A Brief Introduction: I am a 39-year-old cartoonist (an old 39). I live in White River Junction, Vt., an old railroad town on the New Hampshire border that is as cool as it sounds. I have two daughters. The older one is about to turn 5; the younger one turns 3 in June. Last April, my wife and I bought our first home, an old Victorian fixer-upper. It's a half-mile from the small downtown, so I either walk to work or, when it's really cold, drive.
Here's Why I Moved to Vermont: My graphic novel, The Golem's Mighty Swing, was released in July of 2001. I was 36 years old at the time (a young 36). I'd spent the previous four years teaching cartooning at an art and design college in the Southeast. I was ready to move on and figured this was as good a time as any.
My in-laws own a vacation house in Hartland, Vt., which they used to rent out for most of the year. When their tenant stopped paying rent, they figured if someone was going to sponge off of them it might as well be family. So in we moved. My publisher sent me on a book tour, and I was invited to a couple of European comic festivals. I hoped to find another teaching job. Having crisscrossed the country over the past 20 years (for all the usual reasons: school, relationships, work, and good old-fashioned wanderlust), I was looking forward, with my growing family, to "settling down."
Here's Why I Stayed in Vermont: After a year, no great (or even almost great) teaching opportunity presented itself. I supported myself as a freelance illustrator (managing to score a New Yorker cover) and writing comics for Marvel. Although I found this work interesting, it was not something I figured on making a career out of. I'm not sure I have the right temperament or skills to be a successful freelancer over the long term.
I had always entertained the notion of starting a school for cartoonists who draw on their own and who take their craft as seriously as any sculptor or painter or poet. I mentioned this idea to my friend Matt Dunne. Matt's a Vermont state senator, and he encouraged me to consider starting my school in his home state. Matt is a mighty and generous conduit, and before I knew it I had a list of phone numbers and e-mails of people to bounce ideas off of. For two years now the project has been moving along, and we're now admitting students to begin taking classes this coming September.
A Word About White River Junction: In its heyday, WRJ was a major New England transportation hub. Over the last several decades, with the railroad era long gone (and retail businesses fleeing to tax-free New Hampshire), the downtown suffered. In the last few years, however, White River Junction's fortunes seem to be reversing. Creative-minded folks have begun occupying the village's eclectic stock of antique brick and wooden buildings. They started artist studios, a printmaking cooperative, a used bookstore, a regional theater company, a natural food co-op, a costume shop, a retro-clothing store, and the Main Street Museum (something akin to the Los Angeles Museum of Jurassic Technology). My friend Kim Souza (who owns Revolution, the retro-clothing store) refers to WRJ as "the East Village of the Upper Valley." The town has become a poster child for what economists and community planners call the "creative economy," a phrase that refers to downtown revitalization built around the arts. Studies show that investment in creative infrastructure—like tax breaks for theater companies or rent breaks for artists' studios—yields higher dividends than investment in physical infrastructure like power lines, bridges, fancy sidewalks.
Coffee: All that said, downtown WRJ is still only a few square blocks and has a few too many empty storefronts. The town's biggest need (in my own selfish opinion) is a decent cafe. The coffee in this town really stinks. All you can get is gas station coffee. I've recently become a regular coffee drinker for the first time in my life. I sometimes find myself driving to Hanover, N.H., (10 minutes away and home of Dartmouth College) to get a potent cup of coffee.
This fall, 20 students are coming to downtown WRJ for two years to learn to make comics and graphic novels. I'm doing my part and will have classrooms, a library, and a production lab ready to go. I hope someone, somewhere, will step up and have a cafe ready. College students need a quality cup of joe and a cool place to drink it. Where else will they scrawl in their journals?
James Sturm is the author ofThe Golem's Mighty Swing, named Time magazine's best graphic novel of 2001, and the recently released Above and Below, Two Tales of the American Frontier.