Archie Comics, co-CEO Nancy Silberkleit, a former art educator took over the reins at the legendary comic book company in 2009, after her husband Michael Silberkleit (son of Archie Comics founder Louis Silberkleit) died. While the Archie brand is what she’s well-known for, she dons another hat of being the founder of Rise Above Social Issues Foundation, a non-profit that addresses challenging social issues like childhood obesity, bullying, discrimination and environmental concerns through comic books. She was also instrumental in creating the Comic Book Fairs at schools across America and Canada, which helps school students gain access to comic books and thereby generate an interest in reading. In a couple of interactions (phone and email) with SocialStory’s Nelson Vinod Moses (NVM), Silberkleit spoke about her inspiration to start Rise Above, how she was bullied as a child, comics for social change, and her plans for 2014.
NVM: Tell me a bit about your background: especially your experience as an educator.
Silberkleit: At the end of my freshman year of my college studies I figured out that I had my heart set on being an academic teacher which propelled me to pursue a major in education at Boston College and later received a certification in art. I have been a teacher of the arts for 25 years in a public school in New Jersey which has been extremely gratifying from the viewpoint of being in constant touch with young minds and keeping them excited about the joy of learning by inimitably inter-weaving the arts into the core subjects. My approach to teaching has always been ‘experiential’, explained by the use of captivating visuals, enchanting music and emphatic slogans, all backed by an engaging narrative. For instance, when I would stand in front of children and teach about the Austrian artist Gustav Klimt, I would pull down the world map and fly them from the United States to Austria and introduce them to the country’s customs and traditions through engaging anecdotes. A testimony to this would be occasions when I’ve had my students asking me to be their science, history or math teacher, although I was their art teacher.
NVM: Tell me about Erica Walters and the story on bullying: what was the objective?
Silberkleit: I have struggled with being a victim of bullying at a few different times in my life. When I was younger, I unfortunately never had the confidence to stand up for who I was nor acknowledge my capabilities. Erica Walters is a facet of my life. She represents every person on this planet who’s being taunted and bullied by malevolent people. This graphic book deals with the unacceptable act of bullying and was written By John Wilcox and penciled by Stan Goldberg, I created this project to spark conversation among people about this act of exclusion.
Erica Walters’ struggle of being a victim of bullying is brought to light in the panels of the book to create awareness about the consequences of such a vice. Just looking at the panels with the rich detailed graphics, you need no words to articulate the feeling of isolation, loneliness, and internal self doubt. There are no words to describe the damage one must deal with internally. Sadly some people will make a very wrong decision to deal with the pain and that’s suicide. Suicide is wrong and it not a solution. The act of bullying has become a global topic and the book reinforces the message of “Never letting anyone define who they want you to be.”
NVM: What was the impact of the Erica Walters story?
Silberkleit: Erica has reached out to those having no idea of there may be a solution for the painful situation that she is in. The art work in the book meaningfully expands the story of how she discovers her talent and celebrates her capabilities by stepping out of the unsupportive box she encountered and into a place where she could smile, feel confident and rise above. The book has managed to exhort its readers to identify their uniqueness, bolster their self esteem and making them confident to face the challenges that life presents them, rather than meekly succumb to the pressures by ending their lives.
NVM: The ‘Rise Above!’ series explored other themes like obesity, depression, and suicide: how did they fare?
Silberkleit: The Rise Above! Series have been successful. I see the very young to the college age student voluntarily picking them up and reading. I want to do more and looking for funding to address the issue of diabetes.
NVM: What’s the latest comic- Getting drastic with plastic about?
Getting Drastic with Plastic is an eight page story in an Archie Comics Digest #31, based upon the ban on the use of plastic bags in Rwanda. Two years ago, I created a story called Bottle Battle to heighten awareness of the perils of plastic pollution. Plastic is a contemporary issue that we all must address. We can do so by REFUSING single-use and disposable plastics and by choosing alternative non-toxic reusable items instead.
Our Archie writers had researched a great deal on the topic that not just enabled us to find content for highlighting a growing concern, but also put forward suggestive solutions through the graphic medium of the Archie comic book. Plastic Pollution Coalition, – a non-profit, based in California () was also in consonance with my desire to create awareness about this global ecological issue by presenting information in a comic book. Getting Drastic With Plastic can be downloaded and read digitally.
Archie comics is proud to be a good corporate citizen to aid and form an alliance working to stop plastic pollution and its toxic impact on humans, animals and the environment. Again as a former teacher, I see this medium as a powerful way to communicate information for today’s world.
Part 2 of the interview is continued here.