Interview: James Sturm Pt. 2

Categories:  Interviews


In this second part of our interview with the Market Day author, we discuss the factors that brought Sturm, then fresh out of SVA’s graduate program, to Seattle. While in the Emerald City, the artist helped co-found the alternative weekly, The Stranger, alongside Tim Keck, one of the founders of The Onion. Sturm now has another prominent cartooning-centric day job, as the founder of the Center for Cartooning Studies in his current home of White River Junction, Vermont.

We discuss the importance of such labors of love on the life and career of an artist, and whether or not its worth giving it all for a She-Hulk mini-series.

[Part One]

Was it Fantagraphics and the subsequent cartooning scene that originally brought you to Seattle?

Yeah. Three things brought me to Seattle. One is that I had finished SVA. My studio space in Manhattan was no longer going to be available to me. I was feeling kind of isolated in this little apartment in Astoria, Queens. I like collaboration and I like working with other people—and I also like spending hours and hours by myself at the drawing table.

You picked the right career.

Yeah [laughs]. So I moved to Seattle because I had finished school. Fantagraphics had just started publishing The Cereal Killings, which was my first attempt a graphic novel. And a friend of mine from my undergraduate days at the University of Wisconsin was starting his second newspaper—he had already started The Onion. He was starting a newspaper in Seattle called The Stranger. He asked me if I would come out and be his first art director. So, between Fantagraphics and The Stranger and having graduated, it was an easy decision.

We you working on The Stranger in the capacity of being a cartoonist?

Yeah, I edited all of the comics and tried to get as many in the pages as possible. I featured a lot of cartoonists on the cover. Any cartoonist that was willing, we’d put on the cover of The Stranger in the mid-90s, from Jim Woodring to Chris Ware to Llyod Dangle—the list goes on and on. We got all of them involved in the paper, in one way or another. We published early Michael Kupperman, when he was known as P. Revess. Early Snake n’ Bacon and Sam Henderson strips, Tony Millionaire and Kaz. I did that, I wrote for them. I was their theater reviewer, for a really short period of time.

That’s what really fun about startups. You have to wear a lot of hats and think on your feet. I sold advertisements, I distributed papers, when need be. You do a little bit of everything. You lend the paper money, just to keep it running. At the same time, I was working on The Cereal Killings book for Fantagraphics. So it was a very intense part of my life, but when you’re young and in your 20s, you can do that.

You were doing all of those things then and now you’re running the school and still making books. Do you foresee a point when you’re working on your comics full-time?

I kind of feel like I need both of these things. Maybe I could make a living doing comics right now, if I wanted to write a She-Hulk mini-series, or something [laughs]. I’m not interested in that. Not that I wouldn’t work for Marvel. I have and, who knows, I wouldn’t rule anything out in the future with them or DC or any of these publishers who would pay you to do a series like that.

The kind of comics I really enjoy working on and doing, they don’t necessarily pay any bills. And I don’t want to do that work just for the money. I guess, in some ways, working at CCS feels like a real privilege and an honor, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say that, on certain days, it feels just like a day job, and I’d rather be in my studio, working. That sounds a little like whining, doesn’t it [laughs]?

Does the day job detract from your ability to make books?

It’s so hard to say. I try to have the work I actually produce be shaped by my life and my interior temperature. Something like Adventures in Cartooning, which, at least from a commercial standpoint, might be the most successful book I’ve done, I couldn’t have done that without my two collaborators, who are first year students at CCS. That book is as much theirs as mind. So to say that, had I taken the school out of the equation, would I have been more prolific, well, that book would have never gotten done.

It’s clear how a book like is that pulled from your real life, but many of your books are period pieces. The new one is old eastern European. Are you still drawing from every day life for those?

Yeah, absolutely. I feel like any of those books I’ve ever done could have been an autobiographical comic. If I would have put me in the middle of it, it would have felt too self-serving. I would have had to deal with all of the issues with how I present myself. By fictionalizing aspects of it, it gives me a certain distance from the material, where I’m in a better position to shape the material.

The book clearly parallels the life of the modern artist. It speaks to something we were just discussing—not being able to support a family on an artist’s wages. Was that your life at one point?

Sure. It’s still my life. How many graphic novels are there out there that are best sellers in the way that literary best sellers are? Like Jonathan Lethem—something that’s published as a book, and you know it’s going to sell 50,000 or 100,000 copies. It almost feels like I’m entering an issue of What If? I don’t know how to respond to it, because that isn’t what happened. Could it have better? Could it have been worse? I know I wouldn’t have had as many rich experiences in terms of starting the school.

It’s been fantastic, in terms of the relationships that have been forged with faculty members and people that helped start the school with me. Learning so much about cartooning from all of the visiting artists that we’ve had. Feeling for the first time in my life like I’m a good citizen and having a stake in my community. All of that stuff is wonderful. When you come of age as an artist, you feel like it’s so devalued by society that you get into this kneejerk response of protecting every moment, that the time is a precious commodity. You just want to protect it and barricade yourself into your studio cave. I feel like I was reacting from that place from a very long time.

Now I realize that there’s something that you’re shutting yourself out of, when you do that. It’s another thing when you have kids, as well. You can’t just be functioning on everything is going to be funneled toward my art. It’s a position that you can’t sustain for many reasons.

[Continued in Part Three]

–Brian Heater