Nancy Silberkleit, the CEO of Archie Comics, the third largest comic book company in America, toured Rwanda this month to explore the country’s reading culture. In light of an upcoming series by Archie Comics featuring Rwanda’s fight against the use of plastic bags, Sunday Times’ Ivan R. Mugisha caught up with Silberkleit to get her views on Rwanda’s education and how comics can be incorporated in elementary education.
How did you become so passionat about reading?
I had no love for reading; I never read for entertainment purposes, but when I was in my first grade, my mother told me I was going to repeat because I couldn’t read. That was the moment when my love for reading started to grow. I started reading anything that I came across.
If they had shown me something like a comic book when I was a little younger, I would have wanted to connect the visual to the word and I may have embraced the love of reading even before the scare of having to repeat a class.
How did you end up in the comic book industry?
I was an art teacher for 25 years. I taught children as young as five years how to draw and paint. My husband owned Archie alongside his business partner but unfortunately his business partner passed away. Sadly, within a short time, my husband also passed away at a very untimely hour due to cardiac arrest.
My husband had been running the company so when he died, I was asked to join the it and fill his void. When I took the job, I suddenly realised that I was the first woman to walk through Archie Comics doors in over 70 years. I am the third woman in an executive position in this industry, which is heavily dominated by men. I love seeing the girl child develop, so this motivated me.
How did you manage to keep Archie afloat?
I was a teacher but I had never been introduced to a comic book despite my husband being a very important man at one large comic books company. When I joined Archie, I realised that our target market was young people, so I started to ask myself where I had been all along yet there was this field where I could have reached as many young people as I wanted. I developed a passion for the work and fell in love with all the characters that Archie Comics had created. With an experienced team at the company, we managed to maintain Archie at the top.
Rwanda’s reading culture is quite poor. How do you think the introduction of comic books in schools can help the situation?
When I discovered my love for reading, I started believing that I couldn’t let a young reader to go through what I went through as a child. So I started a programme called “Comic Book Fairs” where I was sending comic books into schools so that children could get the chance to easily access them.
This was a wonderful platform to do public service announcements and that is how I developed the theme of refusing plastics, which is an interesting subject worldwide.
I came to Rwanda to actually visualize what I have read about the country and how the ban on plastic bags has worked out.
That is exactly what local artists and illustrators should do; they should develop educational themes and package them in an entertaining way. If they can market their products to the younger generation, they would be able to evolve the reading culture in Rwanda.
For example, we picked the ban against plastics, but local artists can pick from the various points in Rwanda’s history, local fairy tales or government programmes. If they are able to develop an entertaining fiction story based on what is happening, then it would be possible to improve the reading culture through comics.
When will you publish the story about Rwanda?
The story I have was inspired by Rwanda’s initiative to reduce plastic bags, and the whole company is working hard to make the final copy. Today I came with the raw illustrations and the story script, which was developed by an American author.
In the comic book, we want to show the world that it is possible to ban the use of plastics and to protect the environment. We shall also use the series to highlight all the different careers that not only go into a comic book but also into making recyclable products like chairs, pencils, tables – there are many jobs that even the younger people can do.
I always travel around the planet and I find Archie in so many places, so we are a global brand and hope this story about Rwanda reaches as many people as possible.
Do you have encouraging words for Rwanda’s educationists?
Introducing graphic novels and illustrations in schools is good academic source for children in today’s time. You can hear the rolling of laughter or sadness in a picture. While reading and seeing the pictures, you understand, feel and draw your own world. Even if you don’t love to read, pictures can help you understand and grow your passion for reading.
Besides, with a growing market, it helps the young and upcoming artists to develop their own books, small or big novels of any genre.
Rwanda has a culture that is rarely seen in graphic drawings and stories; this is open space for entrepreneurs and educationists.
About Nancy Silberkleit
Nancy Silberkleit, daughter-in-law of Louis H. Silberkleit, one of the founders of Archie Comics Publications, stepped into her role as the Co-CEO of the company in 2009 with the vision that the comic book, as a graphic novel, is a valuable tool for developing literacy among first-time readers and instilling love for reading in everyone. As a former public school educator, homemaker and mother, Nancy knows the importance of learning to read and has coined a personal motto that “Children + Comic Books = Reading, Knowledge, Confidence and Creativity”.
Co-founded by Louis Silberkleit and John L. Goldwater in 1942, the Archie Comics line of comic books is one of the most successful, longest-running brands in the history of the comic industry. The American publishing company has sold more than 5.1 billion comics in a dozen different foreign languages all over the world. Archie Comics has spawned characters whose popularity has spilled over into other media and who have become part of popular culture.
In her current role, Nancy furthers her agenda on the need comic books in classrooms and libraries with the fervent belief that comic books can be used to engage a variety of learners, while promoting literacy and foster love of reading. As someone who has taught art for over 20 years, she has seen the power of comics in encouraging literacy and creativity in children. Nancy believes that comics teach children about storytelling and exploring their artistic abilities through illustration. It is a natural progression for children, as a bridge to reading from the picture books of their younger years. She also sees the visual image and comics books as an academic resource for communication in today’s world.
In addition to her role at Archie Comic Publications in which she heads up education and theater, Nancy has established her own non-profit foundation ‘Rise Above Social Issues Foundation Inc.’ that addresses challenging social issues, such as childhood obesity and other chronic medical conditions, as well as bullying, discrimination and environmental concerns through comic books. Her next steps include the emphasizing of the use of the comic book in working with educators in the establishment of after-school tutoring programmes, the development of lesson plans, and, of course, more comic book fairs across America to engage children in this format of literacy.