“Soiled Doves” is Civil War slang for prostitutes. Hold that thought. We’ll get back to the prostitutes shortly.
Meet Nils Balls. He is the guy wearing a tin foil helmet in the Carnegie Library on Pittsburgh’s Northside. He’s seated with a fairy princess and a teen zombie who has a knife through his head, drawing free caricatures for the Library’s Halloween Party.
At Syracuse University Nils majored in film. His writing teacher was the now star George Saunders. Being a working class kid from Pittsburgh at what he calls a “rich kid’s school” Nils felt like a fish out of water. Saunders inspired him to stay true to his blue-collar roots.
Syracuse has a great illustration program, but Nils never set foot in an illustration class. Still, the fact that there were so many first-rate illustrators on campus made a difference. The school paper, The Daily Orange had a comics page with as many a 20 student drawn comics. Nils began drawing “The Brighter Side of Sunshine” in his freshman year. He shared the page with artists like Ben Marra, Dan Meth, and Nick Gurewitch who created the Perry Bible Fellowship strip.
He graduated from Syracuse in 2001 and returned to Pittsburgh. He works for Mellinger’s beer distributer. He loves his job and if he needs 3 days off to draw or go to a comics convention, his boss is supportive.
He is the cartoonist for Pittsburgh’s Northside Chronicle. He contributes to local comic anthologies and showcases his artwork on his website, skeletonballs.com. His most recent achievement is the graphic novel, Ship of Soiled Doves. The story began when Nils and Erin Colby Griffin had a conversation over a beer or two about a little-known event during the U.S. Civil War. In 1863 the new steamship Idahoe was docked in Cincinnati. The captain got orders from General Morgan of the Union Army to proceed to Nashville to pick up some V.I.P’s.
Turns out Gen. Morgan wanted to marginally reduce the number of prostitutes in Nashville and the Idahoe was ordered to relocate 100 ‘soiled doves.’ Much of what occured on the journey downriver is lost to history, but Griffin and Balls conjure up a remarkable tale of love, lust, mutiny and adventure.
Drawing the 150-page book took over 3 years, Nils learned a lot arcane 19th century slang for sex and sex organs ( syrup of squill? ) but some terms were so obscure, they got edited out. For a better description of the story or to purchase a first edition of The Ship of Soiled Doves visit Copacetic Comics. It is a masterpiece of historical proportions.
Nils has worthwhile links on skeletonballs. He lists a number of Pittsburgh newspapers and newsletters. He tells aspiring cartoonists to offer their work for free. Yes, Nils has heard the viral arguments against free work, but says it might take a decade to find your groove in comics.
Elsewhere on his site he links to over three dozen other Pittsburgh cartoonists. Asked why Pittsburgh has such a vibrant comics scene, Nils said, “One reason is when Ed and Jim got successful, – they didn’t leave Pittsburgh for New York,”referring to Ed Piskor and Jim Rugg. Nils also credits another pillar of the Pittsburgh comic community Bill Boichel, of Copacetic Comics for nurturing and sustaining local talent. Nils Balls is one of the many hardworking and gifted Pittsburgh artists who deserve a wider audience.
Nils Balls photos by Kevin McCloskey. All artwork copyright Nils Balls.