Categories: Features, Interviews
“I connect the dots,” explains Alex Simmons, smiling, pressing his hands together for emphasis. The artist, decked in a large, attention-grabbing Hawaiian shirt is a self-described conduit in this community—a tough point to argue as I attempt to pull him aside for five quick minutes with my tape recorder. No one ever said it would be easy to interview the most popular guy in the room.
There’s bustling activity in ever corner of Colston Hall’s lower level, a cafeteria-like setting, which is host to Bronx Community College’s Kids Comic Con. Simmons, a writer for Archie Comics, is the event’s patron saint.
The single day comics convention is not the largest any stretch the imagination, but it may just be the one with the most heart. Held on the Bronx Community College campus—New York University’s former University Heights location—the eight hour event affords children aged 17 and under the opportunity to mingle with creators and hone their own comics making skills in a setting devoid of other conventions’ numerous adult trappings. It’s a rare chance to educate kids and parents alike about the wonders of the comics medium.
After trailing him around through countless handshakes and business card exchanges, we finally managed to pull Simmons aside for a few questions about the KCC.
How did the Kids Comic Con first become a reality?
It needed to be done. The industry had turned its back on youth for over a decade when I started trying to make it happen. I knew how comic books and fantasy empowered kids, inspired kids, did all sorts of things, so I knew with reluctant readers and English as a second language individuals, comic books were a very powerful medium. The images and the text helped them decode the story, and we weren’t getting anything out there for them. So I kept trying to promote that and ended up doing a lot of workshops based on comic books. I was meeting people—artists and writers—who felt the same way. But it was difficult to get the more established conventions to do that.
The first time it happened was about 10 or 11 years ago, when Wizard took over the Chicago Con. They let me do what I called The Kids’ Corner there. And that worked out really well. We had everything from the team of artists that I was working with on my books doing workshops with the kids to Kurt Busiek and some of the others sitting down and having a panel discussion with some of the kids and Q&As. It was parents and older brothers and so forth knew that they could leave their siblings with us and go do what they wanted to do.
You were babysitting in a sense.
Yeah, exactly, but it was all good. James Brown—the colorist, not the singer—and a number of people that I worked with, were are totally there to do that. It was great. We had a lot of trouble finding another place to do that until ECBACC, which is the East Coast Black Age of Comics Con in Philly. About five years ago, they asked me to do a workshop and I told them what I’d like to do. We did it and they loved it, so they’ve kept it going. When I’m not there, they’ll have someone else do the same basic formula. But I kept trying to get it going other places.
Finally I met Eugene Adams here. He said, “what do you want to do?” I said I wanted to do workshops with school children. That happened. And then he said, “what do you want to do?” I said I’d like to do professional development for young people to understand that there’s a career possibility here, whether you want to be an illustrator or a writer or whatever. So he said, “fine, let’s do it.” and then he asked me again, “what do you want to do?” And I decided to do the Kids Comic Con. That was year one, which was 2007. That was how it all came together.
I invited five to ten of my friends to come do this. We tried to let the community know about it. We figured we’d have maybe 100 people show up and we’d be fine with maybe 15 artists. What happened was, the word got out and I was getting e-mails galore and 45 professionals joined this year—artists, editors, etc., from D.C. to independents. And I kept saying, “there’s no money making opportunites. It’s not going to be like Comic Con. We go here and by the end of the day, we’d seen over 700 people. The energy from the creators was so high and they were so jazzed from seeing kids with their books. Several of the Archie people said they’d never been thanked by parents so much for simply coming. We all agreed we’d have to do this again.
There was a moment a little while ago where I was thinking, ‘gee, I wonder if I’m going to do this again,’ and parents came up to me and said, “god bless you.” And you realize, ‘okay, I’m going to do this again.’ We’ve been approached to do it in different venues and there are a couple I’d consider.
Yeah. The thing I have to be cautious about is what would make this not successful? People keeping saying that this is getting bigger and bigger and you want it to get bigger in quality. But I’m not looking to make more money.
All of the kids get in for free. It’s obviously not a big money making proposition for everybody involved.
No. if everybody who came through that door paid $5, wow, we’d be doing all right. But the reality is that that’s not what the theme is. So if we were in a venue where everyone’s paying at the door, that changes it. you go into an event where it’s a kids comics convention inside a standard one, that changes the atmosphere.
Has it been at the Bronx Community College since the beginning?
How did you settle on the location?
The opportunity opened the door. Gene—we’d already done several workshops together. We did an event and expected 20 or 30 kids, and we got 150. And the teacher came by seeing all of these kids jammed in here, and it changed kids ideas of this. This is no longer a joke anymore, when 150 students are in the room asking poignant questions, and people who are not just artists, but writers, entrepreneurs, and doing comics about social issues, and then you talk about the process—there’s a whole industry here. It’s the business of comic books. So that changed their perception of it.
Have you personally seen the changes in attitudes of educators and the educational system toward the medium over the past decade or so?
Yes, and I take it two ways. I’m thrilled because a kid who doesn’t like to read novels, you pick up a comic and you’re into it. It’s an instant benefit. But the other thing I have to deal with is that, like music, film, or anything else, this is a fad right now. I don’t know how long it’s going to last. We have to enjoy it while it’s here and use it while it’s here, but we also have to figure out what to do when it’s no longer the flavor of the month.
What sorts of outreach are you doing, once the show ends today?
First off, I sort of entered this realm of arts and education as a teacher/artist. I was an actor and a playwright for a number of years. Doing children’s theater as an actor was one of those things that made me more aware of kids as an audience and the little people that they are. So coming into process of arts and education as a teaching artist and working on various artist boards, all of those things keep me grounded in that arena. But first and foremost I’m an artist and a storyteller. Life is part of what is real for me, so I reach out and do workshops and anything I can to promote arts and education in general, whether it’s dance or music or mult-media—whatever. We had a thing called Comics Connection. We’re identifying schools that have a comic art workshop already and we’re going to donate books to them. Another conduit to say, “we support what you’re doing.”