When Alonso Nunez and his co-founder, Patrick Yurick, were looking for inspiration for their nonprofit, they found it in the classic 1963 children’s tale of “Swimmy,” by Leo Lionni. In the story, a group of small fish are attacked by a much larger fish, so they team up to form themselves into an even bigger fish, successfully warding off their attacker.
“Little Fish is meant to be like this—a collection of smaller, individual strengths (students, artists, retailers, fans, publishers) drawn together by our mutual love of comics and art,” Nunez says of Little Fish Comic Book Studio, the nonprofit they founded in 2012. “Our goal is to find wherever there is a lack of arts education or a benefit that we can bring to representing and supporting the vibrant San Diego comics community.”
The nonprofit teaches comic art and storytelling to students through a variety of programs, including in-person and online courses, camps, and workshops, along with partnerships with organizations including the San Diego Italian Film Festival, Cabrillo National Monument, and KPBS. On Monday, they’ll host one of their workshops for students 7 to 17 years old, at 6 p.m. at the San Ysidro Library.
Nunez, 42, is the executive director of the organization and a long-time comic book artist and fan. He lives in the College Area with his wife and, he says, “two occasionally amazing children.” He took some time to talk about their work and his own introduction to, and love for, comics.
Q: Why was Little Fish something you wanted to create? What inspired you to begin doing this kind of work?
A: I grew up in San Diego (fourth generation, in fact) and I always loved San Diego Comic-Con. After coming back from New York City in 2009, I knew that the expansion and magnification of the comics community here in San Diego was something that I wanted to focus on. Doing some mentorship work with both individual young artists and students at High Tech High Chula Vista in 2011 and 2012, helped spur this vision.
Q: How were you first introduced to comic books?
A: I’ll never forget the moment when I knew comics would be my life. Of course, I’d encountered and read comics before, but at the age of 11 in 1991, my family was at the airport to pick up my grandmother. My mom, I’m sure in an effort to placate three rowdy boys, told us we could pick anything that we wanted from the newsstand store. I remember agonizing between a Batman comic and a Spider-Man comic. I chose the Spider-Man comic, “The Amazing Spider-Man #350” to be specific, and my life was changed from that moment.
Q: What was it about those early works that left such a strong impression on you?
A: The visceral power of comics — of the interaction of words and pictures to tell a story — was something that immediately drew me in, and I implored my parents to let me buy any comic books I could: “X-Men Classic #63,” “Marvel Tales #253” (with a cover by European master Moebius, to boot!), “The Amazing Spider-Man #13,” they all drew me in (no pun intended) with an individual and personal power that still pulls me in today.
The College Area is currently the most dynamic and active neighborhood in San Diego, and I don’t say that just because I’m on the board of the College Area Business District. We’ve got a Jewish deli (it’s vegan), an amazing theater led by women and other underrepresented identities, and access to amazing resources at universities, studios, and businesses. If it’s unique and can’t be found anywhere else in San Diego, it’s in the College Area!
Q: What was your initial vision for Little Fish? And how has that evolved in the years since you started?
A: Little Fish began modestly, as a series of classes taught around the comics art form. It’s since developed to include partnerships all around San Diego County, helping to showcase the power of comics, bridging the connection of comics with other fields, and helping to elevate the strengths of comics and whatever other discipline or field it is partnered with.
Q: You’re hosting a workshop for students on Monday at the San Ysidro Library. What can they expect to do and learn if they attend?
A: I love the workshops that we have with organizations like the San Diego libraries, as it allows easy and equitable access to any and all kids who want to attend. We’ll focus on developing some cool original characters, and building comic pages around these characters, all within an hour period.
Q: Can you walk us through what’s typically required for a student who wants to join your classes or camps?
A: Students at Little Fish don’t have any barriers to joining in regard to ability, just the willingness to learn, experiment, and grow. We’ve had high school students aspiring to professional careers, young kids trying art out for the first time, and even adults with master’s degrees and no arts backgrounds learning how to communicate their ideas to colleagues using the power of comics. Our classes are supplemented by grants and donations so that we charge only minimal monthly fees. Classes are structured around monthly lessons, but Little Fish is a family and we often reach out mid-month if need be for upcoming events and special projects that might benefit individual students.
Q: What comics are you currently reading?
A: I was honored to be selected as judge for the Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards— the most respected awards in the comics industry — and the experience was incredibly eye-opening to the wealth of material out there. Lately, I’ve been enjoying Kate Beaton’s “Ducks,” “Absolute Swamp Thing” (an amazing restoration of a seminal horror comic run), “Nightwing #100,” “Do A Powerbomb” (a wrestling action comic), and others. My tastes run the gamut.
Q: And what is it about these comics that you enjoy?
A: The sheer magnitude and creativity of the individual voices involved. The bold visual styles, the complex plots or the straightforward action of the plots, there are a wide variety in comics right now that reminds me of cinema in the 1970s.
Q: Do you publish any of your own comics?
A: I have done a good amount of freelance work for publishers (“Attack on Titan” being a recent highlight) and Little Fish has been working more and more since the pandemic to help publish the work that students have made, both in and out of the studio.
Q: What inspires you in your own comic art?
A: In my own work I am inspired by past masters of all stripes—Moebius, Frank Quitely, Jack Kirby, Will Eisner, Batton Lash. Also, and I know this will sound cliché, the work of my own students, as brave, fearless, and creative as they are.
Q: What has your work with Little Fish taught you about yourself?
A: I am someone who always considered myself an introvert. Junior theater? Classroom presentations? These were the stuff of nightmares for me. I have learned, with my work at Little Fish, that when you find your passion, your love, that you can find the voice within to speak up for it.
Q: What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
A: One of my great mentors in art school, Klaus Janson, would say, “This doesn’t happen by accident,” about working in comics. It’s advice that’s helped me remember to focus and be present, whether that be engaging with amazing foundations for support, running kids through San Diego Comic-Con (haven’t lost one!), or guiding students through the intricacies of lettering a comic book by hand.
Q: What is one thing people would be surprised to find out about you?
A: I think that San Diego would be surprised to learn, after all this talk of community and engagement, how much I love running and the solitude it brings. So, embrace the variety of people within you. I love to explore areas of San Diego on foot and see the city step by step.
Q: Please describe your ideal San Diego weekend.
A: Man, I love San Diego! My ideal weekend is one in which I can get out to museums in Balboa Park and art supplies stores, enjoy local exhibits or theater (like Moxie Theatre) and sample food from all around the world. Of course, it would involve a trip to an amazing comic store or two, and a stop at one of our fantastic beaches to see the sunset, preferably with my dog, Canela.
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