Archie’s Comics isn’t the only comic book set in Riverdale.
Jerry Craft is set to release his new book, “New Kid” Feb. 5. Through the protagonist, Jordan Banks, the Ethical Culture Fieldston School alum breathes life into a graphic novel that addresses the complexities of fitting in through the eyes of an African-American middle school student attending a predominately white school.
“When I went to Fieldston, it was such a culture shock,” Craft said. “I met four guys from the Bronx and we stayed pretty close through ninth grade to 12th grade. We were in each other’s weddings and things along those lines. Because we had each other, it made it easier.”
Jordan is a reflection of Craft’s own experience growing up in Washington Heights and attending Fieldston. Even then, Craft found himself drawing. Comic strips from newspapers, and his siblings’ Daredevil and X-Men comics, helped inspire Craft as an artist.
However “New Kid” isn’t Craft’s first time around the speech balloon. He self-published his “Mama’s Boyz” comic strips, and has illustrated and authored books before. In fact, the concept of “New Kid” truly took shape beginning in 2012, and over the years, Craft developed his characters, many based on his childhood friends.
Craft has earned five African American Literary Awards, and is the co-founder and producer of the Schomburg’s annual black comic book festival. He also has received recognition from the Junior Library Guild, and last year Craft signed a contract with publishing giant Harper Collins.
“I don’t remember a time in my life when I wasn’t drawing,” Craft said. “I named a lot of the characters after my friends who grew up on my block. They were such a huge part of my childhood, and I still talk to a bunch of them today.”
When it comes to his graphic novel’s audience, Craft isn’t just targeting black youth. The book also is meant to provide insight to everyone else on what some kids go through. In “New Kid,” Craft illustrates two very separate worlds Jordan straddles throughout his semesters at the fictional Riverdale Academy Day School. They were the same universes Craft himself balanced as a teen.
“It wasn’t ever like I walked around up there (in Riverdale), but every once in a while we would go to the stores,” Craft said. “I knew that was probably not in my best interest, so I didn’t really dally. I would be more afraid today than I was then.
“I never thought necessarily walking down the street and having someone call the police on me. I knew that if I went to a store, people would follow me and that was something you knew more or less growing up as a black teen.”
His home in Washington Heights was an oasis for him where his innocence was better preserved, Craft said. But at the same time, it also was a place where being tough was part of survival.
Craft sent his two sons to private schools for the same reason his parents sent him to one — opportunity. Craft, however, made sure his children were better prepared. Although Craft never felt as though he didn’t belong at Fieldston, he remembers some of the staff did.
In fact, there was a guidance counselor who made him feel out of place when applying to college. He didn’t feel as though the same effort was put into him as his white counterparts.
“I remember I had written a really good report in English, and afterward the teacher kind of interviewed me because he didn’t think I had written it,” Craft said. “After (that) I was like, ‘Oh, that’s why he asked me all of those questions.’”
Despite the awkward stares during class discussions about slavery from his classmates, Fieldston prepared Craft for college. He graduated from the School of Visual Arts with a bachelor’s in fine arts.
It was through his sons’ experience and his own Craft was able to lay the foundation of “New Kid.”
“I think that I was able to catch a couple of the nuances,” Craft said. “I saw it when I went to Fieldston, and I saw it as a father. How things have changed and how things haven’t changed — I think I was able to bring a really full palette to the drawing table.”
At home in Washington Heights, Craft played touch football until the streetlights came on, while at Fieldston he found friends in those he related to most, both black and white. Most of those students shared his same socio-economic class.
With every new venture or position, Craft still sometimes feels like the new kid, but it does get easier, he said. When his boys were growing up, he made sure to have discussions with them about his own experience so they were never blindsided or confused.
“I really wanted to do a book, not just for kids, but for the teachers that I had that didn’t understand that, initially, we needed a little handholding because it was such a different experience,” Craft said. “And to open some eyes and show that sometimes there are micro-aggressions where kids of color are treated differently.
“So I definitely want this to be a teachable moment for teachers as well as for everyone else.”