Interview: James Sturm Pt. 3

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“Every time you go to the drawing board,” James Sturm tells me, “it’s fraught with peril.” It’s the sort of sentiment that’s likely simultaneously encouraging and depressing for the students of The Center for Cartoon Studies, the school that Sturm founded in 2005, in his home of White River Junction Vermont.

It’s not that making comics is no longer Sturm’s passion, of course, it’s just that, well, all of these years and graphic novels later, the process is still challenging for the Market Day artist.

In this third part of our interview, we discuss just how difficult that can be while opening a school and raising a small family.

[Part One][Part Two]

Market Day explores the possibility of giving up one’s art in the face of economic hardship. You haven’t fallen prey to that, however. You’re still making books for Drawn & Quarterly, and you’re teaching the next generation of cartoonists at CCS.

Yeah. it’s funny, I don’t necessarily see that as being so tied to the making of the art, in a way. I would say, in some ways, that Market Day was a cautionary tale to myself. When we were trying to get escape velocity for the school, during the first two years, it just takes everything out of you. And I have two young children.

What do you mean by “escape velocity?”

Well, to get an institution up and running and off the ground. To go from this kind of fragile idea into an institution that has a solid foundation, that’s an intense and draining journey, and it can consume as much of you as you will allow.

And with young kids, you have to be there for your children, and the way I’m built, I have to be there for my own work. I can’t give that up. It’s really hard sometimes to muster the energy after putting the kids to bed or getting them to school or having to write a grant proposal or interviewing applicants for the school and putting together the brochure—cartooning is such a labor intensive medium.

If you’re writing a graphic novel, you really need some time to sink into the material. It’s very difficult. You have to learn to do work in smaller increments of time. you also have to keep doing something, because if you don’t do anything, the rust gets into the pipes, and it’s that much harder to get going.

There are obvious bureaucratic elements to starting a school or writing a grant proposal. When you’re creating a comic book on every level, are there aspects of that that feel like a “job” and not just a passion?

The work at CCS, I feel like I’m one contributing factor to this dynamic community. I don’t feel ownership of it at all. It always takes me aback when someone—even jokingly—says, “well, it’s your school.” I don’t feel that way at all, and the fact of the matter is, I don’t feel that way because it’s not the case.

There are a lot of people who have invested their time and energy and are as much a part of this—if not more so—at this point. Yes, I had the idea that got the ball rolling, but that was a while ago.  Sometimes the energy you’re putting in, you’re not quite sure how it’s going to flower or pay dividends, so to speak.

The graphic novel, it’s a long, arduous task too, but I’ve done a couple of these, and I do feel much more ownership over a book. Market Day is clearly a book that wouldn’t exist if I didn’t do it. It’s much more of a personal statement for me. It feels more personal and I feel like I have much more ownership over it. I feel a little more vulnerable putting it out there, because this is you, this is your work, this is as good as you can draw, as good as you can write. With the school, it’s something that doesn’t necessarily reflect on myself in such an intimate way.

When a book comes out, is there an extra pressure that comes with being so closely tied to the school? Do people view your books in a more technical light? Do critics look at you under a microscope?

That’s a good question. I’m not sure. I think because I started the school, if anything, there’s probably more people looking at the work. So, in that sense, it’s probably more of a blessing than a curse. I don’t know, I feel like one of the nice things about teaching is that you have to practice what you preach. At least I do. You try to hold yourself to the standard that you’re talking about. So I think you put the work out there and you hold yourself to a high standard and I think it’s fair game. Lord knows the books I create aren’t everyone’s cup of tea.

I do remember at the point before I decided to go start the school, I did think—this was when I was 39—that I felt like I really had to know what I was doing my comics before I can actually start one. But there was a point when I just decided to start it, because I realized that I’ll never really feel like I know what I’m doing. Every book is a very difficult process. At least for me, all my self-doubt surfaces. I question my ability to draw and whether I even know what I’m doing. Every time you go to the drawing board, it’s fraught with peril. If I waited to really know what I was doing, or felt like I had arrived as a cartoonist, I never would have felt secure enough to have started a school.

In terms of the pressure that’s on you when you sit down at the drawing tabling, is that increased or decreased when you, say, win an award. Do you gain more confidence?

You know, I don’t think about it, honestly. I mean, I like winning awards, but I don’t think, “oh boy, this better be better than the next one!” I think every cartoonist plays certain tricks with themselves in order to clear out a space to create. First of all, you can’t feel like there are a thousand eyes on your page. It only has to be the dialog between you and the work.

My approach to carving a space out for myself is just to work in drafts. I just throw down anything. I just throw down a really scratchy, grungy draft, and I tell myself that I’m just going to go through this again and thin about it a little deep. Move things around and think about the characters more or find some good dialog for the scene. I just casually draw another draft.

I feel like every pass just gets tighter and tighter and there’s never one moment where I feel like, “here it is! This better be good!” Because it’s such a gradual coming together of so many personal and aesthetic concerns that coalesce into this graphic novel over the course of several years. There’s never one moment when I feel that kind of pressure.

Certainly when a book comes out, you don’t want it to be ignored or hated or dismissed, but I’m fortunate enough in that enough people read my work that there’s a range of opinions about it. And I feel like I have a pretty good sense of my strengths and weaknesses as an artist. Usually when there’s an informed critique, even when it’s negative, I might shed a tear and be like, “they’re right!” But what can you do? You move on.

And then, other times, you get critiques that are a bit overly generous, and I don’t shed a tear for those, but you also know that they’re a bit off, too.

[Concluded in Part Four]

–Brian Heater

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