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Feature Thu Aug 30 2012

Comic Artist Alex Nall: Putting it All Out There

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Alex Nall is a recent college graduate, an emerging local comic artist and a self-described dork. Nall is impressively prolific -- every day, after coming home from his full-time day job at Lakeview Sport and Fitness, he spends the rest of his night in his studio at his apartment in Logan Square working on his colorful and succinct autobiographical comics. I sat down there with him a couple weeks ago to learn more about what makes him tick and why he chose to take root in Chicago.

How did you get into drawing?

I've been drawing all my life. I guess I got into cartooning and telling stories with pictures in first grade when I made my first book called Alex the Snake's Birthday Party. It was about Alex the Snake, who was green. He wore a red shirt, blue pants, and he had arms and legs. So he wasnt really a snake at all, and basically the entire plot was copied from a Mercer Mayer critter book. So yeah, basically it just came from a love of looking at pictures while reading in school and thinking, 'Ooh I could do this, I like doing it', and as the years went on, most of my school notebook's margins were covered in doodles -- those were the things I ended up studying more than more notes for school. I didn't pursue drawing or art in college. I went to Monmouth College -- a small liberal arts college. I did English and theater mostly and I kept drawing on the side. It wasn't until last year when I went back for my senior year that I started submitting a weekly comic strip to my school newspaper and sending out editorial cartoons to the town paper.

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After I graduated I moved to Chicago because I knew some people, I knew it was friendly to cartoonists and I had an apartment lined up. I think cartooning is the best way I'm able to express myself and ideas that I have. Even if theyre not fully developed or even good, I think most of the stuff I do can be entertaining or even vital.

You said Chicago's friendly to cartoonists... how so?

In 2011 I participated in a study abroad program here that teaches you about local contemporary artists. You live in the city and you get an internship with a non-profit organization. I had been in Chicago before for concerts and I'd been to the art museum a bunch of times but I'd never really explored the city... Anyway, we had to do a big art project through the program and we had an entire semester to work on it. So I kinda buckled down and figured I wanted to make a comic book. So I made Morbid Dork which is the comic series I'm still working on. I made the entire thing using the school's copy machine and luckily I found that there are a lot of local venues that are willing to put crap like mine up on the shelf -- Quimbys, Graham Crackers, G Force Comics, Brainstorm -- all these places sell zines and home made comics or whatever and they put them up and they encouraged me to keep doing it. And a lot of my favorite cartoonists are from here. I got to meet a lot of the people who I'd been reading and really enjoying their style. It seemed unbelievable to me that I could be in the same room with them, let alone talk to them and have them sketch something in my sketchbook. I made a lot of friends and met some other people who were doing the same kind of thing I am. The CAKE Expo was amazing because I got to meet the best of the professsionals as well as people who were just starting up like me, so it was the best of both worlds.

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What sorts of subjects are you attracted to?

A lot of my stuff starts out autobiographical. I focus mainly on three characters in Morbid Dork -- myself and my two best friends, Jamie and Coop. We all have very different ways of living life and looking at life. I tend to be more optimistic and Jamie is much more misanthropic and cynical and kind of has his eye on the sprectrum of the world. And Coop, Coop is just a weird guy we hang out with who... I dont know, for some reason he's like the most disgusting, perverted person I've ever met. We would tell these stories to people we would meet and they'd really enjoy them -- they'd be like, 'Oh God I want to meet this guy' or 'I want to hang out with you guys more' and we didn't undertand it at first. We thought these were just things that happened to us they're not particuarly interesting, but I started writing them down and sketching them out and showing them to people and they laughed. And the more I kept doing them, the more people seemed to respond to them.

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As far as themes go -- mainly self-deprecation and embarrassment and sexual exploits and failure. Those things are juicy and always fun to drop in on in a complete stranger's life. I guess if there's one theme I'm trying to get at it's that none of us know what's going on, especially people my age -- early 20-somethings. I dont know what's going on with my life or how the world is run and I think it's interesting for people my age to ponder. I guess I don't want people to feel alone, like 'I dont know what I'm doing with my life, I must be a total failure'. I would much rather just relate and say 'Oh me too, I'm on the same boat'. So instead of going to counseling or therapy I put it on paper.

It sounds like it's part personal search and investigation into what life is all about and part a way for you to reach out and connect with other people.

Yeah and the drawing I'm doing now, I feel is so much better than even two weeks ago. I do a daily comic journal -- every day I try to think of the most exiting event that happened to me that day and I do it on Post-It notes so that I'm constrained to a certain size and I have to limit how many words I use. And for the characters I use simple shapes and bold colors to really make them pop. They're fun to do. They can be really hard if I want to go into a lot of detail -- you know, if a lot happened that day. They're a good exercise just to keep me thinking about how to tell a story in a short amount of time. There was a time when reading the Sunday comics when I would skip over the one-panel comics because i thought, 'Oh, that's a cop-out, that's not hard work', but it's actually so much harder to tell a story in a square. I think every day I try to do something a little different just because I don't want to get settled. I'm still working on figuring out what my style is. Right now I'm working in a lot of different cartoon styles -- I've been finding these vintage romance comics from the 40's and 50's and taking their covers and trying to replace the characters -- figuring out which one would be Alex and which would be Coop -- It's like I'm trying to put them in a time machine and trying to figure out where they would fit, like a Mad Magazine parody. I think the best comics are the ones who can jump around and imitate styles.

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How do your friends feel about being inserted into these?

They like it. Coop hasn't read them yet. I gave him a copy of the first one and he forgot it, he left it in my car, so that shows how little he cares. I'm always exited when one of them calls because it means more material for me. My sketchbooks are just filled with doodles and when we were in my dorm at college they would always pick it up and leaf through it. I think its a form of flattery for them and that makes me want to push the boundaries and see what I shouldn't talk about in their lives.

Are there certain things you've made that you don't show them?

There have been in the past, and that's one of the things I'm starting to really open up about. This is one I did -- that's me -- and it's about embarrassment. I tried to remember all the most embarassing things that have happened to me. My mom caught me watching porn one time and I saw my grandma naked when I was really young and the image stayed in my mind the entire night. I was like, man, these are things I would never tell anyone in person but I feel comfortable sharing it like this. That's how I know this is the right path for me, that I should be telling stories this way. Because if I were try to type out one of these stories in prose form I dont think it would work as well. Cartoon is that magical art form that allows you to show and tell at the same time and if it's done right you dont even realize you're looking at images. You're just reading.

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I think the sign of a really good comic is one that you read in a minute and you put it down and it doesnt make you say, 'Wow that's beautiful/that's amazing/that touched me', it's something you walk away from and unexpectedly later, while cooking pasta or going to the bathroom, you suddenly remember it. And it sticks with you.

I think there's a lot that can be done with comics, and that's what I'm trying to do, is figure out what I can do.

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Alex's work will be on display at an exhibition that opens at 7pm this Sunday, September 2 at Brick Gallery, 4401 N. Mozart St.

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art basel miami / September 7, 2012 6:05 AM

Showing some real or imagination through cartoon characters is one of the most famous and my favorite art form. It's never like, the art form is loved by children only but all artwork lover appreciate this and like to bestow in this art form.

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


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