One of the most endearing things you’ll see in the documentary, “Cartoon College,” a 2012 film by Josh Melrod and Tara Wray, is Lynda Barry’s declaration of love for anyone who is a cartoonist. Lynda Barry is an interesting case in point. Her style is “outsider” raw while, at the same time, highly sophisticated. It won’t be mistaken for Rembrandt but it’s not supposed to be. Lynda Barry’s comics are authentic, entertaining, and thought-provoking. But can you teach someone how to become another Lynda Barry?
The problem with art school is that you really can’t teach someone to become an artist. If you’re an artist, you’re an artist way before you ever enroll, before you ever realize it. You are there to refine what you know, and resist unlearning what you already know, which seems sort of crazy but that’s basically what is going on. In this case, we’re talking about a very particular animal, the “independent cartoonist.” This is truly a rare creature and yet it appears that it has become a much celebrated one worthy of emulating.
At times, it seems like a curse to belong to this breed of cartoonist, one that favors art and literary projects. It’s nearly impossible to really understand this cartoonist unless you’re one yourself. However, “Cartoon College” sheds light on this mysterious activity often misunderstood and romanticized. In fact, this documentary provides you with loads of information on the current state of the comics medium. You may hear about how hot comics are from various pop culture experts, which this documentary gives voice to, but it also goes deeper as we are treated to exploring one of the undeniable hot spots for this emerging art form, The Center for Cartoon Studies, located in White River Junction, Vermont.
As James Sturm, the co-founder of CCS points out, there is no way to know who will make it through the two year program. The only thing he can say with some certainty is that cartoonists of this ilk, at the top of their game, could possibly be a bit arrogant. But, just like in sports, if you’re ready to get in the game, then you’ll appreciate learning from the MVPs. It’s another way of saying that it’s all a crapshoot and those who are going to succeed will find a way.
We get some great insight into what the comics arts today are all about from CCS faculty member Stephen R. Bissette. He likens what is going on now with what went on at Andy Warhol’s Factory in the ’60s. He emphasizes that Warhol’s activity was on a small scale involving only a few staff and a couple of small galleries. The experimentation, the excitement, and the sense of breaking new ground from back then is going on now with indie cartoonists.
If you come into this documentary with no prior knowledge of the comics medium, just let a student at CCS be your guide. The documentary follows the progress of some of the students in the two year program that leads to a Masters in Cartooning degree. The final hurdle before graduation is presentation of a thesis, a complete comics narrative that demonstrates what the student has gained from study at CCS. One compelling example is Blair Sterrett. Even within the indie circles of CCS, there are distinctions to be made: some aspiring cartoonists are eager to pursue a professional fast track while others are more on a quest to tell a story. Sterrett is definitely on a quest.
There is nothing wrong with Sterrett’s art except that he is far behind in completing his thesis. He is so far behind that the prospects of his graduating on time look very poor. His comics narrative is about his time as a missionary. As he admits himself, the story is difficult to express since it’s so personal. That’s the interesting challenge he must confront. He has a subject that is so compelling to him that it inspires him to create art from and yet it’s too personal for him to easily let loose and share with the world. In the end, he must find his way.
Another CCS faculty member, Alec Longstreth, sensing a need to explain what it’s all about, provides a beautiful example in his describing some panels from Craig Thompson’s “Blankets.” He is moved by his own words as he relates the magic of a finely paced sequence. A sad exit is made. A car pulls out of a lot. The last panel shows the car literally falling off the page. Good teachers often feel the need to provide inspiring examples. It helps their students, and it helps them, get through the day.
Ultimately, a cartoonist and their work will remain something of a mystery but the appreciation of their art is accessible to anyone who cares to take the time. If there is one thing this film may take for granted is the innate worth of comics as an art form and why it would be so attractive today to pursue. Is it because it’s so cool? Is it because there’s a potential to break into a lucrative career? Or is it because it’s such a fascinating form of storytelling? There are any number of reasons why people are attracted to the idea of becoming cartoonists. In the end, some will make it and some, just a few really, will become superstars. Many, however, will get just what they need from it and that’s what a good art school can do for you.
“Cartoon College” is an essential documentary on the art movement of our times. It is available for purchase. Just visit the official website here.