May 2004

Karin L. Kross

features

24 Hour Comic Day

Developed as an exercise by Scott McCloud and Steve Bissette in the early 1990s, the 24-hour comic has become a favorite game of comics creators the world over. The rules are fairly simple: the artist sits down with his or her art supplies, starts the clock, and within 24 hours creates a fully drawn, inked, and lettered 24-page comic book. Covers and colors are optional (and on account of the time constraints, coloring is generally not done at all). You can take breaks or naps, but the clock continues to tick as you do so; generally, it behooves one to just pull up one's socks and keep going. And drink more coffee.

Some of the best results of this madness have been compiled in 24 Hour Comics, edited by Scott McCloud and published by About Comics, the same people behind Free Comic Book Day. This year, they organized a new "comics holiday": 24 Hour Comic Day, on April 24. Across the United States (and also in Canada and South Korea), comics stores and other venues provided work space for anyone who wanted to participate -- and Austin Books, one of the premiere comics stores in my hometown, hopped on the bandwagon themselves. Partly to write about the event for Bookslut, and partly to challenge myself and to see if I could do it, I signed up.

What follows is my account of the day. You'll find a report from the Austin hosts here. There was also a reporter from the Austin Chronicle prowling about from time to time. My own story here is mainly an account of what goes on in the head of the sort of crazed fool who takes on a dare like this.

6:50 AM: The official clock starts at 7:00 AM, but I arrive at Austin Books a little early to get a decent seat. This is far too early for any civilised person to be up and about on a Saturday, but there are about half a dozen others when I get there, plus the store employees, and enough breakfast tacos to feed a hungry Marine battalion. Full disclosure: my drawing skills are not particularly good; not to be deterred, however, I have arrived with a large quantity of clip art books, a couple of jars of rubber cement, and an X-Acto knife, in addition to the pens and bristol board. My comic will be illustrated in collage format -- an idea at least partly inspired by Max Ernst's surrealist book A Week of Kindness (Une semaine de bonte). My heart sinks slightly at the sight of all the people who obviously know much more about, say, line and perspective than I do. Still, in for a penny, in for a pound, as they say.

7:00 AM: The room has filled up; there are probably about twenty or so people already. (More will continue to trickle in as the day wears on; for the later arrivals, the 24-hour clock will start from whenever they pick up their pencils. The only stipulation is that they have to be out of the store by 6:00 PM Sunday, when the Austin Books employees will be closing after 35 straight hours of being open.) The crowd is predominantly male; there are perhaps half a dozen women, including two teenage girls who are working together.

7:10 AM: 24 Hour Comic Day is declared to have officially begun. Heads bend over paper, and the scratching of pencils is heard among the muttering and the occasional chatter. Some people swap around the "seed cards" that were provided for anyone who needed an idea to start with. My cards are "skunk," "skinhead," and "stereotyped." They are completely useless to me. I flip through my clip art and spin my wheels for about half an hour before I finally figure out my subject and how I want to handle it.

8:40 AM: First page is done. Unless I can find some way to tighten up my per-page average speed, it's entirely possible that I could be headed for a "Gaiman variation," so called after Neil Gaiman's "Being An Account of the Life and Death of the Emperor Heliogabolus" -- Gaiman saw the end of the 24 hours coming, and even though he was well under the page count, he wrapped it up anyway (and quite well; you can read it in the 24 Hour Comics anthology). The Gaiman variation is considered a "noble failure"; as is the "Eastman variation" (after Kevin Eastman), where if you're not done at 24 hours, you keep going until you are.

10:20 AM: Page 2 is done. Perhaps the caffeine and sugar is kicking in; people seem to have brightened up and are chatting noisily as they work.

11:00 AM: An artist accompanied by a documentary crew arrives; he sets to work across the table from me, and the crew begins wandering the floor. Throughout the day, they'll film artists at work, interview people when they take breaks, and also interview them when they finish. It turns out that they have friends who are out in California, also filming for their documentary. The California crew later snags an interview with Scott McCloud himself.

12:00 noon: I've done four pages and my arm feels like it's going to fall off. My neck and back are killing me. I'm seriously questioning whether I'm going to survive this ordeal. Other artists' finished pages have been photocopied and stuck up on walls for people to look at. Some are working in pen; others with brushes. Subject matter ranges from the autobiographical to the fantastic. It's all rather good, in fact. My collage pages are starting to embarrass me (even though at least one person seems to think they're neat).

1:15 PM: Five pages. Lunch is served; hungry artists descend on the sandwiches, chips, and Cheetos. Tim, the fellow who arrived with the film crew, has just finished his first page and is not very happy about taking two hours to do it; he's changing styles on the fly so as to have a hope of actually finishing in 24 hours. Another artist announces his (joking?) intention to cheat and do his lettering later: "My handwriting sucks at the best of times, much less when I've been drawing for 18 hours." He's got a point. I've decided that if I ever do this again, I'm either bringing a laptop and a portable printer, or an electric labelmaker.

3:00 PM: Someone says, "We've been here 8 hours. If you were at work, you'd be going home by now!" The room has really filled up; there must be thirty? forty? people here. Later, Austin Books employee and event organizer Brad Bankston tells me that there were over forty at the event's peak, making this one of the largest 24 Hour Comic Day events in the country.

4:00 PM: Nine pages. Splash pages are your friends. I'm roughly on schedule now. Spectators have been wandering around the workroom all day; comics shoppers come into the back room and stare in astonishment for a few minutes and ask someone what's going on. The 24-hour comic concept is explained; one shopper asks, "Can I go around and look?" "Sure," is the reply, "just don't tap on the glass if they look like they don't want to be disturbed." A young girl, about nine or so, comes in with her mother; she is fascinated. Someone gives her a pen and some drawing paper, and she produces about four pages. I hear her asking her mother if she can do it again next year.

7:00 PM: The previous few hours have been a blur of work, punctuated by my fiance bringing me some healthy snacks (fruit and nuts), and by some compliments on the completed pages. Activity is momentarily stalled when one of the teenage girls shouts out, "Who wants the last Red Bull?" She and her friend have consumed at least half a dozen cans themselves, which is probably three or four cans too many.

9:00 PM: When the pizzas arrived, the scene was like a swarm of locusts on a barley field. Hungry artists are not to be thwarted. One of the teenage girls is telling a story about how she paid her cousin $10 to put five sticks of Chap-Stik in his mouth at once. For some reason this strikes me as really funny.

10:00 PM: Word around the shop is that a ten-year-old in Oregon finished his own comic at 3:00 PM. It's called "Godzilla Is My Worst Enemy." We are not to be trumped by a ten-year-old; we soldier on.

11:30 PM: 17 pages, and my arm is really falling off. People are starting to get really punchy, cracking stupid jokes and having long nonsense conversations. I take a short walk over to the convenience store across the street, partly to remind myself what fresh air smells like (that rubber cement gets to you after a while), and also to get some kind of caffeinated drink.

11:45 PM: God, Red Bull is disgusting.

12:30 AM: My latest horrible realization is that I had resigned myself to the idea that I'd get to 7:00 AM Sunday and only have 18 pages. So I'd really only plotted 18 pages of content. And now I'm at page 18, and I have over six hours left, and no script or notes of any kind. I'm in trouble.

1:00 AM: I take a deep breath and start what will turn out to be the first of six freehand-drawn pages, forming an epilogue of sorts to the more structured work of the first eighteen pages. As I mentioned earlier, I'm not much of an artist. The resulting doodles are decidedly silly-looking, but after this many hours of being awake, almost anything looks good to me.

2:00 AM: Another short break. Meanwhile the punchiness of earlier appears to be wearing down, replaced by plain weariness and red-eyed bloodymindedness. Some people have slipped away, including the teenage girls.

4:00 AM: I've done it. I've finished my last page, three hours ahead of schedule. If I weren't so tired, I'd be dancing a little jig. I fill out my information form and hand the pages off to Brad for photocopying (in compliance with McCloud's "Rumplestiltskin Clause" in the 24-hour comic basic rules, all comics produced on 24 Hour Comic Day are being sent to Scott McCloud himself; the Austin Books staff is taking charge of the copying and mailing on behalf of the artists). As I'm doing my "exit interview," another artist wraps up his own. I offer my congratulations.

4:20 AM: There are fifteen or twenty determined souls left as I depart the store. I count my blessings that my home is not at all far away from the shop, and by 5:00 AM, I'm home, and drifting off to sleep.

Someone asked me if I'd do 24 Hour Comic Day again next year; it was 4:15 AM, and I said yes. The strange thing is that it still seemed like a good idea, even after I'd gotten a few hours of sleep.

There is, to be sure, a certain amount of machismo in this sort of activity; a certain sense in which it's reminiscent of the misery-poker of one's college years: "I studied twenty hours straight for that exam!" And yet it's an oddly exhilarating experience to concentrate creative activity so fiercely, and when it's done in the company of others, there's less of the creeping despair one can feel after having been awake for too long.

So yes, I'd do it again. And I'd recommend it to anyone who wants to create comics. Really.

Just be careful about the Red Bull. That stuff is foul, I'm telling you.