Comic Timing

Illustration by Justin
Ridge/www.justinridge.comFor those who believe art is energized when limitations—financial, technological, the Medicis—are imposed on it, I offer 12 rather haggard, thoroughly pleasant comic artists sitting early Sunday morning in a visual-arts classroom at Cal State Fullerton. They have been sitting here all morning as well as the night that proceeded it and the afternoon before that and the morning before that. They have been sitting here—eating, drinking, quietly panicking but mostly drawing comics—for the past 22.5 hours.

Justin Ridge is working on Spoiled Milk, Part III (there is no I and II), and Cara Nilsen is working on something autobiographical that she's desperately trying not to ruin with her perfectionist tendencies. Richard Pose has just discovered to his dismay that his comic tale of Uncle Sam searching for Manifest Destiny—appropriately titled Manifest Destiny—may actually have some anti-war, political message he never intended, what with Sam traveling to other worlds and melting aliens with his heat ray.

"There's no message," he says in a giddy panic. "I'm just drawing." And so are the rest of the participants of the first 24-hour Comics of Titans, an exercise/challenge that pushes artists to produce 24 pages of comics art in 24 hours. "Normally, it will take an artist working hard one day to finish one page," says Christian Hill, who organized the Fullerton event. Hill, originally from France, says Europeans are much slower than that and the Japanese much faster. These kinds of events have been going on across the country since 1990, started by comic artist Scott McCloud, who noticed that a talented artist/friend prone to procrastination was incredibly quick when drawing intricate sketches for fans at book signings.

It turns out that comic artists are no different than writers or the reporters who write about comic artists and writers in that they tend to put off doing what it is they do. Comic artists have an especially daunting task: they must worry about not only coming up with material but also drawing it and pacing it on a page. If they progress too quickly and discover that, say, the fourth panel of a page doesn't make any sense, it usually means a whole page is trash. So many artists tend to overthink and overplan what they're going to do.

The 24-hour challenge is designed to make that impossible, to get the Richard Poses of the world drawing, so that he's not thinking so much what comes next after the heat-killing Uncle Sam meditates nude and fights ninjas and kills people with a cold ray and has an alien sidekick who has a lizard friend. All he's thinking about is keeping the pen moving.

"There's this perception that comic artists just kind of come up with this stuff off the top of their head," says Hill, whose Revelations was a mostly blacked-out comic that explored how to tell a story with spare dialogue paced by varying panel sizes. "In fact, comics are an extremely structured art form, and that can be daunting to the point of kind of paralyzing you."

One way to do that is not only to limit time but also to require an artist to include several elements in their work, called a random-idea generator. It can be an entry from an encyclopedia opened to a random page or a suggestion from a friend. At Fullerton, the required elements were Uncle Sam, space and lizards—hence Mr. Pose's wild ride.

"It's designed to get the artist into a stream of consciousness," he says, "where they aren't worrying about the logic or anything—just doing."

To help them do it, Hill and his helpers got lots of junk food including 35 peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches, candy bars and "soda galore," though, surprisingly, only three pots of coffee. The drawing started on Saturday at 10 a.m., and spirits were high until about 2 a.m., when, Ridge says, "we realized we didn't have that much time to go, and everything got real quiet."

But not very cranky, Hill says, gratefully so, considering "all of us have access to X-acto knives."

By the time Nilsen's digital watch sounded the end of 24 hours—eliciting the most half-hearted "Yeah!" this side of a Clippers crowd—all participants had completed drawing their 24 pages, though most still had to color their work. Most seemed very happy with the results and said they'd like to do it again—though Hill's "Let's do it again next week!" was clearly very much unappreciated.


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