There is a reason that the San Diego Union-Tribune recently featured Alonso Nunez under their “profiles of notable local people.” As the founder and executive director of Little Fish Comic Book Studio, an educational non-profit, Alonso and his team are dedicated to developing the skills and empowering the minds of students of all ages interested in the comic artform.
Alonso and I met back in September at Scrimshaw Coffee near San Diego State University, his neck of the woods. It was the third interview I’d ever done and I was incredibly nervous. Turns out, I was nervous to meet just about the nicest human on the planet who can easily speak to a wall with enthusiasm about the many events, projects, and students at Little Fish. As soon as I agreed to an interim COO position at CBC, I knew there was one person with whom I needed to form a partnership. I am so happy to say that CBC will be covering upcoming Little Fish events, camps, and classes as well as featuring articles from the master himself, Alonso Nunez, and student guest writers!
Alonso and I sipped coffee as we discussed non-profits, Little Fish, and social skills for budding comic nerds.
Alonso Nunez: So Little Fish started in 2012. I had been working with a teacher at one of the High Tech High Schools in Chula Vista mentoring, they have an actual comic program. And we started Little Fish together. He dropped out for first year I think it was just kind of too much for him. But after that first year I felt like we were just getting started, you know? Like the goal is, let’s try to make it through the first year and not lose too much money. We just started teaching and doing summer camps. A longtime friend, Karen Coots, she won a raffle for one of our first workshops at The Children's Museum downtown. She was like, “This seems really cool for my kid. You know, you should really be a nonprofit”. And I was like, “No, I totally agree.” And I remember almost writing on my hand “google non-profit.”
AN: It was, in my mind, similar to the way a kid will play dress up. Like, “Yes, I do nonprofit,” but I remember going to the library, checking out some books, and going “oh, that's what it is!”
The idea with the nonprofit is that you are tax exempt. But this is because you've applied to the government, laid out your reason for existing, and they’ve given you a stamp of approval that what you do serves the community of the greater good in some way. That's the tradeoff which makes you eligible for grants, donations, you know, all the stuff. Not no profit.
AN: Yeah, because you need to live, right? But the idea of the term “nonprofit” is that you don’t exist just to continually generate money. Say you've got a budget of $100,000. And over here, you make 150,000, as a nonprofit, at the end of the year, you're supposed to reinvest that back into something. For us it might be doing more after school events, for example.
AN: Yeah. Every nonprofit has to have a Board of Directors. Which are more words that feel like, “Yes, the Board of Directors. I have it for my non-profit.” Legally, you must have a president, a vice president and the secretary. You have other officers as board members and they have an obligation to keep track of the nonprofit and make sure that it's serving its purpose. So, even though I started Little Fish and I'm the director, I’m technically staff. The board could say, “Alonso sucked for three years. We're going to let him go. Here's your golden Spider Man. See ya, never.”
Then, you get a lawyer because it's a lot of paperwork. There is some fun stuff, like ‘What will be your purpose?’ Okay, I got this. And then it's like, ‘Layout an itemized budget for yourself over the next three years.’ And I'm like, I don't know what that should look like. I'm lost there. Can I draw it? Can I draw the budget? So, it’s a little painful. Then you wait for months until the IRS gets back to you with a stamp of approval.
AN: Right now we have 10 active classes and an average about eight students per class. During the year, we’ve got anywhere between 80 and 100 students moving through the studio.
It's pretty open-ended; We rotate classes, keep everything fresh in a two-to-three-month cycle. Since we're not aspiring to be an accredited University, as much as possible - all things comics to everyone, all the time. Some students are like me at 15, where they've read a bunch of online articles, and they're like, “I need to learn anatomy, perspective, what you use to make comics, etc.” They’ve got a mental checklist of things, and they also go, “And I want to draw nothing but Spider Man and Batman for the rest of my life. Help me!” They are zeroed in and when they graduate high school, they're going to go work jobs as they try to get into the business. Some families demand that their kid get a college degree, which I totally understand, so those kids are going to go to an art school or university using a portfolio that we've helped them build at the studio. And then we’ve got older adult students where, for them, it’s not what they are going to do for a job, they have a life, they have a career, but they love it. And so Little Fish gives them the structure to come in, get feedback, help them with marketing, and sometimes just helping them keep a deadline, keep a schedule, and plan for things. We even have very young artists, maybe the kid is like nine-years-old and maybe they’ll go into the arts later, kind of the way my son took to karate for year. We never thought he was going to be a karate master. But it was a fun thing that he tried.
AN: Sometimes we have a booth at Comic Con, sometimes not, but we always have a Comic Con Artist Intensive that we do at the studio. It's kind of like a summer camp, but it’s an intensive, to communicate a little bit more seriousness. Students come in and every year there's a theme. They do two to three pages of a comic in two to three days at the studio. And then I send those off to a printer, get them printed up into a portfolio or into a comic. Then we all go to Comic Con together as a big flock, me and 10 to 15 students in any given year. And we do everything from go to panels together, I invite them and their parents to the Eisner Awards, then we do days of critiques with professionals that I know where they go over the students’ work.
Comics is an increasingly big industry, but it's still so grassroots and so many people do it because they love it. There's so many great professionals at Comic Con, obviously, to network and meet people, and also to make money. Their booths aren't free, but they will still take an hour of their time to carefully go through all of these students’ work. It can be a little harsh for the student when they hear, “Your anatomy is a little wonky.” But then they often hear, “But, you're on the right track.” You can see this whole roller coaster of emotion go through them. It’s really cool. Then they leave, hopefully, built up and ready for that next step.
AN: I was not the type of kid that like would go up to a professional and be like, “Hey, how do you do?” And I've had those kids; They always blow me away! from where they're like, “Hey, how you doing, I'm gonna be the next star, you want to look at my work?” Those kids are five steps ahead in showmanship. It is much harder for more shy kids. One of the goals for Little Fish is always to normalize those interactions. For example, this project we're doing with the Italian film festival right now, the students will make movie posters, and then when that movie gets screened, next month at the Museum of Photographic Arts in Balboa Park, the students are invited to go to it. Some of them will sit on a panel with me before the movie and answer questions about the process, and then all the posters will be exhibited in the lobby, so that attendees can see them. One, this normalizes their work being shown. Two, they have another social engagement with "professionals." We have lots of conversations though about what it means to be a “professional.” I’ve done things with students where they make stickers, real professional -grade stickers, and I will pay them $1 for a sticker. And I'm like, “Look, you know, you're now a professional too.”
Alonso had so many stories to share about individual students that often involved following them down crazy creative plots and trying to guide them to make a comic about 'robot dinosaurs' effective. His energy and enthusiasm for watching children achieve through comics and grow as young adults is certainly unmatched. We could no be more excited for the work to come!
For more interviews with comic creators, check out this page on our website.
About the author: Erin Edwards is a recently resigned Navy pilot who has seen the world from the sky and is eager to write about it on the ground. Though she is just beginning to dip her toes in the comic world, she is passionate about meeting new people and unfolding a whole new universe.
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