Getting out of the house this morning is exhausting. Eva, my 4-year-old, moves at her own deliberate pace.
Me: Eva, time to get dressed now.
Eva: I just got to do one thing.
Me: OK, do that one thing and then get dressed or we'll be late for school.
(ten minutes later)
Me: Let's get dressed, we have to go.
Eva: I'm busy.
Eva: (continues dressing a doll or cutting out little paper squares)
Me: If you don't come right now we are not going.
Eva (screaming): THAT IS NOT FAIR! YOU ARE A POO-POO HEAD!!
Charlotte, 2, doesn't like to wear socks or tights. Getting her into either leads to loud screaming. I make lunches. Hysterical screaming escalates. I check to determine if daughters are playing or if someone has backed into the wood-burning stove. They are fighting over the discarded cap to the milk bottle. Wrestle the kids into their winter gear. More screams and whining. Today I take Charlotte to her school and Rachel, my wife, drives Eva. After getting out of the house, the rest of the day seems easy.
Arriving in White River Junction, the first thing I do is check the P.O. box for the cartoon school. The arrival of a prospective student's application or school transcript (heralding a future application) is cause for celebration. Today one comes in from Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash. Great Evergreen alumni cartoonists spring to mind: Lynda Barry, Charles Burns, Matt Groening. Evergreen transcripts are not grades but written narratives by instructors. They really give you a good feel for the applicant, like reading a student's biography.
My studio/office is in the same building as the Baker's Studio (lousy coffee but great bagels, and I'm a New York Jew bagel snob). I share the office with Michelle Ollie, the school's co-founder, who moved from Minneapolis, where she worked at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, to join me. Michelle and I are the school's only two full-time employees. She receives the e-mails that come in through the school's Web site, and today she reports that a half-dozen inquiries from prospective students arrived in the last 24 hours. Spikes like this usually result after high-profile media attention, which are crucial since we don't have much of a publicity budget. In this case, Print magazine has just featured a two-page interview with me talking about the school.
The next order of business this morning is to go through applications. We've already accepted 16 students for our first class starting in the fall. Figuring that the first year will be full of surprises, we are limiting enrollment to 20 students (or maybe 23, taking attrition into account). I first envisioned the Center for Cartoon Studies as a graduate program. That idea was scratched early on. As a new school, it seemed unwise to limit the potential pool of applicants in that way. And there are so many great cartoonists who dropped out of college; I didn't want to close the door to them.
Our first wave of applicants has been a pleasant surprise. Their average age is 24—older than we expected. More than half are women, which is refreshing because comics have traditionally been a boys' club. They're well-educated, with degrees from schools including U.C. Berkeley, Dartmouth, Cornell, Bryn Mawr, and Bates. Many majored in English or science. All seem to have a healthy dose of pioneer spirit and excitement about being part of the school's first class. As much as the faculty, they will determine the type of institution CCS will become.
So far, Michelle and I have leaned toward accepting students who may not have great drawing skills but are bright, curious, and highly literate. Drawing is easier to teach than critical thinking. Don't get me wrong, rendering well is a tremendous asset for a cartoonist. Still, I think it is often over emphasized. In fact, many of the great cartoonists sublimate their drawing skills and instead favor a style that relies more heavily on graphic design. They distill images until they function more as language or picture-writing.
The second wave of applicants we've gotten are fresh out of high school. A lot of these kids draw amazingly well, heavily influenced by manga, Japanese comics. They have a high comic-book IQ, with an innate sense of how to lay out a page and propel a narrative. The down side of most of their applications is that the sample work submitted is quite derivative and clichéd. Would these students benefit from a few years at a liberal arts college before coming to CCS? How will they mesh with older students? Will they be at a disadvantage? More questions than answers at this point.
Today I have to make a decision about a young applicant whom I have been on the fence about. TR (not his real initials) dropped out of college after one year. His application essay was laced with obscenity, and his primitively scrawled comic portfolio was equally obscene—but, like the essay, funny as hell. I interviewed TR by phone a few weeks ago, and he came across as smart, cocky, angry, and immature. Could be a handful. This morning I sat down and reread his comics. Laughed out loud. What the hell, there's a grand tradition of great angry and immature cartoonists. Sent out TR's acceptance letter today.
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.