Local comic creators reflect Northside, city in works
Photo courtesy of Nils Balls
Chapters 1 & 2 of comic You Can Did It, created by Central Northside’s Nils Balls.
By Neil Strebig
Dan McCloskey and Nils Balls, both of Central Northside, are two comic book artists proudly displaying their Pittsburgh muse in their latest creations. Players in the comics industry for the better half of the past decade, both continue to use the blue-collar attitude of the city to fuel their comics and characters.
“Because it is our scenery, we draw a lot of hills with trees and smoke stacks, which you don’t see a lot of in Los Angeles comics or Brooklyn comics,” Ball said. “It is a little grittier.”
McCloskey is currently finishing up the last issue of his Free Money comic, which tells the tale of hustling in the not-so distance future. It is a serialized comic that harvests McCloskey’s feelings on what he calls “fiscal literacy,” or essentially establishing an interest in expressive writing while also creating a profit for oneself.
“As boring as fiscal literacy sounds it is the basic rules of the world we live in and people don’t pay attention to that, so I started to think about ways to spread some basic ideas of that,” McCloskey said.
He admits that his time spent studying abroad in Tokyo, Japan helped fuse his current style, displayed in the beautiful water color art between the pages of each copy of Free Money; where his playful urban illustrations mesh perfectly with the raw dialogue to convey the hard reality of trying to get by in a futuristic world, a sentiment that can still resonate with readers today.
Balls current comic, You Can Did It, which is a collaboration
“Nobody is above that,” Balls admits.
McCloskey added: “Even though the style of stories are really different there’s a lot of focus on working and getting by – struggling and the comedy of people who have shitty jobs.”
Interestingly enough, neither artist originally intended to be comic creators.
McCloskey recalls back in 2008 while he was trying to finish up one of his first novels in a screenplay format he began to rewrite it with comic frames to help with its readability. As the progress wore on, he slowly saw his work turning more and more into a comic book rather than a piece of literature. Since then the art form has stuck.
Balls was originally drawn to film, but admits that his early readings of X-Men comics, the Sunday newspaper funnies and his grandfather’s old clippings of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s cartoonist, Rob Rogers, helped push him into his new, current direction.
“Nils’ style is really crisp and clean and has this indie flavor, but is really accessible,” McCloskey said.
Despite being something he slightly “fell into” doing a few editorial comics for his college newspaper, Balls has since carved out a significant role here in Pittsburgh as a political cartoonist, a role he enjoys.
He’s proud of the openness comics allow for expression.
“It is a way of telling stories without the production of film,” he said. “There’s really no limitation to the medium, other than it’s two dimensional.”
Uniquely, both Balls and McCloskey have helped give back to the local community here that has helped inspire much of their recent works. Both helped teach open seminars and classes on comic creation/illustration at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh-Allegheny Central Northside. McCloskey also helped create the Cyberpunk Apocalypse in 2009 back in Lawrenceville, a collective group of 46 writers/cartoonists from across the nation and Canada that essentially would help feed off each other’s works, collaborations, and help promote the comic and arts scene organically here in Pittsburgh. Eventually relocating to Northside, the space now functions primarily as a publishing house for McCloskey’s personal work.
Both admit that Northside has been a much more productive outlet for their creative works and mindsets.
“(Writing) is a solo mission,” McCloskey said.
Balls quickly interjected: “(But) it is always nice to have a neighbor doing the same thing as you.”
Since moving to the Northside from Lawrenceville, they’ve seen a massive array of local support and interest in not just their own projects, but the arts in general.
“Creative people can be creative wherever, but as far as support for art organizations, this neighborhood (Northside) is particularly friendly,” McCloskey said.
McCloskey and Balls will be hosting a featured event Feb. 11 from 7-9 p.m. at Penn Brewery in Troy Hill. McCloskey’s latest issue of Free Money will be hitting stands shortly and Balls will look to continue producing beloved Yinzer satire in You Can Did It along with his next big project, The Illustrated Breweries of Pennsylvania, where he’ll look to embellish the heart and soul of the many beer distilleries scattered across the Keystone State.
Both comics were featured in the January 2016 print edition’s Northside Comics section.
Photo courtesy of Dan McCloskey
McCloskey’s Free Money comic is distributed all throughout Northside and the city every month.
Neil Strebig is a Northsider and student intern attending Point Park University. He also runs a comics blog.