Catching Up With Alex Nall’s “Kids With Guns”

You can’t keep a good cartoonist down, and Alex Nall is considerably more than that, so when we all went into “lockdown mode” he continued releasing his ongoing Kids With Guns series online, with the most flexible payment terms I believe anyone’s every offered : if you read it and liked it, he just asked you to pay whatever you could afford for it. Now that we’re pretending the pandemic is over, though, the siren call of self-publishing has once again called out to him, and actual, physical copies of issues three and four are finally available — and it’s now incumbent upon me to tell you why you should buy them.

I’ve already reviewed the first two installments of this quiet, human-scale epic, but for those unfamiliar with the particulars, the most basic distillation I can offer is that what we’ve ostensibly got here is the story of an inter-generational friendship between neighbors Mel, aged 80, and Milo, aged ten, but really that’s the main patch of fabric in the center of the whole thing and there are threads protruding from it that Nall is pulling in any number of interesting directions. The exact nature of the book’s title has yet to fully manifest itself, although it’s certainly hinted at in a manner it wouldn’t even be fair to call oblique, but Nall is more concerned with examining what causes people to pull the trigger than he is with the fact that the gun is there. And no, I don’t mean that in the same sense the NRA does with their “guns don’t kill people, it’s people who kill people” propagandistic nonsense. Rather, this is — or at this juncture would at least very well appear to be — a story about how violence both imposes itself upon “everyday” lives in some circumstances, or slowly and inexorably creeps into it, almost unnoticed, in others. I hope that makes it sound sufficiently fascinating, because trust me when I say that is absolutely is.

In these two most recent issues, events within Milo’s peer group are building to a head as he’s nudged toward a “time to prove yourself” situation, while at the same time Mel struggles to finally begin processing the nightmare flashbacks to his tenure in the service, and so we’re presented with a potential for something tragically violent and the difficult and long-lasting ramifications of violence in fairly equal measure — and while this may seem an overly-obvious, perhaps even belabored, way to go about exploring a theme, those who would discount it out of hand before reading are simply woefully ill-informed as to Nall’s sheer cartooning prowess. His scratchy but in no way imprecise line, strong use of black inks, naturalist design sense, and un-fussy page layouts combine to give his work a feeling that’s equal parts Tom Hart and Chester Brown — hell, one might even argue that it establishes and subsequently occupies a kind of halfway point between the two of them — yet it curiously doesn’t owe an overt debt to anyone else’s style in any specific sense. There are two kinds or artists in this world, it seems to me : those who study what others do and consciously borrow elements they like from various influences, and those who just draw the way they want to draw and let the chips fall where they may, knowing that everything looks kinda like something that’s come before, but that doesn’t mean they can’t do your own thing. Nall, happily and clearly, falls into the latter camp.

Here’s the thing that sets his stuff apart from so many of his contemporaries, though : Nall understands kids, and cares about them. Much of his previous work — I’m thinking specifically of Teaching Comics and Let Some Word That Is Heard Be Yours, an exploration of the life and legacy of Fred Rogers that was released just before Hollywood started paying attention to him again after far too long — is focused on children, and perhaps more specifically on mentorship, and while those themes obviously come into play here as well, it’s worth noting that no two kids Nall has ever written or drawn are alike. Maybe it’s due to his work as an educator himself, maybe he’s just got a knack for it, but the children in Nall’s comics are complex, involving, well-rounded people, and he’s keenly aware of the various joys and struggles attendant with different stages of their development. There are any number of cartoonists who, if you’ll notice, routinely struggle with even drawing children, but Nall has no reservation about constructing entire works around them, and has a more natural affinity for doing so than anyone I can mention not named Schulz. Which may sound like ridiculously heavy praise, I’ll be the first to admit, but you know what? It’s absolutely well-earned.

It’s also an opinion I’m pretty sure I’ve expressed before, at least in conversation if not in “print,” but it bears repeating because it becomes more and more true with each successive issue of this comic. Milo’s no Charlie Brown by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s in Nall’s refusal to pigeonhole kids into narrow pre-conceived (by adults, of course) roles, in his determination to treat them with the respect they deserve, and his commitment to honor their stories while at the same time letting them just, well, be kids, that the through-line between two works as admittedly different as Peanuts and Kids With Guns is found. It’s something I don’t state lightly, and in many ways strikes me as the greatest compliment I can conceive of.

Which is entirely appropriate, I suppose, given that this is unquestionably one of the best comics being made by anybody right now.

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Issues three and four of Kids With Guns are available for $8.00 each from Alex Nall’s Storenvy site at https://www.storenvy.com/stores/390761-alex-nall-comics

Review wrist check – Zodiac “Super Sea Wolf 53,” this is the “blackout edition” that I’m guessing probably won’t be available a whole lot longer.