James Sturm and the Center for Cartooning Study
By Jeet Heer
Boston Globe Ideas (January 2, 2005-slightly revised)

IN THE OLD DAYS, the only thing an aspiring cartoonist needed was a mailbox, a few stamps, and a dream. Throughout the early 20th century, a surprising number of successful cartoonists (and countless hopefuls) learned the basics through correspondence courses advertised in comic books and on books of matches. During the Depression, the teenage Charles Schulz learned lettering and perspective through the mail-based Federal School (where the future creator of "Peanuts" received a C+ in "drawing for children"). The mail-order schools also graduated such distinguished cartoonists as Winsor McCay ("Little Nemo"), Chester Gould ("Dick Tracy"), and E.C. Segar ("Popeye").

Others were lucky enough to get their start apprenticing themselves to the masters. After World War II, Jules Feiffer, then still a high-school student, badgered his way into a gofer job at the studio of Will Eisner, creator of the comic book detective the Spirit. "He kept me around for $10 a week, just to fill in, to do blacks and rule borders and things like that," he later recalled in The Comics Journal. Within a year of working for Eisner, Feiffer was writing the scripts for "The Spirit," often laced with an ironic wit that prefigured his subsequent career as a satirical cartoonist in The Village Voice.

As cartooning has become more self-conscious as a distinct art form with its own traditions, the ad hoc tradition of mail-order schooling and apprenticeship is giving way to more formal education, from full-fledged MFA programs to courses on the history of comics in mainstream curricula from MIT to California State University.

Now, in an era in which maverick artists like Art Spiegelman and Chris Ware have created prize-winning and critically celebrated graphic novels, cartoonist and impresario James Sturm thinks it's time for a school where students master the craft and ethos of independent comics.

The Center For Cartoon Studies (CCS), which Sturm is setting up in an old storefront in White River Junction, Vt., won't be the first college dedicated entirely to comics. (The Joe Kubert School of Cartoon and Graphic Art in Dover, N.J., founded by cartoonist Joe Kubert ("Hawkman," "Sgt. Rock") in 1977, admits some four dozen students a year, some of whom have ended up drawing comics for industry mainstays like DC and Marvel.) But Sturm sees his own academy - which will open its doors to its first 20 students next fall - as something different.

Sturm's school will take its lead from "cartoonists who consider themselves artists rather than just craftsmen," he says. "I see it as an Iowa Writer's Workshop or New York University Film School equivalent to cartooning. We're geared more towards the auteur."

***

In appropriating the highbrow - and much debated - film term "auteur" (coined in the 1950s by Francois Truffaut to describe the distinctive stylistic stamp that great directors put on all aspects of their projects), Sturm is placing himself firmly on one side of a fissure that divides the comics world. For most of the 20th century, comics - whether newspaper strips or newsstand titles from "Superman" to "Garfield" - have been thoroughly governed by the rules of mass production. Some supremely talented creators like Schulz and George Herriman ("Krazy Kat") created their own characters and worked with minimal assistance. But almost invariably, comics have been produced in an assembly-line fashion, with a sharp division of labor between the writer, artist, inker, letterer, and colorer.

It wasn't until the late 1960s that there first emerged a cohort of cartoonists for whom artistic self-expression and a fierce do-it yourself ethic was valued as an end in itself. Instead of passing tasks like penciling, inking, coloring, and lettering to different hands, artists like R. Crumb and Art Spiegelman did everything themselves - while telling stories that ranged from well-grounded biographies of blues musicians to harrowing autobiographical accounts of failed suicides.

Born in New York in 1965, Sturm belongs to the second generation of underground cartoonists, who inherited the self-sufficient ethos of the pioneers while doing more thoughtful work than the early underground comics, many of which were just extended sex-and-drugs joke books. Drawn with woodcut starkness, Sturm's graphic novels and shorter works offer an odd-angled view of American history. One Sturm story, "The Revival," is set in the Kentucky frontier of 1801, where a forlorn family is looking for religious redemption at a open-air revival meeting. "The Golem's Mighty Swing," his prize-winning 2001 graphic novel, records the misadventures of a Jewish baseball team barnstorming through early 20th-century America, where they come up against heartland anti-Semitism.

For Sturm, the essence of his new school is the integration of all aspects of cartooning, from the writing of the original idea to inking the finished work to the nuts and bolts of self-publishing, including haggling with printers and distributors.

"Traditionally the greatest comics, whether Spiegelman's 'Maus' or Herriman's 'Krazy Kat' are generally the result of one person's vision," argues Sturm, who studied with Spiegelman at the School of Visual Arts' MFA program in the early 1990s. "When you are teaching comics, you can't separate the writing and the drawing. I think other programs try and do that, so you have a course that is called 'comics script-writing.' I don't think we'd ever have a course called 'comics script-writing' because when you are writing with pictures and doing thumbnail drafts, you can't separate those two things."

CCS will have 20 students in its first class next fall, with an eventual goal of 80 students per term. Tuition is $14,000 a year for the two-year program. (The school is in the process of gaining accreditation, which will allow it to grant degrees and help students get financial aid.) In addition to its full-time faculty of five, the school has an all-star roster of visiting faculty that will include Spiegelman, Ware, Vermont's James Kochalka ("American Elf"), and Canadian cartoonist Seth ("Clyde Fans").

In setting up the school, Sturm has been helped by the fact that White River Junction, in economic decline since its heyday as a railway hub, is trying to revitalize itself by luring the so-called "creative economy." The state of Vermont has given the school a grant of $30,000 and leased them the former Colodny Surprise Department Store at a below-market price. Local businesses, ranging from lawyers and accountants to a cafe, have chipped in with in-kind gifts, often of services done pro bono.

The school has also received a $150,000 donation from Peter Laird, co-creator of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles - and a man who understands the value of self-publishing. Laird and partner Kevin Eastman wisely decided to self-publish the initial comic books about their famous shelled heroes, thereby earning a fortune denied to the creators of Superman and Captain America.

***

Paul Karasik, a Martha's Vineyard-based cartoonist who studied with Spiegelman in the early 1980s, is enthusiastic about the possibilities offered by Sturm's school. But he does sound one note of warning: Cartoonists who shell out $14,000 a year to study there shouldn't expect to earn a living through comics afterwards.

"The practicalities of cartooning as a career are simple - it is very impractical," Karasik notes. "How many cartoonists make a good enough living to sustain themselves, let alone a family? Very, very few."

While artists like Spiegelman, Ware, and Daniel Clowes ("Ghost World") have achieved big sales figures and a crossover audience, the vast majority of alternative cartoonists haven't been anywhere nearly as successful. Despite publishing (with coauthor David Mazzucchelli) an acclaimed adaptation of Paul Auster's experimentalist novel "City of Glass" and (with his sister Judy Karasik) a comic book about having an autistic sibling, Karasik hasn't been able to make a full-time career of cartooning. Today, he earns his living as development director of a charter school he helped found on the Vineyard.

Sturm (who previously supported himself by teaching at the College of Art and Design in Savannah and working as art director for The Stranger, Seattle's alternative weekly) acknowledges that it's very difficult to make money as an alternative cartoonist. But he insists that the skills that will be taught in his school do have some practical value.

"Spiegelman was just up here for a fundraiser and he talked about how the skills you develop as a cartoonist are very transferable to other mediums," Sturm observes. "It's not just illustration. It's distilling down images and using them to tell stories. You are really creating a visual language, learning how to balance words and pictures in meaningful ways in order to communicate. . .. I [have done] storyboarding and toy design. Any work like this is a manifestation of the skills you develop as a cartoonist."

Yet for incoming students, the pragmatic question of how to make a living at cartooning is less important than finding a supportive environment for honing their skills. "I've done the academic route and while some places are open to work with comics there were a lot of people who were skeptical about it," says Anne Thalheimer, who wrote her 2002 doctoral dissertation in the English department at the University of Delaware on lesbian alternative comics.

Thalheimer was attracted to the opportunity to learn from CCS's high-wattage faculty and visiting lecturers. "The thought of being able to work one-on-one with the people whose work I've read and admired was so captivating," she says. And then there's the chance for ordinary shop talk. "It'll be helpful even to talk about the basics, like 'Do you use a Bristol board? What kind of pen do you use? Is it Micron?'"

Talking to Thalheimer, it's clear that, for all its novelty, part of the appeal of Sturm's school is that it will recreate something that had been lost in recent years: the community of mentors and apprentices that has allowed the cartooning craft to survive from one generation to the next.

"A lot of cartoonists in my generation learned in a very isolated way," Sturm told The Comics Journal. "But now there's a real road being paved a little bit and it can get you further along quicker. At a certain point, it's up to that cartoonist to then stake his or her own ground." In clearing a little space for comics education, Sturm is re-creating a new version of the apprentice learning that cartoonists once enjoyed.