Ostensibly the story of a friendship between 10-year-old Milo and his 80-year-old neighbor, Mel, the first issue of Alex Nall’s apparently-ongoing new self-published minicomics series, Kids With Guns, clearly aims to touch on much more, and goes about its business quickly but in a manner that’s no way forced — its title is as combustible as it is topical, and its interior contents are tailor-made to match. Where it’s all going is, at this early stage, an open question — but whether or not you’re going to want to follow Nall and his characters there? That’s a lead-pipe cinch early on.
Which isn’t the greatest metaphor for me to conjure up, I suppose — why bring a lead pipe to a gunfight? — but it’s late as I write this, and this comic has yet to worms its way out of my brain. Few cartoonists not named Schulz have a better, clearer, more intuitive understanding of a child’s mindset than Nall (his years as an arts educator are paying off on the printed page), but his unassuming long-form masterpiece, Lawns, showed that he was equally in tune with the contemporary zeitgeist of “fly-over country,”as well, particularly the uneasy place eccentrics hold within it — and here both of those not-exactly-polarities-but-let’s-go-with-it (again, it’s late) provide the narrative ebb and flow when such is necessary, downright tug when that’s in order. This is who we are, as seen through the eyes of one who’s been there and done that, as well as one who’s only just arriving.
What can be counted on is the absolute skill and charm of Nall’s classically-influenced cartooning, brisk and expressionistic with smartly-chosen points of visual emphasis, but what can’t be counted on is the health of the relationship between our two principals — Mel’s heart appears to be in the right place, but introducing a kid to the purported “joys” of a rubber band gun may not be the smartest move in the post-Columbine, post-Sandy Hook, post-every-other-goddamn-school shooting era. Nall’s not afraid to tackle this head on, as a new broadcast announcing yet another of these tragic events gives Mel pause to think, but is it already too little, too late? At what point are pernicious influences imprinted upon us? Was Arthur Janov right all along? Were the Catholics who harped on about “original sin” without ever pinpointing exactly what that sin was?
Yeah, we’re gonna go that deep here — I think. But it’s not like Nall’s out to beat you over the head, or even to hold your hand. Like the best of his cohorts in this beleaguered medium, he’s a master at asking the important questions, but lets you evaluate — and subsequently choose from — all the various and sundry potential answers for yourself. What that means in practical terms is a story with a message that refuses to sacrifice the former in service of the ladder. Young cartoonists, pay attention — this is how you do relevance without torching narrative integrity.
The idea of a serialized story is one that’s coming around at the right time for this particular comics auteur, as well — having shown his artistic chops with the single-pager and the “graphic novel,” he’s clearly both ready for, and in need of, a new challenge, and this promises to be exactly that. Yeah, odds are it’ll be collected in its entirety at some point, but planning and executing a story chapter by chapter is a different beast than plotting out a 100-odd page self-contained text. The placement of key story “beats” and plot revelations are more gradual and more precise simultaneously, and when you’ve mastered everything you’re tried to the near-flawless extent Nall has, you’re in a “stagnation equals death” equation. If Kids With Guns #1 proves one thing above all else, it’s that we needn’t worry about him being a cartoonist willing to rest on his laurels. Yes, he’s keenly aware of what he does well, but that doesn’t (and in the best of circumstances shouldn’t) mean he’s not willing to play to his own strengths while moving outside the confines of his own comfort zone. There’s confidence in announcing that you know what you’re good at, as long as that doesn’t mean you’re unwilling to get better at it, or to explore it within a different framework and ethos.
All of which is me letting you know this is a serious work undertaken by someone with a serious need to keep growing as an artist. It’s an astute piece of commentary on where we find ourselves that’s determined to demonstrate both how we got here and how we might get ourselves out — or maybe that should be if we can get ourselves out.
Kids With Guns #1 is available for $8.00 from Alex Nall’s Storenvy site at https://alexnallcomics.storenvy.com/products/28630190-kids-with-guns-no-1
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