Interview: James Sturm Parts 1&2
by Brian Heater
Arriving in spring of this year, Market Day marks James Sturm’s first major solo work since founding the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, VT. Though set in a turn-of-the-century Eastern European market, it doesn’t take too much digging to surmise that the book is as much a comment on life as an artist in modern America as anything that might have affected the lives of artisans 100 years ago and half a world away.
Sturm, now a father of two, clearly invested much of his own life into the story of a rug weaver forced to make a choice between his art and his growing family. Happily, however, the author seems to have largely avoided such forced choices. In 2001, Sturm moved his young family to Vermont. Three years later, CCS was opened in an abandoned department store in downtown White River.
All the while, Sturm has been steadily releasing titles, including 2007’s children’s book, Saitchel Page: Striking Out Jim Crow, and last year’s Adventures in Cartooning, a how-to book co-authored by two CCS students.
You’re in Vermont full-time?
Yep, I live in White River Junction. Moved here in 2001.
Did the location of the school come out of your residency there, or were you really looking for a spot to open it when you moved?
In 2001, The Golem’s Mighty Swing had just been published, and I’d left my job at the Savannah School of Art and Design. My in-laws had a second home in Hartland, Vermont. They rented it out over the years. The tenant was leaving, and my father-in-law was retiring, and it was going to be vacant. We moved in until we figured out what we wanted to do. We really liked this area. I couldn’t find an opportunity to teach that I really felt comfortable with, so the opportunity to start a school here came up.
When you say “opportunity,” you mean in the sense that it was presented to you?
Well, opportunity in terms of there was this great little village I fell in love with, White River Junction. In terms of space that was available. I had a good friend who was a state senator, who is actually now running for governor. He was able to plug me in to the Vermont legislature, in order to restore an old dilapidated department store on Main st. he introduced me to other people in the area to help build an organization.
Unlike a graphic novel, you can’t just sit down and do it. You’ve got to bring together a lot of resources. You need people and money and even institutions to help you do such a thing. That all just started coming together up here. in 2002, my youngest daughter was born, so that’s when I moved out of the very rural home I was living in in Hartland. When my second was born, there was just no way in the world I was going to get any artwork done. I got a studio in White River Junction, and started working out of there. I really just began this love affair with the village.
So, in a sense the school was born out of the studio?
It wasn’t born out of the studio so much as it was born out of this perfect storm. White River was a depressed village that was very welcoming—a small art school was a perfect fit. It already this artistic community thing going on, but it was a struggling down town, so I think they were very open to that. Another domino that was in place was, this 2002-2003, when graphic novel fever had hit the country. Everyone had that feeling that comics had finally arrived. It wasn’t so outlandish to think that there could be a college devoted to comics—that you could get an MFA program in comics. It made sense.
So, in terms of the national mood regarding comics, and this local mood towards economic development at White River Junction, those two stars aligned. And there’s still this idea that’s discussed with economists about the “creative economy,” and how factors like investing in the arts is almost as important as investing in the physical infrastructure. There were studies being commissioned then that said, if you invest in zones that are rent-free for artists and try to subsidize small businesses—it’s like, once upon a time, Greenwich Village wasn’t a nice neighborhood. The artists move in, and then the rents go higher.
Yeah [laughs]. Though back in White River, I don’t think we’re ready for that quite yet. So that idea certainly felt very pertainant, at the time.
There’s clearly a difference between starting a school like SVA in New York, versus starting CCS in a small town in Vermont. Do you feel like the area is more conducive to academics, in terms of removing the distractions and making people almost band together?
I certainly think that’s a big element to it. it is a bit more isolated, so it does breed a sense of community. If you’re an undergraduate, let’s say, at SVA, after class is over, the city just kind of swallows you up. I actually went to graduate school at the School of Visual Arts—you have a friend in Queens and you live in Brooklyn or Manhattan, months go by where you don’t see somebody. That’s normal. Even though you live I the same city, you don’t feel like you’re crossing paths all that much. But in a place like White River Junction, everybody is everybody’s neighbor in a very intense sense.
Are you finding that people are sticking around the town after graduation?
Yeah. Every year there’s two or three or four people that just wind up staying. Some stay for a few years. The school’s only been here since 2005, but we people from that graduating class that still live in town. So, yeah. There are a lot of cartoonists now that are either alumni or just came to White River because it seemed like a cool place. So that’s kind of neat. And of course there’s faculty. Jason Lutes moved out here to teach. Steve Bissette moved closer.
It’s funny, you hear about planned communities—pre-fabricated suburbs developed after World War II. It sounds almost as if you’re creating an artistic enclave version of that.
Well, the community is almost a bi-product of creating the school. Almost in the same way that, when Fantagraphics moved to Seattle, a bunch of cartoonists moved with them, and it because this really great cartooning town. But I don’t think Fantagraphics set out to create a community of cartoonists. They just wanted to publish more books, and it made more sense to move out to Seattle, for whatever reason. So, I mean, I love the fact that there’s a really rich community of alumni and graduates and just local artists that all play and work together and share studio space. I think that’s terrific.
I never said, “how do I plan a community?” I’m just trying to put together the best curriculum together. That said, we try to have this major production lab in our flagship building, and we make sure out alumni have access to it. Alumni are encouraged to attend presentations by the visiting artists. And I’m working with four alumni on various projects. It’s fun having everybody around, so I guess we do try to encourage community in that sense.
In this second part of our interview with the Market Day author, we discuss the factors that brought Sturm, then fresh out of SVA’s graduate program, to Seattle. While in the Emerald City, the artist helped co-found the alternative weekly, The Stranger, alongside Tim Keck, one of the founders of The Onion. Sturm now has another prominent cartooning-centric day job, as the founder of the Center for Cartooning Studies in his current home of White River Junction, Vermont.
We discuss the importance of such labors of love on the life and career of an artist, and whether or not its worth giving it all for a She-Hulk mini-series.
Was it Fantagraphics and the subsequent cartooning scene that originally brought you to Seattle?
Yeah. Three things brought me to Seattle. One is that I had finished SVA. My studio space in Manhattan was no longer going to be available to me. I was feeling kind of isolated in this little apartment in Astoria, Queens. I like collaboration and I like working with other people—and I also like spending hours and hours by myself at the drawing table.
You picked the right career.
Yeah [laughs]. So I moved to Seattle because I had finished school. Fantagraphics had just started publishing The Cereal Killings, which was my first attempt a graphic novel. And a friend of mine from my undergraduate days at the University of Wisconsin was starting his second newspaper—he had already started The Onion. He was starting a newspaper in Seattle called The Stranger. He asked me if I would come out and be his first art director. So, between Fantagraphics and The Stranger and having graduated, it was an easy decision.
We you working on The Stranger in the capacity of being a cartoonist?
Yeah, I edited all of the comics and tried to get as many in the pages as possible. I featured a lot of cartoonists on the cover. Any cartoonist that was willing, we’d put on the cover of The Stranger in the mid-90s, from Jim Woodring to Chris Ware to Llyod Dangle—the list goes on and on. We got all of them involved in the paper, in one way or another. We published early Michael Kupperman, when he was known as P. Revess. Early Snake n’ Bacon and Sam Henderson strips, Tony Millionaire and Kaz. I did that, I wrote for them. I was their theater reviewer, for a really short period of time.
That’s what really fun about startups. You have to wear a lot of hats and think on your feet. I sold advertisements, I distributed papers, when need be. You do a little bit of everything. You lend the paper money, just to keep it running. At the same time, I was working on The Cereal Killings book for Fantagraphics. So it was a very intense part of my life, but when you’re young and in your 20s, you can do that.
You were doing all of those things then and now you’re running the school and still making books. Do you foresee a point when you’re working on your comics full-time?
I kind of feel like I need both of these things. Maybe I could make a living doing comics right now, if I wanted to write a She-Hulk mini-series, or something [laughs]. I’m not interested in that. Not that I wouldn’t work for Marvel. I have and, who knows, I wouldn’t rule anything out in the future with them or DC or any of these publishers who would pay you to do a series like that.
The kind of comics I really enjoy working on and doing, they don’t necessarily pay any bills. And I don’t want to do that work just for the money. I guess, in some ways, working at CCS feels like a real privilege and an honor, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say that, on certain days, it feels just like a day job, and I’d rather be in my studio, working. That sounds a little like whining, doesn’t it [laughs]?
Does the day job detract from your ability to make books?
It’s so hard to say. I try to have the work I actually produce be shaped by my life and my interior temperature. Something like Adventures in Cartooning, which, at least from a commercial standpoint, might be the most successful book I’ve done, I couldn’t have done that without my two collaborators, who are first year students at CCS. That book is as much theirs as mind. So to say that, had I taken the school out of the equation, would I have been more prolific, well, that book would have never gotten done.
It’s clear how a book like is that pulled from your real life, but many of your books are period pieces. The new one is old eastern European. Are you still drawing from every day life for those?
Yeah, absolutely. I feel like any of those books I’ve ever done could have been an autobiographical comic. If I would have put me in the middle of it, it would have felt too self-serving. I would have had to deal with all of the issues with how I present myself. By fictionalizing aspects of it, it gives me a certain distance from the material, where I’m in a better position to shape the material.
The book clearly parallels the life of the modern artist. It speaks to something we were just discussing—not being able to support a family on an artist’s wages. Was that your life at one point?
Sure. It’s still my life. How many graphic novels are there out there that are best sellers in the way that literary best sellers are? Like Jonathan Lethem—something that’s published as a book, and you know it’s going to sell 50,000 or 100,000 copies. It almost feels like I’m entering an issue of What If? I don’t know how to respond to it, because that isn’t what happened. Could it have better? Could it have been worse? I know I wouldn’t have had as many rich experiences in terms of starting the school.
It’s been fantastic, in terms of the relationships that have been forged with faculty members and people that helped start the school with me. Learning so much about cartooning from all of the visiting artists that we’ve had. Feeling for the first time in my life like I’m a good citizen and having a stake in my community. All of that stuff is wonderful. When you come of age as an artist, you feel like it’s so devalued by society that you get into this kneejerk response of protecting every moment, that the time is a precious commodity. You just want to protect it and barricade yourself into your studio cave. I feel like I was reacting from that place from a very long time.
Now I realize that there’s something that you’re shutting yourself out of, when you do that. It’s another thing when you have kids, as well. You can’t just be functioning on everything is going to be funneled toward my art. It’s a position that you can’t sustain for many reasons.
JAMES STURM is interviewed by the Daily Cross Hatch
Interview: James Sturm Parts 1&2