Review by C.J. Bunce
Both Neil Gaiman (Sandman) and Kevin Eastman (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) tried it, but didn’t complete it in time. Professional comic book writers and artists and especially the combination writer/artist most likely have all heard of the 24-hour comic challenge, but not everyone has given it a try. Twenty-seven years ago comic book writer/artist Scott McCloud came up with the idea to improve his skills and speed in creating a 24-page comic book complete with story and art, which normally can take about 30 days. The result was not so much a contest but a personal achievement challenge like running a marathon or climbing a mountain. A new documentary titled 24 Hour Comic, directed by Milan Erceg, screened for attendees Saturday at the Marriott Grand Ballroom at San Diego Convention Center as part of San Diego Comic-Con.
Eight participants. 24 hours. Gravitas Ventures’ 24 Hour Comic follows an event hosted at my old local comic book shop, Things from Another World, in Portland, Oregon. 24 Hour Comic is both a celebration of the Portland comic book creator scene and a close-up look at eight individuals of differing levels as they each try to meet the challenge. Not everyone makes it to the end. Four-time Harvey Award and Eisner Award winner Scott McCloud appears in the film, describing the origin, process, and history of the 24-hour challenge, which is hosted by comic book shops, schools, and art studios around the world, often following a designated annual 24-Hour Comic Day. Eisner and Harvey Award winner McCloud wrote the useful guide to sequential art Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art and several other comic book art texts. He also compiled several attempts at the 24-hour comic in his book 24 Hour Comics, where he showcases the efforts of Neil Gaiman, Steve Bissette, Alexander Grecian, and others.
The rules can be found here, and are detailed in McCloud’s book. The biggest surprise having read about the contest and several 24-hour comics over the years was that I assumed the artists used standard comic book pages, those full-sized 11×17-inch art boards. In the film each artist uses what appears to be paper half that size, splitting each sheet into two full pages, which would seem to take less time to fill. Erceg introduces us to his eight subjects, each in different phases of skill, from a 13-year-old girl to a 16-time participant, a web creator, a design professional, independent creators, and an ex-creator returning to give the process another try. The final works for those who completed the challenge? We don’t get to read the entirety of the final books from any creator in the film, but the excerpts given are surprisingly polished. Far from the frantic scribbles you might expect from anyone missing a night’s sleep to work round the clock, the comics appear professionally done, clever, and humorous, reflecting each artist’s creativity and talent. The film is dotted with interviews by several well-known faces, including Dark Horse Comics president Mike Richardson, Dark Horse Comics editor-in-chief Scott Allie, cartoonist Batton Lash, and graphic novelists and digital creators Arnold and Jacob Pander.
The hour-long documentary provides a fair look at a cross section of a profession where the median income for a full-time comic book artist is about $38,896, according to the film. Although the challenge is not a competition per se, a few participants throw about some contrived and good natured trash talk to keep the film light-hearted. One participant had some interesting insights into the comic book profession, a bit of a creators’ quagmire: “You work on a project you don’t care about, but make good money, but you work on a project you do care about, and don’t make any money on it”–something reflected in many fields, no doubt. This is not a time-compressed look at the 24-hour period of this challenge, but provides interviews with subjects about their status at intervals throughout the day, night, and following morning. So to fill some of the time Erceg follows two subjects on a quick trip to Stumptown Comic Con, other subjects are interviewed at local studios or homes, and another is followed on a side trip to Seattle to discuss a commission project. The majority shared how difficult it is to succeed in the comic book industry, and one tried and left the industry after initial success because it couldn’t pay medical bills.
In addition to the inherent obstacles of 24-hour comic event, these participants also worked around the distractions of a film crew, pressure to come up with ideas and complete the work in time, lack of sleep, lack of ideas, the individual’s skill, the active venue of comic shop patrons asking questions, strangers staring at them in the store, and knowing peers in the chair next to them may be making more progress.
One of the artists, David Chelsea, author of Perspective! For Comic Book Artists and other works, supplied his own meta experience for this event, drawing a story about a comic book artist hosting a 24-hour comic event. Participants included Chelsea, his 13-year-old daughter, his art assistant at his studio named Jacob, and Jacob’s creative partner, an 8-time participant named Pete. One of the participants, artist Paul Guinan, had his book Boilerplate: History’s Mechanical Marvel optioned by JJ Abrams, and he used this event to force himself to create a new story for his steampunk character.
In the end it’s all about self-fulfillment and maybe even bragging rights. Milan Erceg’s 24 Hour Comic isn’t the ranting, conflict-filled stuff of reality television. It’s an honest look at creators attempting to challenge themselves. It’s also a way for writers and artists to watch others and decide if the 24-hour comic challenge is something for them. 24 Hour Comic is now available on DVD at Amazon here or streaming on Amazon Prime here.