The last monster comes to life in the wee hours of the morning. Stefan Bucher squirts a dab of black ink onto paper. He hits it with a blast of compressed air. Twists the paper here and there. Soon, he sees it. A jawbone. He starts to draw. The splotch of ink grows wings, a ruffly tail. A beak like a toucan’s protrudes — yellow, gargantuan, perverse. Then a reptile eye. Within seconds, all the monster trademarks are in place.
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Seeing daylight: Nighttime monster maker Stefan Bucher
For the past year, Bucher has videotaped himself drawing monsters. The videos, 199 of them, are archived on his Web site, dailymonster.com. This new toucan-beaked critter, Monster 200, is the last of the “daily” monsters for a while. They’ll be going on hiatus while Bucher develops their cousins into an animated TV segment for 2009’s rebooted Electric Company on PBS. His work is also collected in the book 100 Days of Monsters.
As the sun sets, Bucher stretches, like he’s just completed a 10K run around the sleepy out-pocket of Pasadena where he lives and works. His studio is situated in what he calls “the retirement community,” because lots of old people live there (he’s 34) and there is a general air of lassitude about the place, with fountains and gentle slopes of perfectly trimmed grass, like the suburban subdivision in that X Files episode where the mutant garbage creature lumbers up at night from the sewers to kill people who don’t comply with neighborhood-association rules. Bucher would get killed for sure. He keeps a squadron of flamingos up around the house “to secure the perimeter.”
Some of Bucher’s monsters are happy. Some are sad. Others are crustaceans. The last 60 or so all but demanded extravagant footwear. This very last one spells out “Thank you” with its wings in semaphore. Certain monsters are superstars. Like the Christmas monster with five mouths, each of which sings. Bucher recorded himself in a closet singing “The Twelve Days of Christmas”: “eleven boils for lancing!”
The monsters take 15 minutes to a half-hour each to draw. It’s the shoes that take up the bulk of the time. Also the teeth.
“Oh, then they got gums,” Bucher says, “really healthy black gums.” After a few moments of staring and turning the paper here and there, he’ll see something in the ink that would make a great nostril. Then again, there are blots where he doesn’t see anything at all.
A monster leaks across the page, its belly swollen with ink. Bucher draws each monster upside down, facing the camera mounted on his desk. His viewers are 4-year-olds. Or 30-year-olds. Or seniors. There’s a captain in the U.S. Marine Corps. Moms report that the sound of the black felt-tip marker scratching on paper lulls babies to sleep.
“The puddle thinks that the world was created for it because it fits into the hole perfectly,” is how Bucher explains the act of seeing monsters in the drop of ink.
Around the time Bucher posted monster No. 3 on the Web, someone asked, “What is it called?”
“I don’t know,” Bucher wrote back. “You tell me.”
People wrote in stories about the monsters and constructed interconnected narratives around them. The monsters are Rorschach blots for Bucher, but they also become Rorschach blots for his viewers. People see what they are predisposed to see.
“Good Lord!” writes one viewer, “That’s no monster! That’s my Uncle Jaques! He’s 61, lives in Northern Minnesota, has a house-painting business, chain-smokes and drinks Old Milwaukee.”
“I knew it,” writes someone else. “My dad’s eyebrow has finally walked off on its own.”
Birth of the LA Weekly Cover Monster
What kind of guy draws a monster every day? Bucher leads a lifestyle that some might classify as monstrous. Or, at the very least, vampiric. When the rest of the city is sleeping, he is drawing, from midnight to 4 a.m. He reasons, “Drawing is a monastic activity, on a straight line from illuminating manuscripts. Drawing a monster a day every day for 100 consecutive days? It becomes a stamina question.”
Bucher’s monastery, though, is open to the world, and people complain if no monster appears on time. It’s their morning coffee or lunch break.
For a while, his days consisted of a triangle he walked between his desk, classes at Art Center and Ralphs. Now, it’s more of a line: from his desk … to Ralphs. He draws. He gets up to buy a salad at 1:30 a.m. from the 24-hour grocery store. He goes home. He draws some more.
“Oh yeah, Linda, Roxanne, Felipe and Joe,” he says of the grocery clerks, “I gave them all copies of the book. I’ve been going there for 15 years. They are the meaningful relationships in my life, the checkers at Ralphs.”
Then there’s the thing with the numbers. “I’m almost at 344 of them. The monsters, I mean. Everything has to be in multiples of 344.”
His studio is located at the intersection of the 134 and 210 freeways (which add up to 344). When he goes to the gas station, he has to fill his tank so the total stops at a palindromic number, like $34.43.
He scratches his arm absently. He was wearing a Band-Aid on his hand for a while because his fingernails were digging into his palm, almost to the point of bleeding.
The dailymonster.com Web site was born of Bucher’s degradation. He was invited to join a design competition in Vegas that went “horribly awry.” An MC wearing a mariachi suit and devil horns presided over the contestants and several thousand spectators. The designers were asked to mutilate fiberglass lawn ornaments using power tools, glitter glue and finger paint. If you weren’t moving fast enough, the MC shot you with a water gun. Bucher’s friend, illustrator Ze Frank, walked out on the miserable spectacle because he couldn’t bear it. He said to Bucher afterward, “I just wanted to watch you draw.” That’s when Bucher decided to start a Web site where he’d film himself drawing.
Tonight, over dinner at a nearby Thai restaurant, Bucher declares the music — something they’d play at a gynecologist’s office, something gushy by Celine Dion — to be acceptable. “I’m feeling relaxed,” he says, bopping his head to the beat, “yet fertile.”
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Bucher is nerdishly handsome, tall, pale, lanky and German. Writers or graphic designers with muscles and a tan, he believes, are clearly not applying themselves to their craft.
“You know, I was kind of missing them yesterday, the monsters,” he says, happily munching on chicken curry. “I was all verklempt. They’re like my pets.”
Yet he has no lifelong fascination with monsters. Why not angels or cats or birds?
“I don’t know. Cats or angels or birds, I would’ve made a shitload of money.” Having alighted upon the subject of birds, ravens, he says, can fashion tools. “Ravens are amazing. They have an awareness of self and others. Ravens and otters are one opposable thumb away from world domination. … Sorry, what was I talking about originally? I’m made entirely of anecdotes.”
To that effect, from “344 Things You Might Know About Stefan Bucher,” a promotional poster published by the American Institute of Graphic Arts on the occasion of a lecture Bucher gave for its Fresh Talent series, Item No. 31 is “I like girls. A lot.” Item No. 32, “I took needlepoint over shop in school because it was much more fun to hang out with girls.” Item No. 108 confides, “Starting a new drawing scares me.” Which leads to Item No. 109, “I’m embarrassed that stuff like that scares me. I should be scared of something better. Like being mauled by bears.”
Bucher has been the subject of many student papers. He is kind of a hotshot graphic designer, after all. He designed Dave Eggers’ 826LA Time Travel store. He gives lectures on design and says revelatory stuff like, “Every design project has a shape it wants to take, inherent in its DNA. You just have to figure out what it is.”
“What is the weirdest thing you’ve ever done?” one student asked.
“I can’t answer that because it’s not weird to me,” said Bucher, which is a good point.
Good points. Bucher is full of them. He’s a graphic designer, and graphic designers are control freaks. He turns chaotic splotches of ink into creatures with personality. All those purpose-driven little black lines flowing out of his pen, they’re the “wow” factor. It’s an exhilarating time for him right now. When his 100 Days of Monsters book came out this year, one of his fans, “Ramona, whose last name is all consonants,” sent an altar made out of an Altoids tin to congratulate him. The altar, now on his kitchen table, has a picture of a tiny piece of buttered toast and a woman raising a champagne glass.
Ze Frank wrote the foreword for the book. Well, it’s more like a series of e-mails. “Dear Stefan … when I first met you in San Diego you were showing a CD jacket you’d recently completed. You kept zooming in. … At each magnification you pointed out something else that you’d manipulated and carefully considered, until these tiny little numbers at 4 pt type were blown up so they covered the screen. You did this with each piece of work you presented,” Frank writes. “It scared the crap out of me.”
Frank, you’ll learn in the foreword, went to that humiliating designer vs. designer competition to watch Bucher draw, yes, but also secretly — “just a little” — to see him fail. We like it sometimes when our heroes suffer. There is a touch of monster in everybody.
Stefan Bucher’s monsters can be found at www.dailymonster.com and in the book 100 Days of Monsters, HOW Books, 220 pages, hardcover, $19.99.
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