On the 26th of September, the nonprofit sketch night and comic art competition Dare2Draw gathered at the Society of Illustrators in Manhattan for their monthly challenge, joined by special guest mentor and judge Alex Maleev (Daredevil, Spider-Woman, Moon Knight). The events have been running for about a year at the well-suited venue, and at previous venues for about 5 years under the guidance of founder Charles D. Chenet, and in that time have gained quite a following of aspiring and working comic book artists, some of whom even commute into the city to take part. The evening was not particularly unusual in Dare2Draw’s lineup given their previous history of influential guest mentors like Phil Jimenez and Jamal Igle, but opening time still meant eager lines forming, and even after the event was underway, the large venue continued to fill. When there were simply no seats left to use, the remaining latecomers were allowed to enter for free and lined up against walls, or continued to stand to take part.
Though I’ve heard a lot about Dare2Draw and continually take in reports about the events from artists who have attended, it was my first opportunity to observe the phenomenon in person and see first-hand what it was all about. Of course, I could easily see the benefit of having live costumed drawing and even competitions for comic book artists, but the sheer degree of enthusiasm from friends and acquaintances piqued my interest. I wanted to know what exactly about the gathering inspired such energy and approbation from the artists who turned up on a monthly basis and why they came away from it even more committed to their art. From what I had heard, the whole ordeal was quite grueling, but it definitely left people wanting to come back for more.
Host and art-mentor Simon Fraser (2000AD, Nikolai Dante, Lilly Mackenzie) opened the first part of the evening, live timed sketching with costumed models, this time Xena themed with Xena herself and Hades in appearance in detailed costumes hand-made by the models. Speakers pumped in techno Sinatra crooning and the crowded room got busy, a sea of bobbing heads and slowly building adrenaline. Large red-lit numbers on a sporting-event style clock counted down through three full sessions of timed drawing of the models in various poses, each session containing several intervals. It amounted to a substantial amount of time drawing as precisely as possible while watching the clock. It occurred to me that, from what I’ve heard and seen, most comic artists spend the vast majority of their time working alone and this made the experience of a Dare2Draw event unusual, a point in time that changed up the rituals of daily life for the artists involved and challenged them to perform under very different circumstances.
They were able to, glancing around, see what other artists were up to in a clashing diversity of styles and interpretations, and see some artists whose work seemed much more polished than their own, as well as those who represented earlier stages of their own development. The push forward, to create on the clock, seemed to create a building energy rather than frustration. This could be what comics artists consider a good night out. Not only do they get to be surrounded by other artists, converse, and network, but they get to flex muscles that aren’t as frequently pushed to the limit. Not to mention that these skills could be useful in future when working under the legendarily difficult deadlines that comics artists all too frequently face. But the intervals were also filled with instruction.
Simon Fraser, Charles Chenet, and Alex Maleev moved constantly around the narrow aisles, critiquing, and giving practical professional advice to artists who might be new to them or could be artists whose work they’ve seen evolve over time. This was a kind of comics boot camp, and the participating artists couldn’t get enough of it. This hammered home some of the principles behind Dare2Draw’s events, an assumption that comic artists don’t get enough opportunity to meet eachother, discuss their projects, work on their technique, or simply be in an environment for a few hours where they can be sure that other people feel the same motivations that drive them and also consider their art a valid career choice. The demographic of artists attracted to this workshop and competition was wide-ranging, with a ratio of about one woman to three men, and an age range anywhere from late teens to mid 40’s, though the well-represented median age was probably mid 20’s to mid 30’s.
Some were clearly art students, but many probably pursued art classes more informally due to day jobs and other commitments. They worked in a variety of media even on quick sketches, from pencils, to precise inks, to ink brushes in broad strokes and dashes of color. Working under time constraint produced confident forays into personal style. Without time for reflection, the sketches often came out to be quite firmly original in their execution. That might also be a productive thing in itself, since without time for external reference or the demands of a particular client, artists produced what could only be pretty firmly their own work for their own benefit.
About half way through the three and a half hour evening, things changed gears. It was time for guest mentor Alex Maleev to produce this “theme” for the event, followed by the Dare2Draw competition itself. Maleev had already been moving around the room giving tips and comments, circling round artists to make sure he could see every sketchbook and carefully navigating all the quadrants of the area.
What Maleev said, as he stood up on the dais, was somewhat surprising, openly admitting his own reticence to speak in public or instruct others, but willing to simply share some strategies that work for him to break up the tedium of drawing alone and make sure his work is infused with enough real-world variety.
I’m nervous because I work alone and I don’t talk to people and I’m not good at talking to people. I have no social skills whatsoever. But I will do my best tonight to entertain you. I’m nervous because what I’m about to do I don’t enjoy. I’ve never done it in front of a live audience. We’re going to saw one of you in half.
Maleev said, to peals of laughter. Gesturing for quiet for this serious undertaking, he continued:
“It’s all about anatomy, but you guys know this already. It’ll be fine. The best way to do this is we’re going to get a guy who’s in shape. And we’re going to cut him in half. I’m not going to be doing the cutting. One of you will.
For a guy who doesn’t like speaking in public, he did an excellent job breaking the ice. On a more or less serious note, he added:
I was asked to come up with a theme for tonight, and I didn’t. I should have thought about it. I forgot all my watercolors. I had to work with plan B. To talk about live drawing and how I actually do find my models or “victims”. But what I want to do is show you is what I do on the subway when there are real people right in front of me. Unless they are beautiful girls, and this is the way to have a conversation, I do watercolors because girls love everything in colors. If you are good in watercoloring and collageing and you have a tattoo (gestures to self), I think you’re all set.
We’re going to pretend that we’re on the subway and you’re going to be sitting in front of me and I’m going to be drawing you while you’re not watching. That’s my theme of the night. We can find our models anywhere. We don’t have to be here on Thursday evening. It could just be anywhere in the city. There are way too many people in the city already. So you can find tons and tons of people and I bet you I’ve drawn hundreds on the subway in the 20 years I’ve lived here. And no one has ever complained. No one. Which means you probably are not going to get beat up. But if you have good fighting skills, go for it.
As he selected six “victims” to be his subway models, he commented on the fact that he purposefully allows Brian Michael Bendis to speak for him when he makes rare panel appearances at cons, but because speaking in public is so unusual for him, he urged the artists to pay attention and try to take home the lesson he was presenting for them about how to make your life work for you to inspire your art.
The audience watched Maleev’s work with rapt attention, crowding in to get the best views of his rapid, often quite angular strokes, moving his chair and assuming different angles depending on the model. Each model took on slightly different activities, from reading, to listening to music, to sketching, in one case, actually sketching Maleev right back, though generally they were encouraged to be unaware of his presence. At irregular intervals, he’d announce that his subject had suddenly left the train or that they’d reached the end of the line, leaving sketches partial or complete based on real-life circumstances. He illustrated the possibilities of even short public transport rides to seize character reference and make the time spent useful. At one point, Chenet pointed out, to applause, that the entire audience was busy drawing Maleev drawing subway subjects. It was true; the place was a collage of fedora-wearing serious men bent over sketchbooks in myriad styles. There are now more portraits of Alex Maleev in existence than have ever existed before.
After a break to recover from watching Maleev produce fine-art quality sketches in such brief bursts of time (and the models who supplied him their sketchbooks were allowed to keep their Maleev portraits), things settled in for the competition portion of the evening, whose theme was announced to be “Sexy Vampire”. Competitors were encouraged to think outside the book in terms of subject matter. “Think it through”, Fraser instructed, “Don’t just draw the biggest boobs you can think of”, which prompted amusement, “Think about what “sexy” means. Think about what “vampire means”. This reminded everyone that the competition itself was instructive, producing the best work they could summon in a half hour period. You could have heard a pin drop if not for the well-mixed soundtrack playing during the challenge. Those participating were reaching for prizes from t-shirts to books, but most of all, of course, the selection of the judges and the encouragement that would come with that, the recognition that they were making strides in their style.
At this point, I ceased to be an observer and became a participant. Not in the competition itself, but as a judge. I was totally unprepared for this turn of events. Though I’ve taken a couple of classes at the Society of Illustrators before, I had opted to use a notebook that night instead of a sketchpad, and I have to confess that like everyone else, I was in awe of Maleev. For those of you who haven’t seen him or met him, he comes off as something like the Most Interesting Man in the World like the Dos Equis commercial, only in comics. And he was drinking bourbon. He doesn’t always drink bourbon, but when he does…you get the scenario. But I was strong-armed into judging alongside Maleev and when he asked how I felt about judging, I said, “Scared”. He wasn’t phased by my trepidation.
Without giving too many of the mysteries behind Dare2Draw judging away, it’s safe to say that it was difficult to keep my head in the game since I was as interested in watching the choices Maleev was making and how he made them as trying to be as objective as possible myself. But it was quite an equal decision-making process when it came down to it, with plenty of shuffling, and weighing between choices. I learned a few tips myself about comic art just by listening to his comments. He’s big on originality, unsurprisingly, and that spark that sets artists apart from mainstream images that have been too recycled.
Presenting the awards was an opportunity to see just how excited artists were to be selected, and how supportive they were of each other. Judging from reactions, the choices were surprising, with several first-time winners. They would have something significant to think about, maybe a reconsideration of the merits of their work, that evening. It was, in the end, quite a marathon event, demanding the most out of participants, and the event organizers, as well as Maleev, but the benefits, and the positive energy it generated, were unmistakable.
When I had wondered earlier why artists always smiled when talking about attending a Dare2Draw event, I hadn’t taken into account the sense of accomplishment created simply by surviving one to the end of the race, and fully committing to crossing the finish line. Participating means casting away comfort zones. The experiences would no doubt be something artists would continue revisiting over the next month, in the hours spent alone, or when pushing themselves to take out their sketchbooks on the subway for the first time. If comic art can be a religion, as I’ve heard many say, then this was an incremental gathering and reaffirming rite of participation.
I learned from asking around that this standing-room only event is the norm each month, with increased numbers a feature of 2013 meetings. And also that in November (the 14th), Dare2Draw are experimenting with a much larger venue and doubling the number of models with guest mentor Bill Sienkiewicz. They are also ramping up their New York Comic Con presence with a booth hosting free portfolio reviews (booth AA D11) from a small army of professional artists who support their mission and want to help out from Phil Jimenez, to George O’Connor, Gary Erskine, Amy Reeder, Jamal Igle, and others. They are also currently running a Kickstarter until mid-October to film a pilot TV episode for a reality comic art competition show modeled on their live events (which I’ve written about previously for Bleeding Cool).
There’s a tremendous energy behind all of these forms of outreach, but there is still a practical need for more charitable support. Current sponsors include several brands of art supplies such as Pentel, Blueline Pro, and Copic, as well as Dark Horse, but it’s a shoe-string budget that relies heavily on volunteers to keep things running from one month to the next. That’s both unsurprising in this harsh economic climate and somewhat disheartening when looking toward the future of comic art. The odds are quite high that in the room on the 26th there were at least a few artists who will be the next big names in comic art. Would that have eventually happened if they hadn’t had the encouragement of these events, or the professional networking it encouraged? Maybe, but the events could very well end up being a deciding factor in whether artists pursue what is and has always been a very challenging and often isolated profession. Here’s hoping that potential sponsors take notice of what’s becoming a groundswell series of events for artists sooner rather than later.
Hannah Means-Shannon is senior New York Correspondent at Bleeding Cool, writes and blogs about comics for TRIP CITY and Sequart.org, and is currently working on books about Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore for Sequart. She is @hannahmenzies on Twitter and hannahmenziesblog on WordPress. Find her bio here.