James Sturm in the Chronicle of Higher Education

A Cartoonist's Web Site Campaigns for More Academic Study of the Comics

Chronicle of Higher Education    |    Brock Read    |    January 14, 2003

Aspiring cartoonists have long had to hone their skills -- and learn about their craft -- without much support from academe, according to James Sturm, author of the graphic novel The Golem's Mighty Swing and founder of the National Association of Comics Art Educators. "I remember a teacher telling me that my comics could influence my art, but they couldn't be my art," he says.

But in recent years, cartooning has risen in prominence. Doubleday has created a department devoted entirely to graphic novels, and the book-length comics of Ben Katchor and Chris Ware have earned acclaim and awards. Mr. Katchor won a fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. Some of Mr. Ware's output was featured at the Whitney Museum of American Art's 2002 Biennial, comprising works from of-the-moment artists.

It's about time, then, that comics, cartoons, and graphic novels gained respect from academe, says Mr. Sturm, who has taught at the Savannah College of Art and Design. With a new Web site, he aims to help institutions develop programs for training young cartoonists, and to incorporate the study of comics into curriculums of art, design, and literature. The site includes resources for instructors -- sample syllabuses, course notes, news articles -- as well as a discussion forum for professors and students interested in comics.

"Sculptors, writers, and printmakers can gravitate towards academic centers," he says. "They have a fertile environment to grow. I thought comics would benefit from that as well."

Mr. Sturm tries to provide a fertile environment on the site's discussion board, where students and professors share information on existing programs, recommendations for assignments and teaching techniques, and announcements of comics-related events.

Elsewhere, the site collects syllabuses used in college courses, including those teaching compositional skills, like Savannah's "Comic Book Scripting," and theoretical offerings, like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's "Media in Cultural Context: Comics, Cartoons, and Graphic Storytelling." Mr. Sturm also posts exercises, lesson plans, and study guides to such seminal works as Art Spiegelman's Maus (Pantheon Books, 1986).

Kent Worcester, an assistant professor of political science at Marymount Manhattan College, says the site is a valuable tool for scholars who might otherwise have little access to information on the study of comics. "There's not even yet an edited reader on teaching comics," says Mr. Worcester, who teaches a summer course in which students analyze the social and aesthetic impacts of comics and animation. "I think that, if anything, the site's only going to get better as the quality of teaching in the field improves."

Mr. Sturm says most of the positive feedback to the Web site comes from college students and professors at art schools or community colleges who are looking to expand single courses into full-fledged programs. But he would like to see larger universities, too, take an interest in comics.

"This is a legitimate, amazingly vibrant medium," he says. "The more people that understand it, the better."

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