James O’Keefe Comic Contest Helps DVC’s Comic Artists Reach New Heights


Harris got the Roz Chast Award for her zine, The Adventures of Moon Vibes & His Super Power Man Bun and Vega took home the Raina Telgemeier Award for her comic Welcome to Riverview. (Cover art courtesy of Harris and Vega)

Pavlina Markova, Editor in chief

James O’Keefe was a well-loved professor at Diablo Valley College who created and taught the Graphic Novel as Literature course. Nowadays, his legacy inspires students with passion for what is known as sequential art, and a venue to express themselves and bring their visual and storytelling powers to new heights.

“Sadly, James passed away and as a tribute to his energy and enthusiasm for the subject, (professor) Adam Bessie with the English department decided to hold a comic contest in James’s honor,” said Arthur King, who teaches Cartooning and Animation at DVC and oversees the layout and design portion of the contest.

For years, Bessie, King and the DVC English department have been putting on the James O’Keefe Comic Contest, created in memory of the man who “dribbled soccer balls and raised hell among us for far too short a time,” as the contest website states.

Bethany Vega and Natasha Harris are among the many DVC students who participated in this year’s contest. Vega took home the Raina Telgemeier Award for her comic Welcome to Riverview, while Harris was awarded the Roz Chast Award for her zine, The Adventures of Moon Vibes & His Super Power Man Bun.

Both Vega and Harris started to draw and doodle when they were children, but neither of them back then thought they’d ever enter a comic competition. Eventually, Harris left drawing behind altogether. 

I didn’t think I was any good and it wasn’t fun anymore,” she said.

While Harris took a break from drawing, Vega got pulled in. She was enchanted by the combination of words and pictures creating a story together. Growing up, she would hang around her brothers to peek at their comic books.

“My brothers read a lot of comic books and while I was too young to really understand what I was reading, I loved the concept of pictures and words working together,” Vega said.

In middle school, she started to get more interested in graphic novels and bought her first one, Anya’s Ghost, by Vera Brosgo.

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read it,” she said. “I would read them whenever I had the chance.”

In high school, Vega started to read even more comics as well as draw out sequences and write up her own comic scripts. Together with her friend, Clara Kay, they designed characters and came up with stories – the same characters and narratives that Vega would later use in Welcome to Riverview.

“I credited Clara specifically (in this comic) because the male characters are her creation,” Vega said.

In the meanwhile, Harris entered the fashion and costume design program at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco. There, her love for drawing started to come to the surface once more.

“I kept gravitating to the drawing more than the rest of the program,” she said.

But even though she enjoyed it, to Harris, traditional art, drawing and painting, “seemed like you either had to be a prodigy, rich, or just really cool to even dare to attempt to be in any kind of illustrating or picture making industry.”

Then, at one point, she illustrated a children’s book for a friend and got hooked, as the discoveries she made in creating and reworking the illustrations rekindled her passion for drawing.

“This started the journey,” she said.

But speaking through one’s art isn’t always an easy voyage, and that’s where the James O’Keefe Comic Contest comes in.

From the very beginning, our goal was to create a safe space for any currently enrolled DVC student that may be interested in sequential art,” said King.

During three meetings in the course of the semester-long contest, Bessie and King “worked with students and the skills that they have to create a finished project” that told the stories they wanted to share through their art. Bessie helped students with the writing part of their comics, while King was there to assist with layout, design and production preparation.

“Students have stories to tell and they often do not have anyone to help them create a final project,” said King.

Together, he and Bessie “bring a multidisciplinary approach to this event” and help students fill the gap between English and art.

Both Vega and Harris had defined stories they wanted to tell through their contest entries. Recently, because of a bad ski accident and a combination of other older injuries, Harris had to start making changes to her lifestyle, especially her workout regime. While she was researching her options, she discovered acro yoga, which combines acrobatics, yoga and even healing/therapeutic practices.

I came across so many beautiful people on social media that have turned yoga into acrobatics, like they are in a different gravity zone,” Harris said. “I was like, what happened to chill yoga?”

That experience became the motivation for her story, together with her original character, Moon Vibes, which she designed in King’s animation class.

With The Adventures of Moon Vibes & His Super Power Bun, she wanted to tell readers that “it is really easy to get spooked in starting any new program… but there is a place for everyone.”

“(Harris has) a wonderful sense of irony and humor,” said King. “With all her projects she brings a slice of her life to the stories.”

Vega’s Welcome to Riverview is also focused on what it feels and is like being human. It carries a message about “how a small act of kindness can go a long way,” said Vega, and how seemingly coincidental encounters can have a lasting influence on the rest of people’s lives.

“(Sometimes) people come into our lives so unexpectedly but they’ll touch us so deeply, and become a permanent part of our lives,” she said. 

Vega wrote a short story that inspired the comic years ago, but she said she thinks it sends out a more meaningful message today.

“That message feels really important with everything going on,” she said.

She continues to work with friends, including Kay, to keep converting the Welcome to Riverview series into a comic.

“It’s not completely me by myself and it’s not all about me and what I bring to it,” she said, giving thanks to her five artistic partners. “It’s about everybody who helps.”

Vega has entered the competition every year since she arrived at DVC. The first contest, she said, challenged her to create a finished comic for the first time in her life.

“I never made a finished one before and wanted to see if I could,” she said. She also wanted to see if her comics were “worth something to readers.”

Every time she entered, Vega was selected as one of the winners.

“It’s such wonderful validation to know (that) what I’ve become passionate about and want to be my life is connecting with people,” she said.

In contrast to Vega, Harris didn’t know much about what she was getting herself into when she entered the competition. For her, it was only a part of an assignment. However, once she started to work on her zine, she got pulled in and ended up putting a lot of work into her project.

The zine project started off slow for me but I ended up really enjoying and obsessing over it,” she said.

In the end, Harris’s zine was selected as one of the winning entries. 

“To place with so many amazing artist in the classes is a huge honor. I am very grateful,” she said.

Both Harris and Vega pointed out that their art is not a solitary endeavor. From professors to friends, both of them had people who inspired them and helped them on their journey.

DVC Art department is a hidden gem,” said Harris. Professor Jane Fisher was her mentor who helped with figure drawing, she said, while King advised on animation.

Vega’s decision to take part in the contest was directly influenced by King and Bessie.

“Because of them hosting the contest, it made me want to try that first year,” said Vega. “They showed genuine interest in what I made.”

She had both of them as professors later on, too. Vega studied graphic novels in Bessie’s class, which she said made her a better writer, while King helped her believe that she “was capable of drawing out a whole 25-page comic,” the longest she’s made at that time.

“Adam Bessie and Arthur King totally helped me from an emotional standpoint,” she said, “and I’m not even sure if they’re aware.”

King said he remembers Vega as a dedicated student.

“(She’s) an extremely focused student that is always eager to start up a conversation about comics, art and storytelling,” he said.

The James O’Keefe Comic Contest can help as a nudge, an inspiration, or a gateway towards a comic-making career for many students, he added.

“Over the years, the contest has grown and we have watched contest winners go on to pursue careers as sequential artists,” said King.

Since the contest ended, Harris said she is open to the idea of trying to make a career in comic-writing. Though she didn’t think she would end up at DVC, she said she’s glad to be studying animation and graphic design here.

I love having a voice and telling a story in animation format,” she said.

Vega keeps creating comic strips that she uploads online. In the fall, she plans to transfer to Cal State Fullerton to study fine art with a concentration in entertainment art. One day, she said, she would like to become an art teacher.

“But I wholeheartedly still want to make comics,” she said.

All winning comics, including Vega’s and Harris’s, can be found on the James O’Keefe Comic Contest official website.