It was a beautiful spring day in New York City. The sun was shining, the first whiff of urine lingered in the air, and the rollerbladers had returned. What better way to celebrate the rebirth of nature than to spend 24 hours indoors hunched over a drawing table?
Aside from his work as the cartoonist behind Zot! and his seminal text Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud is the inventor of what’s called the 24-hour Comic. The goal, essentially, is for one to sit down and draw a complete twenty-four page comic story in, you guessed it, twenty-four hours. Twenty-four consecutive hours. I’d been toying with the idea of doing one for awhile, mostly since I saw the one by Erik Larsen (?) that Image put out. I’d been having trouble working on my own comic lately. Writer’s block, I guess you would call it. It didn’t help that I was fifty pages into the story and not only was there no end in sight; I had no idea what to do next. So the idea of doing a spontaneous, instant comic book with no aspirations toward Greatness was very appealing. (If you’d like to read more about the 24-hour Comic idea, including all the rules before we go on, go to www.scottmccloud.com/inventions/24hr/24hr.html and come back here when you’re done).
I mentioned the idea to my friend and fellow cartoonist Mike Dawson, and he, for some reason, said it sounded like fun. What follows is a recreated hour-by-hour account of our descent into madness, creativity and redemption.
1 April 2002
11:00am—We begin! Or at least we were supposed to. Mike is running late. I have the living room of my apartment set up: kitchen table, art supplies, music. I even borrowed a copy of Writer’s Block by Jason Rekulak from a friend. It’s a 1000 page book with a word or story idea (“Pillow Talk” “Write about the worst driving you’ve ever done.”) on every page. The idea is that we would open to a random page and, voila, that’s where we start. McCloud encourages this kind of improvisation to reduce frustration, and I’m about to find out what he means.
Remember when I said I was blocked on the story I was writing? My big Great American Graphic Novel? I admit that part of me wanted to use this 24-hour thing as a way of unclogging myself. I was having a lot of problems with one of the characters in my story, so I wanted to at least use her as my main character in the hopes of cracking her psyche. Now where the Hell is Mike?
11:10am—Mike shows up.
11:20am—We begin! We open up Writer’s Block and pick three random pages. I’m already cheating, since I keep getting sucky ideas. Mike, to his credit, goes with his first three ideas. Eventually, I settle with:
2) Write a story that begins with someone receiving a ransom note.
3) There are currently 35,000 members of the Flat Earth Society. Write a story about one of them.
Hmmm. I go with Waiting since it seems the most open ended. I liked the ransom note idea too, but it didn’t seem to fit with the character I wanted to write. I go with Waiting, and draw a picture of the character, Caprice, as an ugly teenager, waiting for the bus.
11:28am—Waiting for the bus? What the hell am I thinking? I don’t know how to draw a bus! Maybe with some reference, sure, but time is ticking away. Screw the bus. Caprice is now walking to school, where she bumps into a friend of hers. Without realizing it, I have discarded the one random element I was supposed to use.
12:21pm—Page one complete! Not bad, considering it took me one hour. I noticed that Mike has gone with a big splash page and finished slightly ahead of me. Bastard!
1:20pm—Page two complete! I’ve been having trouble with the plot, such as it is, and in order to keep my one page/hour pace I have to rush the last panel. The inking is a little sloppy but since the panel shows a lot of high school kids mulling around a hallway it gives the scene a little energy, or at least that’s how I rationalize it.
1:30pm—We order some food. I welcome the break because it gives me some time to think about what will happen next. My story shows the main character as an outcast geek in high school, sort of like Welcome to the Dollhouse. I’m starting to wonder if this was a mistake. I finish my turkey burger and get back to work. Mike eats a little slower so I figure I can finally catch up to him, maybe.
2:00pm—I tell Mike I’m thinking about, gulp, scrapping my story and starting over again. It’s a depressing idea, since I would be three pages behind schedule, but I’m really stuck with what to have happen next. Caprice is at school. She’s sitting around the lunchroom table, gossiping with her dorky friends. I’m a 32-year-old man trying to get into the head of a 15-year-old girl with no time to think.
2:10pm—Eureka! I solve the idea by flashing forward to Caprice as an adult! I make the opening scene with Caprice in school a flashback of a story she’s telling her boyfriend!
2:40pm—Page three complete! I’m now about a half hour behind schedule, but I’m hoping my flashback idea will make the writing a little easier. Mike seems to feel bad he’s kicking my ass so badly, since he’s a page ahead now (all those splash pages!!) so he offers to go down to the deli and get us some snacks or drinks.
3:49pm—Page four complete, and it’s the best-drawn page I’ve done. I think my flashfoward gambit has paid off, since writing adults is a lot easier. Plus, I’m the first one of us to draw a naked girl. Mike actually had nudity as early as page two when he showed a man’s hairy ass.
4:15pm—My girlfriend, Kristen, calls to check on our progress. She is in Atlanta, Georgia, going to see the NCAA basketball championships with her mom.
4:48pm—Page five complete. I’m maintaining a page per hour pace, more or less, but I still need to make up for the time I lost before. I figure I need to do what we call a “cheat” page: a big, easy picture with very little text. I make it even sweeter by making the person in the panel stark raving nude. It’s Caprice again, and I’m aware that I have two examples of female nudity and none for the men. Keeping in mind my huge female fan base, I think of a way to balance the scale.
5:10pm—Tony Consiglio calls to wish us luck. I feel bad because I can’t really focus on the phone call. I’ve got a naked woman to draw and I’m behind schedule!
5:20pm—Mike starts his seventh page, and it has a sort of complicated layout. He starts complaining that it might’ve been too ambitious, but not only does he finish it in record time, it looks pretty good! Fucker!
5:25pm—Page six done, and I’m back on schedule!
6:29pm—Page seven done. I’m nine minutes behind. Mike and I discuss the “Noble Failure” variations of the 24-Hour Comic. One version is that you draw for twenty-four hours and when the time is up, you end the comic, finished or not. The other variation is that if the twenty-four hours are up and you aren’t finished, you keep going until you are. We figure that at the pace we’re at we shouldn’t be more than an hour behind once the twenty-four hours are up, and resolve to finish no matter what.
6:45pm—We go up on the roof so Mike can have a cigarette, and just to get out of the apartment. We are both happy with what we’ve done so far, though it’s turning out to be a lot harder than we thought. We both originally thought we’d cruise through it, finishing in as little as seventeen hours. Ah, youth! We try not to think about the sixteen hours to go…
7:05pm— We’ve been drawing for almost eight hours. The sun has gone down. Mike’s girlfriend Aliza stops by to see how we’re holding up and bring us some snacks. I’m very happy she’s come by—maybe she can distract Mike long enough for me to catch up at last! They go out to buy some burritos down the street, and I scarf down a quick peanut butter sandwich. I try to work fast, but I’m starting to feel the strain. My back is starting to hurt from being hunched over the table, but that happens a lot. More strangely, the thumb on my right hand is starting to tingle, as if it’s falling asleep.
7:35pm—Page eight done. Aliza and Mike are eating their burritos. Maybe I should’ve gone out with them, just to get out the house. Every now and then I feel a little nauseous. Once I finish the page, I realize I have Caprice’s boyfriend saying “SLURRRRP” as if he’s sipping his coffee, but I have neglected to ink in him actually holding a cup. It’s the first real mistake I’ve made, but I forge ahead, figuring I’ll do all the corrections at the end.
8:30pm—Aliza reads our work so far, and laughs at the right places in my story. It’s a relief, because when you’re working in a situation like this you sometimes have no idea if what you’re done makes any sense. She tells me that my story should appeal to women readers “unless something really bad happens in the end.”
8:50pm—Page nine finished. At an hour and twenty minutes, it’s my slowest page yet. We shut off the music that’s been playing for nine hours and put on the TV instead. We watch the E! True Hollywood Story about John Belushi. I’m actually feeling very confident about my story. I don’t know how it will end, but I have a few ideas. As for the artwork, it’s actually not as bad or as rushed as I thought it would be. In fact, it doesn’t look that different from the art in my “real” comics. Is that good or bad?
9:50pm—Aliza leaves with the promise that she will call us in the morning to see if we’re still alive.
10:30pm—Page ten done! An hour and forty minutes! What the hell’s happening? I am officially one hour and ten minutes behind. I’m not panicking, but it’s frustrating. One problem could be that I’m using a lot of black in the artwork, and filling them in with magic marker takes a lot of time. Actually, using the markers for almost twelve hours could also explain my periodic waves of nausea. I resolve to make my next page a “cheat” to make up for lost time: six panels of talking heads with no backgrounds.
11:15pm—After watching the start of The Daily Show we put Star Wars Episode One: The Phantom Menace in the DVD player. Mike hasn’t seen it since it ran in theatres.
11:39pm—Page eleven done, though considering it was a “cheat” page it took me longer than I thought. I’m still an hour behind schedule.
2 April 2002
12:09am—Page twelve done!! Now that’s a cheat page! Not only that, but I finally managed to work some male nudity into the story, with a full figure picture of Caprice’s boyfriend. Mike has also managed to work in not only female nudity but also an honest to goodness sex scene.
I’m halfway done.
12:32am—Kristen calls again after the last game of the Final Four. She tells me she’ll call again in the morning and make sure we’re awake.
12:56am—Page thirteen, featuring my first sex scene, one panel, really, (between Caprice and her boyfriend) is finished.
1:10am—Mike and I go down to the deli. We feel like we’re on drugs. Far from feeling sleepy we feel wired and giddy. We buy some Redbull which we hear gives us wings. It tastes awful.
1:35am—Tony Consiglio calls us again to say goodnight and check in on us. I rave about how great Redbull is. Since drinking it I really do feel rejuvenated and focused, though how much of that is from the drink or my own imagination I can’t say.
1:46am—Page fourteen done. It only has four panels, but I like it and think that, considering I’ve been at this for fourteen hours it looks fucking fantastic.
2:00am—We shut off The Phantom Menace. For the remainder of the time, we have the TV on. We watch a documentary on Eva Braun on The History Channel.
2:41am—Page fifteen done. The last panel is the worst one so far. The TV is on, but I can’t remember what was on. COPS, maybe?
3:40am—Page sixteen done. Gratuitous cleavage shot of Caprice in her bra. The little things like that are the only things keeping me going. Mike and I wonder who will be the first person to call us in the morning and we discuss the idea of selling our comics together as a “flip” book.
5:07am—Page seventeen done. I’m slowing down and am an hour behind schedule. Mike cheats by doing yet another splash page, that cheap bastard!! Mike encourages me to do a splash page, but it doesn’t seem to fit into the story right now. Maybe I could do one and put it at the start of the story? I think up some possible ideas and hold off for now.
5:30am or so—Sunrise. I take a moment to look at it, since I don’t see them very often. We have NY1, 24-hour news station, on the TV and the world seems to be waking up again. We realize we still have six hours to go, but I think the daylight gives us a little boost. I have a bowl of Frosted Flakes.
5:56am—Page eighteen. More nudity for both sexes and the start of an awkward sex scene. If you’re going to do one of these comics I highly recommend having a sex scene at the end, awkward or not, because they’re a little more fun to draw and you don’t have to worry about making the clothes look right. Interestingly, I tell Mike I’m about to do a scene with a hand job and he tells me that he had just finished a scene with a hand job! Small world.
6:55am—Page nineteen done. I like this one because I managed to tie in the ugly high school girl thing I started off with, so people will think I had it planned from the start. I’m going about a page an hour now, and feel positive. I still don’t feel sleepy, but have some tea anyway.
7:47am—Page twenty complete, featuring a limp penis. I feel like the story is done and I just have to wrap it all up. I still have four pages to fill, but not enough to fill them with. Plus, I’m still slightly behind schedule. I know! Another cheat page!
8:18am—Done with page twenty-one, my fastest page yet! It’s almost a superheat page, with just two small characters surrounded by a lot of word balloons. Okay, it’s cheap, I admit, but I’m back on schedule!
8:20am—Mike has his girlfriend appear in his comic as the devil. We discuss the risks in this and whether or not he got her nose right. Now that I’m almost finished, I start thinking about my endgame strategy. I break it down so that I have one more page of story, the splash page I’ll put at the beginning and…a question page! They were a popular feature in my book Box Office Poison and the best part is that they’re easy to do! Mike even helps me out by suggesting a question “When was the last time you stayed up for twenty four hours?” Now that I can see the finish line, I have a new burst of energy!
9:05am—Kristen calls to see if we’re awake. Minutes later my brother calls to see how we’re doing. He really wanted to videotape the whole experience but was out of town.
9:19 am—Page twenty-two done, the last page of the story! I’m happy I was able to give it some sense of closure.
9:30am—Mike finishes his comic, almost two hours early. He seems exhausted, and wonders if I would mind if he, you know, went home and went to sleep? I tell him not to worry about it. Now that I know what’s on the last two pages, and that I’ll probably get done on time, I feel fine. I feel like it’s become a metaphor for life itself, and that, like every soul, I have to take the last leg of the journey alone. I accept it with calm acceptance when Mike ditches me.
9:45am—I go back to the beginning of the story and insert a splash page. I’m very proud of myself that not only did I do the page quickly, but I managed to return to my original idea: I depict Caprice cursing as she misses her school bus. I finally title the story as well: “Flat Earth.” See how it all comes together? I start work on the last page, the question page.
10:02am—Aliza calls to check in and I tell her the good news about Mike finishing early.
10:25am—FINISHED!!! And fifty-five minutes ahead of schedule. My back hurts and my right thumb is completely numb. I hope it’s just like a callous and not permanent nerve damage or something. I don’t feel sleepy, but it’s a relief to just sit in silence and not have to think for the first time in twenty-three hours. I never want to draw again.
Looking back at the whole thing it takes on a dreamlike quality, especially since the whole idea of doing a comic book in twenty-four hours is just so strange to begin with. I just picked up the comics from the copy shop yesterday and, again if you remember the conditions in which it was done, I think it’s a nice little comic book. Incidentally, I never did go back and correct that coffee cup mistake. If you want to give yourself a challenge, explore your creativity, learn something about yourself and at the very end have a comic book as an added bonus it’s the best way to spend a nice spring day.
Alex Robinson is the award-winning author of Box Office Poison, which Top Shelf Productions released in 2001. He is currently working on his next graphic novel.
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