The Comics Journal interview with James Sturm

“Still Understanding” / The Comics Journal / Tom Spurgeon / April 13, 2003

TOM SPURGEON: Let me ask you about the McCloud comic essay that you and Art Baxter did for an issue of the Journal. You very recently made a positive reference to McCloud's book, even after the thousands of words that have been written either disparaging or picking over Scott's work. You referred to it as the seminal text for teaching comics.

JAMES STURM: Understanding Comics is a great text for teaching comics. Is it the Bible? No. But it's a way of initiating discussion. At least it's something there that you can respond to. I hear far more praise for it than I do criticism. I don't understand why people disparage it.

SPURGEON: Has it been useful to you as a teaching tool?

STURM: Yeah. It's wonderful. My intro class, there's so much studio work so there was not much time to read, but we read that, we read Maus, and we read On Directing Film by David Mamet. And these three texts give a pretty solid, at least a jumping-off point to talk about most things that I want to discuss or things that I feel should be brought up.

SPURGEON: Maus because of its understated formalism?

STURM: That for sure, and just how accomplished it is in every respect. Art is someone who thinks through every line he puts on paper and has a reason for it being there. I think the best cartoonists are very deliberate; nothing's an accident. Until Jimmy Corrigan came out, maybe, you'd be hard-pressed to compare anything to Maus in terms of what it accomplished. I'm sure you could, but I can't think of anything off the top of my head.

SPURGEON: You lay the responsibility for better work at the artist's feet.

STURM: Sure. You can complain all that you want about comics and how horrible the industry is and a lot of cartoonists are so defeatist about it. How do you change people's minds? How do you offer evidence to the contrary? You have to make good work. And you can't wait until someone publishes you. You have to have that faith that this will find a place. And if there's enough of this stuff, people will start recognizing it.

SPURGEON: Art Spiegelman said on Sixty Minutes II recently that he's almost come to a different opinion in the last six months to a year as to how many artists were taking up this responsibility to produce good work. Has your opinion changed as to how much good work is being done?

STURM: I think there's a tremendous amount of work, really interesting and good work being done. I think that a lot of these people are relatively young. People need to stick with it for longer. When I went to SPX and saw Kevin Huizenga's work or Clumsy I was blown away. There's a lot of people I think doing good work right now.

SPURGEON: And that's different from what you saw four or five years ago, when you wrote the piece?

STURM: I was supposed to respond to a specific chapter of Understanding Comics. I think I was reacting to something in Scott's general enthusiasm: "The medium itself was jet-propelled -- just strap it on!" I don't think he meant that, of course, but you know what I mean. Unbridled optimism is one of Scott's gifts and perhaps I was unfairly trying to balance that with some pessimism.

SPURGEON: You seem to have a very different opinion now than you did then. As an art form, you said back then comics are in a state of arrested development.

STURM: I still think that. I'm excited about it, but 99 percent of the stuff being done is still garbage. Isn't it?

SPURGEON: It seems to me that there is a definite increase in the amount of considerable work, maybe not great work, but stuff that you'd even consider to be decent work or worth looking at.

STURM: I agree with that. Just think of all of these cartoonists that saw Maus in their high-school and college years who are now coming of age. And now, think of all of those kids that are in high school and college who are coming across not just Crumb and Spiegelman but Seth, Ware, Clowes, etc. I'm optimistic about comics. I think there are always going to be people that want to do it. The general skill level is pretty high. With desktop publishing as well, people are able to make these beautifully designed things and make it look like something substantial rather quickly. Hopefully some of these people will have something to say. I'm optimistic. Yeah

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