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From Drawn Till Dusk: Milan Erceg on 24 Hour Comic

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By Constantine Frangos.

When renowned cartoonist, author, and comics theorist Scott McCloud first suggested the idea of creating a full 24-page comic book within a single day to fellow comics artist Stephen R. Bisette, it was conceived as an exercise to stoke creative agility. More than twenty years later, the 24-hour comic continues to put creators’ artistic skills to the grindstone while testing their mettle. With 24 Hour Comic, filmmaker Milan Erceg documents one such day for eight different artists taking part in McCloud’s now time-honored challenge as they each attempt to create a completed work within the confines of both time and place. With this in mind, Erceg one-ups the “can it be done?” conflict central to other competition-based documentaries such as The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2007) or Spellbound (2002) by asking, instead, “what can be done.” Aside from bragging rights, the contenders work solely towards producing a completed work of art in this captivating feature.

Art plays an important role in Erceg’s career. With a background in animation and visual effects, the observation skills needed to create strong images serve him exceedingly well for his directorial debut. For one thing 24 Hour Comic is a study of cartoonists at work as well as how ideas metamorphose into their final forms. When asked if he could see himself moving into more narrative storytelling, much like Terry Zwigoff did following the success of his documentary Crumb (1994), Erceg admits he is not only “open to doing fictional work” with the right funding and support but also has “a few leads and ideas” for his next documentary.

I recently spoke with Erceg about 24 Hour Comic, its influences, and his goals. The film is currently available for pre order on iTunes, with a release date set for July 11, 2017. It makes its Philadelphia Area Premier in Cherry Hill, NJ on Saturday, June 17 at the 3rd Annual Reel East Film Festival.

What was the first comic book you remember reading and how did it affect you?

I think my first exposure to comics was the Tin Tin series, The Crab With the Golden Claws, I believe. I remember my dad reading it to me and my brother at a young age together and it was like watching a movie together. The characters and stories were so engaging and there were always great subplots. The artwork is superb. It’s hard to know how it really [affected] me artistically, but it was a great family bonding experience. I can definitely look at the series now and have a whole new appreciation for it as an adult.

What drove you to make this your first directorial outing?

maxresdefaultIt’s a mix of a few things. First, I was inspired by my experience working with Neil Berkeley, who directed Beauty is Embarrassing, a documentary about the artist Wayne White. Neil owned a boutique motion graphics house at which I was creative director, and Neil decided one day to make a doc about him. He was kind enough to give me a producer credit on it, mostly for my design and animation work on the film. It debuted at SXSW and was well received. We were also nominated for Emmys on it after it aired on PBS’s Independent Lens. Neil has since gone on to even bigger films and just had his latest doc about Gilbert Gottfried premiere at Tribeca. This left an impression on me, since at the time Neil hadn’t made a film before and was simply motivated to do it.

The other contributing factors come from a totally different place. In 2012, I was living and working in LA for Neil when my mom became terminally ill with cancer. I left my staff job to move up to Portland to be able to spend time with her while she was still alive and also help care for her. I needed the flexibility of freelancing because my availability was erratic. With that however, came a little bit of freedom. When David asked me if I wanted to participate in a 24 hour comic, I had a better idea, and that was to film it. It seemed like a fast easy idea since the bulk of it could be shot in 24 hours. I was totally wrong about the easy part, but it was the motivation I needed, so I decided to do it, just as Neil inspired me to do a couple years earlier.

How does 24 Hour Comic fit into your overall body of work? How is it different?

The main difference is length. Most of what I do in my career is very short in duration and could be considered eye candy. A lot of show title sequences, some network packages, and almost always pieces that are less than a minute or two at the most. They also do very little story telling. Some things more than others, but mostly it’s about fast paced attention grabbing. 24 Hour Comic was the first time I’ve tried to tell much of a story, and more so, develop characters, since that’s really what the film is about. The arc of the 24 hour comic session in the film is less of a plot and more of a framework to hang everyone’s laundry on. My biggest hope is people relate to and are endeared by the people in it. That sort of quality has been nearly absent in my work previously.

With comics and “geek” culture becoming more legitimized into the mainstream body of popular tastes, are expectations high for reaching a wider audience? 

I wouldn’t say expectations, but I’ve always had aspirations that it would reach a wider audience. Obviously, I want it to touch as many people as possible, but as far as who relates to it, I’ve always intended it to be more about geek culture, or even human nature in general than just comics. I come from a viewpoint that isn’t so comics oriented. I’m more of a film, art, and people-watching fan.

Do you see the creation of comics under a constraint as a metaphor for something larger or more universal? What, if any, themes were you trying to explore with 24 Hour Comic?

It wasn’t my original intention, but I think it kind of turned out that way. Interestingly, it kind of parallels the story of this film being made in many ways. The whole idea that these are both art forms that are difficult to make a living on, and both seem to have found some ways to beat the system. The 24 hour comic beats the system by doing comics at a pace so fast, that (quality aside) it could pay off for the time spent. Similarly, my film was done on such shoestring budget that, hopes are, if it has very modest success, it will somehow pay off.

Did Portland, OR play any effect on the film and its tone?

I’d say so. If you’ve ever spent time in Portland you’d probably have the impression that its a pretty unique city, but it’s hard to put a finger on. It’s big, it’s small, its friendly, yet passive aggressive. It’s got a flavor unto itself and I did want to capture that flavor. I originally shot a lot of interview questions about the city itself. Those ended up not making the cut for the most part, but I still feel like it captured the essence of the city fairly well. And not necessarily the cliche ones people are becoming familiar with as Portland grows in popularity, but the everyday qualities you get to know as you spend more time here. These qualities are even being reflected in some of the grass roots promotional events we’re having in town. For example, the theatrical premiere we’re having in the city will feature a red carpet, but replaced with the PDX carpet. If that doesn’t mean anything to you, look up “PDX carpet”; it’s a thing.

How did the 1990s and the subsequent independent comics movement inform the visuals and placing of 24 Hour Comic?

I did actually aspire to have a sort of classic and old school feel to the film, loosely inspired by docs of an earlier era. As far as comics, I’m very inspired by David Chelsea’s work. I have not been motivated to read many graphic novels, but David Chelsea in Love, an autobiographical graphic novel released in 1980, and a popular instructional graphic novel “Perspective! For Comic Book Artists”, released in 1997, are two of my favorites. Those books and eras will always have an impact on me. I do think the quality of zines and indie comics in general inspire me the most when it comes to the format.

David Chelsea’s idea for a 24 Hour Comic reality show gives the film a meta quality. Noting he is one of the credited writers, how much did this concept guide the film? 

I do like the self-referential “meta” quality of it. I wasn’t positive David was going to go that direction, but I’m glad he did. I had a hunch because of his odd interest with reality TV. I also love his autobiographical work and I was excited to see him go that way. I’m also honored to be immortalized as a character in one of my hero’s work. He’s a wonderful storyteller and writer, and his impression on the film was definitely a very positive one.

Constantine Frangos is a programmer for the Reel East Film Festival. He contributed articles in Filmmatters 8.2 (2017) and illustrations for the upcoming documentary Sickies Making Films by Joe Tropea.

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