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Faith, Media & Culture

Faith, Media & Culture

The woman behind “Ties That Bind,” UP TV’s first original scripted series

posted by John W. Kennedy

Here’s today’s dispatch from the crossroads of faith, media and culture.

Family Ties. Sheryl J. Anderson has been writing episodic television since the early nineties (i.e. Parker Lewis Can’t Lose, Dave’s World, Charmed). Her more recent work has included work on the Hallmark Channel series When Calls the Heart and TV movie like UP TV’s The Town That Came A-Courtin’ (a film I personally liked). Ties That Bind, the hybrid cop-family drama that debut’s on UP on Wednesday, August 12 @ 9:00 PM (ET) marks both a milestone in her career and for the network. That’s because it’s both Anderson’s and UP’s first original series. 

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As for the show’s specific premise, here’s who an UP press release describes it: “Allison McLean (Kelli Williams) (is) a tough and experienced police detective in suburban Seattle.  Like most working women, her hands are already full, balancing a demanding and dangerous job and a family — husband Matt (Jonathan Scarfe), and teenagers Jeff (Mitchell Kummen) and Rachel (Natasha Calis).  But when she and her partner, Devin (Dion Johnstone), must arrest her brother, Tim (Luke Perry), for aggravated assault, her world drastically changes as Tim is convicted and sent to prison leaving his two teenagers Cameron (Rhys Matthew Bond) and Mariah (Matreya Scarrwener) teetering on the brink of foster care.  Having done the right thing as an officer of the law, Allison now feels compelled to do the right thing as a sister and aunt; she brings Tim’s two very unhappy teens into her home.  Squeezing four teenagers under one roof proves to be an additional test of Allison’s strength and patience.  It won’t be easy for her husband, her children or Tim’s kids either.  In addition to investigating local crimes, the series will also focus on the joys and struggles of the teens as they adjust to their new home, their new high school, make new friends and experience love, romance, anger and jealousy.”

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I recently had the opportunity to talk with Anderson about how her own family experiences helped shape the show she created and executive produces.

JWK: It’s been a while since been a really good family drama on television and, as I posted previously, I think your show has a lot of potential to fill that void.

SHERYL J. ANDERSON: Thank you. I hope that people will embrace the show in that way. That’s certainly our intent. Part of my goal was to create a show that families can watch together because, as a parent, I wish there were more shows that multi-generational families could enjoy together. One of my joys growing up (was) watching shows with my parents. As my kids were growing up, programming (had) gotten so segmented that it was difficult to find those shows. UP has been terrific because they wanted a show about real people making real mistakes and paying real consequences. So, we’ve had the freedom to do pretty dramatic stories but also to present family life with all its joys and challenges within the same program. 

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JWK: How’d you come up with concept for the show?

SJA: I just (had) that agenda of (showing) real people making real mistakes in mind.  I started thinking about my brother — who I adore. He is a very, very good person and what a blessing that is in my life. I started to think about what if my brother wasn’t such a good person? Is there anything my brother could ever do that I could not forgive? So, I started down that path with Allison and her fractured relationship with her brother. The relationship with her brother is a catalyst for what happens. (The show’s about) the fundamental relationships in our lives and how they can send us off in either terrific or troubling directions. 

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JWK: I don’t know if you’ve thought this far ahead but will the show bring us to a point healing for between Allison and her brother?

SJA: I certainly hope we’ll have the opportunity to be on the air long enough to get him there.

JWK: So, there’s hope for everyone. 

SJA: Absolutely! I’m a Lutheran. So, grace is a central part of my worldview. There are themes of redemption running all the way through this show. I believe in giving people a second chance. I would want somebody to give me a second chance. So, yes, there’s hope for everybody in our show.

JWK: I think the concept of your show hits that sweet spot for TV viewers. It’s familiar in the sense that I think people are yearning for a traditional family drama on television. But, at the same time, it has a spin that I haven’t seen before.

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SJA: I appreciate that! There are certainly a lot of shows on right now that I admire. It was interesting to try and look at different shows and why they work as well as they do and see how we could take the components of a family show and a procedural show and blend them in a way that, as you’re saying, is accessible because it’s not strange and unusual but still different than what anybody else is doing.

JWK: I visited your IMDB page and found that you have an impressive list of TV credits to your name. But it appears this is first TV series you’ve sold.

SJA: This is the first show that I’ve created that’s made it to the air.

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JWK: How’s it feel to see something you created go to series?

SJA: It’s thrilling, it’s humbling but what’s most exciting about it is we’ve been fortunate to have an amazing cast and the best crew that I’ve ever worked with. It’s fabulous that everybody is working hard but working happily because we all have the same goal of this show to be successful. (We’re all) very invested in it. It’s a joy to go to set every day. I keep referring to it as “our adventure” because everybody is bringing their specific gifts to the table and together we’re creating a show that I hope people will see as something special.

JWK: What do you hope people take from the show? Is there an overarching message that you’re trying to convey?

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SJA: First of all, I hope people will be entertained. I hope people will be moved. The mystery fan in me hopes that people will enjoy figuring out whodunnit week to week. If there’s an overarching theme, it’s a show about loyalty. (UP Programming SVP) Barbara Fisher at the network said at the beginning of the development of this show (that) it’s a show about loyalty and the limits of love — and whether there are any.

JWK: And what’s your conclusion?

SJA: I think part of the fabric of this show is that, as Allison’s moving forward in her life, she’s fortunate to have not only a family that loves and supports her but a partner on the police force who is her best friend and completely supports her and she him. I think that there’s a contrast as we go forward between…the characters that are fortunate enough to be loved and to be supported (and) people they encounter who aren’t that fortunate.  This isn’t a warm and fuzzy show all the time. There are some hard moments along the way both on the family side and on the procedural side.

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JWK: Is it a challenge to find the right balance between the family side of the drama and the cop side — and to do it an hour each week?

SJA: It gets tricky sometimes just because there’s so much to do and say on both sides. Quite often, in the writers’ room we would say we could spend the whole hour on one side or the other but part of our goal all along has been to use the two sides to illuminate each other. There are things going on at home that put a new perspective on what’s going on in an investigation and vice versa. I mean for Allison to go out and deal with the broken people she encounters as a detective certainly makes her far more appreciative of what she experiences at home even though there are bumps in that road.

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JWK: Obviously, the show has some ongoing storylines but will it be episodic in the sense that people can watch a single episode and feel satisfied that they’ve seen an entire story?

SJA: The crime stories are contained within an episode. There is a serial aspect to the family side of things. Certainly, I hope that people will start watching from the pilot and just keep watching but, if people find us three episodes in, they won’t have a problem picking up the story.

JWK: I’m impressed by your eclectic writing career. Besides your work in various genres of television, you’ve also written a series of mystery novels about a crime-solving advice columnist named Molly Forrester.

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SJA: Yeah. Even though they were published just under my name, my husband and I wrote the novels together. That was just an opportunity that came along in the course of working on other projects. Both my husband and I are mystery fans — novels, movies and TV. When I was growing up, mystery shows and cop shows were the favorite shows in my house. Now, my husband and I have raised our kids the same way. So, we love a good mystery. The interesting thing is the novels are comic — much more lighthearted.

There’s (also) a lot of humor in Ties That Bind. The emotional pendulum swings pretty fully. There are dark moments. There are tender moments. And there’s a lot of humor because I think one of the way that a family demonstrates its warmth and its love is by laughing together. Particularly Allison’s husband Matt is very funny because he sees it as part of his role in the family to keep everybody’s spirits up.

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JWK: How much inspiration do you take from your own family and how much of that do you incorporate into the show?

SJA: Other than the fact that I absolutely adore my brother and he’s a very good man, a lot of inspiration! I’ve already warned my kids that they’ll recognize a lot of moments on the screen and a lot of the characters. I’ve taken bits and pieces from my husband, my brother, my sister-in-law, my parents. I think any writer sort of mines their own life. I’ll admit I’ve done a fair amount of that, certainly early on. Now, as we’re deeper in, and the writing staff (has) participated — and now watching incredible actors like Kelli, Jonathan, Dion and even the four teenagers bringing these characters to life — (the characters) continue to evolve and bring out new dimensions so that they are characters unto themselves.

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JWK: You mentioned the importance TV — particularly detective shows –played in your family life growing up. Ties That Bind sort of marries the family drama and the crime drama. Do you have a favorite show in either category? And is there any show that really inspired you in creating Ties That Bind?

SJA: Whoa! That is so hard! There isn’t one show in particular. A lot of shows, a lot of movies, come to mind. I was trying to make this show sort of carve out its own space. There are certainly wonderful shows on right now that are mixing family drama with parents — a mom, in particularly — in very demanding jobs. There’s The Good Wife. There’s Madame Secretary. Both shows that I admire.

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Going back to when I was growing up, there weren’t a lot of women on TV doing this sort of thing. Where I really think all this began for me — let me go way, way back — is my parents introducing me to The Thin Man movies when I was a kid. Of course, that’s the lighthearted end of things.

JWK: You’ve also been on the faculty of Act One which is an organization that develops Christian writers and producers.

SJA: I taught for them for a long time. I don’t teach for them anymore.

JWK: Most writers — Christian or otherwise — have something they want to say with their stories. How do you balance that desire to say something meaningful with telling a compelling story that simply goes where the drama takes it?

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SJA: It is the beauty of the parables. It is the strength of the parables. You tell a great story and you trust (that) the message inherent and the story stays with people. It’s not that I sit down and say “Here’s the message for this week.” But it’s a show about justice and mercy and redemption and whether people are ready to accept redemption because to do that you have to come to grips with what you’ve done. So, I just try to look at the path that every character was on that brought them to this place and then hope that all that subtext shines through. We are responsible for our actions and how we treat each other. Every day is filled with choices where you have an opportunity to be a wonderful person or a not so wonderful person. My world view is you should make the choice that not only makes you a better person but that makes the world a better place.

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JWK: I think the best stories are those that flow from a place of faith through to their natural conclusions without being steered in preachy and artificial directions.

SJA: Oh, absolutely! I think if you sit down with a “message” you’re not telling a story. You’re writing a sermon or an op-ed piece. I like to go back to William Faulkner’s statement that it is “(a writer’s) privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart.” I think, for those of us who are fortunate enough to be professional storytellers, it’s a fabulous opportunity to tell people wonderful stories. If we all do our jobs well — from the writers’ room through all aspects of production — then we have that opportunity to lift people’s hearts (and) to make people stop and think even after the program’s over. But they’re not going to stay with you long enough to do that unless you’ve given them a really entertaining story. So, that’s the primary goal.

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JWK: I always think the best writers write more to learn than to preach — that they learn something from their characters.

SJA: That’s right! I think that’s a wonderful way of putting it! I mean I certainly learn something every time I go through a script and see the variety of voices and experiences that we are fortunate enough to have in our writers’ room. (It’s) very educational for me. Particularly in a show like this, you’re talking about what puts somebody in a position where they committed a crime and you wind up talking about right and wrong, privilege and discrimination, education and poverty and then the whole gamut of emotional wounds that lead people to make poor choices. It’s fascinating and very fruitful at the same time.

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JWK: You also wrote the UP TV movie The Town That Came A-Courtin’. I reviewed that film and enjoyed. I even wrote that it would make a cute TV series.

SJA: You know, I wondered about that. I remember that review and thank you very, very much. It was actually coming out of the experience of that movie that led to the development of this show. First of all, I was very flattered that Ronda Rich selected me as her candidate to do the adaptation (of her book). I was delighted to work with Ronda and with UP on that film. I had such a great experience with Barbara Fisher and the other people at the network doing the movie that when I heard that they wanted to start developing series I scrambled to be in line to pitch to them. That’s where this journey began.

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JWK: We all hope the show’s a big hit. So, what do you after that? Another series? Movies?

SJA: Right now I’m just focused on Allison McLean and her family and her partner and her world. I honestly am not thinking about anything else but this show and hoping that people love it as much as I do and that we get a chance to keep telling these stories.

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11

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Documentary says child sex abuse is “An Open Secret” in Hollywood (Updated)

posted by John W. Kennedy

Here’s today’s dispatch from the crossroads of faith, media and culture.

(Important Note: Below is my original review of the documentary An Open Secret. The documentary film deals with the issue of child sexual abuse in Hollywood. Some entries in the comments section below (combined with the charity registration issue mentioned in the original post) have given me some pause regarding the veracity of the film.  While the overall point that parents whose kids work in Hollywood should be very cautious about who they entrust the children to is no doubt true, it’s important to be fair to the accused. I have no way of knowing the truth so, if you see the film, I think it’s important to be aware of the questions raised about it. As for my recommendation, it assumes the facts in the film are all presented fairly — something which I now have some doubt about.) 

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Exposing the dark side of Hollywood. An Open Secret is an eye-opening documentary and a cautionary tale for parents considering allowing their children to pursue the allure of movie and TV stardom. The film, which is now playing in New York and Los Angeles, grippingly and convincingly sheds light on the all-too-real threat of sexual predators in Hollywood. It’s of course unfair to suggest that they represent the entire entertainment industry but the dangerous sharks that would abuse children are prevalent enough that it might be worth considering hanging the words “Beware of” above LA’s  iconic “Hollywood” sign.

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While the child sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church has rightfully drawn media attention and public scrutiny, it may be asking too much of media outlets to shed much light on Hollywood’s remarkably similar problem. After all, many major news outlets are outright owned by the same corporate interests that own Hollywood. It really is a good argument for breaking up media conglomerates that strangle or buy-up competition while holding subtle thought monopolies over how issues are presented (and, sometimes, not presented) to the public. At the very least, let’s hope An Open Secret leads to an open discussion about the need for stronger laws to better protect children from Hollywood’s sexual predators.

Notably, An Open Secret is directed by Amy Berg who also directed the 2006 Oscar-nominated doc Deliver Us From Evil which chronicled the story of Father Oliver O’Grady, a Catholic priest and serial child molester/rapist who was moved around to various U.S. parishes during the 1970s as Church officials attempted to cover up his crimes. We’ll see how much attention this film gets from the Academy. A potentially ominous sign: Producer Gabe Hoffman has written MPAA head Christopher Dodd a letter protesting the decision to slap the film with an R rating. Hoffman says a PG-13 rating is more appropriate, He argues the R rating keeps the film from being seen by many of the very same people it’s trying to warn. I think he makes a pretty good case and can’t help but wonder if the Academy isn’t already trying to squelch the film’s message.

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The makers of An Open Secret deserve credit for going where other filmmakers would not dare. The issue merits more attention than it has received. As a cautionary film — that also is about healing and survival — An Open Secret is Highly Recommended. (Note re: recommendation –  See above note and comments below.)

I do, however, have one point of criticism. At the beginning of the movie, the audience is told via chyron that “Esponda Productions will donate the entirety of any profits received to the Courage to Act Foundation.” I thought it would be a good idea to link to the group’s website which you can find here.  I found a donation button but  very little in the way of detail about who’s involved and exactly how the organization spends the money it takes in — other than the rather vague line “Our mission increase efforts for the prevention of child sexual abuse within the entertainment industry and to support victims in their recovery.” I also stumbled onto a trademark registration site that reveals that the charity’s name is registered to Esponda Productions.

I’m not suggesting anything illegal — or that Esponda Productions doesn’t actually intend to use the funds raised for the stated purpose. I just think more transparency would be good for everyone.   

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11

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Broadway’s “Amazing Grace” is awesome theater

posted by John W. Kennedy

Here’s today’s dispatch from the crossroads of faith, media and culture.

Following success in Chicago (above), the cast of Amazing Grace is now performing the show on Broadway.

Simply Amazing. The musical Amazing Grace has its official opening at Broadway’s Nederlander Theater (208 West 41st Street) on Thursday (7/16). I just had the opportunity to see one of its final preview performances.

The bottom line: I believe Amazing Grace is destined to take its place among America’s greatest works of musical theater and should enjoy a good long Les Mis-like run. Some smart movie producer should go about securing the screen rights now.

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The Background: Amazingly, Christopher Smith was a Pennsylvania cop and youth education director when he felt inspired to take it upon himself to  bring the true story of slave ship captain-turned-abolitionist John Newton to the stage. Newton, as you may know, went on to write the timeless song of thanksgiving from which the show draws its title.

Without any prior experience, the self-taught musician and composer went about putting together his concept for a big-budget musical that would portray Newton’s journey from a young songwriter to a hardened slave trader and, finally, to a passionate abolitionist who also rediscovers his God-given gift for music. Smith’s leap of faith paid off when noted Broadway producer Carolyn Rossi Copeland (Godspell) agreed to attend a performance of songs he wrote for his proposed production. She liked what she heard and quickly shared his vision.

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Veteran playwright Arthur Giron (Emilie’s Voltaire) was brought on to help Smith hone the show’s book.  Now, after successful runs at Connecticut’s Goodspeed Opera House and Chicago’s 2200-seat Bank of America Theater, the cast and production have arrived on Broadway. I foresee smooth sailing ahead for the show which features a well-staged and emotionally-pivotal storm at sea.

The Experience. First of all, when my wife and I arrived, we were struck by just how long the line was. Obviously, there’s something about John Newton’s story — and his redemption —  that draws people. There was also more of balance between black and white theater goers than you usually expect at the theater, where shows often predominantly appeal to one group or the other. But the story of Amazing Grace is one that reaches across boundaries of color. With all the racial strife in the news lately, it’s as if the show itself is a well-timed living testament to God’s healing grace.

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Beyond the composition of the audience, Amazing Grace delivers with a heartfelt story, compelling and believable characters and songs that are actually able to a stand on their own in a show built around one of the greatest and most enduring songs ever written. That, in itself, is an amazing achievement.

And the emotion-filled finale is an experience unto its own. There was actual weeping in the audience as the show reached its powerful conclusion. The audience also ended up joining in as the cast sang Amazing Grace.  The phrase “beautiful moment” actually applies.

The Plot: Quite literally inspired by the true story John Newton (Josh Young), the prideful and musically-talented son of the head of a British slave-trading company (Tom Hewitt). While John is out for adventure and proving himself the equal of his father in the slave trade, Mary Catlett (Erin Mackey), the compassionate young woman he loves, finds herself drawn into the underground abolitionist movement.

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As Mary puts her own life at risk — much to the concern of her African Nanna (Laiona Michelle) — John is rescued by Thomas (Chuck Cooper), his African friend and caretaker since childhood, when their ship sinks off the coast of Africa. The staging of that rescue scene, BTW, is a true theatrical feat.

John and Thomas soon find themselves the prisoners an African tribe led by Princess Peyai (Harriet D. Foy). The Princess is a slave trader herself, selling conquered Africans to white slave buyers. After first experiencing the other side of slavery, John makes common cause with Prince Payai who is willing to utilize his expertise even while secretly sending a ransom message to his father. Meanwhile, John’s relationship with Thomas is put to the ultimate test.

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The Performances: They are uniformly commendable with Cooper and Michelle shining particularly bright in their roles of strength and dignity. Young is also excellent in the lead. A confrontational scene between Newton and Thomas is as riveting a scene as you’ll ever see. Mackey’s portrayal of Mary Catlett is also excellent.

The Songs: As I said, they are good enough to be in the same show as Newton’s own Amazing Grace — though that song will always be in a class by itself.

Of the new songs, Testimony stands out as one that speaks for anyone who (like me) has gone down wrongs paths of thought and action and is grateful to be saved by the mercy and grace of God.

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The Message: Amazing Grace is about healing, the healing of the world and of individual hearts which comes only from the grace of God. It’s a compassionate show about gratitude and mercy, about listening to you heart and choosing to do the right thing. It also, IMHO, arrives just in time for a world that can use a reminder that in the midst of the storm, when it appears we’ve lost our moorings, God stands ready, able and willing to change our hearts and bring us home.

Amazing Grace is Highly Recommended.

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11

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The woman behind Archie’s makeover isn’t Betty or Veronica

posted by John W. Kennedy

Here’s today’s dispatch from the crossroads of faith, media and culture.

Archie Andrews looks a bit more millennial these days.
(Images from Archie Comics and RiseAboveSocialIssues.com)

The rebooted Archie debuted its premiere issue to strong reviews Wednesday (7/8). The original Archie bowed on December 22,1941, just a couple of weeks after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. In other words, Archie is no spring chicken.

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Making Archie cool. Archie Comics co-CEO Nancy Silberkleit calls herself an “accidental boss” since she never set out to run a comic book company. But the death of her husband changed her future — as well as the future of everyone at Riverdale High. Before long, the former art teacher found herself drawn toward melding her unexpected career path with her longtime passion for compassion and the dignity of the underdog.

JWK: I used to read Archie occasionally, among all the superhero comics I used to read as a kid. So, when I found out I was going to be interviewing you, I decided to education myself about what’s new with him and his friends. Turns out there’s been a lot.

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NANCY SILBERKLEIT: Yes, there’s been a lot! 
JWK: I did some research and found that you have the same name of Louis Silberkleit, one of the founders of Archie Comics. I take it you’re related.
NS: He was my father-in-law that I sadly never got to meet. Louis Silberkleit had Michael Silberkleit who was my husband who shockingly passed away about six years ago.
JWK: So, you took over from him after his passing?
NS: He had a business partner (named) Richard Goldwater who passed away (seven months earlier). So, Archie Comics was running rudderless. I was a school teacher in Paramus, New Jersey teaching art. What I have said many times over (is) I stepped out of the classroom and into the boardroom.
JWK: That’s quite a story.
NS: Well, the story I think was that I was asked to sell my stock. I didn’t want to. Then, I think after a year of that, the concept of me coming in as a businesswoman was presented to me…I became a businesswoman and I say I “heart” business opportunities, profit and nonprofit. I just love being a businesswoman. I take on Veronica Lodge’s CIA — her confidence, her intelligence and her allure. If you look at Veronica in the story, she’s always there with her father many times in those panels and giving him business tips. She’s a savvy businesswoman because Mr. Lodge will go with Veronica’s ideas. So, here I was without any formal business training but I look at the things I have done in my time at Archie Comics and, you know, I’m a good businesswoman. I love business.
JWK: That’s quite a transition from being a school teacher.
NS: People said “How do you go from a teacher to a businesswoman?” I said “You know, I don’t see (the two roles) differently because it was my job for 25 years to figure out how to present information in a way each individual child will be able to understand.” So, that’s a big task. That’s a huge task..So, here in a business seat, my job is trying to understand our fans and how to engage them to be lifelong Archie fans — and also to propel the business into another seven decades. So, I see a lot of correlation between being a teacher and running a business. I think…my time in the classroom has really been a huge help to me…You have to have a lot of patience. You have know how to react to situations in a proper way…(It’s) the same with business. You have a responsibility to your employees (and) you have a responsibility to your fans.  Just sitting in a position of authority, one can experience the most unusual challenges.
JWK: I would think that have having a background as a teacher gave you a particularly useful preparation for leading a comic book company.
NS: Exactly — but I wouldn’t identify this as the “comic book” industry. I’d identify it as Riverdale High. I would say I’m one of Riverdale High’s teachers with Mr. Weatherby as my principal. So, being able to step into the comic book industry with the Archie rainbow over my head really made it work. It made sense. It gave me the initial confidence where I was then able to start my own comic book publishing company called Rise Above Social Issues.
I always say that my husband…was a publisher (but) we kept our careers very separate. I was a teacher and he was a publisher. I was his lady in overalls. I always wore my overalls into work as an art teacher. I never put much interest into what he was doing. He did his thing. I did my thing. I really never understood why I didn’t have an interest in his company because I didn’t read the comic books.
JWK: Did you read them as a child?
NS: Well, this is what I’m getting to. I started thinking about this whole thing and I started placing myself back…and there I was…going into second grade looking smart that day. (I) couldn’t wait for the first day of school…I was excited as any child is at the beginning of the year…but my mother stopped me from going to the playground just before I was to go in an announced to me that “You’re not going into second grade. You’re repeating first grade. You’ve been left back because you can’t read.” That was the moment that probably stole the love of reading from me because I had not been prepared for that. It was like the world was pulled from underneath my feet. It was a disappointment. I look at, I guess, reading as a punishment. So, I learned to read. I graduated from Boston College in 1976 with a teacher’s degree but I had no love of reading because it was never presented that way.
So, I never looked for reading as entertainment and that’s probably why an Archie comic book had never fallen into my hand. Just think, I grew up to be an art teacher.
JWK: What grades did you teach?
NS: Kindergarten through fifth grade and, for a time, kindergarten through high school.
JWK: It’s almost like you were being prepared for your current role.
NS: Right.  So, if comic books had been given to me at that young age…I probably would have loved reading…So, when I discovered that at 54 years of age and after many, many decades passing me by…I thought I would like to tackle many difficult subjects that are hard to talk about (by) utilizing graphic literacy.
So, I started creating comic books. The first one was about bullying. Bullying has been a very big topic in the past decade. I myself have been terribly bullied. It was just around when it was very publicized how children were taking their lives. (There was) a young man in New Jersey who had jumped off the George Washington Bridge. There was (also) a girl in the Midwest…Nobody understands the pain of a human being that is being targeted…My mantra, what gets me through the day, is “Never let anyone define who they want you to be. You know who you are!” You’ve got to get busy in your life…because once you get busy in things that you’re involved in — that you like and you’re good at — you don’t have to give much thought to the outside world that is subjecting you to things that are hurtful to you.
So, I started this foundation (with comics) about social issues. I did another one on healthy eating…I had one on obesity. I’m looking to do more. I want to do one on Type 2 diabetes. I want to do one on how to have a successful play date with an autistic child.
JWK: Are Archie characters utilized these comics?
NS: No. If I did that it would be using intellectual property wrongly. Intellectual property is a very important aspect of publishing and entertainment. Those (Archie) characters, they have built their profile with visual images and internal characterization. So, I could never make Jughead eat properly. I could never ask Reggie to be as polite as I would like him to be. Reggie sometimes is mean…I mean if we were doing this topics under Archie fine but I thought it would limit where I would want to go. As I said, I could not change the IP of these characters because its embedded over the decades as to who they are (and) how they behave.
JWK: At the same time though, Archie has just been updated to reflect the new generation.
NS: Archie has a new look that is being launched as we speak…It’s not so new in terms of the internal characters…If you look back over the decades you can see how Archie was initially drawn and then later on changed. This change is a very big, big change and very different from the others.
JWK: What inspired the new look?
NS: I think it’s just becoming always more relevant with our fans…We have our (traditional) fans, we have our beginner readers, we have our teens. Our company’s very unusual because we have many different fan sets that “heart” Archie. So, it was just (about) becoming more relevant and more with the times.
JWK: So, I suppose the classic Archie look will still be available in collections and the like.
NS: Always in our digest. You’ll always find (the traditional Archie) in our digest with stories that you were familiar with…This is just the Archie 32-page comic book where you’re going to be seeing the current look.
JWK: And, I guess, in those books the stories will be more relevant too.
NS: Yes, the stories will be more relevant…
…In Rise Above! and Archie Comics, you will find stories that touch upon (things like) environmental issues. Because when we talk about (comics) and attaching education to it, we want to get kids to have that love for learning. I say give them more of what’s appealing — and this format is so appealing. When you go to the Javits Center for the car convention (or) the boat convention, it’s busy. When you go to the Comic-Con, you can barely move…So, the vein of graphic literacy from comic books runs in so many people. I think it’s a great way to present topics that may be a little stale and dry.
There’s a story in Archie where we talk about the country Rwanda — how Rwanda banned plastic bags as a country. So, we did that wonderful story. And then I did teacher’s study guide to take that comic book to the classroom and use it in science or literacy. I did that and I also able to cite the Common Core standards which public educational forums have to abide by. So, I was helping out the teacher in citing the parts in the lesson that adhered to the Common Core standards.
JWK: How did it adhere to the Common Core standards?
NS: When the teacher is teaching a lesson, she has to prepare with what is known as the lesson plan. As I know it, school districts require their teachers to cite the area that is relevant and what points of the Common Core will be taught in that lesson. So, it’s highlighting the points that are kind of mandated of public schools to teach specific things at a certain grade level. So, I was pointing that out — and it’s another plus for the teacher to not  hesitate using a comic book in the classroom to teach an academic subject.
JWK: So, as a teacher you obviously believe that comic books can be an effective tool for educating.
NS: Totally! Because it’s presenting information in an entertaining format. We have to be very creative with how we present information to capture a child’s interest. Look at what’s available to them. They all have a smart device in their pocket (or) in their backpack. They can click on at any moment and see what is happening around the world. So, information can come to them instantaneously and what they’re looking it is appealing to them. We have to be superstar teachers (regarding) how we’re going to present information to them in this century.
Sharknado Promo_2
 JWK: Talking about thinking out of the box, I understand that a special Sharknado edition of Archie (featuring the traditionally-drawn characters) is planned to debut on July 22nd to coincide the film franchise’s latest sequel on Syfy.
NS: Yes. You know, it’s taking what people today are watching and we are putting it into a different format…Why not explore how Archie, Betty,  Veronica and Jughead will do with a Sharknado experience?
JWK: There’s also an Archie horror imprint.
NS: Yes, we have had a few of those that have been published where it’s the zombies and all of that…You know, people go to amusement parks, they go on these rides and scream. It seems like that is another edge that captures one’s attention. We’re looking at what sparks people. My strong interest is getting people to find that love of reading.  I strongly believe it is the comic book that can start one on the path to reading. It’s just getting to turning those pages and then once you start turning those pages, you want to have more.
JWK: I remember I didn’t take to reading too early and then my mother got me comic books. That’s what started me reading.
NS: Yeah, see?
I want to say why I think it’s comic books that draws one’s eyes and noses into those pages. It’s a language mostly of pictures. When you have that language of pictures, it’s calling on you to expand on that story. Once you can expand on the story, just think how cool that is. You know, you have a story in your head and you’re internalizing this because it’s all coming from you. I think it’s that unique connection of one’s personal interpretation of those graphics that really hooks people to find that love of the comic book.
JWK: Have you gotten any backlash from parents about updating the Archie they grew up with?
NS: I can’t think of anything. All I know is I travel around the world — I just came back from Nairobi — and old and young “heart” Archie. I stopped in Dubai and India…I was in Brownsville, Texas in the United States. Across the board, everyone has an immense love for Archie.
JWK: The gay character Kevin Keller was introduced in 2010 and got married in one of the issues.
NS: Yes, he got married in one of the issues.
JWK: That’s relevant in light of the recent Supreme Court ruling.
NS: Yes. It’s just reflecting of who we are today and not excluding anyone. It’s Riverdale High and to be relevant, it would be wrong not to (include) all people, all groups. I’m proud that Archie Comics is global…We’re popular in India.

JWK:
Have you introduced any Indian characters?
NS: We’ve always had Raj. He’s been a staple.
JWK: You have the African-American character, Chuck Clayton.
NS: Not just Chuck Clayton…
…I have a new story coming out (through Rise Above Social Issues). It’s there for the purpose of sparking conversation on gun safety.
JWK: That’s a hot political issue. Will you take a position on gun control in the comic?
NS: Rise Above Social Issues doesn’t really take a stand. It’s there to spark healthy conversation. It’s there to get the conversation going…Right now we’re calling it See Something, Say Something. I’m hoping that this story will also have a teacher’s study guide that will be utilized in the classroom to talk about tolerance. When on sees someone is alienating or targeting because of one’s background or belief, we need to talk about this because we all have to be tolerant. We don’t have to like everybody but we have to have an empathy and respect for humanity…That hopefully will be out in September.
Again, it’s not taking a stand. It’s there for the teacher, for the parent to start the conversation, to talk about it…A big point in that story is the bystander. That was (also a theme) in the anti-bullying comic book. It’s really the bystander that I put a lot of emphasis on because that one person who creates havoc, who does bullying or utilizes a gun and just creates havoc and chaos, it’s very hard to get into their minds. But the people around them — that see this going on — they have to stand up and say something.
In the bullying situation, that one that looks like they don’t have a friend in the world, reach out to that person because people need to know that people care for them…It’s the bystander that needs to reach out to the person who needs help, to the person that is making a wrong decision.  We just had that gun shooting down in South Carolina. I think there had been some warning signs. So, you have to look into things and step up and speak out and see what we can do to stop something before it hurts another person.
JWK: Are there continuing characters in the Rise Above! books?
NS: No. This has different characters but now that you bring that up (there’s) no reason that some of my characters can’t appear again. I’m working on another project where Erika in Rise Above will appear in another type of story.
JWK: Who is Erika?
NS: She is a girl in Rise Above who was able to finally block out the noise of negative comments and have the guts to believe in herself and “rise above.” For your readers, again, reach out to that someone that really looks like they need help. They need a friend. Don’t be afraid to speak out. When you speak out for someone not being treated right, you just let (people) know we don’t do that anymore.
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JWK: Besides Archie, you actually have other titles more in the superhero vein. There’s one called The Black Hood.

NS: Yes. We also have Josie and the Pussycats. We have a huge library of other characters that are not Archie.

JWK: Any movie or TV deals in the works, a la Marvel?

NS: We’re always exploring those different mediums. So, be prepared to hear announcements coming up. I’m sure you’ll be seeing Archie or some of our other properties in those types of mediums.

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JWK: Who’s your favorite Archie character?

NS: I love that! Everybody always asks me that! Mr. Lodge! I just love how he interacts with Archie! He’s a businessman. I just like seeing when he’s talking business.

As I said, I became a businesswoman overnight. I had no idea! When I though the word “business” decades ago, it was something I would run from…I had no desire for business. I tumbled into it and…I find that I love it!  I think business 24/7, seven days a week…I enjoy it so much! I was cut out to be a businesswoman!

NOTE: You can read more about Archie’s new look here.

FYI, I’m dating here’s the Archie I grew up on.

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11

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