James Sturm blazes cartoon path to a new world
by Rob Neufeld
Why is it that when an author combines pictures with words, the medium is considered juvenile, like comics? Words create literature; images, art. Why, when you marry them, is it like pairing a milk cow with a mop?
Nothing against comics per se. Ask any kid under bed covers—Opus and X-Men have appeal. But is there a more ambitious place for cartoons, without getting pretentious?
Graphic novels and educational presentations suggest yes. The cutting edge of the art form is represented, in part, by James Sturm, author of award-winning, history-based cartoon stories; and co-founder of the Center for Cartoon Studies in New Hampshire.
Author events: Sturm presents the craft talk “Creating the Graphic Novel,” Friday at 2 p.m., and talks about his work, Sat., at 7:30 p.m. in Plemmons Student Union, Appalachian State University as part of the Hughlene Bostian Frank Visiting Writers Series.
James Sturm’s America: God, Gold, and Golems (Drawn & Quarterly, 2007) puts a pioneer husband and wife with a snake-bit daughter through the 1801 Cane Creek, Kentucky Revival; tells a desperate tale of gold miners in Idaho, 1886; and includes the award-winning story, “The Golem’s Mighty Swing,” which follows the Stars of David baseball team on its 1920s tour, and illustrates baseball better than anything I’ve seen.
Market Day (Drawn & Quarterly, 2010) is a visual symphony about a rug-maker’s trip to an old country market that has lost its appreciation of fine craft. Sturm shows how his character sees the world in terms of rug design.
Sturm has also written and composed a Fantastic Four episode; a bio of Satchel Paige for schoolchildren; and children books on visual literacy, such as “Adventures in Cartooning”; and he has worked with students, veterans, and prisoners in using comics to express important stories and thoughts.
Following is an interview I conducted with him recently.
J: The local newspaper had a comics section; that was my first exposure, and I totally fell in love with “Peanuts.” I started reading those Fawcett collections my mom would buy for me at the Medi-mart drug store. Then, in first grade—there used to be a show on Saturday morning TV called Wonderama, and the only reason I remember it is that once Stan Lee was on it.
R: How did that go?
J: I just remember him talking about Marvel Comics. Then, there was a magazine distributed through the schools called “Dynamite,” and they would reprint some Marvel comics. One of the Dynamites reprinted eight pages from the first Fantastic Four story. Soon after that, I bought a Fantastic Four comic book from a used issue bin in a bookshop in the mall. And I was hooked.
R: I read that you’re a fan of Jules Feiffer.
J: I’m a huge fan of Jules Feiffer. I’ve read as much as I can of him—early comics, stuff he did for [Will] Eisner. His children’s books were a big part of my family.
R: I can see the influence, for you get at that subtle interplay between people.
J: Oh, yeah.
R: It shows, for instance, in the story, “The Golem’s Mighty Swing” in your collection, James Sturm’s America. There’s that scene where the manager of an early 1920s touring Jewish baseball team coaches his sullen younger brother. Afterward, the manager tells another player, “One minute that kid is the second coming of Johnny Evers, the next Murray Plotski.” “Who’s Murray Plotski?” the player says. “Exactly,” the manager answers. I love it. Those conversational frames with the wry punchlines, they’re like Feiffer. I think—very satisfying without any kapows.
J: For a long time, comics were America’s number one dream machine; and if you wanted to see a man fly, you picked up a Superman comic...Then when movies such as “The Incredibles” developed digital effects, the thing I was going to comic books for—not exclusively—those over-the-top fantasies, they were doing it on the screen, so, in that way, comics have looked a little more inward.
Q: When did that affect your career?
A: When I went to college, I put away comics. I wasn’t going to do superheroes or a syndicated strip, there wasn’t going to be a place for me. Then I discovered Underground Comics and R. Crumb and [Art] Spiegelman and those people, and I realized, wow, this medium has tremendous potential. There’s not one way you have to draw; there’s not one way you have to write. You can self-publish. That re-invigorated me as a cartoonist.
R: What is the new scene?
J: We live in a day and an age where we’re visual communicators. We don’t have typewriters, we have image writers; we have Snapchat and emojis. Embedding narrative into a visual architecture is how we communicate in a digital age. That’s what comics have been doing since there have been comics. Comics is this language. Learning the grammar and its nuances can help people communicate a mission statement for their business. It draws you in, it boils down images, but it doesn’t necessarily have to simplify it.
R: I notice that one of your techniques is to treat each frame like an artwork. You’re not necessarily trying to tell more of the story; you’re trying to create a mood and a visual. For instance in “Market Day,” when Mendelman walks his cart loaded with rugs to the market, we see all these landscape scenes; and in the market, there are sometimes panels that have no words, but we get a series of paintings, as if you’re doing a Breughel. How long does it take you to do one of those panels?
J: (laughs) Like a writer, I go through many, many drafts.
R: How do you do the drafts—you start off in what form?
J: I start off with a pencil on paper. Sometimes they’re doodles, sometimes they’re things I’ve overheard, or thoughts—basically jumbled words and pictures in a sketchbook. Then, if a character or a theme emerges, it pulls me into its orbit. An initial draft of a book is done on maybe 8½ x 11 sheets of paper. The drawings look like chicken-scratch because I can write a lot faster than I can draw...Early drafts, I’m trying to get the flow of the book, and a story structure; and then I work through drafts, redrawing over and over again...Slowly, it gets built up as I explore the world with my pen. When I do an early draft, I think what reference I need. If I’m doing a story in the 30s, and all of a sudden I realize, oh, there should be a scene at an amusement park, I don’t spend a day researching amusement parks and getting visual references until I’m really sure that scene’s going to be in there.
R: It sounds like a long time to complete a single panel.
J: It can be sometimes. And you are composing every panel. Every panel is a design problem, but it’s also that you’re writing in pictures...and every panel has an information hierarchy. I want every panel to read in a specific way, perhaps to invoke a larger mood over the course of many pages; or it may be a specific beat I want to hit. If I have a panel where I want to show somebody sleeping in their bed, and a reader looks at that and they barely see the person, but the first thing they notice is the crazy pattern on the quilt, then there’s a problem there. So, you’re tackling information hierarchy challenges, not just in every panel, but on whole pages.
R: Do you look to art history?
J: Oh, yes. You mentioned Breughel, I love looking at his paintings. There’s a printmaker, Raphael Soyer, who was critical in the tone and mood and feel of Market Day. For the “America” book, I was trying to think: What is the visual American vernacular? What does Grant Wood do that makes it seem American; or Edward Hopper? Then you look at your work and try to unpack it a little bit and see if there’s anything you can borrow from their bag of tricks.
R: Wow. There’s so much going into each book.
J: Yeah, and you’re also stealing from writers. Comics is graphic design, it’s writing, it’s drawing, it’s all these things. Market Day is a book that takes place over the course of one day in which a character hits a crossroads; and it speaks to a larger moment in history. For that, I go back to Richard Ford and Independence Day; and Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer; and Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. These are all books that look at one character at a specific moment in time. I actually wrote a Fantastic Four mini-series that took place over the course of a couple of days in 1959.
R: Do you see your books going into schools?
J: They have. I did five books; I edited a series for Hyperion about iconic Americans: Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan; Thoreau; Amelia Earhart; Houdini; and then the Satchel Paige one, which I wrote. Those books made it into a lot of schools. And I’ve done many kids’ books, and they’re part of a lot of school libraries, especially this Adventures in Cartooning series that I did with a couple of my former students. I have two books coming out this year with Toon Books, which is Francoise Millet’s publishing enterprise. She’s Art Spiegelman’s wife and she’s also the cover editor of “The New Yorker”; and she has her own publishing house with cartoonists to teach kids literacy and visual literacy skills.
R: Visual literacy is very interesting to me.
J: Yeah, in fact, the cartoon school is starting an Applied Cartooning major. We’re looking at ways that cartooning can be used in fields of education, medicine, and training, for instance.
R: Tell me one of the discoveries about how cartooning is being used.
J: We started doing work with some veterans here in White River Junction (New Hampshire). [See NHPR story] There’s a VA hospital. I started volunteering in the psych ward, in the residential recovery center. I was amazed by how cartooning was able to draw people out and connect with people so readily. There was one gentleman, the first two times I visited, he was in a fog. Then I sat down next to him and drew a picture of a tattoo on his arm. He looked at it and said, “Oh, what’s up with that?” and started telling me a story, and I sketched some things out...After 20 minutes of talking, I had, on 4 x 4 pieces of paper, all these little images, and we started arranging these images, and before he knew it, this coherent narrative started to emerge about what he was afraid about, and looking forward to. Then I started with other groups of vets figuring out ways that comics could address their fears and concerns, even if it was just to bring a little light into their darker spheres.
R: There’s definitely a psychological aspect to drawing, in a way that’s different from writing. You’re getting into a huge field, helping people maintain mental health.
J: It’s just finding projects. I hope the Applied Cartooning program will be able to accomplish this.
R: “The Golem’s Mighty Swing”—that was such a compulsive read. It also made me think: This medium is so suited to baseball. Do you have any thoughts about that.
J: The baseball comics I’ve seen have been strips or shorter stories, and it was hard for that to capture the feel of baseball. It’s a sport that slowly reveals itself; it’s a lot of subtle things, where the energy is building slowly, and all of a sudden there’s a big hit or a big defensive play, or something happens. The graphic novel really lends itself to capture that. I try to take my time when I’m telling my stories, and baseball is a sport that takes its time as well.
R: Are there times you make amazing discoveries about how to handle material?
J: Of course!
R: Could you give me an example of one of those discoveries?
J: This spring I have a book coming out called Birdsong that Toon Books is publishing. It started out with my trying to do something different and not do a book. A friend of mine had introduced to the Japanese tradition, kamishibai. It’s a Japanese storytelling tradition; kamishibai means paper theater. I created a series of drawings for a friend of mine to perform, to narrate. Then, through that process, I started telling the story about two children who turned into monkeys because they treat animals poorly, and it became this folk tale. Before I know it, it circles around, and Francoise saw them and said, “Yeah, this is a book, and it’s unlike any book that I’ve done.”
R: It’s nice having a book already done when you show it to a publisher.
J: I’ve made the mistake before of selling a book through a pitch, and then there’s fear because, inevitably, the book I sell isn’t the book I turn in. Now I just make books I want to make and try to find a publisher for them. I’m working on a book called Ape and Armadillo right now. The whole book was finished before I found a publisher for it. As I work on it, certain characters emerge; and a character I thought was the protagonist all of a sudden becomes a minor character. Something I thought was an outline begins to feel like a cliché, and I want to play around with expectations. In the Birdsong book, for instance, I thought the kids would turn into monkeys, and then turn back into kids. As I worked on the book, it was like, you know what? No, I don’t want to turn them back into kids. I could imagine if I had sold that book before doing it, a publisher would have his own ideas about what should happen.