Alex Simmons has had many careers in and outside of comics for years. He's the founder of Kids Comic Con, which he's been running for the past nine years on the East Coast and abroad, and he also teaches workshops designed to help young people create comics as part of Comics Club International. For some comics fans, though, he'll always be remembered as the writer behind the 1930s adventurer and mercenary Arron Day, star of "Blackjack."
Blackjack first appeared in the miniseries "Blackjack: Second Bite of the Cobra" in 1996. Simmons followed that series up a few years later with "Blackjack: Blood and Honor" before working on big name all-ages comics like "Archie" and "Scooby-Doo" and adding Orpheus to DC's Batman mythos. The writer always wanted to do more with Blackjack, though, so last year he self-published a collection of stories featuring the character.
CBR News spoke with Simmons about his new collection of stories titled "Blackjack: There Came a Dark Hunter" with artist Tim Fielder as well as "Second Bite of the Cobra," which is receiving a new collection courtesy of Dover Books.
CBR News: Alex, I remember when "Blackjack" came out back in 1996. Was that your first comic?
Alex Simmons: Yes and no. It was not the first comic book story of mine that was ever published, but it was the first comic book publication that I did solo. Don McGregor and I did an indie publication of "Detectives, Inc." many years ago. Anyone who still has that xeroxed stapled comic of ours, god bless them! Then in 1983, I think, I created the series "Demon Chronicles" and wrote the first story. Eclipse wanted to publish the story so they hired on Jim Sherman. James and I did a 12-pager in one of the Eclipse Comics magazines and then [I did] nothing until "Blackjack" in 1996.
You've said that you had the idea for "Blackjack" years before the book originally came out. When did you start writing what would become "Blackjack"?
I created the character in the mid-to-late eighties. I was very enthusiastic about the concept. People say, "Oh, you created a black Indiana Jones." In terms of marketing, you can look at it that way, but I grew up watching all the old film serials on television. Those globetrotting adventures made me want to get out and see the world, have adventures. As you get older, you recognize that whenever blacks were in the shows -- if they were ever in the shows or films -- we were coachmen, butlers, railroad porters, slaves. Or sometimes if you really wanted to experience excruciating cinema pain, we were the bug-eyed natives that were running from Tarzan, or Ramar was shooting at. We seldom ever had heroic moments or led the charge. I wanted to do an adventure series where the character looked like me. I could really envision this having a global audience.
I didn't approach it as, I've got to do this story about a black man just for black people. That was going to be obvious. I wanted to do this project so that it reached all kinds of audiences. It's good to empower my people, absolutely, but people who are not like us need to know us. They need to know that there is a wide diaspora of who we are, what we've done, where we've been -- much of which has been eliminated from history or entertainment either due to racially motivated negative attitudes or simply because folks didn't know.
So "Blackjack" came into a solid form in the eighties as a story idea and script. I went to Dick Giordano at DC Comics because I knew him and he liked it. He brought in Gene Colan who did some original character sketches. Dick was such a wise man and such a good man -- really just a gentleman. Dick says, "Alex, you created this strong globetrotting adventure hero who goes all over the world, so why is your first story totally set in New York City?" He very nicely pushed me to go back to the typewriter -- this is pre-computers -- and come up with a story that took Arron out into the world. That's where "Blackjack: Second Bite of the Cobra" came from.
Once you started thinking in terms of making this a big globe-trotting adventure tale, how did you put the pieces together? On one level, this is the story of a son avenging his father.
As the phrase goes, you have like seven plots in the universe and everything is a variation on that. The son trying to avenge his dad is something that spoke to me on a personal level. Not because I needed to avenge anything for my father, but my relationship with my father had not been good. There was some emptiness in that respect and a vision of what I wished it had been. I think in creating a story about Arron Day, my lead character, I wanted to speak about father-son relationships. Not to necessarily talk about mine, but ask, what if? What if your dad had been like this? What if you had gone through this? How would you feel?
In terms of picking a backdrop, in a lot of the old serials you either went to Europe and fought Nazis or you went to the Middle East and sought treasure and buried temples. I didn't want to do Nazis and I didn't want to take him out on the open seas, so the Middle East was it. Also, in real life there was a lot going on in the Middle East at that time. I can humanize some of the characters that I used to see in the films because a in lot of those movies there were never any real Middle Easterners in the films. I wanted to do some research get a better idea of the culture and the mindset so I didn't stereotype the characters. That old saying about one man's terrorist is another man's rebel came to mind and that gave me a spin to put on the lead villain. Also that gave Arron more to think about than just "I kick butt and shoot people and will eventually take out the bad guy." I needed to tell a story about people who were having this extraordinary adventure so the research really helped a lot.
You've told other Blackjack stories over the years, like the Blackjack/Tarzan story and the audio drama. In the past year you've come out with two prose books of Blackjack stories.
I was trying to do more with other artists when funding for the original series dried up. A few years went by and I thought, "Well it was fun, what's next?" Then I visited a couple of cons and people would ask me, when are you going to do more "Blackjack"? I was surprised because it had been three, four, five years and they still remember it?
I started trying to find new artists and that was a roller coaster ride. One or two of them said, "Look, the art end of this is holding you up -- why don't you just write them as short stories?" I started writing "Blackjack: Buried Secrets" which has "Night of Fear," which was the first supernatural plotline I had tackled with him, and then a shorter story that brought back one of the supporting characters from "Blood and Honor," Tim O'Conner. I published that last year and got some really nice response. A buddy of mine, Chris Ryan, who's been a friend for many years, said, "We've written together before, let's do something." We wrote an anthology called "Blackjack: Shooters" that's a collection of seven short stories with Arron Day either in New York or overseas and each one still reveals something more about his character. We released that in January of this year.
How did you get involved with Dover, the publisher putting out a new edition of "Second Bite of the Cobra"?
Dover came to me and said, "We would like to reprint 'Blackjack: Second Bite of the Cobra' as part of this new line of graphic novels that we're doing." I looked at the lineup that they had and I thought, "This is cool." They are reprinting the original three part story as a graphic novel with a new cover by Scott Hanna. Scott and I have known each other since the nineties and have always wanted to do something together. If we get to do what we want to do, there's a really cool Blackjack story you guys will get to see in maybe 2016. Then an artist I started working with last year, Tim Fielder, is doing this graphic novel anthology, "Blackjack: There Came a Dark Hunter." It has three new Blackjack stories. Two of them are fully digitally painted and the third one has spot illustrations, which are digitally painted in sepia tones. This book is gorgeous to look at. Look for that soon after the Dover release.
How does it feel seeing this new edition of "Blackjack: Second Bite of the Cobra"?
It's a validation. As I said, I have believed in this character and these stories since the eighties. That's a lot of years of having faith in something. The fans who have bought the books help to validate the existence of it. Almost twenty years later, to have someone say, "This story and this character and all of this work is so good that we're going to publish it again" -- that's a powerful thing. I feel very proud. I've gone back and spoken to the team that helped me do that. They were congratulating me but this book would not have worked if my team had not done the work that they did. The colorist James Brown of TechFX, my graphic designer Elizabeth Sheehan, who I'd known since high school, Chis Ryan and Bill McCay who edited, Ken Gruznak who I think is one of the most creative letterers we've had in the business. If they hadn't brought their A game to it, this wouldn't have happened. I'm thrilled that I came up with the concept. I'm thrilled that everyone likes the story I wrote. I'm thrilled that Joe Bennett illustrated the story. Every who was a part of this should take a bow. To know that there are old fans who are waiting for it and there are these new people who say, "That sounds really cool, I can't wait to get that book." It's amazing. The kid in me is jumping up and down and will continue to do that because that's where my stories come from, that excited kid.
While working as a comics writer, you also founded the Kids Comic Con, which nurtures a younger audience's appreciation of comics.
Kids Comic Con is this initiative I created to have an all-ages or family convention where any of the material was reasonably age appropriate. A 17-year-old could be looking at something and if a 5-year-old was standing next to him, it wouldn't be outrageously objectionable. Bottom line: not a lot of sex or vulgarity or blood. There are other places for that. We started it nine years ago and I thought, "We'll do it once to show the industry you can do this," but we had such a great time, and a lot of people said you've got to do this again. We've been doing it every year on the campus of Bronx Community College. We've also traveled with it. A smaller version called KCC Roadshow which has taken us as far north as Buffalo and as far south as Miami Florida. One year we were invited to a school in connection with the American Embassy to Dakar, Senegal. We had an art exhibition and we did workshops with hundreds of students and we had a conference on the campus of the University of Dakar that several African artists were involved in. It was a great experience.
What else are you working on right now?
I created an initiative last fall called KCC Comics Club International. I managed to network together a class of students from a a middle school in the Midwest and a class of students from a middle school in Belfast, Ireland and a class of students from Senegal. Over the web, we worked on a comic book project where they created their own characters and the world in which the characters exist. Right now I'm in the process of developing another one between a school in Haarlem, Holland and a school in Harlem, New York City. They're going to be doing a project together, hopefully, starting in the fall. I welcome any schools to reach out to me if they're interested in this international exchange because it's great for the kids. It's a way for them to learn about people from other cultures, without all the negative gibberish.
As a writer, I'm looking forward to "Blackjack: There Came a Dark Hunter" coming soon, with Tim Fielder's artwork. It's going to blow your mind. There's eight more stories in development, both as prose and illustrated tales. I'm working with my oldest son on a Blackjack project. You should be able to see the teaser around October. I'm hoping to write a couple of projects, and I'll be teaching several creative writing courses this fall.
And in the meantime I'm still writing for Archie -- and anyone else who wants me to hire me, because I'm really that good! [laughs]
Dover's reissue of "Blackjack: Second Bite of the Cobra" is available now.