Alex Nall’s “Are Comic Books Real?” Answers Its Own Question

Akex Nall is the best children’s cartoonist working today. And by that I don’t mean he’s the best there is at making comics for children — but it should be noted that his work is, in fact, usually appropriate for all ages — I mean that he’s the best there is at making comics about children.

It’s not that he necessarily draws kids better than anyone else — although his art style is eminently agreeable and firmly rooted in knowledge and understanding of classical technique — no, it’s more that he so clearly understands and empathizes with children on the one hand, while having a kind of quiet reverence for the wide-eyed wonder with which they approach life and the world on the other. He respects kids, values them, and in many ways, I think it’s fair to say, he even envies their outlook. They mystify him, amaze him, at times even frighten him — and I think we can all relate to that, regardless of whether or not we happen to be parents ourselves.

All of this is well and good in Nall’s case in particular because he’s made his living as an arts educator for some years now, and it’s absolutely remarkable the degree to which his teaching work has always informed every line (written or drawn) of his comics work from day one. This running through-line started with Teaching Comics, his series of single-page strips that he later self-published in a collected volume, continued on through Let Some Word That Is Heard Be Yours (a biographical examination of the life, work, and impact of the late, great Fred Rogers that Nall created long before the “Mr. Rogers Revival” of recent vintage) and Kids With Guns (the most under-appreciated comic of the pandemic era), and now reaches both its apex and, tone one degree or anotehr at least, conclusion with his second Teaching Comics collection, Are Comic Books Real?, released just last month from Kilgore Books. To say it constitutes “more of the same” is undoubtedly true — but I’m rather reminded of another shop-worn cliche that’s even more true, that being “there’s no such thing as too much of a good thing.”

If you’re already familiar with Nall’s work, then, you absolutely will know what to expect here, but it’s my pleasure to report that he just keeps getting better at it, which is why knowing that the book is closing (quite literally) on this particular series is such bittersweet sorrow. Of course I’ll be curious to see what comes next, and consider myself ready to follow this guy to the ends of the Earth at this point, but Nall’s observations of/ruminations on all things childlike are without peer, so it’s not just that you don’t want this collection to come to an end — you don’t want any page of it to come to an end as you’re reading it.

This is perhaps a strange thing to say because these comics are so frank and unpretentious and unassuming, but it’s those very qualities that make them so special. Nall doesn’t seek to tease out or otherwise artificially accentuate moments of disarming poignance, they just happen — and the best part is, of course, that they happen a lot. They’re not only to found in the things that kids say, though — they’re just as often often found in nothing more obtrusive than a change in their expression or body language. It’s the little things, I’m told, that are what make life worth living, but it’s worth remembering that there are no “little things” from a child’s point of view — everything is charged with meaning, import, and significance, whether they’re consciously aware of it or not. This is easy to lose sight of as one ages, of course, but to be reminded of it is, at the risk of sounding grandiose, a gift, and these stories of Nall’s day-to-day interactions with youth are, in a very real sense, a gift that keeps on giving.
Beyond that, I dunno. There’s really not much more that I feel I need to add. No less an authority than John Porcellino has referred to Nall’s comics as being “perfect,” and not only am I not prepared in any way to dispute that, I’ll heartily second it. Are comic books real, then? This one certainly is — as real as it gets.

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Are Comic Books Real? is available for $20.00 from Kilgore’s website at http://www.kilgorebooks.com/shop/are-comic-books-real-alex-nall

Also, this review — and all others around these parts — is “brought to you” by my Patreon site, where I serve up exclsuive thrice-weekly rants and ramblings on the worlds of comics, films, television, literature, and politics for as little as a dollar a month. Subscribing is the best way to support my continuing work, so I’d be very appreciative indeed if you’d take a moment to give it a look by directing your kind attention to https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse

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