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Draw -- win or lose

Special to The Times

THE sandy-haired man was only an amateur and his opponent a Goliath. Yet this David -- actually Peter Relic, a 33-year-old tool sharpener from Eagle Rock -- showed no fear.

“Let me get my arsenal ready,” he said, as he weighed his choice of weaponry.

Ballpoint or Sharpie? Thick or thin? Color or not? These were the challenges Relic and his opponent, comic-book artist Ron Rege Jr., faced in equipping themselves for the 60-second contest to come.

An audience member suggested a topic -- sunglasses -- the official clicked his stopwatch, and the draw-off was on.

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Relic outlined an enormous pair of sunglasses and filled it in with gold marker. Rege drew a man with several pairs of sunglasses dangling from his neck, clutching yet another pair and exclaiming: “I need these.”

It was obvious which drawing had emerged from the pen of a professional. But no matter: When it was over, Relic transitioned smoothly from combatant to supplicant, asking Rege to autograph his bicycle helmet.

On Sunday afternoons at the new Giant Robot store in Silver Lake, a luminary from the local comic-book scene holds court over a folding card table surrounded by the store’s collection of zines, Asian pop culture collectibles and work by emerging artists. Anyone who walks in, whether professional cartoonist or stick figure expert, can challenge the artist-in-residence to a 60-second battle, with the topic suggested by onlookers.

There is no declared winner and no prize -- the chance to square off against an established artist is enough to entice a stream of challengers. But appreciative guffaws from the small crowd can make it clear who has illustrated the subject in an unexpected and amusing way.

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“It reminds me of speed chess. There’s a mental component,” said Relic, who came because he admires Rege, whose work includes the “Skibber Bee-Bye” comic about an elephant and a group of self-immolating mice. “To be creative on the clock is a funny thing to suddenly be asked to be.”

Sunglasses are among the more pedestrian of draw-off topics. With artists and comic-book enthusiasts forming the core audience, it’s not surprising that the list of subjects has tended toward the off-the-wall: break-dancing giraffes, transvestite New York City landlords, the world’s worst prison tattoo.

The nearly weekly contests were born out of a moment of boredom for L.A.-based illustrator Martin Cendreda at a book signing at the Silver Lake store. Giant Robot co-founder and publisher Eric Nakamura, though not an artist himself, challenged Cendreda to a draw-off. The two had so much fun that Nakamura turned the impromptu game into a regular event.

The draw-offs may help attract customers to the store, which opened in May and has kept only weekend hours. It’s yet another addition to the Giant Robot mini-empire, which includes two stores and a restaurant on Sawtelle Boulevard, stores in New York and San Francisco, and the Giant Robot quarterly.

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But Nakamura says the main objective, aside from plain old fun, is to get people who don’t consider themselves artists to pick up a pen and draw. Though Giant Robot is blossoming commercially, its founders say they are eager to stay true to its garage-zine roots, and the draw-off -- makeshift, goofy, slightly subversive -- is one way to do that.

“In one minute, how good you are doesn’t really matter. The whole thing is about speed. It evens out the playing field,” Nakamura said. “It’s all about what ideas you come up with and how creative you are.”

Most who arrived at the store on this particular Sunday to challenge Rege were friends and fellow artists. But nonprofessional competitors have created the biggest stir. One of them, a young girl who outdrew her expert opponent -- at least judging from the audience reaction -- has already become legendary among draw-off followers.

Rege admitted to some trepidation in the moments before the draw-off, wondering whether a medium he has used to express deeply personal feelings was suited for mano a mano combat.

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But questions about the nature of art began to seem irrelevant in the face of a contest that thrives on a childlike energy from participants and spectators alike. After two hours on the hot seat, Rege spoke like a convert.

“I was really shy when it first started, but I came out of my shell,” he said. “It was fun to have a mixture of artists and people who don’t consider themselves artists.”

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Giant Robot draw-off

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Where: Giant Robot Silver Lake, 4017 W. Sunset Blvd., L.A.

When: 3 to 5 p.m. most Sundays. This weekend’s artist is David Magdaleno.

Info: Weekends, (323) 662-GRLA; weekdays, (310) 478-1819


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