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    James Sturm: Center of Attention

    Today the Center for Cartoon Studies (CCS) opens its doors for the first time for classes. Founded by James Sturm, creator of the award-winning The Golem’s Mighty Swing, CCS is a new cartooning school based in White River Junction, VT that features an impressive faculty and enthusiasm for the medium. Comic Foundry talked with Sturm a month before today’s grand opening about what he hopes to accomplish and what you can learn from CCS.

    What is it about the industry that this school necessary?
    I don’t know if there’s poetry departments or creative writing departments that need their legitimacy or reason for existing depended on the industry. I mean, I’m glad the industry seems to be going well and branching out and that will certainly help our students. It’s exciting, don’t get me wrong — I’m not industry bashing here. But, I guess I see comics as an art form and I think the students coming here are a little less concerned about getting a job in the industry than they are with making comics that are important to them.

    I guess that ties into my next question, which is, what are you hoping to offer your students that they can’t get from the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) or the School of Visual Arts (SVA) or the The Joe Kubert School of Cartoon and Graphic Art?
    That’s a very good question. We can offer them more money in the bank account — we’re a lot less expensive than any of those schools you mentioned. I think we’re a small school that’s just focused on comics. If you go to SCAD, I don’t know how many sequential art majors there are there, but let’s say 250 students out in a school of 4,500 students. The thing with SVA, it’s a cartooning program in a much bigger institution. And the thing with big institutions is that the resources get spread around. Here, every visiting artist we have will be relating to the curriculum they are studying. I can speak a from little bit of SCAD because I taught there for four years and I can talk about SVA because I attended there — every school has its strengths and weaknesses, of course.

    When I look at the visiting artists we have this first year, it’s just unparalleled. We have different people coming almost throughout the whole year, including Chris Ware, Ivan Brunetti, Seth, and the list goes on and on. I don’t think in terms of faculty with James Kochalka and Steve Bissette, Rick Veitch, obviously myself — of course I’m biased but it’s the best faculty for a cartooning program that one could have. Not that there’s not great teachers at the other schools, of course, but we’re a small school and the curriculum works together really well. You take course a la carte and a lot of times all your courses can pull you in different directions so you’re concerned about, “Well, do I do this homework or that homework.” With this program all the classes are working in unison, so something you’re writing in one class you’re drawing in another, and you’re learning to layout in InDesign in the third class and you’re silk screening the cover of your mini comic project in another class.

    You mentioned that you taught at SCAD for a while — how did working there make you a better teacher?
    When I first started at SCAD, I was one of 50 incoming teachers, which is astounding. When I left four years later there were three or four of us left. I think SCAD, in the industry, is known as a place that’s a bit of a teaching boot camp. It’s on the quarter system so you three quarters a year and maybe a fourth if you teach in the summer. A full course load is four classes so, you’re preparing for 12 classes a year and it’s a brutal pace. It really is like boot camp and I think one of the reasons so many of the professors leave there is because nobody can make comics and keep their own professional practices going. I learned there to teach, basically. I learned how to structure classes and understand the ebb and flow of a classroom and I learned how to break down what I know in a way to transmit to students and really examine process as a cartoonist, which has really helped me.

    And why is CSS two years?
    Well, we’ll have a one-year program actually. It’s not on the Web site yet, but there’s a one-year program as well.

    And why do you decide to offer them in those increments?
    Well we wanted flexibility for students, of course. In the two-year, you can kinda think of it like taking apart the engine of a car, look at every component and second year you put it back together and decide where you want to go. I think you have to walk before you can run and I think a lot of cartoonists have dreams of their 400-page graphic novel and have time composing a single scene that flows and makes sense. The first year is really taking stock and getting a real intimacy with the process of making comics. And then with the second year, however you choose to employ that knowledge you can focus more on that.

    And how are you condensing that into the one-year program?
    Well I don’t think we’re going to. With the one-year program, we’re small so we’re incredibly flexible on how we can service students and don’t want to make any blanket statements, but if you learn all the basic skill sets in the first year — learning how to color stuff on the computer, writing, design, to doing thumbnails of books and figuring out your process of making comics, then the second year some students will be on their on and won’t need a second year. I don’t think with education one size fits all and we’ll probably have some students who just come for a semester and we’ll have some that come for two years. We definitely don’t have the bureaucracy of a big art school and we can really be flexible to a student’s needs.

    What’s the most valuable lesson you’re hoping to get across to the students?
    I think just trying to have a realistic expectation of what it takes to make comics. For each individual cartoonist to create a level of intimacy with their own creative process. And I think what frustrates people is when they think, “Oh, this is how you do a comic” and they don’t understand and they get frustrated. But I think if you had a realistic set of expectations about what this medium demands based on your own creative disposition, we can provide that service to students. I’d be happy with that.

    One of the biggest complaints I hear from art school graduates is that they’re never really prepped for the business side of things. How is that something you guys are addressing?
    We have an actual course that deals with that stuff, but more importantly everyone teaching here is a working cartoonist and we just signed a book deal, the Center for Cartoon Studies, with Hyperion Books for children and we’re doing a series of graphic novels and we’re talking to some other publishers about doing some projects as well. So besides being a school, we’re also a studio and the students will be able to participate on various levels in the production of these things and actually see cartoonists working on this stuff. It’s not like this thing you do after you graduate, it’s this thing you do while you’re in school. And I think that, more than anything else, will help demystify the process of getting work and prepare them for what it takes. Education isn’t this thing where you pay some money and you get a degree and then you hand that degree to some employers and get a job. You have to create opportunities and learn to do such things. At the school we’re creating opportunities — we’re starting a school from scratch. I think the students that are coming here are pretty healthy and have a pioneer spirit and hopefully they’ll thrive here.

    And this book deal you referenced, is that for the established faculty or a student-based work series?
    I think it all depends on the students. I think they’ll be some opportunities to do some visual research — there are students right now that will be drawing the stuff. These books aren’t going to be student work; they’re going to be professional work. The cartoonists that will be working on these books will be coming through White River Junction and will see the process from meetings with editors, to thumbnails, the editorial process and for me, as a cartoonist, is the type of stuff I would’ve killed to have a front seat to.

    You’re about a month out from opening day — what’s the biggest roadblock you’ve got?
    Oh, just falling down from exhaustion. We’re doing good. Jean Schulz is underwriting our library and that’s getting put together. We’ll have 20 students moving in from all over the country and getting settled. Right now it’s just resources. We’re doing this on a very tight budget — we’re going into year one after renovating a building, and after all the startup costs we’re entering with zero debt. And with a project of this scale, it’s really an accomplishment.

    —Interview by Tim Leong

    Posted by Tim Leong on September 14th, 2005 filed in Story Archive |

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