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Drawing comics is easy

At least it is for 10-year-old Alexa Kitchen. She made her first cartoons at about 3, and she's already published two books.

SHUTESBURY - Cartoonist Alexa Kitchen got her big break at the 2003 Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art book fair for independent presses.

She was 6.

Alexa and her mom, Stacey, had tagged along with her dad, Denis, a literary agent and publisher for cartoon artists.

"She'd sit at the end of the table and draw," Stacey recalls. "It's how she entertains herself. She'll draw on paper towel rolls if she has to. It's an obsessive need."

"She made a little sign," Denis explains. "Drawings, $2. Super Fancy Drawings, $5. Professionals came over and said, 'OK, here's $2.' It created a buzz. Publisher's Weekly wrote up that fair: 'The hit of the fair was 6-year-old Alexa Kitchen."'

In fact Diana Schutz, senior editor at Dark Horse Comics, was planning an anthology of female cartoonists at the time and saw Alexa's work.

"I invited her pretty much on the spot to be in the book," Schutz recalls by phone, from her office in Portland, Oregon. "Her storytelling was impeccable."

Maybe that was because Alexa had already been at it for a while. As a tiny tot, she loved old black-and-white Betty Boop cartoons. She pored over black-and-white reprints of "Little Lulu," a comic strip popular in the 1940s, '50s, and '60s. Inspired, she picked up a pen.

"When I was 2 or 3, I started drawing," says Alexa, who's now 10 and a professional with a white-hot career. She just published her second book, and she's earned acclaim from the likes of R. Crumb ("incredible") and the late Will Eisner ("marvelous") as well as two nominations for industrywide awards. She never stops: She draws two or three hours a day, every day.

Long-limbed with sleek dark hair, Alexa folds herself up like a pretzel in an easy chair between her parents in the family's living room in this woodsy Pioneer Valley town. Original comics, penned that morning, lie strewn over the coffee table.

They also overflow out of her bedroom, says her father. He's her editor, and every week he goes through the pile she's created and sorts the best ones out. He has boxes of Alexa cartoon archives, from which he has chosen many of the pieces in her new book.

Drawn with assurance and economy, her comics reveal a wry wit and an eye for psychological detail. One page on the coffee table details a series of nuanced facial expressions, such as a girl longing for her crush.

"I like a comic where there are a lot of funny little details you can see," Alexa says. "I like a comic that makes me laugh. I really hate 'Scooby Doo.' "

Alexa wrote "Drawing Comics Is Easy! (Except When It's Hard)" when she was 7. The manual for kids brims with humor and social comment both innocent and ironic and a precocious facility with the written word. It features detailed instructions on how to draw figures, create settings, and set up jokes, all of which she wrote without help, her father affirms. The lessons are fine-tuned: "Everything should have a light side, dark side, and shadow." There's a "cat chart" detailing the different sounds cats make, and their meanings, and the way to draw a boy's face so it won't look like a girl's ("Delete the eyelashes and makes the lips lighter").

Her new effort, "Kidding Around," a book of funny postcards, hit select bookstores this month (it's also available at her website, AlexaKitchen.com). In them, the kid often gets the last laugh: One postcard shows a mom opening her mouth extra-wide to holler at her daughter. The girl drolly replies, "What you just did is anatomically impossible."

Graphic artist Neil Gaiman, who authors the "Sandman" series and "Stardust," among others, is full of praise for Alexa's work.

"She can draw and draw well - well enough that she can write a book that teaches cartooning and comics, and not come across like an idiot," he said recently in an e-mail from China, where he was traveling. "The pleasure one gets from her cartooning isn't that of an adult smirking at a kid, it's that of a reader enjoying the work of a strong and intelligent and funny young cartoonist with an individual voice."

This summer, "Drawing Comics Is Easy!" was nominated for an Eisner Award, and Alexa was nominated for the Harvey Award for Best New Talent.

"No one this young has been nominated before," her dad boasts.

Of course, Alexa was born a comics insider. Her dad started out as a cartoonist and became a publisher. His Kitchen Sink Press closed in 1999, and he's now a literary agent who publishes books on the side. Denis Kitchen Publishing put out "Drawing Comics Is Easy!" and "Kidding Around."

But where does she get her ideas?

"A lot of [my drawings] are based on things going on recently, or an idea will pop in my head. 'Bang! This would be a good comic,' " Alexa says, the words coming out in a rush. "Or sometimes someone else will have a good idea I'll use."

"Except when I have an idea," Denis puts in.

"Come on, Dad!" Alexa cries.

She may be a sophisticated comic artist, but she's still a tween. "I'm very good at staying up late," she reports. "I have 10 times stayed up the entire night."

Alexa doesn't much like talking about her own drawings or the recognition she's received. All that attention, her parents say, makes her ill at ease.

"She's secretive," Stacey says. "She doesn't draw for accolades, but because there's something she needs to get out. Occasionally, she'll bring it down to show us."

With a visitor, Alexa is shy at first, and almost businesslike answering questions about cartoons. It's when she talks about her other passions, like playing video games or watching "Countdown with Keith Olbermann" with her dad, that she lights up. Then there's reading. She has read each of the Harry Potter books three times, she boasts.

"She was always fascinated with language," says Stacey. "When she was little, she'd carry around dictionaries and encyclopedias."

This young cartoonist could as easily be a nascent J.K. Rowling. She offered a visitor the first few pages of a story she'd written that week, told in the voice of a worldly kid coping with a home life far more chaotic than the Kitchens'. Her tone, humor, vivid descriptions, and ease with language made her a better writer than most adults.

Alexa has just started the fifth grade in the Shutesbury public school system. Denis says she has a few girlfriends, but is, by and large, a bookworm and a loner.

"My favorite thing to do in school," Alexa reports dryly, "is to go home."

But as "Drawing Comics Is Easy!" makes clear, she loves teaching others how to draw. A schoolteacher in Canada came across a copy of that book and tracked Alexa down to answer his students' questions via e-mail.

"I try to encourage them to do stuff on their own," Alexa says. "I hate it when people copy mine. I want them to find their own style."

Alexa will happily parse her favorite comics. There's the old "Nancy" strip, by the late Ernie Bushmiller, which follows the adventures of a pointy-haired little girl and her friends.

"I like 'Nancy' because of the art," Alexa says. "[Bushmiller] can make it simple-looking, but he adds a lot of details."

Then there's Bill Watterson's "Calvin and Hobbes."

"I love how lush the drawing is, especially in the Sunday strip. It's my very favorite strip," she says.

Alexa's own work keeps getting better. She now has her own agent, and a major publishing company is in talks to sign her for a new book (her parents don't want to reveal the publisher's name until a contract is signed).

Stacey and Denis keep a chary eye on Alexa's budding fame. They don't court publicity, and they're careful when it comes along. Stacey herself was a performer as a child. "I grew up in beauty and talent competitions in the South," she says. "I was literally singing and dancing under a stage spotlight. Watching the pressure the mothers put on their daughters to win, no matter the cost, was a sad experience that stays with me today. Denis and I have made a real effort to shield Alexa from that kind of pressure and expectation. Alexa creates because she wants to, because she loves to. Creating books is just a byproduct of what she does naturally."

"It's a delicate balance," Denis says. "We have a prodigy cartoonist with a lot of opportunities. And we want her to have as normal a childhood as possible." That includes archaeological digs in the woods behind the house with Dad and playing Nancy Drew computer games with Mom.

As for Alexa, she's happy to stay home and draw, read, and write, and to keep her options open.

"I've been giving a lot of thought to what I'd like to be when I grow up," says this talented 10-year-old. But she refuses to reveal what those thoughts are.

She will say this: "I think cartooning will just be my hobby."

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