All young cartoonists should aspire to achieve something like James Sturm's career. From his early, punk-rock cartoonist days as the art director of The Stranger, Sturm has concerned himself with matters of craft and how to go about becoming a better cartoonist. His The Golem's Mighty Swing is one of the best comics of the last decade, and his work only improved with Market Day, his quietest, most painterly work yet. Five years ago, Sturm cofounded the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, Vermont, where he still teaches. You can find a distilled compendium of his cartooning knowledge in last year's Adventures in Cartooning, a how-to-cartoon book for young readers. We discussed his work and his career over the phone as preparation for his upcoming appearance at the Fantagraphics Bookstore in Georgetown.
First, I wanted to ask you about your history with The Stranger. You're a cofounder of the paper?
Yeah. I knew [Stranger publisher] Tim [Keck] from our University of Wisconsin days. I was a cartoonist, doing stuff with the school newspaper in Madison, the Daily Cardinal. It was a pretty popular strip at the time, it was called The Adventures of the Down and Out Dawg. It was very inspired by underground comics. Now it probably stinks. Well, I don't know, but whatever: It was popular at the time. So when Tim was starting up the Onion, I was an early contributor. Later, when he moved to Seattle with the intention of starting The Stranger, I was on board from the beginning and I drew the first cover and moved out there when I was done with graduate school. And yeah, I jumped on board and I guess I was the first art director. In the first year, I wrote theater reviews, I wrote articles, I did interviews, I sold ads, I helped distribute papers. I wrestled [Dan] Savage. So you can imagine a bunch of young'uns who were all new to Seattle just getting an apartment on Wallingford, on the second floor of a flat. And it seemed like everybody who moved to Seattle lived there for a while. In the living room were all of the layout tables. We were still using, I think, a hot-glue gun for the first few issues. I remember during the first year, I was taking photos up to Fantagraphics to use their stat camera. Soon, we got a desktop scanner and that made everyone's life easier. [In a mock old man's voice] Back in the old days!
So did your time at the paper end at the same time that you left Seattle?
Well, I left Seattle after five years and um, I left because I met my wife in Seattle—well, the woman who would become my wife—she was going to grad school, and I left to be with her. And also after like my first year of the paper... I think it was the first year and a half, something like that... I had like three retinal surgeries. At that point, I quickly handed over the reins as art director to someone else. So I was kinda involved, still doing artwork. We didn't really have that much money the first year, and I did a lot of the illustrations, because we didn't have the money to pay anybody. I remember there used to be this place in Fremont called Stampola, so I had like one illustration style and just developed rubber stamps. I had one really cartoony kind of illustration style and one that was a little more realistic. And we tried to make it seem like we had a lot of illustrators.
So yeah, then I left the paper. I loved the community spirit of The Stranger. It was a fun environment to work in. Actually, Rachel, my wife, was the office manager for a little while. Even though as a cartoonist, I spent a lot of time by myself in this sort of solitary way, I like to have some aspect of my professional life, if you can call it that, that does involve collaboration. To me, I really like it when you're making up some rules as you go along. It was just great, because you'd be able to walk into a coffee shop and be like, "Hey, I'll trade you an ad space for a gorilla suit." And you could kind of wheel and deal. That I liked.
So did you develop a relationship with the cartooning scene as part of your job? Because I believe there was a niche big scene going on at that time.
Yeah, there was a great scene. In fact, there was a cartooning issue, and we were inspired by a documentary called A Great Day in Harlem where one day in , they got all of the jazz players in Harlem together and took a photo. And actually it was Volume 4, Number 28 [of The Stranger]—because I'm giving a talk in Seattle and I actually scanned the cover of the issue—and I went around to Tom Hart, Roberta Gregory, Pete Bagge, Woodring, Brubaker, and Ellen Forney. And we assembled this cover. We used to do these big annual comics issues when I was involved, where the whole paper was littered in comics. In this one issue, we did a little history of Seattle cartooning. And we invited every cartoonist to come to Volunteer Park, and we all took a big photo. So yeah, from the get-go, every cartoonist... we had Chris Ware do a cover, we had Pete Bagge, and Julie Doucet and Jim Woodring of course, and Roberta, and like, everybody who would be willing to do it. Jim Blanchard. Michael Dugan, et al. And I was coming from New York City, I was just coming out of graduate school, and some of my teachers were some of the most preeminent illustrators in America, so I got Marshall Arisman to do a cover and Brad Holland and, you know, a lot of my fellow students later became big muckety-mucks. So all that was great. It was exciting to provide a platform for all of these cartoonists. And this was also in 1995, before graphic-novel fever gripped the United States. And I felt like we were still trying—cartoonists, collectively—were trying to legitimize the art form, and I was just trying to give as big a stage for this work as I could. And in terms of, like, Tom Hart, we had a monthly cartoon group where we'd read over each other's work, critique each other's work. Tom Hart was in it, David Lasky, myself, and Jason Lutes, and a whole bunch of people. Ward Sutton who's gone on to do a bunch of different things. John Lewis and Ed Brubaker, you know. At some point, they got too big. You'd be sitting in a room, and Jim Woodring was there and he was at a different level than all of us. We were just kind of up-and-coming, but he was great. I eventually moved to Ravenna and lived on the other side of the park as Jim Woodring, and I remember running into him on the path in Ravenna Park. It was a thrilling encounter.
Do you think that some of the acceptance of comics, of graphic novels, has kind of hurt that scene? It seems to have—and this is just my impression from the Seattle cartooning scene, anyway—taken the air out of the DIY, banding-together sort of thing.
Yeah, well, I wonder if that has less to do with the success of graphic novels and more to do with Seattle real estate. At the Center for Cartoon Studies, it seems like a lot of our students want to move to Portland, Oregon, now. And, again, I'm on the outside looking in, too, but from what I hear, Portland has an incredibly vital cartooning community with a lot of young'uns making comics and banding together, and probably that's just a result of rents being a lot cheaper. And probably around 2000 when you moved there, the real-estate boom was not yet peaking, but well on its way.
Are there any other scenes besides Portland that you think are coming up?
Well, Brooklyn of course. Chicago has a really dynamic cartooning community. And believe it or not, little tiny White River Junction, Vermont, population 2,500. And it's not just the students [at the Center]. It's a nice place to live. It's becoming a little bit of a place... relative to its population, it's probably got the most cartoonists [of any area in the U.S.], but obviously there are more cartoonists in the big cities where the population numbers are so much higher.
I wanted ask you a little bit about the Center for Cartoon Studios. When I first heard the name, I was struck with how it's a great name for a learning institution.
I was brainstorming with Ivan Brunetti, and I think he was the one who helped me finalize the name. I wanted to call it the White River School because I've always been impressed by the Black Mountain College. So I thought "The White River School" sounds kind of cool, but that was the name of the elementary school down the street. So I couldn't call it that. Yeah, there's something kind of stuffy about that title, but eventually, it's like naming your kids. Whatever you name it, the personality kind of defines it, not vice versa.
And how is the school going?
It's going really good. We're kind of fortunate that we got up and running before the economic meltdown. But if we had been around for longer, we might have suffered from the economic meltdown, because we maybe would have had more infrastructure, or more debt, maybe we would have bought buildings or whatever. So we kind of hit this sweet spot where we were able to raise money, get up and going, and then when the economy crashed, it didn't affect us too badly because we were already a lean institution. If anything, we get more applications now than we have before. So we've weathered the storm pretty good.
We're very specific in our curriculum. If you love cartooning and you're really committed to getting better fast, you might want to come here. And it's a very deliberate choice, because you're far afield from urban centers. We have a long winter, which we lovingly refer to as cartoon season. And there are several things that make the program very effective: It's a small school with an integrated curriculum, so all the classes work in conjunction, as opposed to most schools where you have a final in one class and a final in another, so you kind of have to pick which one you're going to work on. We try to make the whole curriculum work cohesively. Our faculty are renowned cartoonists. Every week we have [someone here]: Mo Willems, the children's-book author is coming in a week or so. Charles Burns was just here. Alison Bechdel comes every year. Jeff Smith. Ed Emberly. Lynda Barry. On and on. Chris Ware. Art Speigelman. The list goes on. So there's tremendous support. I think we're close enough to New York and Montreal where we can draw some good creators in from those regions. And people like coming up to Vermont and getting out of the city. There's a kind of a quality to this town that they respond to.
The real reason this place is working is we have great students. I've taught at another art design school, or I'll talk to my friends who teach at these very storied art design schools, and they'll tell you that if you have four or five students out of 20 who are focused and ready to go, that's good. And here, we have 20 out of 20. You might lose one or two students a year, but our attrition rate is just shockingly low. We really do due diligence with the students who come here. And because it's such a small program, we can be choosy. We want to make sure it's the right fit. So people really bring it when they come up here.
Do you think this is where you're going to be for a long time? Is this part of your life's work?
That's a good question. I'll definitely be here for the time being. I'm really committed to the school, and I feel like I've arranged my life in such a way that I have time to work on books and I have a fulfilling way to earn an income. And now I have kids, and they seem to like the area. I have a 7-year-old and a soon-to-be 10-year-old—probably by the time this thing gets printed, she'll be 10. I don't see myself going anywhere else. It was funny, about a year and a half ago, I got a call from another art design school, and they were looking for a president and they wanted to know if I'd throw my hat into the ring. I didn't even consider it for a second. Although when I asked how much they paid, it was like twice as much as I was earning, and that hurt a little bit. I guess for the most part, it'd be the last thing—I shouldn't say the last thing I'd want to do—but to have to run a big institution like that seems like a very hard task.
I loved the new book.
Oh, thank you.
I've loved everything of yours that I've read. This one seemed especially interesting to me because there's not a whole lot of art about commerce, it seems to me. Or at least I haven't read much of it.
Did they send you the book? Or did they send you the .pdf?
I have the book in my hand.
The finished hardcover. Why do you ask?
I ask because I feel like reading the book is a different experience than reading the .pdf. And I know that before it came out, some people saw just the .pdf. I think the book has a certain integrity that watching it on the screen lacks.
Yeah, it looks like an earthy book. It has nice texture on the cover and all that. Writing about commerce, about markets, seems, or at least in comics, like something that hasn't been done a lot. Do you disagree?
I don't know. I don't know if I set out to write necessarily about commerce. I think I was trying to explore that tension between making a living and making art. And how Mendelman, for the most part, was living a charmed life until market day. And this was when those things now become forces that unravel him I guess—pardon the pun—and what that does when you are making a living and making art. And especially as I've gotten older—it's been 19 years since The Stranger started—making art does become a war of attrition. And hanging in there. And you see people who stop. In some ways, Market Day was a cautionary tale to myself not to stop.
The pacing of the book feels different than a lot of your other work. I was wondering if the pacing came about because of the work, or if you were looking to work on something differently. Was the pacing something that you were conscious of or did that just serve the story?
Yeah. For starters, the whole book takes place over one day, so there was a sense of wanting to go through the emotional ups and downs of the day. Not rush through the ebb and flow of what that day would be. Part of it was that before this book, I'd done a book called Adventures in Cartooning, which was a children's book, and that book had fewer panels per page, it was very open, and I'd been reading a lot of children's books and in fact, Market Day was originally conceived very early on as a children's book. So I think some of that open quality worked its way in. I was also looking at a lot photography, photographers like Roman Vishniac and Alter Kacyzne... so I was looking at that, having these kind of evocative still images, and I was also looking at this other artist who I really love, Raphael Soyer. He was a printmaker and a painter in the 1920s through to the 1970s. He was very reflective and quiet, and I found that creating that kind of a panel and holding someone there for just a little bit, I don't know, the larger panels started to make sense.
I don't ordinarily do this kind of process thing in interviews, but I was really curious about this one thing: the blank page. You have the penultimate panel, and then the blank page, and the final panel on the last page. I think I understand what you're trying to do, but it seemed like a bold choice to throw the blank page in there at the end, and I was wondering what you had to say about that.
Huh. Well, why don't I hear what you think I was thinking of.
The panel before that, he's at the closed door, and he has his hand on the doorknob, or he's doing something, you can't quite see, it's in silhouette. So the act of going inside the house wasn't shown, so it seemed like a conscious effort to not show his choice. Or how he goes about things, and whether he goes in screaming his apology or whether he turns around and walks away to gather his thoughts some more or something like that.
Gotcha. I like the associations you're bringing to it. I think that's interesting. It's funny, because I actually added that blank page late in the game. I changed it. I originally had it ending on that last panel. And it just seemed to end with a whimper, and the book was already quiet. First of all, for me, ending something on the left page makes it feel incomplete, but ending it on the right page feels like—DONE! And when I look at that last panel, it almost looks to me like this house, him being in this house, could be a trap for him somehow. Focusing on this big panel kind of makes you aware of the deliberateness of the domesticity of it perhaps. I'm not even sure. The real answer is it just felt right. It felt better than anything else I could come up with.
Yeah, like instead of showing the house twice on facing panels or something like that.
Yeah, it just felt like this was able to—the beat it ended on, that beat seemed like a stronger, definitive ending. There you go.
Sorry. I know it's difficult sometimes to talk about this sort of thing.
No, it is difficult, but I also feel like it's a good question, because I work in a very pared-down style, and I go to great pains for every page, and every panel, and every word, and I really feel like I approach comics not just as a jazz musician blowing music out, but very much more like a writer would do a short story and polish every sentence and word, struggle over—you know, even though the work seems simple, I do take certain pains to try to get the right tone or feel. I turned in the book a year ago, spring, and then the publisher needed it early for promotion or this and that, and by the middle of the summer, I was like, wait a minute! I returned and I recolored most of it, I retweaked every other page. Just living with it and returning to it. And that's when I changed the ending as well, and I added a scene and I took something out. It's that constant, very familiar ground to any novelist or writer. Most of cartooning traditionally has been you do a daily strip or a monthly comic book, and it's in, it's out, and it's lining the birdcage. Really, it's only been the last 10 years since this stuff has even been thought of as literature, which is good, but I think that literature has different demands than something that is just created to be instantly ephemeral. And then that stuff has its own charms and merits, of course. But the way I work, this is where I'm coming from.
Was your book Adventures in Cartooning more spontaneous then, or was that planned as well, like this one?
Oh yeah, I think the way comics are constructed it almost belies their complexity or how exact you have to be. For Adventures in Cartooning we went through like four drafts of that thing. And there's a certain kind of... Alexis Frederick-Frost who did the final brush work on it, he has such a lively stroke. And the comic itself looks like it just flew out of his brush. But yeah, we went through so many drafts of that, to get it just right. I mean, the trick is to make it look easy, right?
Did Market Day come about because of your role at the Center? Is it a sort of a teacherly work? I know that it's dedicated to the students.
Well, I don't know. Somebody I was talking to a week or so ago thought that it was an odd message to be sending to my students. It's like: Don't think you're ever gonna make a living from this stuff. Maybe it's a cautionary tale for the people who are just in it for the money. I mean, who knows. In some ways, it's hard to take anything away from something you've lived or done. All of my experiences somehow brought Market Day into the world. For a while, as I started the school and into the first year of the school, I was working on a very ambitious graphic novel about a year in the life of a freshman at an art design school. After being around students all day, and thinking about the school, and setting up the school, and having two young kids, it was getting harder and harder for me to muster the energy to work on the book. I needed a break from that. So I kinda shelved that, and that's when I started working on Market Day. In that sense, the book allowed me to go into another place, which is what I like about working on books—they're a vehicle to explore another world.