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Reader writer studies drawing at Little Fish

Every comic reference book known to humankind in College Area studio

So what if I can’t draw hands or a straight line with a ruler? Perfection is boring.
So what if I can’t draw hands or a straight line with a ruler? Perfection is boring.

I was attending Comic Fest 2022 at the Four Points Sheraton on Aero Drive when I ran into Alonso Nunez, co-founder and lead instructor at Little Fish Comic Book Studios, a nonprofit that aims, according to its website, at “developing the skills and empowering the minds of students interested in the comic artform.” I was interested in his work, so I told him I was planning on stopping by the Little Fish booth and corrupting his students. Of course, I had no such plan; I’m just used to getting tagged as a bad influence, and thought I’d get out in front. But Nunez was ready for me: “I’d be more concerned about them corrupting you,” he replied with a chuckle. As it happened my discussion with the denizens of the booth was mostly about getting paid for art; the extent of my malign influence was a suggestion that they literally grab passersby and demand money for their work.

A little later, I hunted down Little Fish instructor Aubrianna Robinson to get a signature on a Little Fish collaboration she had helped with, a publication titled Into The Coronaverse, which was the result of Covid restrictions moving classes to Zoom, and to share what Alonso told me about the students corrupting me. She laughed and verified the likelihood of the role reversal. By way of evidence, she mentioned a couple of surprising exchanges. One student, given a narrative scenario in which students go to school and find that no one has a face anymore, one, exclaimed she would kill herself instead of trying to adjust. Another student, a blue-haired boy in his tween years or possibly even younger, moved on from his weekly Calvin and Hobbes cosplay to making Sponge Bob Square Pants characters that appeared downright threatening. When asked what his characters’ accessories were going to be, he replied, “Your mom.” And drew necklaces on the character that said just that.

Little Fish takes its name from the protagonist of Leo Leonni’s children’s book Swimmy, a little fish who organizes his fellows to band together and scare away the bigger fish that menace them. I admire the idea of art as an organizational force for community, and so I’ve been purchasing and reading his studio’s projects for a while now. I’m always surprised by the insight and rawness of some of the output, which addresses social ills like addiction and personal topics like an Asian American child watching his father try to assimilate with rednecks in gun clubs and watching his revered patriarch being treated as a joke. I’m used to seeing Nunez at conventions, but also around the College Area neighborhood that Little Fish calls home. Now and then, I’ll drop by to see what’s brewing. Eventually, I got curious enough about the place’s workings that I asked him about doing a story on the place. Not a press release, but an immersive experience — actually paying tuition and becoming a student. We agree to not let on that I am doing a story (though as it plays out, discussions of my earlier and current work will come up, and at least one student will figure out what I’m up to). I decide to focus on experimental comic writing; it seems easy and fits into my schedule. I write for profit regularly, so how hard could it be?

Week 1

“I thought this was experimental writing!”

“The experimentation comes from drawing,” Nunez tells me as he shows me the “canvas” for my project. It’s a standard piece of poster board, but the blankness of it makes it feel like it’s the size of a drive-in screen, daring me to fill it in. My protests that I am a writer, not an artist, are dismissed by both Nunez and my four fellow students. Ah well, this sort of leap-before-you-look situation that has recurred in my professional life for decades, and it’s usually worked out — like the time I got my industry professional Comic-Con badge after I called up Todd Loren of Revolutionary Comics and told him I could write better stories than him, despite never having written a comic book script. Or much else, for that matter. Loren said to come by and read one to him. I wrote it at a Denny’s and did just that; six months later, I got a phone call telling me he was buying it for the socio-political horror anthology Tipper Gore’s Comics and Stories. Boom, I was a published comic book writer, worthy of the same credentials as my heroes. Invited to write another story for the series, I proceeded to ignore the six-to-eight-pages-per-story rule and turned in a twenty-three-page story on child abuse — he published that one, too. Controversy led to the death of the title, so I was hired to write a few issues of Rock N Roll Comics, and my path was set.

Little Fish studio is part library, part work space, and it takes me a few moments to get to a clear area as I am distracted by what seems to be every comic reference book known to humankind. The work area is a series of desks forming a hollow rectangle. Every student has the place they have claimed as their own, so I grab an spot that will become my artistic home for the next six weeks.

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My fellow students express their focus on their projects in their own ways. Some talk incessantly while using every tool known to the art world = lettering stencils, pens with tips ranging from micro to graffiti thick, and rulers of all shapes and sizes.

Alonso Nunez (center) works with students at Little Fish.

Others use few words that carry heavy weight. Whatever their head space and process, they aren’t listening to my whining about my drawing abilities or lack thereof. So I stop and listen to them while staring at the blank piece of paper upon which I am supposed to be doing a layout. It’s a fancy term for drawing the little boxes called panels that the sequential drawings will appear in. And that’s when it happens. Patterns and words with corresponding pictures start transferring from my brain to the paper.

The story has its basis in life experience: in my first year of junior high, someone broke into my locker and tore up the KISS posters I had used to decorate the interior. Because I hadn’t grown my middle finger yet, I went to the principal and told him what had happened. He was an authority figure, the ultimate one in the social Petri dish that is public education.

I counted on him to defend me and this attack on my property. But instead of launching an investigation, asking questions, or even acknowledging that the vandalism was undeserved, he rolled his eyes and scoffed, “Why can’t you just be normal?” When I comment that I have found my story and that there must be some inspiration that comes from simply being in a room full of artists,

Nikita, both a student and instructor at Little Fish, says something profound about “supporting visions.” (I should have written it down, but I was already back in my head, wondering if I stole my idea from somewhere. That always happens when inspiration strikes me. Stories are the result of reading and observing so it may happen on occasion. I accepted years ago that The Twilight Zone is the source of every morality play with a twist and that Lester Bangs’ sneer left an impression on my musical outlook. I decide not to drive myself into creative paralysis by obsessing on being original and just get it done.)

When I mention my suspicions of idea-theft to Nunez after class, he laughs and tells me, “Well, there are only a few types of stories to tell. They come naturally, and stepping outside of that on purpose just ends up in art-school pretentiousness.” That explanation appeals to me. Not because I want to be a pretentious asshole, but because I can excuse not engaging in activities that polite society expects by claiming to be an artist. My brain is still a little concerned that my idea may not be wholly original, but now that I am an artist, I can get away with stuff with my newfound title being the excuse. I could piss on things like Warhol did in the name of art, but I believe that would land me on a list of some sort, so I settle for something less risky. I stop at the grocery store on the way home and notice my shoes are untied. I realize that this would be a golden opportunity to let everyone know I am an artist now, but it’s several weeks of untied shoes before someone says something. When I (finally) inform the world at large that I am an artist and can’t be bothered with such mundane matters, no one cares; instead, they ask me to move from the self-checkout so they can use it.

Week 2

I am usually there 15 minutes prior to class, and there is a rhythm to the arrival of students. Nikita is there first most of the time. Nunez often arrives with a fresh cup of coffee, explaining that “Young Artists”, a class he teaches before this one, requires him to draw on his energy reserves. I can’t put a finger on a not-quite-13-year-old named Rafferty’s arrival time, but his entrance is always a mass of hair and kinetic momentum that propels him to his seat.

“I hate anatomy,” he tells me, explaining why his characters are anthropomorphic planes. Thinking I know something cool I can share, I tell him that Iron Maiden’s vocalist Bruce Dickinson is a pilot, and that the band had an exact replica of a world war two zero fighter above them during the concert-opening song “Aces High.”

I am unprepared for the history lesson I receive in response, and unable to answer the questions I am asked. “Was it armored? Because if it was armored, it was less maneuverable. Sometimes you have to make a choice between being nimble and deflecting bullets, ya know.” I admit I don’t know about the armor; I just like the band. Later, this is reinforced when I realize the prop is not a Zero, but a Spitfire, which makes sense since the band is British. Rafferty is studying blueprints for fighter jets when I notice he has a share-size pack of skittles candy. I point out that it says share size, and he just growls in reply, without looking up from his drawing.

Denied the sweet rainbow of fruit flavors, I finish up my layout and start filling in the monstrous poster board with what passes for sketches. Nunez tells me to make them rough and fill in detail later. I tell him my drawing doesn’t go beyond rough, and I am unsure what the detail he speaks of might mean.

But even with my limited skills, I can make my school principal take shape on paper: a stereotypical bully in a suit with a mustache and comb over, picking on a kid. The comic I am drawing is beginning to preoccupy my thoughts, so I know there is something to it. At least enough to amuse myself. Nunez laughs and tells me that is a wonderful goal.

The eclectic LIttle Fish library. Most parents consider comic books kids’ stuff that never evolved beyond superheroes and talking animals.

Later, I do a drop-in on a different class later that week to see Mario Torres Jr., a guy I know from various conventions. He’s always manning a table at San Diego Comic-Con or my favorite show, the smaller Comic Fest. He’s teaching an art class to students who will then collaborate with students in a Little Fish writing class to create comic books.

Torres and I are into the same sorts of music and film, so I half-expect his students to be churning out heavy metal and horror, the kind of stuff Mario publishes in his fanzines, which sport titles like Subhuman Zine and Discleave. It’s a testament to his methods that the students aren’t doing this, but are instead expressing themselves without trying to impress their teacher by catering to his tastes.

Anime is a clearly potent influence here, but the students are taking it further, combining and mashing up their influences to create something unique. Huge anime eyes on a realistic death warrior with video-game style weaponry that looks physically impossible to wield are startling and effective evolutions.

Nunez mentions Torres during a later conversation, and explains that the approach of free thought and reading whatever is available is what defines his approach. Given the eclectic selection in the studio’s library, I wonder if this could become an issue.

In reply, Nunez points out the filing system for the books: it puts the general reference in accessible places, while the more mature tomes — books such as Drawing Power: Women’s Stories of Sexual Violence, Harassment and Survival that features Roberta Gregory and Mary Fleener — occupy the higher areas. It’s a bit of a balancing act, as most parents consider comic books kids’ stuff that never evolved beyond superheroes and talking animals, and are sometimes shocked at the evolution of visual storytelling. (Viz, Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer winning Maus, which uses talking mice and cats to tell the story of a holocaust survivor.)

Week 3

The studio is filled with an awkward silence. Nunez has just said that the studio needs the music biographies published by Bluewater Press. And I have just responded by laughing and saying,“Yeah, your shelves need to be polluted by pretentious hacks.”

I venture an explanation for my scorn: “Biographies filled with talking heads, some of which are pasted on by lazy artists.” But every time I open my mouth, the tension grow, so I blow my cover and explain that over half of the books are reprints of the Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin comics I wrote for Revolutionary Comics, and that I am making fun of myself. “So you’ve been published?” someone asks. “Yeah, but Bluewater never paid us, so screw them,” I laugh. No one finds me as amusing as I find me, so I let the matter rest and continue with my project.

Square pegs being forced into round holes is an overused but comfortable analogy to describe how those that deviate from societal norms are all too often dealt with. While I am sympathetic — I’m the one the principal wished was normal, remember — I reserve my highest level of scorn for square pegs who get treated unfairly and then imitate their oppressors once they find their subculture. The gatekeepers that mock the kids outside of a punk show because they had the audacity to be born too late to see the band in a garage. The hyper-fandom of this or that franchise that looks down its collective nose and trashes a film before viewing it, just because the key grip’s assistant dog walker was in an off-off-off Broadway production that didn’t meet their standards. Thanks to people like them, my comic has an ending worth working toward.

Nikita works on her project with an enviable degree of professional efficiency and focus. She has to, in order to produce two web comics (under the pen name Shard) and still find time to instruct the Little Fish students. She doesn’t talk that much, but when she does, it’s concise and illuminating. She’s not the least bit rattled when I ask her about trolls on her comic pages.

She doesn’t even bother to give an example on what elicits a response from her, but in an age where people feel (falsely) empowered by tearing artists down or by attacking random strangers with comments ranging from sexual harassment to outright death threats, she doesn’t have to. “Mute or ban, depending on how disruptive they are,” she tells me with no emotion in her voice.

I share that I sometimes think that Jay and Silent Bob’s solution of getting rich and using the funds to track down and confront online harassers is a splendid plan. In their film, the characters knock on the door and ask for the person by their screen name before punching them in the face. After I explain who Jay and Silent Bob are and how they get revenge, she tells me it seems like a waste of money — without looking up from her work. “And I grew up with the online culture, it doesn’t get to me.” she states. She’s also very encouraging when I whine about drawing. “Isn’t writing art, though?” she asks, actually looking at me this time. She’s kind, not condescending. I think about it for a second and tell her that lines on paper don’t mean that much to me. I’m not obsessed with them the way I am with finding the perfect word. And if my art is repetitive, it doesn’t make me sick to my stomach the way using the same word twice in a short space would. She ponders for a moment and says, “That makes sense,” before returning to her work.

Earlier in the week, I dropped in on a class taught by digital artist Serena Leitner. As I opened the door of the studio, the realization that there had been a school shooting earlier that week hit me, flooding my brain with reservation about entering the studio unannounced. I didn’t want to scare anybody if their nerves were on edge. For the first time, I saw my fellow students as (mostly) kids, who would be affected by these events on a more immediate level than anyone. Serena regarded me with apprehension, but relaxed a little after I explained Nunez knew I might drop in. (I found out later from Nunez that she was casually texting him to make sure I was who I said I was.) She runs a tight but nurturing class, which seems a sound approach when the students are on tablets and prone to going down the internet rabbit hole in the name of research. That day, they were making monsters. I remarked to one student that his digital drawing was unique, but that I thought I could see where he was going with it: a looming rock creature with no features. He informed me it that it looked that way because it was a castle, not a monster.

Nikita and her class project

Later, I shared my experience and anxiety with Nunez and for once, his perpetual smile faded. It was the first time I saw him somber. He told me that he is always prepared for students to bring up topics like school shootings, but that they haven’t so far. “There are many people having these serious conversations with the students outside of Little Fish.” he told me. “I don’t think I can add to that. This is a safe place for a couple of hours to just be creative. If someone brought it up, we would certainly discuss it, but no one has yet and I don’t think it is my place to bring it up to them.”

Week 4

A debate on the worst person in the history of comic books is underway. Stan Lee is an easy target, what with his reputation for claiming credit for other artist’s creations. But the class understands that he was important to Marvel Comics and so moves on to Bob Kane, the co-creator of Batman who claimed sole credit for decades, and to D.C. comics for using designs and characters in motion pictures without credit or compensation.

(Batman vs. Superman: Dawn Of Justice used both the designs and story line of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and the abominable Wonder Woman 1984 took Alex Ross’ armor design. Miller received a settlement, but Ross was reluctant to press the issue after weighing lkegal bills against compensation.)

The ultimate winner is Vince Colletta, a Silver Age inker who built a reputation as a fast worker by erasing the pencils laid down by future legends Jack Kirby and Gene Colan and replacing them with solid colors, thereby robbing the images of the detail that defined their work and made it sing. With the benefit of hindsight, Coletta’s alleged connections to organized crime either fill in some blanks in the story, or make it juicier, depending on one’s perspective.

To the best of my knowledge, student Hailey has nothing to do with organized crime. She’s 13, so I am going to trust my instincts there. That doesn’t stop Nunez from randomly playing the theme from The Godfather when she speaks. Her reaction varies from “I really hate you sometimes,” to a withering stare, depending on her mood. No one knows why or when the music became part of the class interaction.

She’s never seen the film, and despite my emphatic recommendation that she do so when she is old enough, she does not appear impressed. Then again, she holds her own in discussions regarding Stephen King’s catalog, comparing and contrasting film vs. books, and is an expert in all things Ghostbusters. Her art has the inevitable anime influence, but the style is softer, unlike her views on J. K. Rowling, creator of Harry Potter, whom she considers a “disgusting” anti-trans mouthpiece.

As for my progress, inking is almost complete, as is the four-week session for which I paid. Almost. So it looks like I will be in the Little Fish equivalent of summer school for two more weeks.

Week 5

A new student named Xavier has kicked off a Batman discussion by choosing the character as the subject for his piece. He’s read The Dark Knight Returns, Frank Miller’s reboot of the character in the mid-‘80s, made with Lynn Varley and Klaus Janson. Alonso studied under Janson at New York’s School of Visual Arts and lends a unique perspective on the Miller/Janson relationship. He describes it as akin to an old married couple, who after years of fighting and making up, have gotten old enough to appreciate each other and the fruits of their collaborations. Also, they are too tired to fight anymore. The conversation is, as always, a deep dive into comics that treats them as both business and art form. The tension between the two can be seen when a major company decides to put out up to seven titles a month featuring a popular character like Batman or Spider-Man, overwhelming fans even as they thrill speculators who are convinced they are investing in a gold mine. They buy comics like they are stocks, not taking into account that titles like Superman from the ‘30s are valuable because of their scarcity. Then, they were considered disposable diversions for kids who actually read them and were recycled as part of the war effort.

Author, Alonso, and Nikita at Little Fish Comic Book Studios

Xavier and Nunez discuss things like “perspective,” “forced perspective” and other terms I will repeat later in order to sound like an artist, as I have claimed that title again. I always tell people that ask me that the minute you write something, you are a writer, so why not apply that to art? Xavier’s reluctance to render cityscapes is something I can get behind. I co-sign the lack-of-details approach because the opposite appears to be a lot of work. Nunez objects by noting how Gotham City and Batman are intertwined, such that it would not carry the same impact to have the Dark Knight hanging out in blank space instead of crouching on a gargoyle atop a skyscraper. I can’t argue with that, and the discussion turns to Image Comics, a brand started by a group of artists who left Marvel and DC in order to own their characters and have total creative control. Xavier is in awe when he hears that that Nunez and I were at Comic Con when they debuted. I tell him that’s the cool thing about being old. He’s a fellow bass player, and when I say Jaco Pastorius of Weather Report was our Hendrix, he claims Metallica’s Cliff Burton deserves that title. I tell him I saw Cliff play live, and can’t help but smile.

There’s a point in every project where calling it a finished product and actually being at peace with the result are at odds. My comic has a lot of black, which works well for what passes as my style. But there is light coming through in a section where the square pegs are trying to make the round pegs fit in square holes, berating them with the same words that introduced the strip. I feel a rush of anxiety when I realize I will lose detail if I make the ceiling in Square Peg Land completely black. Nunez shows me a simple technique called “haloing” that corrects the issue. It’s exactly what it sounds like, leaving white around an image to both produce a halo and highlight the lines it surrounds.

Week 6

Preparations for summer camps at Little Fish have hit a snag due to supply issues. The camps differ from the traditional classes, as working parents are seeking supervision during their working hours as opposed to students with a specific interest in comic books and art, Supplies used in the classes are specific: the pens are not standard Bic ball points.

And they are out of stock at the usual supply place, limiting the supply for the foreseeable future. And then there is the desk crisis; it is vital to seat the incoming campers and the increasing number of students comfortably and leave enough space to create. I remark that there appear to be plenty of pens in the studio, and Alonso and Nikita laugh in unison at my cluelessness. It doesn’t stop me from taking a few home to finish my project, but I make sure to return them.

I’ve learned a lot in my short time as a student, both about the drawing side of comic creation and about other people’s creative process. I think of Ana, who was absent for a day a couple of weeks ago and so created a pocket of silence where her bubble of chatter usually floated. Her talk ranged from artificial harmonics on a violin to the intricacies of filming a zombie apocalypse in a remote area.

She surrounded herself with such a seemingly excessive array of artist’s tools that I got lost asking her about it, and I even wondered if she actually used all her implements. She seemed to be more interested in chatting. But when I look at her project, which is almost complete, I’m amazed by its perfectly straight lined borders, impeccable lettering and succinct drawings. I tell her I didn’t think she was actually drawing, and she looks at me like I have a second head growing out of my mouth. Apparently, not everyone turns into Jack Nicholson in The Shining while creating.

As for my own work, I feel a sense of pride and a tiny bit emo when I look at it. It’s both a “fuck you” to bullies and an acknowledgement of a painful part of my past that made me who I am. So what if I can’t draw hands or a straight line with a ruler? Perfection is boring. I love what other people see as flaws anyway, and giving myself the same break as I try to give other people feels good.

My comic completed, I return the next week and reveal that I have been taking the class in order to write a story about Little Fish, and that I have zero artistic aspirations, shocking no one. Rafferty hopes I mention Tubby McThick Boy, which I have now done. A few students are impressed that my writing is more marketable than my art, and Nikita chuckles.

“You have literally talked about journalism from the first day you were here.” The studio is in my neighborhood, and I’ll still come by and hang out, but it seems odd not to not have class anymore. Hailey confuses me when she tells me not to die.

“It means take care of yourself and be safe,” Alonso translates, laughing.” We are very sentimental here at Little Fish.”

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So what if I can’t draw hands or a straight line with a ruler? Perfection is boring.
So what if I can’t draw hands or a straight line with a ruler? Perfection is boring.

I was attending Comic Fest 2022 at the Four Points Sheraton on Aero Drive when I ran into Alonso Nunez, co-founder and lead instructor at Little Fish Comic Book Studios, a nonprofit that aims, according to its website, at “developing the skills and empowering the minds of students interested in the comic artform.” I was interested in his work, so I told him I was planning on stopping by the Little Fish booth and corrupting his students. Of course, I had no such plan; I’m just used to getting tagged as a bad influence, and thought I’d get out in front. But Nunez was ready for me: “I’d be more concerned about them corrupting you,” he replied with a chuckle. As it happened my discussion with the denizens of the booth was mostly about getting paid for art; the extent of my malign influence was a suggestion that they literally grab passersby and demand money for their work.

A little later, I hunted down Little Fish instructor Aubrianna Robinson to get a signature on a Little Fish collaboration she had helped with, a publication titled Into The Coronaverse, which was the result of Covid restrictions moving classes to Zoom, and to share what Alonso told me about the students corrupting me. She laughed and verified the likelihood of the role reversal. By way of evidence, she mentioned a couple of surprising exchanges. One student, given a narrative scenario in which students go to school and find that no one has a face anymore, one, exclaimed she would kill herself instead of trying to adjust. Another student, a blue-haired boy in his tween years or possibly even younger, moved on from his weekly Calvin and Hobbes cosplay to making Sponge Bob Square Pants characters that appeared downright threatening. When asked what his characters’ accessories were going to be, he replied, “Your mom.” And drew necklaces on the character that said just that.

Little Fish takes its name from the protagonist of Leo Leonni’s children’s book Swimmy, a little fish who organizes his fellows to band together and scare away the bigger fish that menace them. I admire the idea of art as an organizational force for community, and so I’ve been purchasing and reading his studio’s projects for a while now. I’m always surprised by the insight and rawness of some of the output, which addresses social ills like addiction and personal topics like an Asian American child watching his father try to assimilate with rednecks in gun clubs and watching his revered patriarch being treated as a joke. I’m used to seeing Nunez at conventions, but also around the College Area neighborhood that Little Fish calls home. Now and then, I’ll drop by to see what’s brewing. Eventually, I got curious enough about the place’s workings that I asked him about doing a story on the place. Not a press release, but an immersive experience — actually paying tuition and becoming a student. We agree to not let on that I am doing a story (though as it plays out, discussions of my earlier and current work will come up, and at least one student will figure out what I’m up to). I decide to focus on experimental comic writing; it seems easy and fits into my schedule. I write for profit regularly, so how hard could it be?

Week 1

“I thought this was experimental writing!”

“The experimentation comes from drawing,” Nunez tells me as he shows me the “canvas” for my project. It’s a standard piece of poster board, but the blankness of it makes it feel like it’s the size of a drive-in screen, daring me to fill it in. My protests that I am a writer, not an artist, are dismissed by both Nunez and my four fellow students. Ah well, this sort of leap-before-you-look situation that has recurred in my professional life for decades, and it’s usually worked out — like the time I got my industry professional Comic-Con badge after I called up Todd Loren of Revolutionary Comics and told him I could write better stories than him, despite never having written a comic book script. Or much else, for that matter. Loren said to come by and read one to him. I wrote it at a Denny’s and did just that; six months later, I got a phone call telling me he was buying it for the socio-political horror anthology Tipper Gore’s Comics and Stories. Boom, I was a published comic book writer, worthy of the same credentials as my heroes. Invited to write another story for the series, I proceeded to ignore the six-to-eight-pages-per-story rule and turned in a twenty-three-page story on child abuse — he published that one, too. Controversy led to the death of the title, so I was hired to write a few issues of Rock N Roll Comics, and my path was set.

Little Fish studio is part library, part work space, and it takes me a few moments to get to a clear area as I am distracted by what seems to be every comic reference book known to humankind. The work area is a series of desks forming a hollow rectangle. Every student has the place they have claimed as their own, so I grab an spot that will become my artistic home for the next six weeks.

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My fellow students express their focus on their projects in their own ways. Some talk incessantly while using every tool known to the art world = lettering stencils, pens with tips ranging from micro to graffiti thick, and rulers of all shapes and sizes.

Alonso Nunez (center) works with students at Little Fish.

Others use few words that carry heavy weight. Whatever their head space and process, they aren’t listening to my whining about my drawing abilities or lack thereof. So I stop and listen to them while staring at the blank piece of paper upon which I am supposed to be doing a layout. It’s a fancy term for drawing the little boxes called panels that the sequential drawings will appear in. And that’s when it happens. Patterns and words with corresponding pictures start transferring from my brain to the paper.

The story has its basis in life experience: in my first year of junior high, someone broke into my locker and tore up the KISS posters I had used to decorate the interior. Because I hadn’t grown my middle finger yet, I went to the principal and told him what had happened. He was an authority figure, the ultimate one in the social Petri dish that is public education.

I counted on him to defend me and this attack on my property. But instead of launching an investigation, asking questions, or even acknowledging that the vandalism was undeserved, he rolled his eyes and scoffed, “Why can’t you just be normal?” When I comment that I have found my story and that there must be some inspiration that comes from simply being in a room full of artists,

Nikita, both a student and instructor at Little Fish, says something profound about “supporting visions.” (I should have written it down, but I was already back in my head, wondering if I stole my idea from somewhere. That always happens when inspiration strikes me. Stories are the result of reading and observing so it may happen on occasion. I accepted years ago that The Twilight Zone is the source of every morality play with a twist and that Lester Bangs’ sneer left an impression on my musical outlook. I decide not to drive myself into creative paralysis by obsessing on being original and just get it done.)

When I mention my suspicions of idea-theft to Nunez after class, he laughs and tells me, “Well, there are only a few types of stories to tell. They come naturally, and stepping outside of that on purpose just ends up in art-school pretentiousness.” That explanation appeals to me. Not because I want to be a pretentious asshole, but because I can excuse not engaging in activities that polite society expects by claiming to be an artist. My brain is still a little concerned that my idea may not be wholly original, but now that I am an artist, I can get away with stuff with my newfound title being the excuse. I could piss on things like Warhol did in the name of art, but I believe that would land me on a list of some sort, so I settle for something less risky. I stop at the grocery store on the way home and notice my shoes are untied. I realize that this would be a golden opportunity to let everyone know I am an artist now, but it’s several weeks of untied shoes before someone says something. When I (finally) inform the world at large that I am an artist and can’t be bothered with such mundane matters, no one cares; instead, they ask me to move from the self-checkout so they can use it.

Week 2

I am usually there 15 minutes prior to class, and there is a rhythm to the arrival of students. Nikita is there first most of the time. Nunez often arrives with a fresh cup of coffee, explaining that “Young Artists”, a class he teaches before this one, requires him to draw on his energy reserves. I can’t put a finger on a not-quite-13-year-old named Rafferty’s arrival time, but his entrance is always a mass of hair and kinetic momentum that propels him to his seat.

“I hate anatomy,” he tells me, explaining why his characters are anthropomorphic planes. Thinking I know something cool I can share, I tell him that Iron Maiden’s vocalist Bruce Dickinson is a pilot, and that the band had an exact replica of a world war two zero fighter above them during the concert-opening song “Aces High.”

I am unprepared for the history lesson I receive in response, and unable to answer the questions I am asked. “Was it armored? Because if it was armored, it was less maneuverable. Sometimes you have to make a choice between being nimble and deflecting bullets, ya know.” I admit I don’t know about the armor; I just like the band. Later, this is reinforced when I realize the prop is not a Zero, but a Spitfire, which makes sense since the band is British. Rafferty is studying blueprints for fighter jets when I notice he has a share-size pack of skittles candy. I point out that it says share size, and he just growls in reply, without looking up from his drawing.

Denied the sweet rainbow of fruit flavors, I finish up my layout and start filling in the monstrous poster board with what passes for sketches. Nunez tells me to make them rough and fill in detail later. I tell him my drawing doesn’t go beyond rough, and I am unsure what the detail he speaks of might mean.

But even with my limited skills, I can make my school principal take shape on paper: a stereotypical bully in a suit with a mustache and comb over, picking on a kid. The comic I am drawing is beginning to preoccupy my thoughts, so I know there is something to it. At least enough to amuse myself. Nunez laughs and tells me that is a wonderful goal.

The eclectic LIttle Fish library. Most parents consider comic books kids’ stuff that never evolved beyond superheroes and talking animals.

Later, I do a drop-in on a different class later that week to see Mario Torres Jr., a guy I know from various conventions. He’s always manning a table at San Diego Comic-Con or my favorite show, the smaller Comic Fest. He’s teaching an art class to students who will then collaborate with students in a Little Fish writing class to create comic books.

Torres and I are into the same sorts of music and film, so I half-expect his students to be churning out heavy metal and horror, the kind of stuff Mario publishes in his fanzines, which sport titles like Subhuman Zine and Discleave. It’s a testament to his methods that the students aren’t doing this, but are instead expressing themselves without trying to impress their teacher by catering to his tastes.

Anime is a clearly potent influence here, but the students are taking it further, combining and mashing up their influences to create something unique. Huge anime eyes on a realistic death warrior with video-game style weaponry that looks physically impossible to wield are startling and effective evolutions.

Nunez mentions Torres during a later conversation, and explains that the approach of free thought and reading whatever is available is what defines his approach. Given the eclectic selection in the studio’s library, I wonder if this could become an issue.

In reply, Nunez points out the filing system for the books: it puts the general reference in accessible places, while the more mature tomes — books such as Drawing Power: Women’s Stories of Sexual Violence, Harassment and Survival that features Roberta Gregory and Mary Fleener — occupy the higher areas. It’s a bit of a balancing act, as most parents consider comic books kids’ stuff that never evolved beyond superheroes and talking animals, and are sometimes shocked at the evolution of visual storytelling. (Viz, Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer winning Maus, which uses talking mice and cats to tell the story of a holocaust survivor.)

Week 3

The studio is filled with an awkward silence. Nunez has just said that the studio needs the music biographies published by Bluewater Press. And I have just responded by laughing and saying,“Yeah, your shelves need to be polluted by pretentious hacks.”

I venture an explanation for my scorn: “Biographies filled with talking heads, some of which are pasted on by lazy artists.” But every time I open my mouth, the tension grow, so I blow my cover and explain that over half of the books are reprints of the Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin comics I wrote for Revolutionary Comics, and that I am making fun of myself. “So you’ve been published?” someone asks. “Yeah, but Bluewater never paid us, so screw them,” I laugh. No one finds me as amusing as I find me, so I let the matter rest and continue with my project.

Square pegs being forced into round holes is an overused but comfortable analogy to describe how those that deviate from societal norms are all too often dealt with. While I am sympathetic — I’m the one the principal wished was normal, remember — I reserve my highest level of scorn for square pegs who get treated unfairly and then imitate their oppressors once they find their subculture. The gatekeepers that mock the kids outside of a punk show because they had the audacity to be born too late to see the band in a garage. The hyper-fandom of this or that franchise that looks down its collective nose and trashes a film before viewing it, just because the key grip’s assistant dog walker was in an off-off-off Broadway production that didn’t meet their standards. Thanks to people like them, my comic has an ending worth working toward.

Nikita works on her project with an enviable degree of professional efficiency and focus. She has to, in order to produce two web comics (under the pen name Shard) and still find time to instruct the Little Fish students. She doesn’t talk that much, but when she does, it’s concise and illuminating. She’s not the least bit rattled when I ask her about trolls on her comic pages.

She doesn’t even bother to give an example on what elicits a response from her, but in an age where people feel (falsely) empowered by tearing artists down or by attacking random strangers with comments ranging from sexual harassment to outright death threats, she doesn’t have to. “Mute or ban, depending on how disruptive they are,” she tells me with no emotion in her voice.

I share that I sometimes think that Jay and Silent Bob’s solution of getting rich and using the funds to track down and confront online harassers is a splendid plan. In their film, the characters knock on the door and ask for the person by their screen name before punching them in the face. After I explain who Jay and Silent Bob are and how they get revenge, she tells me it seems like a waste of money — without looking up from her work. “And I grew up with the online culture, it doesn’t get to me.” she states. She’s also very encouraging when I whine about drawing. “Isn’t writing art, though?” she asks, actually looking at me this time. She’s kind, not condescending. I think about it for a second and tell her that lines on paper don’t mean that much to me. I’m not obsessed with them the way I am with finding the perfect word. And if my art is repetitive, it doesn’t make me sick to my stomach the way using the same word twice in a short space would. She ponders for a moment and says, “That makes sense,” before returning to her work.

Earlier in the week, I dropped in on a class taught by digital artist Serena Leitner. As I opened the door of the studio, the realization that there had been a school shooting earlier that week hit me, flooding my brain with reservation about entering the studio unannounced. I didn’t want to scare anybody if their nerves were on edge. For the first time, I saw my fellow students as (mostly) kids, who would be affected by these events on a more immediate level than anyone. Serena regarded me with apprehension, but relaxed a little after I explained Nunez knew I might drop in. (I found out later from Nunez that she was casually texting him to make sure I was who I said I was.) She runs a tight but nurturing class, which seems a sound approach when the students are on tablets and prone to going down the internet rabbit hole in the name of research. That day, they were making monsters. I remarked to one student that his digital drawing was unique, but that I thought I could see where he was going with it: a looming rock creature with no features. He informed me it that it looked that way because it was a castle, not a monster.

Nikita and her class project

Later, I shared my experience and anxiety with Nunez and for once, his perpetual smile faded. It was the first time I saw him somber. He told me that he is always prepared for students to bring up topics like school shootings, but that they haven’t so far. “There are many people having these serious conversations with the students outside of Little Fish.” he told me. “I don’t think I can add to that. This is a safe place for a couple of hours to just be creative. If someone brought it up, we would certainly discuss it, but no one has yet and I don’t think it is my place to bring it up to them.”

Week 4

A debate on the worst person in the history of comic books is underway. Stan Lee is an easy target, what with his reputation for claiming credit for other artist’s creations. But the class understands that he was important to Marvel Comics and so moves on to Bob Kane, the co-creator of Batman who claimed sole credit for decades, and to D.C. comics for using designs and characters in motion pictures without credit or compensation.

(Batman vs. Superman: Dawn Of Justice used both the designs and story line of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and the abominable Wonder Woman 1984 took Alex Ross’ armor design. Miller received a settlement, but Ross was reluctant to press the issue after weighing lkegal bills against compensation.)

The ultimate winner is Vince Colletta, a Silver Age inker who built a reputation as a fast worker by erasing the pencils laid down by future legends Jack Kirby and Gene Colan and replacing them with solid colors, thereby robbing the images of the detail that defined their work and made it sing. With the benefit of hindsight, Coletta’s alleged connections to organized crime either fill in some blanks in the story, or make it juicier, depending on one’s perspective.

To the best of my knowledge, student Hailey has nothing to do with organized crime. She’s 13, so I am going to trust my instincts there. That doesn’t stop Nunez from randomly playing the theme from The Godfather when she speaks. Her reaction varies from “I really hate you sometimes,” to a withering stare, depending on her mood. No one knows why or when the music became part of the class interaction.

She’s never seen the film, and despite my emphatic recommendation that she do so when she is old enough, she does not appear impressed. Then again, she holds her own in discussions regarding Stephen King’s catalog, comparing and contrasting film vs. books, and is an expert in all things Ghostbusters. Her art has the inevitable anime influence, but the style is softer, unlike her views on J. K. Rowling, creator of Harry Potter, whom she considers a “disgusting” anti-trans mouthpiece.

As for my progress, inking is almost complete, as is the four-week session for which I paid. Almost. So it looks like I will be in the Little Fish equivalent of summer school for two more weeks.

Week 5

A new student named Xavier has kicked off a Batman discussion by choosing the character as the subject for his piece. He’s read The Dark Knight Returns, Frank Miller’s reboot of the character in the mid-‘80s, made with Lynn Varley and Klaus Janson. Alonso studied under Janson at New York’s School of Visual Arts and lends a unique perspective on the Miller/Janson relationship. He describes it as akin to an old married couple, who after years of fighting and making up, have gotten old enough to appreciate each other and the fruits of their collaborations. Also, they are too tired to fight anymore. The conversation is, as always, a deep dive into comics that treats them as both business and art form. The tension between the two can be seen when a major company decides to put out up to seven titles a month featuring a popular character like Batman or Spider-Man, overwhelming fans even as they thrill speculators who are convinced they are investing in a gold mine. They buy comics like they are stocks, not taking into account that titles like Superman from the ‘30s are valuable because of their scarcity. Then, they were considered disposable diversions for kids who actually read them and were recycled as part of the war effort.

Author, Alonso, and Nikita at Little Fish Comic Book Studios

Xavier and Nunez discuss things like “perspective,” “forced perspective” and other terms I will repeat later in order to sound like an artist, as I have claimed that title again. I always tell people that ask me that the minute you write something, you are a writer, so why not apply that to art? Xavier’s reluctance to render cityscapes is something I can get behind. I co-sign the lack-of-details approach because the opposite appears to be a lot of work. Nunez objects by noting how Gotham City and Batman are intertwined, such that it would not carry the same impact to have the Dark Knight hanging out in blank space instead of crouching on a gargoyle atop a skyscraper. I can’t argue with that, and the discussion turns to Image Comics, a brand started by a group of artists who left Marvel and DC in order to own their characters and have total creative control. Xavier is in awe when he hears that that Nunez and I were at Comic Con when they debuted. I tell him that’s the cool thing about being old. He’s a fellow bass player, and when I say Jaco Pastorius of Weather Report was our Hendrix, he claims Metallica’s Cliff Burton deserves that title. I tell him I saw Cliff play live, and can’t help but smile.

There’s a point in every project where calling it a finished product and actually being at peace with the result are at odds. My comic has a lot of black, which works well for what passes as my style. But there is light coming through in a section where the square pegs are trying to make the round pegs fit in square holes, berating them with the same words that introduced the strip. I feel a rush of anxiety when I realize I will lose detail if I make the ceiling in Square Peg Land completely black. Nunez shows me a simple technique called “haloing” that corrects the issue. It’s exactly what it sounds like, leaving white around an image to both produce a halo and highlight the lines it surrounds.

Week 6

Preparations for summer camps at Little Fish have hit a snag due to supply issues. The camps differ from the traditional classes, as working parents are seeking supervision during their working hours as opposed to students with a specific interest in comic books and art, Supplies used in the classes are specific: the pens are not standard Bic ball points.

And they are out of stock at the usual supply place, limiting the supply for the foreseeable future. And then there is the desk crisis; it is vital to seat the incoming campers and the increasing number of students comfortably and leave enough space to create. I remark that there appear to be plenty of pens in the studio, and Alonso and Nikita laugh in unison at my cluelessness. It doesn’t stop me from taking a few home to finish my project, but I make sure to return them.

I’ve learned a lot in my short time as a student, both about the drawing side of comic creation and about other people’s creative process. I think of Ana, who was absent for a day a couple of weeks ago and so created a pocket of silence where her bubble of chatter usually floated. Her talk ranged from artificial harmonics on a violin to the intricacies of filming a zombie apocalypse in a remote area.

She surrounded herself with such a seemingly excessive array of artist’s tools that I got lost asking her about it, and I even wondered if she actually used all her implements. She seemed to be more interested in chatting. But when I look at her project, which is almost complete, I’m amazed by its perfectly straight lined borders, impeccable lettering and succinct drawings. I tell her I didn’t think she was actually drawing, and she looks at me like I have a second head growing out of my mouth. Apparently, not everyone turns into Jack Nicholson in The Shining while creating.

As for my own work, I feel a sense of pride and a tiny bit emo when I look at it. It’s both a “fuck you” to bullies and an acknowledgement of a painful part of my past that made me who I am. So what if I can’t draw hands or a straight line with a ruler? Perfection is boring. I love what other people see as flaws anyway, and giving myself the same break as I try to give other people feels good.

My comic completed, I return the next week and reveal that I have been taking the class in order to write a story about Little Fish, and that I have zero artistic aspirations, shocking no one. Rafferty hopes I mention Tubby McThick Boy, which I have now done. A few students are impressed that my writing is more marketable than my art, and Nikita chuckles.

“You have literally talked about journalism from the first day you were here.” The studio is in my neighborhood, and I’ll still come by and hang out, but it seems odd not to not have class anymore. Hailey confuses me when she tells me not to die.

“It means take care of yourself and be safe,” Alonso translates, laughing.” We are very sentimental here at Little Fish.”

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