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At event, every toon tells a tale

• Artists combine creativity, frenzied work at 24-hour comics fest
by: ANNI TRACY, Fueled with coffee and some wearing headphones to drown out distractions, professional and amateur cartoonists, like well-known artist David Chelsea (middle), attempted to create an original comic book in 24 hours as part of the recent Drawpocalypse.

Hunched over the long folding tables, about 24 cartoonists scribble away, some with controlled precision, some with practiced abandon, trusting the trained motion of their hands to adequately convey their stories.

Some guzzle coffee and drown out distractions with music mixes, some compare pages throughout the day, but mostly they sit, hanging over sheets of thick white paper, light blue tracing marks slashed over with bold black ink.

These participants - old, young, industry veterans and those with no prior experience - have gathered at Cosmic Monkey Comics in the Hollywood District for a 24-hour comic-drawing marathon. The challenge: With no preparation, write, draw and ink a 24-page comic book in 24 hours.

The Drawpocalypse, held April 5, is one of the first events celebrating Mayor Tom Potter's declaration of April as comic book month in the city. The festivities culminate this weekend at the Stumptown Comics Fest at the Lloyd Center Doubletree Hotel (1000 N.E. Multnomah St.).

The convention will feature local and industrywide artists holding panel discussions and workshops, and many will have booths.

Stephen Wilber came to Drawpocalypse with no ideas for his story, and still seems a bit lost in the second hour. 'I have no idea what I'm doing,' he says. 'I got the first page done in relatively the right amount of time. It'll come together, as things tend to do.'

But over the 24 hours that confused frenzy gives way to stories that reflect the quality and diversity of the thriving comic book scene.

'We always used to say if a nuclear bomb dropped on Portland it would wipe out half of comics,' says Brett Warnock, co-publisher of Top Shelf Productions.

He points to the multiple comics companies here, such as Periscope Studios, which has been prolific with popular comics like Batman and X-Men. Milwaukie-based Dark Horse is one of the largest independent comic book publishers in the nation. Top Shelf and Oni are two major independent publishers.

In addition there are noted individuals. For example, Jim Valentino, president of Berkeley, Calif.-based Image Comics, lives in Portland, as does Joe Sacco, author of the award-winning 'Palestine.'

And there are those with aspirations, like Emily Block. Her intimacy and closeness to the subject matter are evident in the precision and detail in the comic book Block draws. The detail of a father's sweater draped loosely over a young girl creates a texture, charged with the fondness and familiarity of childhood memories.

Block, an art major at Lewis and Clark College, started with an idea she had as a child.

'She's going to put on her dad's sweater and fly off a cliff, and I haven't really thought beyond that yet,' she says of the girl in her comic after just two hours. 'It might change.'

Eventually the girl uses the flying power imparted by her father's sweater to save him from a storm on the sea. Block is a novice in the comic book world, but she's hoping to have at least one book done by the Stumptown convention.

'I'm collaborating on a book with my boyfriend and hopefully that'll be done before Stumptown,' she says. 'It'll be our first real comic, I think. We tried one in high school about our friend. We're hoping this is the real deal, something we can show people outside our group of friends.'

Block, who sat a few seats down from Valentino and across from professional cartoonist David Chelsea, says the local scene is encouraging, and she's happy to be in a city so supportive of the comics industry.

'I'm glad I stayed in Portland because it's got such a great comics scene, so many people read them,' she says. 'They have events like this all the time and they have so many comic shops and a lot of the people I admire are from here.'

Ideas come from everywhere

As far as anyone knows, Chelsea ('David Chelsea in Love') holds the world record for 24-hour comic drawathons, this being his 10th. Chelsea did three graphic novels in the '90s, but then he had children and his cartooning career took off - he does a weekly cartoon for The New York Times - and he fell away from doing longer narratives.

'One day I figured it's been years and years and years since I've done anything,' he says. 'And I thought I'd do this 24-hour comic thing to sort of break the writer's block. It was really fun … so I have done two a year over the last five years.'

Fun might be an understatement for Chelsea, who wears headphones during part of the day and repeatedly breaks into loud bursts of unrestrained laughter, too engrossed in his work to look up.

In all his events, Chelsea has been able to explore the different variations of the guidelines. He's come in with a set idea, he's come in with no idea, he's tackled pop culture icons and more. Finally it seems he's found a good middle ground.

'Today I'm doing something building on the story I got this week from The New York Times. It's this couple who orders a sex chair and their son gets really into it and has his toy soldiers all over it,' he says, explaining that he hadn't enjoyed the pop culture experiment as much. 'I like riffing on real life.'

Mike Murphy, who is working on a full-length graphic novel, takes a cue from one of his influences, Scottish comic book writer Grant Morrison, using his 24-hour comic to 'break down the fourth wall,' a literary mechanism in which the character directly addresses the artist.

Tom Lechner - who has published 12 books of political cartoons - draws a sort of farce, a 'murder mystery set 3 million years ago.'

As yet unpublished, Stephen Wilber draws a disturbing story about a cat that witnesses a murder, the aesthetic unsettlingly cartoony given the subject matter.

'There's a lot of comic book people up here, a lot of young kids just starting out,' Valentino says. Having such an array of individuals makes for a nice community in Portland, he says, and it cuts across age groups and genres.

Top Shelf Publisher Warnock also speaks of a general camaraderie.

'I think you could make the argument that per capita there's more comic people in Portland than anywhere.'

While creating comic books is by nature a very personal thing, the concentration of interested and involved people does create a positive atmosphere for artists.

'If you factor in just bumping into people in stores or First Thursday events or the comics shows, yeah, there's definitely this fellowship,' Warnock says. 'There's an unofficial camaraderie, absolutely, because when you bump into someone you talk to them for like 25 minutes.'

For information on the Stumptown Comics Fest, visit stumptown comics.com.

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