It's 6:30 p.m. and they're only halfway there. Twelve hours ago, the doors opened and pens and pencils hit the paper. Now they've got another 12 hours to go. At Press Street's fifth annual 24-Hour Draw-A-Thon at the Green Project, Caesar Meadows is wearing an impromptu T-shirt cape, a smile and has no visible signs of delirium. He hasn't hit that wall yet, he says, though he thinks by 4:30 a.m., he might.
The annual event gathers the city's artists, whether seasoned veterans and critics (I see you, Doug McCash) or the young and doe-eyed doodlers, for a 24-hour art party — but there's something going around tonight among a select group. It's a comics jam, an all-hands-on-deck comic strip where the artists take turns filling in each panel. Meadows kicked it off. By 8:30 p.m., a few pages are finished.
Meadows, who stands about 6 feet with shaggy curls and a red-and-blue striped polo shirt, sits on the floor and opens up a head-shaped paper box. Inside are dozens of miniature comic books, tucked in faux treasure boxes, bizarre animals, vans — all hand-illustrated and -colored by Meadows. He's a comics fan first, artist second.
"I've never had stock characters in all the years I've been drawing," Meadows says. "I want the medium to be the thing."
Meadows spreads the medium — in his strip Mumbeaux Gumbo in Where Y'at, in miniature comics used as Mardi Gras throws, or on the cups at Hansen's Sno-Bliz. "(Hansen's owner) Ashley Hansen Springgate ... asked me to do the cup, and to me that's so much more wonderful than getting paid — to be something that's part of the fabric," he says. "I went every weekend, and it was such a treat to see people holding my drawing."
Nationally, comics are getting into more hands than ever, thanks to the increased popularity of independent publishers and graphic novels, as well as Hollywood blockbuster adaptations of popular comic franchises. New Orleans is Hollywood's latest ground zero: DC — under Warner Bros. — recently produced adaptations of Jonah Hex and Green Lantern, with rumors of a Batman sequel, in the Crescent City.
And Wizard Entertainment, which publishes the comics bible Wizard magazine, announced that its annual convention will be in New Orleans for the first time next year (Jan. 29-30) at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. The guest list includes Billy Dee Williams (better known as The Empire Strikes Back/Return of the Jedi swashbuckler Lando Calrissian), Batman's Adam West and Burt Ward, as well as comics creators from Marvel, DC and other publishers.
The convention absorbed its local predecessor, Ronnie Prudhomme's NOLA Comic Con, but that event will be held in May for its third annual convention.
Vernon Smith, who writes, illustrates and publishes The Adventures of Dexter Breakfast and Return of the Lovin' Dead with his wife Karen Chen, knows conventions are a gamble, especially for smaller, independent and alternative comics.
"Whenever you're like us — independent, self-published — it's like, 'Oh, we just want to meet Lando Calrissian. We don't really care about you.' We don't draw people in capes and tights," Smith says.
But they'll be showing at the convention.
"Oh, yeah," he says, definitively. "I want to meet Lando, too."
Comics are an especially fitting medium in New Orleans — TV and films have tried, but comics can better translate the city as a walking cartoon. Bunny Matthews' iconic Vic and Nat'ly Broussard characters are omnipresent, from their first appearance in print in 1982 to the duo today on Leidenheimer bread trucks. The characters are Yat personified, and they talk shit — whether it's about you, your neighbors, crime, politics, levee failures or each other.
But comics lurk elsewhere — both in screen-printed and self-published strips, and sharing rack space with mainstream titles, locally, nationally and internationally. Local comics — beyond the caped-crusading, superpower-wielding heroes and heroines of your childhood — are everywhere.
The comics scene stretches from the mainstream, with artists like Derec Donovan for DC and Marvel and Robby Musso for Transformers; to other independents like Tedd Walley's Mathilda; to web comics like Kevin P. Johnson's Strange City Heroes and Monty Smith's Welcome to Border City.
There's 18-year-old UNO student Savanna Ganucheau's Over the Wall, which updates three fairy tales (Cinderella, Rapunzel, Little Red Riding Hood) for the 21st century: Rapunzel is a reclusive video game nerd whose boyfriend forces her to get out of the house.
Trivial Annoyances by Dany Frolich was one of the first underground comics to surface in New Orleans. The longtime pulp-inspired sci-fi and fantasy illustrator published the series throughout the 1970s — when a young Meadows, fresh from first viewings of Star Wars, rode the streetcar to the Little Professor Book Shop on Carrollton Avenue and B. Dalton Bookseller on Canal Street to dig through crates of comic books.
Meadows fell in love with Harvey Comics, which carried titles like Richie Rich and Casper, and trade paperback anthologies of newspaper strips, like Charles Schulz's long-running Peanuts.
"My parents divorced fairly early," he says. "My dad was absent. ... We grew up with a single mom who was raising us, and was doing a great job, but a single parent can't be there as much, so comic reading filled the gap. Peanuts in particular. Even if I may not have understood it, maybe I had to make my brain stretch to find out what this humor was and what they were referencing, these kids (were) doing it without parents around.
"It's so funny. (Schulz) was one of the most successful artists of the 20th century, but really he struggled ... with depression. All these kids were extensions of his pysche, working out all his problems."
When he was 10, Meadows traded his Harvey Comics collection for back issues of Mad magazine. By high school, he was absorbed in the Marvel Comics universe — home of the X-Men, Spider-Man and the Hulk, among others.
"I wanted to be a cartoonist up until high school," he says. "Then I realized girls are not into that."
Meadows discovered pioneering alternative comics artist Robert Crumb and dove into the "comix" world — offbeat, underground and far removed from Superman. In the 1990s, Meadows curated Jigsaw Junction, a washateria and pool hall-turned-comics sanctuary in Reserve, La., dubbed "an oasis of cultural ephemera."
On Wednesday nights, Meadows invited comics to his home for Da Fa Fungus, an all-nighter comic jam. (Big Brother and the Holding Company's Cheap Thrills cover, illustrated by Crumb, inspired the cover for the group's first comic.)
In 2008, Meadows partnered with Antigravity publisher and Crescent City Comics manager Leo McGovern for Firesquito, featuring a mustachioed mosquito-man superhero bitten by a radioactive mosquito — a comic partially inspired by a Tabasco commercial and McGovern's favorite hero Spider-Man.
McGovern says Antigravity, the monthly music and culture magazine first published in 2005, was born from his love of comics. (Local and national strips fill its back pages, and its album and book reviews include high- and lowlights from the comics world.)
"People assume because I do the magazine that music is a driving interest for me, but it's really comics," he says. "When I was in high school, my dream was to own a comics shop, and I pretty much kept with that dream through college."
McGovern was a regular at Crescent City Comics on Elysian Fields Avenue (and now on Freret Street), and he joined the staff at comic conventions in San Diego and Chicago. McGovern started his own con — the Alternative Media Expo — in 2003.
Last year, McGovern was a character in Josh Neufeld's award-winning Hurricane Katrina graphic novel A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge, which illustrates McGovern's evacuation from New Orleans and the loss of his prized comics collection.
The latest addition to Antigravity's comics page is Quarter Vomit, Otto Splotch's New Orleans-focused strip first published as a comic book in March 2010. Its three characters — a nutria, crawfish and alligator — observe lower Decatur Street gutter punks and misanthropes from their stoop. "That's the one everyone really liked," Splotch says. "It's local, and I think it's really accurate how f—ed up things are here."
In March, Meadows debuted Feast, an anthology of local comics he hopes to make an annual tradition as interest in comics grows.
"The comics scene here ... is definitely expanding on what had been in the past. Part of the reasons for that is the film industry being here," McGovern says. "We got people from the set of Green Lantern, people not necessarily from here, looking for a comics fix or for reference stuff for the movie. But just those movies being here — Batman is (rumored to be) coming next year — gets people curious enough to come check books out: 'Where should I start, with Green Lantern?' That gives us an opportunity to make them aware of everything that's available."
The comics connection extends to Lafayette, where Rob Guillory illustrates Chew for Image Comics. This year, the comic won a prestigious Eisner Award, named after Will Eisner, the graphic novel pioneer who created the landmark comic The Spirit.
Writer John Layman originally pitched Chew to his publisher, Wild Storm, but was shot down. "They all thought he was nuts, that there was no way it would be a success," Guillory says. "They told him that if he tried to publish it, it would be the end of his career. We didn't expect it to be as successful as it's been. I figured ... people would either love it or hate it completely and I'd never be able to work in comics again."
On paper, the idea does seem nuts: a tongue-in-cheek crime story during a poultry prohibition, following detective Tony Chu, a psychic capable of reading anything he eats, who follows a string of murders and conspiracies. The series is now in pre-production for a television adaptation from the same crew behind AMC's The Walking Dead — also a comic adaptation. Another Lafayette native, Kody Chamberlain, writes Sweets (Image Comics), a pre-Katrina detective comic set in an orange- and brown-hued New Orleans cityscape.
Kurt Amacker, who wrote Dead Souls and Immortal:60 for independent Goth publisher Seraphemera, says New Orleans is a perfect setting for darker comics.
"The city has a vibe to it — so much history and death," he says. "We walk around streets that are hundreds of years old, see buildings that are just as old."
Before Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans native Rashad Doucet dabbled in both comics and graphic design. He later attended Savannah College of Art and Design and has since published My Dog is a Superhero! and is working on Henna Hanson Must Save Prom, a comic about Nazi robots and the cheerleaders who destroy them.
"After the storm I felt like everybody in town had a choice to make between going back to what they were used to or to take this time and do something you were too afraid to do before," he says.
Splotch first published comics as a high school sophomore, but his background is in fine art: sculpture and painting.
"I like working with printed material — the format is compressible, you can make a lot of it, and don't need a lot of space," he says. "I can carry everything with me in a backpack."
Harriet Burbeck also has a fine arts background, but she also started the weekly zine Nose Knows, one sheet of paper folded into quarters, in which she draws a half-page comic.
"When I was little I wanted to draw for The New Yorker," she says, also citing Calvin and Hobbes as an influence. Burbeck moved to New Orleans from Iowa in 1999 and started the zine as a letter-writing substitute. "We're all bad at correspondence and bad at writing letters," she says, adding she enjoys the blurred line between high art and low art and shrugs at there being a difference: "Some people draw, some people write, some do both."
"I see comics as another medium, just like any other," Splotch says. "But if I wasn't doing comics, I don't think anyone would see my art."
Jeff Pastorek, who appears in Feast and does freelance illustrations, graduated from Loyola University's fine arts program in 2003. "Loyola wanted to impress upon us, 'You got to do fine art. You can't make a career out of low art.,'" he says.
Ironically, his work published in Feast is "the least comicy thing I've done," he says.
But no one is quitting his or her day job, yet: Meadows works security on the Northshore, Smith bartends, Pastorek is a lawyer.
"It's breaking even, but yeah, not much above that," Smith says.
Is it worth it?
"Totally," he says. "It's a lot of fun, especially when it's finished. We have parties, interviews, theme parks."
"It's in development," he says, laughing. "And a hybrid electric comic book with General Motors. I can't go into too much detail."
Smith wrote his first comic, "One Boat," in first grade at McDonogh 15.
"It was about my mom and [me] going to watch the boats at the river. Two almost crashed, but they didn't, so we went home and went to sleep," he remembers. "Very exciting. Real groundbreaking stuff."
He later followed with Port Authority and Adventures of Dexter Breakfast, a Western adventure series following the title character, a pint-sized wombat cowboy, and his dog sidekick. Released earlier this year, Return of the Lovin' Dead is a zombie horror-meets-reality TV love show, which for Smith and his wife Chen, pretty much wrote itself, he says. (Think VH1's Rock of Love meets George Romero.)
"It's cool to have control over your stuff. I can do whatever I want. I don't have an editor saying, 'You can't have a girl s— on another girl's foot,' or something like that. But it's my book, so I guess I can," he says. "On the other hand, I don't get the big checks. I have a baby and a family. I have no problem selling my soul."
Meadows says we're in a new "golden age" of comics — the first being the 1930s to the '50s, when superhero archetypes first flooded newsstands. "There are cartoonists out there writing violin concertos, like amazing, complex pieces. Whereas myself, I think I'm a pretty nifty fiddler," he says. "I can do a really nice tune, and I think if you enjoy comics, and you read one of mine, you're going to enjoy it. And that's fine with me."
Aspiring artists, Guillory says, should look no further than Louisiana for a future in comics. "This is the best place to do it," he says. "It's the perfect place to find your voice and not starve. Now there's a growing professional field here, which is weird. There's probably never been a better time to do it."