When the Hills of Los Angeles Are Burning

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Heading north on the 405 freeway, there’s a really great view of the San Fernando Valley from the Sepulveda Pass. This is in the area past the Getty Center and Mulholland Drive. It looks especially beautiful at night with all the lights slowly being revealed as the dark pass opens up into the Valley. I look forward to this view each time I drive home to the Valley from work in Santa Monica.

The view was different several weeks ago. The Porter Ranch fires were still burning at the time. They were a magnificent but deadly sight to behold on the hilltops at the Valley’s northern edge. There were three distinct entities separated by several dozen miles from each other. They had to have been quite large, considering how clearly I could see the flames from the Sepulveda Pass. Those fires were contained or burned out shortly afterwards because I didn’t see them on the following night. I thought nothing else of the matter because for me, the Valley has this aura of protection around it. Even having experienced the Northridge earthquake in 1994, I feel safe from disaster when I’m there.

Just a couple hours ago, I was once again driving home from work at 2 in the morning. I wasn’t in a hurry since the road was foggy. As I started up the hill towards the Getty Center, I started to notice the smell of smoke. At first, I thought that I was somehow overheating my engine during the climb. As I continued up, little flakes began falling onto my windshield. That’s when I realized the fog on the road ahead wasn’t fog at all. It was smoke. And the flakes on my windshield were ash. I closed the vents and switched to recirculated air since the smoke was starting to become unbearable.

Since it’s still fire season, I reasonably assumed there was a fire nearby. It had to have been small or burnt out because the freeway around me was as dim as ever. Despite that optimistic assessment, I knew there was still something wrong. Every fifteen seconds, a police car would drive by at top speed with its sirens blazing on the opposite side of the freeway. I could see several helicopters buzzing overhead, with their spotlights focusing on various points of interest.

I finished rounding the curve past the Getty Center and saw the source of the smoke and ash. The fire was neither small nor anywhere near being burnt out. It was huge. The entire hillside on my left was burning. Much of the brush was already blackened but the flames continued to persist. The area all around me was lit with an orange and yellow tint. I have never been that close to a still raging fire. I rolled down the window and felt the heat radiating into my car. I quickly rolled the windows back up to keep the smoke from filling the interior. I snapped out of that distraction and noticed that I was drifting over to the next lane. Luckily, no cars were near me. I straightened myself and fought the urge to pull over to the shoulder and watch fire.

The size of the fire and emergency vehicle activity made me pause to think about how far the flames were reaching. I was nearing the view of the Valley and half expected to see fires there as well. I reached the top of the hill and saw the familiar artificial lights and breathed a sigh of relief. The only flames I could see were in my rearview mirrors.

As I continued driving, I could see that all the southbound ramps and exits on the 405 within the vicinity were being closed off with flares and traffic cones. A convoy of fire trucks was heading to the area I had just exited. The drive past the fire took a little over a minute. Unfortunately, I knew it would take the firefighters far, far longer than a minute to get it under control. They have a long night ahead of them. Hopefully, the morning will bring news of minimal casualties and damage.

Update: The morning brought news of zero casualties and structural damage from the 100 acre fire. All thanks to 500 firefighters and 10 water-dropping helicopters.

The 24 Hour Comics Challenge

Sunday, October 12, 2008

In preparation of my participation in next weekend's 24 Hour Comics Challenge, I'm reposting a feature I wrote on my first event several years ago. This story was originally published on April 28, 2004 and refers to the time period from April 24-25:

It’s Sunday morning and I can only think of one thing. It’s cold, so very cold. My hand is shaking and I don’t know how much longer I can go. Just three hours left before time is up.

Over a dozen people participated in 24 Hour Comics Day at Earth-2 Comics in the San Fernando Valley. Participants had various artistic backgrounds: Christian Gossett, the creator of The Red Star, and Tone Rodriguez, creator of Violent Messiahs, participated, as did storyboard artists Benton Jew, Anson Jew and Todd Harris. Rad Sechrist, contributor of Flight Anthology Volume One and Daily Nexus art director, along with UCSB art studio student Mike Nicolayeff and I, attended as well. The monotony of the event was broken by the sporadic flow of spectators and surprises including unexpected guest appearances – including the event founder and a drunk – as well as the singing of TV songs.

The San Fernando Valley group was sponsored by Jud Meyers and Carr D’Angelo in their store, Earth-2 Comics, which provided a comfortable workspace given the amount of people participating and watching.

The event was created by Scott McCloud, author of Understanding Comics, who completed the first 24-hour comic in 1990, and participation has snowballed since then. April 24 marked the first time the challenge had been organized en masse with 26 locations in the United States and 52 countries worldwide. About 500 people signed up at event locations and several other people participated individually.

The object of the event is to create a 24-page comic in 24 consecutive hours. It is designed to be a challenge, not a competition, and no prizes are given to the participants. Creating an entire comic within the short time span is a testament to the creativity and determination of the artist. Few people can complete a 24-hour comic, and it isn’t a race, but rather a way to see what level of quality an artist can cram into a limited space within an equally limited period of time.

Regular comics usually take about a month to complete, and that’s with a team of artists working together. The plot, pencils, inks, and all other elements of the comic must be done by the end of the 24-hour period. If the comic isn’t done, the artist can either continue to work on it that day until it’s finished – which Kevin Eastman set the precedent for in the early years of the event – or he or she can leave it as is – as Neil Gaiman was the first to do. All participants are encouraged to send their comics to Scott to possibly have it posted on his website or even be included in a future compilation of works created at the event.

And in the Beginning …

We started at noon and worked continuously for the next two hours. Everyone had a different strategy for completing their pages.

I laid out my entire story in blue pencil, then added ink, and finally I added dialogue. Sechrist penciled and inked one page at a time. The Jew brothers planned to finish theirs quickly so they could scan the pages into their laptop and modify them from there, while Gossett abandoned his customarily polished art style for stick figures and musical numbers.

We all claimed our respective comics were awful, only to get “oohs” and “aahs” from everybody else.

Surprise at 7

Around 7 p.m., we got a great surprise when Scott McCloud, the creator of the challenge, dropped by the store with a gift of Krispy Kreme doughnuts. He and his family were trying to drive to as many event locations as possible.

I got a quick autograph and some moral support from Scott McCloud, and had a quick conversation with his wife, Ivy McCloud. She said her husband was looking forward to the upcoming release of Flight Anthology, which includes work by Sechrist and former Nexus art director Kazu Kibuishi.

The McCloud kids, Sky and Winter – 11 and 9 years old, respectively – were making a film documentary about all the comic locations they visited. It was humorous to see the two small children juxtaposed with the imposing figure of Rodriguez, known for his grim and gritty work on Violent Messiahs, as they asked him about his progress on his comic. Equally humorous was Rodriguez commenting on how adorable the kids were.

Sky McCloud completed her first 24-hour comic when she was 9 years old and did another a year later. She’s already way ahead of me when it comes to comics; good thing I got her autograph.

Later in the evening, I headed to the back room to feed on the various snacks and leftover Chinese food from lunch. I opened the door slowly so as not to hit anyone in the tiny room. I was startled to find someone standing in the shadows under the staircase. This was a common experience.

“Oh, sorry to bother you, bro, but I was wondering if there were anymore doughnuts left?” I said to my mysterious new friend. “Wait, sorry I didn’t recognize you before. How’s it going, Spider-Man? You’ve been standing there all day.”

The shadowy figure turns out to be the store’s life-size Spider-Man statue the storeowners relocated to the back room to make space for the artists working next to the window. When you’re deprived of sleep and a full meal, you start to do irrational things like talk to a Spider-Man statue. It isn’t just me talking to Spider-Man either; by the end of the event everyone has an encounter with our friendly neighborhood wall-crawler.

At the Halfway Point

A little past the halfway point, Sechrist finished inking his twelfth page and, unfortunately, decided to stop at that point – a pretty impressive feat in itself. He said he had personal matters to take care of in the morning, so he chose to fade quietly into the night. What he didn’t realize was how much in awe the rest of us were of his work.

When I asked Sechrist about how he faired he was, like the rest of us, overly modest.

“They were awful, and there was no way I would have lasted [24 hours],” Sechrist said about his comic.

Rodriguez, Gossett, Meyers and D’Angelo said it was a shame Sechrist wouldn’t go the full allotted time.

It was a couple hours past midnight and everyone was diligently working on their pages. The remaining spectators read comics quietly on the other side of the store when a loud bang rattled the front window and everyone turned their heads to find out what just happened. Rodriguez removed one of the finished pages he taped to the window and found a man staring directly at him.

“Don’t be afraid! There’s nothing to fear,” a bald man with tattoos on his head yelled.

Losing interest, the drunk stumbled off to wander the rest of Ventura Boulevard.

As surprising as some of these interruptions were, they sure helped to fight off the drowsiness many of us were feeling. That’s why none of us complained when some of Gossett’s friends came by to shout up a storm in support of their comrade. In the silence, while switching music CDs, someone mentioned watching the 1980s television show “The Greatest American Hero,” and we all spontaneously began singing the lyrics: “Believe it or not, / I’m walking on air / I never thought I could feel so free. / Flying away on a wing and a prayer / Who could it be? / Believe it or not it’s just me.”

The Home Stretch

The last stretch on Sunday morning is the most brutal part of the event. By then I was on autopilot, inking over my pencils. When I regained consciousness, twenty minutes had passed and two pages were done. And I realized how much harder I made the task by saving the dialogue for the end; I’m having problems coming up with coherent quotes that match the actions and expressions already drawn on the page. I make a mental note not to do this next time.

In the end, I accomplished my goal of creating an entire 24-page comic. It’s not my sharpest looking work, but it’s a complete story. Most of the others finished as well.

Sechrist seemed to have been the real winner out of this entire experience.

“I was wondering if I could ever draw comics as a pro and that experience helped me realize I have some chance in the industry,” Sechrist said.

That could easily be a possibility, given all the excitement everyone in the store had for Sechrist’s work, plus the added anticipation for the release of Flight Anthology Volume One. Despite not staying for 24 hours, he was able to amaze two seasoned artists and receive praise from Scott McCloud.

For more information on the 24-hour comic event, go to 24hourcomics.com.