The creative impulse is among the most mysterious and attractive impulses on earth. Inspiration can generate an urgency to express ideas, explore facets of the human condition, set fire to a world of ideas! But the blessing of that urge does not also come with skill (put another way, even inspired artists can suck). Generally the artistic impulse is buoyed by some aptitude: writers, for example, tend to have a facility with words, but that’s not true of every impulse (you should see my ugly handicrafts). Regardless, we can take heart in the fact skills can be taught. Are you interested in oil painting but can’t figure it out on your own? There’s a community center class for that! Want to knit lace? There are bottomless tutorials on YouTube! Look hard enough and you’ll find an app for that, but all the world’s answers can’t be found on the Internet.
A revolution in academia opened university classrooms to subjects like Film Studies and Pop Art, in the process giving a context to previously ghettoized areas of culture. While this is true, not every medium got on the bus. Cartoons, a.k.a. graphic novels are traditionally produced by a cherished few and the context for producing, publishing or making money from them is so niche it’d be easier to become a rock star than a financially stable cartoonist. Today, the field had barely any infrastructure and in an act of love and preservation, a cabal of cartoonists started a college to teach the craft. The creation of the institution further validated the form; finally there’s a place to figure out the ontology of panels—but t also follows the model of a trade school, suggesting if you study this craft, you can find work in it because, like I said: there’s an institute and the field is now valid.
I could call this a tragedy but wise filmmakers Josh Melrod and Tara Wray treat it instead like a poetic contradiction. In their doc Cartoon College, they look at the first ever master program for cartoonists, The Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, Vermont. In observing the school’s challenges, Cartoon College watches young hopefuls enter a place full of industry giants only to learn those giants make their living selling things on eBay. Don’t be crestfallen: kids don’t listen, and the students are still bright with hope of agents and book deals, they believe they’ll make a living….Meanwhile the teachers explain they had no delusions they’d craft comics for money when they began in the field. Who knows what the future holds?
The ego on these kids is sobering and sometimes hilarious, but it’s clear they’ll owe their survivals to beliefs like “I’m the next big thing.” One of the school’s students, an unkempt self-proclaimed genius, is turning his in-class accolades into fairly concrete expectations to “arrive” by “my late thirties, early forties.” There are humbling kids too: the young man who says he was perfectly happy working at a deli but now that he has cartooning sees a life bigger than sandwiches. Generally, though, the class appears to be full of students who “aren’t in it just for art’s sake,” and you wonder if these kids hear their teacher talk about their “day jobs.” Or if that earth shaking info lands on ego-clogged ears.
The logistics of the work are reliably hard. It doesn’t cost a lot to do but the hours of writing, scripting, inking and redrawing are so long a minimum wage job seems more financially viable. You can’t do this casually and who would do it for anything but love?
The Museum of Comic and Cartoon Arts (MOCCA) in New York hosts an annual convention that presents the artists a fleeting and crucial moment to meet the market. While the publishing world has neither space nor interest in the work of untested cartoonists, MOCCA’s convention is like “a farmer’s market” where interested people can peruse hand-published originals for sale…or trade. Bartering won’t buy you lunch but you have to network somehow. In the bigger picture, the convention anchors a somewhat nebulous community of readers while giving cartoonists a shot at creating opportunity for themselves—and they have to create opportunity because there’s no such thing as a “job opening” in their field. Thank God youth is known for indomitability.
To add another layer: Not all the school’s students are young. The most memorable (and my favorite) is a partially deaf, patrician old man whose primary career was editing a scholarly journal of anthropology. Al is rotund and white bearded and while he sticks out among his hipster coeds his patient and thorough description of his journey fill in the details the other student interviews can’t. He elegantly states quite basic expectations, for example, his hope that studying at the college will improve his drawing skill (ultimately it doesn’t). But after a hiatus Al returns to White River Junction saying he returns to feel again a sense of shared purpose. That feeling is a tacit truth of college in general; people corralled for a concentrated time and task will create a distinct sensation. (Can you feel the nostalgia? I’m thinking of the Sarah Lawrence pub right now.) Even the most outsider of the bunch knows the feeling, and more pointedly, the fact he’s outside of the social group gives him the distance to see it all more clearly.
Most of the students identify with this notion of being “outside” and that seems to feed the distinct urge to narrate with panels—as if the clarity demanded by phrases and pictures has some relationship to the isolation “outside” a social group. The professors encourage social interaction—by necessity. One says, “Doesn’t matter if you don’t get along, you’re pals for life.” Maybe Cartoon College is an arty Island of Misfit Toys, but the industry isn’t and part of maturing into the field is observing that transition.
What this art field lacks in stability and financial promise it recovers with products of incredible diversity and deeply felt pathos. The field resembles nothing like what it did when Dick Tracy ruled the roost. And with so many perspectives competing for attention and so few “houses” dictating style, comics begin to look like conceptual art: less cartoon and more artoon. It’s a unique medium, resonating a kind of preciousness and clarity that attracts tunnel-like focus and so can create as much a dawning as leaving the darkness to reach the tunnel’s open end—that’s where the sun has maybe never been brighter.
When you think about choosing a field, you might not consciously ask yourself “what does this field value?” but you likely chose your field because it values something you cherish. I realize not all career paths are the same, and it’s also a little tenuous to characterize comics as a career path, but part of what Cartoon College investigates is this ambiguity. This medium opens a world of barely map-able feeling, a way of seeing, a means of turning experience into something shareable, that deserves the development achieved in and by an institution. Maybe the work isn’t easy to “monetize” but when haven’t artists struggled? If you really care about what you’re doing, risk and reward can look like equal and opposite reactions.