Alex Simmons and the Power of BlackJack
Alex Simmons, like his character BlackJack, is one of the great unsung heroes of the black community. Simmons is an award-winning freelance writer, educator, creator of comic books, screenplays, and stage plays. Responsible for such legendary comics including Batman, Scooby-Doo, and Archie, his passion, BlackJack, is his most important character created to break down African American stereotypes.
Evidently, BlackJack has friends and fans in high places. “He’s not only a brand-new Black superhero but an authentic one, steeped in the tradition of the grand pulp magazines of pre-World War 2. If the 2020s have proven to be a challenging time for all minorities, the 1930s [from where BlackJack sprung] forced too many people to walk through hell just to have the same rights as the American majority. From this hell rises a black superhero to break new ground… ground that must be broken. And so, Alex Simmons delivers to comics and beyond, “Blackjack!” Michael Uslan, Originator and Executive Producer of the Batman movie franchise –
How did your interest in comic books come about? What were you reading when you were growing up?
When I was a little person, I loved cartoons. I was an only child and my mom was raising me, predominantly, so life was a little bit of school but it was also a lot of time solo playing with my toys, watching cartoons, and watching action shows on television. I started drawing and that was fun for me. Comics were an organic extension of the cartoons on television. Batman was probably my favorite hero at the time because I wasn’t born on another planet with superpowers but I could imagine growing up and becoming a big crime fighter and saving people.
What was the process like to go from reading comics as a hobby to making a career out of it?
That’s a big hop. (laughs). As I was growing up through my teen years, I got bitten by the acting bug. I went to an art and design high school I learned illustration and advertising. It was the 70s and there were two roles for black actors at that time: it was either a lot of films about plantation life and slave life or it was ‘angry black man,’ like you’d seen in the films: Across 110th Street and Shaft. I wrote a play called Sherlock Holmes in the Hands of Othello. It was literally taking my love of Sherlock Holmes mysteries and the fact that there had been an actual black actor from the 1800s named Ira Aldridge who moved to Europe. I blended those elements together into this mystery series with the idea that I would perform it. I reached a point where I realized I can’t just be an actor writing something that I can perform, I have to really accept the responsibility of being a writer, especially if I want my stories to ring true and to be authentic, and to say something.
When did you create BlackJack?
In the 1980s. I wrote Second Bite of the Cobra which was the first BlackJack comic that I produced myself after it was rejected by comic book manufacturers.
How did you sell them?
When I drove to conventions, I sold them out of the trunk of my car. When I took public transportation, or Metro Rail or Amtrak, then it was out of my suitcase.
Was there one person who was the inspiration for the character?
Not that way. The reality is, we, black people, male and female, can envision ourselves as any number of things. Like any other human being growing up whatever the society is, you see your heroes and your villains and you can imagine yourself somewhere in there in that mix. Growing up as I did, 99 percent of the heroes that I saw in television and films were white.
That did not dissuade me from imagining myself as a hero and seeing myself going on adventures and saving people and discovering things. What tended to happen is, especially after the civil rights movement, is black people, myself included, became more aware of people who had done this, like the Black Squadron and Matthew Perry, people like that. But it was before that, you were predominately hearing of Harriet Tubman and George Washington Carver and people like that, which is not a negative but it’s not thrills and adventure. So, ultimately, BlackJack to a certain degree was a manifestation of the kid in me seeing himself as a hero. And wanting to have the same kinds of adventures that had thrilled me as a kid.
Why did you choose the series to be set in the 1930s?
One of the reasons for doing it as a retro 30s serial kind of adventure was because of how much remarkable history of ours was ignored. I also thought it was important to have a character that needed to rely solely on his brain and his brawn which I think that many people who feel marginalized often experience.
How much did the blockbuster success of Black Panther move the dial for other black-driven vehicles?
It’s done what life tends to do with something that’s tremendously successful. It has flipped the switch on but I don’t know how much time we are going to have. I would like to think that this is a wedge that is going to stay in the door
When this comes to the screen – who would your ideal actor be to voice BlackJack?
There was a time when I would have said Denzel Washington. Idris would be wonderful to see in that position. He would play an older Blackjack, I don’t care, (laughs) I would be fine with that. But I’m equally interested in other people to play a role in this series like Li’l Nas X, Michael Strahan, ASAP Rocky & Rihanna, just to name a few.
Can you talk about Morgan Freeman and the possibility of his involvement?
Morgan is a million miles further along the success road since we first talked about this. We even had a quote from him on BlackJack about it being a pantheon of great possibilities and I would love to see him involved in it because he’s been there since the beginning.
For someone unversed in the world of BlackJack – what would you tell them? Why should they read it/watch it?
I think it’s important that people understand that our history is more than basketball, it’s more than slavery, it’s more than carrying bags, it’s more than shining shoes, it’s more than being musicians. In order for us to move forward positively in this world, everyone has to be aware of the role that black people have in history, otherwise we could be just fulfilling someone’s negative prophecy. But I do feel that we need to be able to stand tall more on what we’ve accomplished and what we’ve endured. I feel that BlackJack as a property helps my people feel better about themselves but will also open the eyes of many others.
It’s Black History Month, so what does that mean to you?
All 28 days! (laughs) I really don’t know that my answer is very illuminating but Black History Month has been, for lack of a better term, has been a holiday that’s come around all of my years in existence. I am certainly happy that we are recognized, period. I am bothered by what happens the other eleven months of the year. I do feel that it should not be shunned, I do feel that we should absolutely celebrate and take advantage of the awareness that this month brings about, but not sit on our hands for the other eleven months and not allow the media and society at large to go blind the other eleven months.
BlackJack is a globe-trotter – are you a big traveler?
Yeah, I have been to the Netherlands, Russia, and Serbia and I’ve dealt with people in Ireland and other places and in Mexico. So yeah, in my way I do reflect a little bit of the character on that level as well. And it is funny too because I remember in Russia in particular, I was doing a signing and I thought it originally was for some of the Archie stuff that I had done, and it was like 200 people, it was crazy. And someone comes through the line with all three issues of Second Bite of the Cobra to be autographed. He couldn’t speak English, so I had a translator next to me and I said, ‘How did you get this and it’s not in Russian?’ And he told me that someone else reads it to him and it’s his favorite character. I’m thinking, ‘Holy smokes!’ So, you have no idea who you are reaching or how you are reaching them, but something speaks to them. So, you find your audience.
It seems that BlackJack has an extraordinary ability to unite – for anybody who has felt marginalized – gay people, black people, other nationalities, and religions, everyone has felt marginalized. And somehow this character gives you the hope, the strength, to know that you can be anything that you can set your mind to being. It’s for this reason that I would love L’il Nas to be a part of this project. He has broken down EVERY stereotype of what it is to be a country singer or a cowboy for that matter.
BlackJack doesn’t curse and he doesn’t womanize. And those are conscious choices on my part. And someone said, ‘Well it’s not going to sell’ you can’t sell this kind of stuff if you don’t have that in there.’ And I said, ‘James Bond does get laid a lot, but James Bond has never cursed, there’s not been one MF out of his mouth in any of the movies.’ And when you look at most of the black action films, we are cursing but not all of us do. It does seem to be a trope. So, I am choosing my character not to, and it also widens the audience base as far as I’m concerned. I don’t have to feel like I’m propagating the stereotype that all we do is jump girls and say MF all the time.