Tuesday, September 21, 2010

James Sturm: Modern Storytelling in a Period Setting

Words: Christopher Irving . Pictures: Seth Kushner

“I love teaching but I hate working for big institutions and bureaucracies,” James Sturm candidly states in a Manhattan coffee shop. He’s out of his usual element of White River Junction, Vermont, where his groundbreaking Center for Cartoon Studies is headquartered. “It’s hard enough to be a good teacher but then when you have to manage upwards and be constantly fighting for resources—I’ve been through that and I don’t enjoy it. I knew it would be a lot of work to start a school, but the rewards are greater, because you can have a lot more autonomy.”

They aren’t surprising words coming out of the mouth of the affable Sturm: his work  combines documentary-like pacing with historically-based subject matter—be it 2001’s Golem’s Mighty Swing, based in the Hassidic leagues of baseball’s past, or his latest graphic novel, Market Day, which extols the tribulations of a Jewish rugmaker in the old country. His cartooning succeeds in being both masterful and experimental, without being too much of either, and entirely lacking in pretense. It's not surprising that he applies the same attitude towards teaching comics.

“Coming from my background in comics, I was really inspired by the underground cartoonists and alternative cartoonists,” he continues. “If you wanted to get published you make your comic and publish it (even if it’s printed at Kinko’s), so I just took this mindset to education and said ‘Why not just start a school?’”

The Center for Cartoon Studies, located in an old department store, boasts a modest student body of around 100. The small size is more a result of intentional design than limitation, especially when considering the streamlined curriculum that focuses more on “cartooning” than “drawing comics”.

“One of the things that we’re able to do at CCS (because it’s a small school and the curriculum is integrated) is that everyone takes the same classes. They’re assigned writing in a writing class where they’re laying things out, drawing something in another class, and then scanning the art in for the production class. It’s not like most comic art schools where you have three different classes and have three finals due and have to decide what project to give the ‘A’ effort to.

“One of the main philosophies at CCS is, from the first assignment, to have students create finished work. If I give a one-page assignment, the finished product will be twenty copies that are handed out for critique. If you want to be a cartoonist, you have to do the work: you can’t just talk about your characters and plot, and research endlessly. You actually have to make finished pages and finish your comics. The assignments get more and more ambitious, and there’s more and more room for them to explore their own personal obsessions and interests.

    “The other thing that is nice is that we only have twenty-four students, and only accept up to that a year. We are picky, and do a lot of due diligence. I think that a lot of other programs, from what I’ve heard from other instructors, is that if they get four out of twenty students who really want to be there and ready to learn, they consider themselves lucky. That’s the sad truth of most art schools. With twenty students that are ready to go, it creates an atmosphere where there’s healthy competition and the level of discourse is high.”

    According to Sturm, many of the teachers and visiting artists really contribute to the inner workings of his cartooning school, marking a veritable Who’s Who of talent:

“I was able to get some great people involved right away: Paul Karasik, Chris Ware, Seth, Alison Bechdel, Jules Feiffer, Garry Trudeau, Art Spiegelman, and the list goes on. We have great instructors like Jason Lutes, Alec Longstreth, and Steve Bissette. And the locals have been very supportive. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to White River Junction, but it’s a dying railroad town that has reinvented itself as a haven for the arts. It’s a very idiosyncratic and incredible place, and there’s this wonderful creative spirit there.

“We had a little shindig at the Main Street Museum, on a deck overlooking White River. When Jonathan Lethem visited he played Poker with students until the wee hours of the morning. These types of intimate exchanges with such high-end talent would be almost impossible at a big school.”

    After a stint at self-publishing his comics in the late 1980s, working for Art Spiegelman on Raw in 1990, and co-founding Seattle’s weekly paper The Stranger, Sturm’s 1991 comic book The Cereal Killings came out from Fantagraphics. He followed that up five years later with the self-published The Revival .

    It’s 1801 Kentucky, as a congregation convenes in the mountains to see a faith healer. Husband and wife Joseph and Sarah have a special request of the faith healer, Elijah, when they pull the dead body of their late daughter out of a trunk for him to bring back to life.

    The Revival,  while roughly drawn in places, comes about with a slow pace that is jarred with the revelation of the dead child, simultaneously casting both sympathy and terror to the grieving mother.

“With historical fiction I can still sink my teeth into any emotional and spiritual themes I’m currently wrestling with, but can also have some proper distance,” Sturm points out. “I also like the challenge of making another era seem vital and real.”

He continues the historical fiction track with 1998’s Hundred of Feet Below Daylight, which follows a depressed mining town after its gold mine dries up and how the introduction of an old miner’s life savings ignites a powder keg of greed and violence. Where Revival works at a slow pace, gradually introducing the characters and elements and then jarring the reader with the revelation, Daylight throws the reader into the middle of the chaotic world of these miners in 1886. And with Revival  is drawn in a more open style, Daylight is weighed down with heavy black lines and imbued with long, dark shadows.

“When I was doing Hundreds of Feet Below Daylight, I was looking at a lot of illustrators from Leslie’s and Collier’s, and these frontier artists who went out for newspapers to document it,” James notes. “I thought that [look] was more appropriate for the density, and the darkness and the inks, since they were going underground and in tunnels.”

It was Sturm’s follow-up, The Golem’s Mighty Swing, that cemented him as a historical dramatist in comics form: the book garnered wide stream media praise that included Best Graphic Novel of 2000 by Time magazine.

Golem’s follows the hardships of the Zion Lions, a Jewish baseball team of the early 20th century who performed under the pressures of anti-Semitism as they traveled from town to town in a broken-down bus. When a promoter encourages them to dress their one African American player, Henry, as the golem from Fritz Lang’s silent film masterpiece, it incites a small riot that is fueled by his newly acquired mythical presence.
Where Revival and Hundred Feet Below were populated with heavy blacks and finer details, Golem’s is more airy with freer ink lines, more open panels, and sepia tone. Golem’s storytelling also feels more decompressed, with moments frozen in a panel into dramatic beats. The Chinese miners being beaten to death in the opening chapter of Hundred Feet comes suddenly and impersonally, while the between-the-panels beating of one of Lions’ player Lev is made all the more personal through the reader’s connection with Lev leading up to the attack.

Golem’s Mighty Swing uncovers a little-known period of old time baseball, as teams scrounged from town to town, often crossing their games with the trappings of vaudeville to play on or defuse racial fears. Watching the game on paper creates as riveting a dramatic experience as the most suspenseful crime comic.

“I’d just read The Island of Dr. Moreau, and I love that literary convention of starting with ‘You’ve probably read about the following story in the newspaper, but here’s the real story,’” James laughs when asked about Fantastic Four: Unstable Molecules.

In the early 2000s, Marvel Comics was dipping into the pool of alternative and indy talent to produce unique slants on their established superheroes, and when it came time for the Fantastic Four, it was Sturm who took the narrative reins.

When Unstable Molecules came out, the conceit was that Sturm had discovered that the Fantastic Four were actually based off of real people! And to add to the golly, gee whiz-iness of it all, he was actually related to the real life forebears, Johnny and Sue Sturm! Now the truth could be told, in a four issue miniseries written by Sturm and drawn by Guy Davis that delved into the Cold War era origins of the “real” Four.

Sue is an independent woman trapped by the confines of domesticity, between archaic boyfriend Reed and the responsibilities of her delinquent brother Johnny, while Ben is an ex-boxer friend with feelings for Sue.
While that one line encapsulates the original Stan Lee and Jack Kirby comic book of the ‘60s, Sturm turned it on its ear by making the world of Unstable Molecules the real America of the late ‘50s, warts and all.

The real meat of Unstable Molecules is where Johnny encounters a group of Beats and is introduced to the wonders of Jack Kerouac and On the Road.

“I got the idea for Unstable Molecules from reading On the Road,” Sturm admits. “There’s a line in the book that goes something like, ‘I want to go up in the sky and burn, burn, burn like a Roman Candle.’ This was 1959 and was the bible for people who wanted to hit the open road in search of adventure. Johnny Storm would have been reading Kerouac in 1961 when FF #1 came out.”

The 2003 series won the Eisner for “Best Limited Series” the following year, around the same time Sturm’s Center for Cartoon Studies was gearing up.

Mendleman lies awake in bed on the opening page of Market Day, setting the foreboding tone for Sturm’s latest graphic novel. When he makes the journey to the market to sell the rugs he has painstakingly crafted, he is faced with the cheapening of merchandise and loss of craft. With an impending child at home, he is forced to deal with a large warehouse market removed from the market place itself. It isn’t hard to impose a modern artist’s struggle to make ends meet in the world of Wal-Marts and mass production on this period book.

“I tried to have a quiet, deliberate pacing and creating the right atmosphere was very important,” Sturm says matter-of-factly. “I wanted to make this world of [pre-war] Eastern European Jewry come alive.”
The pacing of Market Day honors the slow narrative beat even more than Golem’s, with several panels of decompressed storytelling, given breathing space by sprawling vista-like panels that convey the aspects of Mendleman’s world. Market Day also features layers of color, rather than the wash-like single tone of Sturm’s earlier work.

“It certainly doesn’t have the density of a lot of contemporary cartoonists, like Matt Brinkman or Chris Ware,” James reflects. “I like the way that these artists use density to manipulate time and achieve emotional depth in their work. With Market Day, it was originally meant to be a children’s book. I was working on Adventures in Cartooning, a graphic novel for new readers while working on Market Day. Adventures in Cartooning is more like a picture book and I found a nice rhythm in that book that I think affected Market Day. Or maybe it was the other way around?”

Sturm continues to find a new rhythm of his own: after a forced period of life without the Internet (which, ironically, came to life as a series of articles for the website Slate), and more teaching duties at the CCS, dollars to doughnuts his next graphic novel will build off the direction of Market Day and into something different.