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Gathering draws group of 24-hour comics people

By 2 a.m. on Sunday, Oct. 21, they had been drawing for 14 hours straight. As the city darkened, the small group of local artists were visible in the window of a Kenmore Square comic book shop, hunched over tables. Most days, Comicopia closes at 7 p.m., but on Saturday, after the staff locked the door and left the register, the lights inside stayed on.

The artists sketched in near silence. The group was a curious collection of the college-aged, the middle-aged, graduates and drop-outs, the professional and the counterculture, with one clear thing in common: They were working against the clock. By noon on that Sunday, 24-Hour Comics Day would end, and each artist hoped to finish with a 24-page book.

Cartoonist Scott McCloud started 24-Hour Comics Day three years ago to celebrate a fast-paced exercise in illustration. Thousands of artists have accepted the annual challenge, squeezing months of meticulous work between the bookends of a day.

This year, 87 events took place in 18 countries, according to 24hourcomics.com. In Boston, the only participating venue was Comicopia, a Kenmore Square fixture where local artists have brushed up against one another - and the chance to showcase their artwork - since 1991.

"It's great to be a place where people can get together and share mutual interests and network," said Matt Lehman, who cofounded Comicopia in Allston 18 years ago. Two years later, it moved to Commonwealth Avenue, and Lehman bought out his business partner in 1999.

This was Lehman's second consecutive year bringing artists into his shop to draw comics in 24 hours. In previous years, space limitations had kept Comicopia off the list of venues for 24-Hour Comics Day, but a recent renovation gave Lehman some room to spare. Even with the extra space, he said, hosting the event was not an easy task, but was worthwhile.

"It generates a lot of good will and makes things interesting," said Lehman, who treated the unlikely group of artists to pizza, cookies, chips, and drinks.

Artist Dave Marshall was glad to see Lehman at last weekend's event. Now a Web designer, the 45-year-old was once an independently published comic artist, and Lehman's shop in Allston played a heavy hand in Marshall's fate.

"He would routinely have comic book writers and artists show up at the store for autographs," Marshall said. One night in 1989, the guest was "Swamp Thing" artist Steve Bissette. Marshall showed him a sample work on a whim - a horror story called "Encore" - which impressed Bissette so much he published the story in a comic anthology called "Taboo," Marshall said.

Marshall eventually swapped comics for corporate Web design, but his love for the medium hasn't faded. "With these stories, I can control everything," he said. Since junior high, Marshall said, he has voraciously consumed and created comics. At the Massachusetts College of Art, Marshall wrote his dissertation on the history of American comics from the turn of the century, and he occasionally makes comics with his 5-year-old son, Sam. "He draws the superheroes," Marshall said. "And I draw the bad guys."

Though he's half Marshall's age, Chris Villon was also raised on a steady diet of comics. "All I did growing up was draw my own versions of the X-Men," he said while taking a break from creating his comic. As a little boy, Villon loved the action and the girls - Rogue and Jean Grey, he said. But at Hampshire College he learned to appreciate the expressive strength of comics while working on an installment for a class project.

"Comics have a power that's so much greater than superheroes," he said. "A really powerful image can move me more than words."

An eclectic crowd of 16 artists joined Marshall and Villon in facing last weekend's challenge. James Skelley, a law student in his last year at Boston University, cranked out page after page on a dare from some friends. Ordinarily he illustrates children's books, spending hours on a single drawing. "It was a different challenge," he said. "I had a really good story, a good plot, but I'd prefer to take two weeks and do it right, rather than force myself."

Others felt oddly liberated by the time constraint.

In Roz Thompson's second shot at a 24-hour comic, the aspiring tattoo artist used a lesson she learned when perfectionism stymied her progress last year. She had meticulously outlined all 24 pages as she would for a long-term project, then lost time refining the work in ink. "I've got a strategy this year," she said. "Not bothering with pencil."

Like Marshall, Thompson knew Lehman before the shop first hosted 24-hour comics events. Three years ago she moved to Boston, down the street from Comicopia. Instantly, she became a regular. When Lehman hired two of Thompson's childhood friends - the Outlaw sisters from Colorado - the three became part of the sort of family that generates Comicopia's intimate atmosphere.

Last weekend, sharing the same small space for 24 hours, the artists couldn't help but get comfortable together, and abandon pretense. "[The event] is not elitist," said Angela Outlaw, whom Lehman hired after last year's event. "It's not a competition . . . We're all just trying to make it."

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