James Sturm Discusses Art and the Future of Cartooning

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

“It’s really funny that people, a lot of times, don’t know what to do with comics,” said James Sturm, cartoonist and co-founder of The Center for Cartoon Studies, at his lecture last Wednesday afternoon. “In academia, what department does it go in? Is it fine arts, is it media?”

Sturm’s school, The Center for Cartoon Studies (CCS), opened in 2005. It is located in a small town in Vermont called White River Junction, which Sturm described as “looking a lot like Swarthmore.” CCS offers a rigorous two-year Master of Fine Arts (MFA) program centered on the study of creating comics, graphic novels, and other means of visual storytelling. According to the CCS mission statement, the school is “dedicated to providing the highest quality of education to students interested in creating visual stories.” Since January 25th, selected work, such as periodicals and books, produced by various students from CCS has been on display in McCabe.

“A lot of people think comics are only the two basic skills of writing and drawing,” said Sturm, whose widely-read work includes the Marvel Comics mini-series Fantastic Four: Unstable Molecules. “And basically, it’s more about graphic design and poetry. In comics, you’re writing a story with images, as opposed to words.”

Sturm spoke at length about the fact that cartooning often does not require the visual accuracy of drawing. “The drawing actually gets in the way of cartooning,” he said. “People start fussing over details of a drawing, and it takes the life out of the cartoon and prevents them from actually telling a story.”

Sturm explained that cartoonists aim to tell stories with pictures rather than simply illustrate stories – that is, they aim to create stories that are completely reliant on pictures, as opposed to producing pictures that simply accompany a story. According to Sturm, cartoonists “create these images that are at once abstract, but at the same time coalesce into a symbol.” As such, students at CCS are encouraged to look at different drawing books and think about “how to do the cuts and jumps from panel to panel, because that’s where a lot the magic of cartooning happens.”

“We’re dealing with symbols here. For example, we all know what that is,” said Sturm, showing a picture of a cartoon telephone, “even though that bears no resemblance to any phone anyone ever uses.” He also showed a visual of the young, chubby, titular character of the comic strip Nancy. “In the same way, that bears no actual resemblance to an actual human child – a real cacophony of abstract shapes.”

Sturm also strongly emphasized the importance of poetry to comics, in conjunction with graphic design, since it is “what makes comics really human.” “If comics were just about graphic design, it would be like reading a series of traffic signs,” said Sturm. He cited Charles Schulz’s popular comic strip Peanuts, which many people know for the characters of Snoopy and Charlie Brown. “If Peanuts were drawn with any more detail […] it wouldn’t add anything,” said Sturm. “It wouldn’t make the character feel more real or have any more emotional depth.”

Cartooning, according to Sturm, utilizes a simple but profound vocabulary that cannot be found in the mere written word. “I think oftentimes writing is very linear,” said Sturm. “In cartooning, because it’s based off of a visual image, oftentimes you can generate more intuitive material.” In addition, the ease of reading one comic versus another is based on the comic’s ability to layer and economize information in a single panel, and eventually throughout the comic itself. “When you start looking at comic and it’s like a Where’s Waldo? book and you’re trying to figure out which information you should get, you get confused really quick,” Sturm said, making an example.

Sturm also praised the way the art of cartooning has become much more versatile over the years. “What’s so great about where comics is now as opposed to where they were, is that when you used to say you were a cartoonist, you either drew Batman, Superman, or Garfield,” said Sturm, citing selections from the diverse body of work created by students from CCS. “And now it’s just so wide open. Comics isn’t just a genre, it’s a medium. And there’s just so many directions you can go with it.”

When asked about the future of cartoon studies, Sturm spoke about the importance of what he called “applied cartooning.” To Sturm, comics have to potential to spread information and give voice to other people’s businesses and causes. “I think cartoons are just an unparalleled communication tool, in terms of facilitating conversation and dialogue.”

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