Ink Blur: Dan Lester, Speed Lined Cartoonist

Over 2008 I wrote weekly for, during a very exciting time in the UK comix scene..

My columns are concerned with four aspects surrounding comics – social community, economic factors, festival and exhibition coverage and modes of distribution.

sherridancottageThe resurgence of the comic book as an art-form in Britain has been backed by the return of the regularly published low-brow pop pamphlet. As with twenty years ago there are enough new comics published as to equal one per day. Older publishers Fleetway (2000 AD) and DC Thompson (Dandy/Beano) have scaled their product to about seventy comics per year. This new industry is by the kids, bed-sit artists sketching and inking, before heading down to their local photocopier for a new print run.

One of the more experimental processes of that underground press has been the 24-Hour Comic, pioneered by Canadian academic and cartoonist Scott McCloud. The challenge to cartoonists is to complete a 24-page comic in 24 consecutive hours. Character designs and story notes must not be put on paper, though the artist can gather research materials, and drawing tools. Breaks for sleep, food or any other purpose are counted within when the clock starts ticking. Since 1990,24-Hour Comics Days occur around the globe on weekends in October and April. Approximately 1,200 registered cartoonists took part in the 2006-2007 events, with many comic book stores lending sponsorship in the form of workspace to local artists.

The traditional image of a cartoonist mercurially rendering form and figure is far removed from that of laborious re-draws to fit industry norms and standards. The 24hr comic process is thus the perfect antidote to the stilted narrative trappings of Western comics and their franchised properties. 24hr comics are more in line with punk improvisation, echoing the disposability readers have attached to the medium. The mass practice undoubtedly delivers its share of quality. Both my own experiment and that of Londoner Sean Azzopardi were reviewed as the better comics of 2007. Professionals have been in on the action too. In previous years Neil Gaiman, Dave Sim and Steve Bissette amongst others have taken on the spontaneous activity.

Cartoonist Dan Lester: “Does thinking too much get in the way? Probably. I find I can never jump straight into the drawing. I always have to spend some time thinking about it first, even when it’s something simple, such as drawing something similar to something I’ve just drawn.”

Lester was so inspired by this method of creation that in November 2007 he extended the 24hr experiment further. He set himself a challenge of producing one new 24hr comic per month in his spare time. I asked him the obvious question, why?

“I’m incredibly lazy, and tend to get most of my comics drawn in the last week or two before a convention so I’ll have something new to sell. I’ve managed to do a full 24 pages each time so far, which makes 144 pages of comics that I wouldn’t have done otherwise. It generally helps to have a deadline to work towards, even if no one but you cares if you meet it. Which means that when there isn’t a convention looming I tend to keep putting stuff off. That’s one of the reasons for setting myself the monthly 24 hour comic challenge.”

I ask Dan about his influences and he mentions the early work of Canadian Chester Brown who drew comics with talking penises. “His early work showed a refusal to censor himself in any way, something I’ve tried to follow on in my own work. The great thing about self-publishing is there is no limit on your creative freedom. You don’t have to worry about an editor or publisher refusing to include something that they find offensive.”

Lester has already been drawing comics regularly for several years. He’s previously been best known as the author ofMonkeys Might Puke, low-brow daring, voicing unspoken thoughts and parodying dark edges of modern culture. By and large his 24hr comics have catered to a similar audience mentality. They’ve featured junkies in space, and a narrative about Bruce Lee wishing to fight everyone he meets, including a street preacher. “As I’m doing humour stuff, that means coming up with enough jokes to fill a comic. Judging from people’s reactions to the comics, I’ve been fairly successful so far.” His third 24hr book was published in January. ‘Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Zombies’ is notable for its transition as well as its competence, Lester’s penchant for grossness is freed in amongst pop horror context for audiences of more conservative tastes. It’s the sort of work that might easily be adapted for a larger publisher, and packaged as a holiday gift.

“If I was getting paid for it I’m sure I’d be capable of producing new work on a regular basis, but at the moment, like most people I know, I’m self publishing. Even if a comic sells well I rarely make back the costs.”

Dan’s work is regularly on sale through London Underground Comics, a co-operative distribution venture selling comics to the general public in Camden Market. Costs are shared between cartoonists who man the stall, meaning he pays only £3 for a Saturday showing. The collaboration has resulted in a train of publicity with endorsements from some high-profile figures in the comics industry and a distinctive power in union, financially and creatively. Dan is enthusiastic about the venture that allows people who wouldn’t normally enter a comic book store, to see his work. It also fits in well with his increased production. “It’s good to have an accessible platform for selling new stuff that’s available all year round.”

‘Death Rides A Strange Creature’, published in March, is a contrastingly tense, atmospheric murder-mystery thriller featuring two travellers on a desert landscape. It’s rendered like European minimalist expressionism, and signals new maturity and conveyance in mood in Lester’s canon. His most recent work ‘I Dream of Comics’ has recently been completed and sees Dan reach the halfway mark on his project. It’s likely to be printed up for ‘No Barcodes’, a Camden Comics festival on May 31st, by which time Dan may have his seventh 24hr comic completed. He’s also writing The Dan Lester Mysteries, were he stars as himself in a Columbo-esque role, with Oliver Lambden and others on art chores. “And then I’m sleeping for two days”, he adds determinedly.

The Dan Lester Mysteries Issue 1 was published early August. Like an expansive ice cream parlour situated next to a Bushmills distillery, Constantly surprising, compulsive thriller narrative with great pacing and perfect timing. Lester and Lambden give the best performance of their cartoonist careers so far, all behind an accomplished pulp noir colour cover by Jake Harold. Cost around 2.50 and for those of you who don’t bother with asking artists to autograph comics, this is well worth breaking the rule. Gift !

Dan Lester’s work can be found at Monkeys Might Puke and Sleazy Dan Lester’s 24 Hour Comics Blog.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s