Omnivoracious interviews JAMES STURM

Graphic Novel Friday: The Emotional Landscape with James Sturm

Omnivoracious -    |    Alex Carr    |    April 23, 2010

Cartoonist James Sturm recently stopped in Seattle for an extended stay to promote his new graphic novel, Market Day, and revisit old haunts. Since leaving Seattle in 1996, James has had a busy, varied career, publishing several acclaimed comics, including The Golem's Mighty Swing, which Time magazine named the Best Graphic Novel of 2001. In addition to writing and drawing comics, James also co-founded the Center for Cartoon Studies, a two-year college in White River Junction, Vermont, in 2004. While in Seattle, James was nice enough to share his lunch with me and discuss the inspiration for his latest work, his school, and his recent decision to "quit the Internet." Last weekend, Fantagraphics held an event for you and Peter Bagge, and, in your case, it felt like a homecoming. Have you noticed a change in Seattle's comics scene since you left in the mid-to-late 1990s?

James Sturm: Well, of course when I was here, I was in my 20s, and there were a lot of underemployed cartoonists. In fact, we used to joke that you couldn’t swing a dead cat without hitting a cartoonist. There certainly was a feeling that cartooning was unexplored territory; it was wide open--and of course, that [general] feeling was prevalent in Seattle at that time. People were launching Microsoft, internet start-ups, and what-not in the early 1990s. There was that spirit of, "Whoo-hoo! Let's go!" And some of that was directed towards, yeah, becoming a millionaire [laughs] through technology, and some of it was like, "I'm going to make my graphic novel." Maybe I should have hooked my wagon to a different horse [laughs].

But now I'm in my 40s, and there is still that fervent scene out there, but in talking to my students [at the Center for Cartoon Studies], people are saying, "Oh, I'm thinking of moving to Brooklyn or Portland." So I hear that Portland scene, at least for that [cartooning community], is more of what Seattle was like a short time ago. Probably owing to cheaper rent as much as anything. When introduced at the Fantagraphics event, it was noted that this was your first full-length work since The Golem's Mighty Swing, which was published almost ten years ago.

James Sturm: Right, in 2001 I did The Golem's Mighty Swing, and since then, I've done a lot of books, but this is the first thing I wrote and drew myself. In that sense, it feels a lot more intimate, more personal. [It was] a little more nerve-wracking because you can't point to anybody else [laughs].

But that said, I wrote Satchel Paige, which is for a YA audience, or at least that's how I think it was marketed, not necessarily how it was written. And then I did Adventures in Cartooning for young readers, and I'm as proud of that as anything I've ever done in my life. It was really fun to work on, and still, like a year later, it's going great guns; a lot of good word-of-mouth on that book. Plus, I got to work with two former students, so that was a really fun experience, collaborating with alumni of Center for Cartoon Studies in a way I hadn't done before. Has Market Day been gestating since The Golem's Mighty Swing, or was this a newer idea?

James Sturm: Well, it some ways, the gestation of it is over a decade-and-a-half long, or decades long. I was in The Strand Book Store in New York City, and I bought four or five books: [one by] Roman Vishniac, Alter Kacyzne's Polyn, Lionel Reiss' A World of Twilight. So I had this little stack of books where I always intended to set a graphic novel; I'd always been drawn to that imagery and trying to figure out my relationship to that imagery. When you're looking at Roman Vishniac's photos or Alter Kacyzne's, you don't necessarily see the dignity as much. You see more, like, these are victims, and [in] this world, these people either died in the Holocaust or their world was just wiped away. I wanted to approach the material not [only] through this prism of seeing them as victims. That was part of it.

At one point, my publisher, Drawn and Quarterly--this was years ago--was thinking about doing a line of children's books. So I came up with an idea of a rug weaver, and it was a simple children's book. I'd written some notes--and this was probably 2004, maybe--and they never did that line of books

I was able to revisit all these photos from years ago and start crafting something that was no longer a children’s book but kind of had, in its DNA, aspects of the children’s book. It was a little more fable-like; it wasn’t as dense--a lot of my favorite cartoonists, people like Chris Ware and Seth, they work with these really dense pages of information. I wanted to open it up a little bit. I was very much influenced by printmakers from the 1920s and 30s, and I loved looking at those images and letting each image have its own luster or integrity. And even though my own images do get boiled down a little bit, I feel like that all played into the final look and feel of Market Day as well. I didn’t realize the answer to that question was going to be so long [laughs]. Early in Market Day, Mendleman walks to the market, and readers are given insight into his creative mind’s eye. He sees images and patterns in the world and turns them into rug weavings. What were you hoping to achieve with this morphing of life into art?

James Sturm: What I wanted to get at was how his discipline and craft really shaped the way he saw the world. Through his art, he was able to take all these various experiences and make them cohesive. I feel like this is what art gives to somebody. To me, that is what being a cartoonist, an artist, is about. Even later in the book, when he talks about his mother passing on, it wasn’t sitting shiva that grounds him; it’s going back to the loom—his art and craft being his spiritual discipline. When Mendleman arrives at the market, he finds that the trade dynamic has shifted, and it is not in favor of the craftsman. “Nothing is as it was before.” Was this in response to a trend you’ve noticed in comics? Why tell this story now?

James Sturm: I’ve gotten a lot of nice feedback on the book, which is good. People have noticed that there is a dark, ominous tone to it. But I also saw the book as hopeful in a sense. The Finkler character—before he retired—was a patron, one man who was able to bring together all these craftsmen and help them develop their work and shape their vision. [For one] one person to have the ability to do that, I felt was a very positive message for people who are patrons of the arts, for donors to schools, so in that sense, I think it has a very positive message. [Mendleman’s] dilemma is the dilemma of every artist: trying to make work that feels meaningful and uncompromised, and given the amount of time and effort it take to create that type of work, the financial rewards just aren’t there. There are some writers—God bless them—who are really pursuing a vision, and they also happen to have commercial success--you know, Michael Chabon or [Jonathan] Lethem--but these people are the exceptions, not the rules. I guess in this story, Mendleman starts as the exception and becomes the rule [laughs]. He sees his rugs in the remainder bin. Early on and then towards the end, you incorporate two-page spreads that are moody and contemplative. How did you come to weave them in where you did, or was this placement natural?

James Sturm: I was going for a very deliberate pace and trying to capture the ups and downs of any given day. I find that as dramatic as anything: your day’s emotional landscape. If you receive a compliment, you gain a stride in your step, but if somebody bumps into you or gives you an off-hand insult—especially for someone like Mendleman—your mood swings. I was certainly trying to capture the way we move through one day, trying to pace it and leave it open. I think those panels allowed some of the emotion to sink in, allowing the reader to settle in, perhaps. My favorite line appears when we first meet Mendleman on his early morning journey to the market. As he walks into the sunrise, his inspiration mounts, and he thinks, “So many of my rugs are born from moments like these.” This felt so truthful. Are there rituals or routines that similarly spur your creativity?

James Sturm: Well…[James pulls out a small black notebook and flips through it.] Most cartoonists have one of these, and you fill it with little doodles or faces, and ideas from things you read. This is it, right? A to-do list, a lyric to a country western song, the shape of somebody’s butt [laughs]. All these things can spin out into the telling of a story, and you don’t know where those things are going to come from. In 2004, you co-founded the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, Vermont. How in the world did this happen?

James Sturm: [Laughs.] A brief bout of insanity. Well, I came out with The Golem’s Mighty Swing in 2001 and was living in Savannah, Georgia, where I was teaching at an art design school. I was burning out a bit, teaching at that school. I had a vision—I hate to use that word—of how I thought a curriculum in school could go, and if I went to another school, it would be a dog-fight to get the resources, because you’re competing with the printing department and the new media department. Or, would I just rather start my own school?

I came from a tradition in comics where there was a self-published, do-it-yourself mentality. If you want to be a published cartoonist, you don’t wait for Marvel or DC to publish you. You draw your comic and you go to Kinko’s, and you put it together and you sell it. I just transferred that mentality to education.

There was one moment where I thought we were going to get some funding, and it fell through. The week before, I was at a comics festival in New York, and I ran into Art Spiegelman. I was telling him about the school, and he said, “Well, if you need any help, just give me a call.” A lot of people say that, but not everyone means it, you know? So, when the funding fell through, I thought, “Oh man, what am I going to do?” I called Art: “Art, remember when you said ‘any time’? Well, how about next week? How about a fundraiser?” [Laughs.] And he was like, “Sure.”

So, he came up, and Garry Trudeau’s been up for a fundraiser to speak to students. Mo Willems is coming up next week, and Charles Burns was just in. We have faculty like Jason Lutes, Stephen Bissette, and that certainly adds a lot of legitimacy. You know, Seth did our first brochure and has been to [the school] like three times now, and Chris Ware’s come through. It really helps to make it into a dynamic place. You recently wrote an article for where you announced you were quitting the Internet. How is this possible in today’s world that’s so readily tied to online activity? How are you going to do it?

James Sturm: How do you do it? Well, you just do it. As a cartoonist, I’ve always tried to set up my life where I have chunks of time to myself, because you need that. I don’t think I could have done it a few years ago. I never could have done it while starting the school, ever. I certainly don’t mean to shoot the horse I rode in on. I don’t think we can go backwards. I think [the Internet] is absolutely necessary. But I felt like I had to give it up, because I had to detox. It’s really been an eventful ten years: starting the school, having two kids, doing all these books. I think I just needed to unplug. Reboot, so to speak [laughs]. For how long are you planning to quit?

James Sturm: I’m off for four months. Anything less, and it wouldn’t work, and anything more, I’d be burned at the stake by coworkers. No email, no being online. When people email me, they get an email that says, “Assume I’m not going to read this. Here’s my cell phone number. Call me.”

In some ways, Market Day was the reason I went offline. I can get obsessive sometimes when I’m online, and I knew if I had a book out, I’d be looking at my Amazon ranking, and I’d be re-reading interviews, and, you know, “What does Chewbacca45 think of my book?” Like Mendleman, every one of those things would be either an ego puff, or a little arrow. As I’ve gotten older and done a few books now, I’ve realized how fleeting this moment is…and by not being online, I feel like I can enjoy this very brief window. I feel like I have a healthier relationship with the book.

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