24 hour comics: setting my inner eight-year-old free


“Cool,” I begin my interview with Stephanie Zuppo. “Umm…”

“Yup,” they respond, chewing a bagel. They’re wearing fuzzy dragon pajamas.

We’re not at the height of our conversational prowess. It’s 7:00 AM, and we’ve been up since 9:00 the day before, though Zuppo took a few naps. I’ve still got three and a half pages of comics to create in the next two hours. We’re in a room containing a couch, a table of half eaten bagels, chips and veggies, a rack of Zuppo’s favorite comic books and a Champlain College student asleep on a giant beanbag. In the room across from us, Sarah Bodnar is the only person left sitting in the rows of tables, dutifully working on a story about the heir to a blender empire assisting a mouse village.

Welcome to 24-Hour Comics Day.

24-Hour Comics Day originated with a challenge between the legendary comics artists Scott McCloud and Steve Bissette. They were both notoriously slow, so McCloud challenged Bissette to write and draw a 24-page comic from scratch within 24 hours. They each did it, and those became the first 24-Hour Comics. They challenged more of their friends in the comics industry, and soon it caught on as a creative exercise. Now, during the first weekend in October, there are gatherings around the world of people attempting to make a 24-hour comic in a shared space.

This will be my sixth 24-Hour Comics Day. This delirious annual tradition is where I let my inner eight-year-old go wild. My inner eight-year-old was raised on Captain Underpants books and has an extremely goofy absurdist sense of humor. He is enamored with all dinosaurs, ninjas, zombies, and aliens. My inner eight-year-old can’t doodle fast enough to get down all the awesome monsters and absurd ideas that are exploding out of his mind.

But this year, I was worried that he wouldn’t show up. It had been five years since I had last attempted a 24-hour comic. During that time, I had studied radio documentary, and acquired an extremely critical eye for narrative and story structure. With my increased story scrutiny, my ideas have stopped flowing as freely. Instead of coming up with a million ideas, I edit a single idea in my head before I’ve got anything down on paper. This results in much fewer creative projects getting finished, and everything having more polish. So I’m coming into this year hoping to recapture the spontaneity and joy of unselfconsciously making comics.

I arrive at the Generator, a maker space in Burlington, VT, on Saturday morning for the start of the 24 hours. I am greeted by Zuppo, who is infectiously nerdy and enthusiastic. Zuppo has organized the event, and is taking good care of everyone. They set up a work room and a break room. The work room has tables, a projector, extra art supplies, and books about comics craft. The break room has copious food they got donated, comics for pleasure reading, a Nintendo, and earplugs sleep masks, couches, and massive beanbags for napping.

There are about 25 other participants, mostly from Champlain College, where Zuppo is a professor. I take my seat at a table with Sarah Bodnar, one of the only non-students. She heard about the event and came across a ferry from New York state to participate.

Since I hadn’t made it to 24-Hour Comics Day in five years, a comic idea had been percolating: A man goes to church, and very literally lets Jesus into his heart. Jesus sets up residence in his heart, and it turns into a wacky roommate drama.

My medium is ballpoint pen on printer paper, and I work two sided. In my first 24-hour comic, I didn’t think too much about it. It was what I had on hand, and it worked. This time, it’s a conscious choice to keep me from being too precious about making mistakes.

It takes a bit for me to commit to drawing my first page. When I finally set pen to paper, I find I’m pretty rusty at art. Not that I could ever draw. My humans are a couple circles for the head and body and a couple lines for the legs. I always crack myself up with my drawings because they look almost nothing like what they’re supposed to be depicting. Still, when I was doodling more, I was able to imbue character into drawings of people with simple variations such as hairstyles, a few eyebrow or mouth lines to change a facial expression, or a hat.

About an hour in, Stephanie starts projecting Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. She says that she would do this in grad school—work on art with friends while watching movies. The sound is pretty low, but it’s a very stimulating movie. As someone with undiagnosed ADD, I find about two thirds of my time spent watching the movie instead of making a comic.

In the break room, it’s definitely easier to focus. But I’m still slow and distractible. Four pages in and I still haven’t found the excitable flow state I’m looking for. I decide to throw a plot twist in. I’m getting tired of the Jesus roommate drama. The funny gags I’ve had rolling around in my head over the past few years have lost the appeal they used to have. I need to escalate the absurdity to keep myself engaged with it.

One upside of drawing so simply is that I have more time to write. In past years, I’ve watched other participants as they fret about creating beautiful art. It takes me long enough to think up some funny jokes, fun characters, and absurd situations. I can’t even imagine how difficult a 24-hour comic would be if I could draw. Real comic book artists taking the challenge are total heroes.

This event, though, seems more laid back. Most people aren’t worried about completing 24 pages. Instead, they’re using the space to hang with lovely nerdy folks and get some work done on their comics projects. Zuppo hasn’t had a chance to do much comics work, as they’ve been zooming around chatting and taking care of everyone. As it gets past midnight, people start clearing out.

Bodnr is one of the hardcore remaining participants. We show each other our comics so far. She’s the first person I’ve showed it to. Her comic is delightful. We have complimentary words for each other, which gives me a boost. Until I show my work to another person, I have no clue whether my ideas are coming through, or whether they’re any good in the first place.

I still haven’t reclaimed my inner eight-year-old. I’m liking the absurd turns of the plot, but the characters aren’t that interesting. They work as vehicles for absurd plot humor, but aren’t very interesting by themselves.

I’m also finding the drawing really tedious. So far, it’s mostly been people having dialogue. It’s the same two circles plus some lines, over and over. I still haven’t figured out how to make them very expressive.
On page 14, around 2:00 in the morning, a few more plot turns have happened. The story lands in a realm with mythical beings. Suddenly, everything clicks. My excited inner eight-year old is back in full force. I’m getting to draw all sorts of goofy looking deities and monsters. I’m writing a dialogue between two characters that actually feel like characters (a scaly monster named Jeremy who is so huge we only see his legs, and what looks like a pac-man ghost). I spend a couple hours in pure comics bliss, drawing monsters and letting characters bounce off each other.

Suddenly, at 6:15 or so, a wall of sleepiness hits me hard. I fall asleep in my chair, then jolt awake to draw a line, then my eyes start to close again. It’s torturous. The plot of the comic is already loopy (Jeremy the giant monster is trying to persuade a giant ant to play scrabble with him), but somehow gets even loopier.

This seems like the perfect time to interview Zuppo. We’ve agreed to do our interview when we’re both at our sleepiest, because we thought it would be funny. We mumble and slur our way through an interview that doesn’t give much insight into anything. It does, however yield a “drunk history” version of the origin of 24-Hour Comics Day, a story about Zuppo’s husband drawing a toilet for two hours, and an account of the purchase of the giant beanbag “yoga bow” that a Champlain student is currently sleeping on. I call that a success.

Somehow, I push through the last delirious hours and finish my comic book. Bodnar went home an hour ago, and I am the last person there, aside from Zuppo and their husband John Wojtkielewicz. I’ve started keeping my pages to three large panels to enable me to catch up on my page count. I finish just before 9:00 Sunday, feeling somewhat accomplished and mostly exhausted.

Looking at the comic a week later, I’m pretty pleased with it. It gets people laughing. It helped me get over my judgmental inner editor and set my inner eight-year-old free.

You can read the comic, entitled, “Jesus in my Heart, Dryads in my Spleen,” at www.ariscomics.blogspot.com. And if you enjoy being loopy and creative, I’d encourage you to join me at next year’s 24-Hour Comics Day.