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Geek Road Trip: The greatest live art competition in the known universe
"Now, I will be the first to say — this is not our typical scenario."
Standing on the lip of a low stage in front of a clutch of costumed con-goers whose average age might generously be rounded up to twelve, Super Art Fight co-host Marty Day could hardly make a greater understatement. Now in its 11th year touring the Washington, DC/Maryland/Virginia metro area (and beyond) under the banner of The Greatest Live Art Competition in the Known Universe, Super Art Fight is most at home in the low-lit fug of indie rock bars like Baltimore's Ottobar and D.C.'s Black Cat, or in the bigger event spaces at major conventions like MAGFest, Katsucon and Awesome Con. At the latter, the crowds it draws are so large the competition is usually split across two nights — one for all ages, one strictly 18+.
The con Super Art Fight I'm attending today is hosted in the basement of the Catonsville Branch Library just west of Baltimore, the diametric opposite of a rock bar, and it's far smaller than a con like MAGFest.
The Super Art Fight crew loves it.
"I've found that doing things like the library shows, it gives newer artists a chance to get used to smaller format spot shows," Day says when we sit down to chat after the afternoon's two bouts are over. "You know, instead of being like, okay, here's four hundred people in a rock club, do your best!"
"It gives you the chance to get more comfortable," agrees Nicole Teague, a newer artist on the Super Art Fight roster who battles in a flower crown under the name Wisteria. She's out of costume now, but fifteen minutes ago she was in full nature goddess mode, facing off against Erin "Red Erin" Laue in a Wheel of Doom battle between Pantera Bread Company and Monkey Madness. (Red Erin won, but in the spirit of transparency, it's important to note that playing to this particular crowd, her carefully chosen Wendy Corduroy cosplay may have given her a leg up.)
"And you don't have the pressure of die-hard fans," adds Day. "Although there were still some here!"
Dreamt up by artists Jamie Noguchi and Nick DiFabbio in 2008 after a technical snafu at Katsucon during a camera-heavy event called Iron Artist forced them to share one big canvas, Super Art Fight is, officially, a "can't miss live event [that mixes] elements of pro-wrestling styled storytelling and character work, live art, and improvised humor."
If that seems impossible to picture, a Super Art Fight match goes like this: Two costumed artists are called to the stage to face against one another in a twenty-minute bout. Their medium? Giant permanent markers on a huge, shared butcher paper canvas. After being introduced by Day and/or his fellow co-host, Ross Nover, the artists are given their starting topic.
For the first five minutes, they both interpret that same topic at the same time, on the same canvas. At the five-minute mark, the referee — originally Brandon "Bearpuncher" Chalmers, now promoted superfan Adam Forejt — spins the digital Wheel of Doom (or Wheel of Death, if the crowd skews older) to provide each artist with a new, off-the-wall, fan-sourced topic: Muppets Burlesque, say, or Monsters Post-Mash, or Cute Animals on Fire. (This last one turned into such a fan favorite that it ended up becoming the name of the Kickstarted Super Art Fight card game.)
For the Catonsville show, the topics skew family-friendly — think Cat Butts, Pretty Pretty Princess, Majestic Facial Hair. For private events, like the wedding of a pair of superfans that the group played a couple of years ago, they tend toward in-jokes.
After the bout's 20 minutes are up, the referee, mobile decibel meter in tow, takes center stage. Whichever artist gets the loudest cheers from the crowd is the victor. This makes the Catonsville event especially fun (as Day notes to the audience, "This is one of only a handful of occasions, except possibly when there's a fire, when you get to be LOUD in a library!"), but it also means that wherever they're playing, only good vibes are allowed. Because duh, boos cost decibels. You boo, you lose.
This good vibes mandate extends from deep inside the game's core.
"When we look at people who we want to be a part of it," Day explains when the conversation turns to new artist tryouts, "It's this idea of, who seems like they're game to be a part of this crazy thing and contribute? Like, Super Art Fight's not really designed for an ego. Some of our characters [may] have egos, [but] it's very much a collaborative place that's presented as combative."
An hour earlier, this spirit of collaboration over combat was on full display, artist Gloria Ngo's small-but-mighty Valkyrie persona roaring and stomping her way around the stage, breaking every now and again to beam at the audience for giving her helpful feedback... or mock weep at the sight of Malihom's Charm City Shinobi, Ph.D. making yet another gentle correction to her spelling and/or grammar. (The superfan kids in the audience? They loved this.) Copyediting is where the idea of "correction" ends, though — while the artists draw all over each other's work throughout each bout, it is never with the intention of maligning their competition.
Everything about Super Art Fight is additive. You spin the topic Pretty Pretty Princess? Well, then, that Frodo you drew who your opponent then turned into Harry Potter, the winning move isn't x-ing him out — it's uncapping your marker and turning him into Harry Fairy Potter Sailor Moon. Naturally! And when it comes to collaboration, everyone's fair game, even Forejt, the game's superfan-turned-referee, who The Valkyrie tags in halfway through her bout to serve as a stepping stool to reach the empty space at the top of the canvas. ("I get extremely front row tickets now," he jokes once the game is over.)
The best thing about Super Art Fight is that, no matter how many times the crew puts on a show, there is always the chance for something new and unexpected to happen. This is true at every show, but nowhere more, perhaps, than at the 18+ Unleashed shows, whose topics are drawn from a Cards Against Humanity deck and are so consistently filthy that Day and Nover have a strict lockdown on all photos and videos.
Teague, fresh off her bout with Red Erin in the library's basement, is set to compete in her first Unleashed show later this month at D.C.'s Otakon. "I'm just excited to see who I'll be paired up against," she says, laughing cautiously, "to see how uncomfortable they make me, or how uncomfortable I can make them quickly. It'll be fun."
Everyone is excited to see Wisteria Unleashed, but for Day, Otakon 2019 holds a special importance, marking as it does the 20th anniversary of the first con he ever attended as a fan.
"There's definitely a little bit of personal pride, that we have this thing, we built it up, and we get to do it there," he said. "And it's exciting for me to be able to see people like Dan, like Adam, like Nicole get to have that same transition, from I was a fan of this thing to now I'm doing it."
At this, Teague, Forejt and Malihom, all former Super Art Fight superfans turned Super Art Fight team members, just nod. "It really is like the coolest thing ever," Forejt says, "to be a fan of something and watch it grow and be with it throughout, and then to become a part of it. It's just the coolest thing."
The superfan kid artists who lost their shit at the addition of Coraline button eyes to every character on the Shinobi-Valkyrie canvas might disagree ("If I had to choose one point that was my favorite, it would have to be the button eyes, because Coraline is my favorite book of all time and that is going to give me nightmares." Kids, man!), but then again, they haven't yet had the chance to grow up and try out to join the roster of The Greatest Live Art Competition in the Known Universe.
Give it another 11 years — maybe they'll come around.
If you want to catch Super Art Fight live, the next shows they have scheduled are at Blerdcon in Crystal City on July 13, and at Otakon in Washington, D.C. on July 26 and 27. Their Shows page is always updating, however, so the next time your in the Baltimore/D.C. area, make sure to check it out.