishing the book in hard-copy form.

The Kickstarter campaign timeline is tied to major industry events that will occur this year; these are important outlets for which we need to have material ready to debut.  Events include The New York Comic Con at the Jacob Javitz Center, The Buffalo ComicFest and the Miami Book Fair International.  All are premiere events that can give us greater exposure to new and existing fans.

As for the final financial consideration — there are two different schools of thought regarding webcomics: free vs subscription.  Right now we’re giving free web comics to our fan base, running Blackjack: Call To Duty,” by Chris Ryan and Eddy Newell, and the BlackJack /Tarzan crossover (by myself and artist Eric Battle) originally published in the Tarzan syndicated comic strips around 2001 by United Features Syndicate.  I also periodically post short stories on the Blackjack Adventures web site, such as ‘Shooters’ and ‘Leap of Faith’ (see THE STORIES tab on www.BlackjackAdventures.com)

For the past month artist John Jennings has been working on the new Blackjack comic strip for web series distribution.  It’s one I wrote entitled ‘Blackjack: Heart of Evil‘, and it will be available via subscription in late August.

In reality we can’t keep giving away stories if we want to continuing creating them.  So, our task is to find ways to support series and the artists who work on them.

Dames:  How do you create and keep Buzz going surrounding your work?

I try to provide relative content to keep the public interested, which I share via multiple social networking outlets, my own websites, blogs and videos. Friends, colleagues and collaborators sharing my work through their sites as well as word of mouth has been a great help to me throughout the years.

Dames:  Where are you professionally and where do you intend to go?

I have over 30 years of experience as a professional writer, performer and teaching artist.  I’ve been fortunate to successfully create and curate an art exhibit, Color of Comics, which contained images from artists around the world portraying people of color in comics. In December 2010 this event was chosen by the American Embassy of Dakar to be part of the Fessman International Cultural Arts Festival in Senegal Africa. I’m also the founder and co-producer of the KIDS’ COMIC CON (www.Kidscomiccon.com), and all-ages family comic convention.  Launched in 2007, the KCC has also traveled nationally and abroad.  While I am enriched by the people’s lives I’ve touched through events such as this throughout the years, it hasn’t translated into lasting tangible wealth.  I would like to see Blackjack and a few other projects be more financially successful.  In order for me to continue to help others, I need to make sure my family and I are secure.

Dames:  We wish you well, and we hope for many more great adventures for Blackjack!

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Other than Kickstarter, the Blackjack website and YouTubeFind, you can find more Blackjack on Facebook at:  http://www.facebook.com/pages/Blackjack-Adventures/241866592493305

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