Picture This

Talking with James Sturm, co-founder of the nation's first school for cartoon studies

James Sturm planned to give up reading comics when he started college at the University of Wisconsin in the early 1980s, but exposure to underground gods like R. Crumb and Kim Deitch changed his life. Sturm attended the School of Visual Arts in New York and worked with the seminal comic magazine RAW before moving on to co-found Seattle's alternative weekly, The Stranger. Acclaimed for his graphic novel The Golem's Mighty Swing, Sturm recently co-founded the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, Vermont, to train the next generation of comics creators. CCS doesn t yet have degree-granting status, but is pursuing accreditation.

Generations of cartoonists are self-taught. Why found the Center? I wanted to teach and create a cartooning program that was more reflective of comics as an art form and not just a commercial art. From The Iowa Writers' Workshop to the NYU Film School to Yale's Painting department so many of our country's finest artists have attended schools.

And schooling has been heavily criticized as well. The "workshopped" short story scrubbed clean of anything interesting is almost a cliché, as were "calling card" independent films for hopeful hacks in the 1990s. The anti-school sentiment you are expressing is fairly common, and I suppose many schools are guilty of encouraging that criticism. However, I think there are a lot of frustrated young cartoonists in art departments throughout the country who want have a meaningful dialogue about their work. For the most part they won't find that at art schools and universities. My hope is that CCS functions as some sort of cartooning Black Mountain College. As soon as we are no longer a vital institution we shut our doors.

"As soon as we are no longer a vital institution we shut our doors."
illustration: James Sturm
"As soon as we are no longer a vital institution we shut our doors."

Are comics being taken more seriously now, or is every mainstream article still "Zap! Bam! Pow! Comics Grow Up!"? It seems like comics have come of age in regards to how they are presented in the press. The current "Masters of American Cartooning Show" at The Hammer Museum and Museum of Contemporary Art in L.A. demands that comics be considered as thoughtfully as other art forms.

Where does this new seriousness come from, especially given the dominance of superheroes and newspaper strips? I think it comes from the amazing comics being produced over the last several years. Chris Ware, Dan Clowes, Seth, Marjane Satrapi, Charles Burns, Craig Thompson to name just a few that are producing work that can no longer be readily dismissed as an anomaly. I remember when Spiegelman's Maus first started showing up on people's radar, reviewers would say that it really wasn't a comic!

What about manga? Are you getting manga-influenced students? Absolutely. I see a lot of bad manga-inspired work but I don't think manga is to blame. Young artists are more often drawn to style over substance and manga just happens to be the style of the day. On the plus side manga readership seems more gender balanced, which hopefully will get more women thinking about making comics themselves.

CSS's mission statement says that it is committed to "socially responsible business", yet it's a truism that the work-for-hire contracts the big companies offer are horrid, and that sexism is rife in the field. Lea Hernandez recently quit the comics scene; a giant ass-shot in All-Star Batman was the last straw for her. What's the gender/political mix of CSS faculty and students? Eight out of CCS's first 20 students are women. Less than half but twice as many as I would find in a class room when I taught cartooning at other schools. Comics having been historically a "boys club" and that fact has certainly contributed to the medium's arrested development.

I think the type of student that CCS is attracting is more of an auteur and less concerned with finding a job penciling Iron Man. Our five female faculty members logged significant time in front of students. We've already have had visits from Alison Bechdel and Ariel Bordeux and look forward to a visit from Trina Robbins and novelist Myla Goldberg. If CCS's first students are any indication they certainly are a socially concerned do-gooder bunch.

 
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