Friday, February 15, 2008

A Visit to the Center for Cartoon Studies

I'll get back to that pile of crappy comics soon, but I wanted to say a little bit about the visit I made last week to the Center for Cartoon Studies up in White River Junction, Vermont. Overall, I was impressed with the school and the students, and I think it's looking really nice for such a young operation in such a non-lucrative corner of the educational world.

I drove through some heavy snow the day before I went there, and the terrain beside the highways on the day I went to White River Junction was just gorgeous in a sort of gingerbread-house way. I just had to smile, looking out on all the fields covered in pristine snow, and the pine-trees crusted with snow (the spruces rough in the distant glitter, etc.). Because I was driving I didn't get any pictures of it, but here's a little snapshot from the town green in Burlington, the following day, to help you infer what the countryside and mountains looked like:

Anyway, I got off the freeway in White River Junction, drove a mile or so into downtown, turned a corner, and there it was:

The main space of the Center for Cartoon Studies is on the first floor of the old Colodny Surprise department store, and they've kept the awning out front, but the windows facing the street definitely declare cartoon allegiance:

Up until this point, the CCS had felt like sort of an imaginary place to me, like Oz or Avalon or Oxford: a place that I could read about, but probably wouldn't ever see. There was something a little giddy about seeing it in front of my eyes. Much about it seems mythical: a little school in a little post-industrial Vermont town, where each two-year cohort of twenty or so students gets instruction from top-notch literary cartoonists on the way to make a graphic novel. People like Chris Ware and Lynda Barry drop in. Students have their theses advised by Stan Sakai or Chester Brown. This unassuming building in this dingy, snowy town is one of the epicenters of the new movement in literary comics.

In fact, it's an ordinary building, not glamorously equipped or even eye-catching. But what goes on in there is really exciting. I like to imagine that the students at CCS are getting the equivalent of eight or ten years' worth of comics-making experience packed into their two-year sojourns in White River Junction. These folks will be equipped to write and draw some very smart stuff.

Anyway, I'd been invited to drop in by my friend Robyn Chapman...

...(who has a few really fine minicomics and who edits the zine Hey, Four-Eyes, in case you're inclined to do some shopping), and I called her cell phone so she could let me in to the building.

She was beaten to the door, though, by a cheerful Steve Bissette, who gave me a hearty handshake even though he doesn't know me from Adam. He was on his way out of the building as I was on my way in. I guess that's the sort of encounter one has at the epicenter.

Robyn showed me around the facility, including this attractive sign from the old Colodny Surprise store that hangs in the CCS lobby:

Down in the basement is the printing lab, which is open to the students around the clock. They've got a couple of computers, a couple of xerox machines, a wealth of long-arm staplers, a hydraulic paper-cutter, a screen-printing station, and a ping-pong table down there. Also some sofas, for when Steve Bissette hosts a movie night.

I was a little envious of all the printing equipment.

The real "purpose" of my trip to CCS, though, wasn't tourism. I was supposed to give a short talk to Jason Lutes's afternoon second-year workshop, so after lunch Robyn led me over to their studio space. I sat in on a couple of critiques, in which one of the students circulated copies of work in progress and got feedback from Jason and from his classmates. (I chimed in, too, here and there. My old poetry-workshop instincts resurfaced right away.)

...And then I talked for a few minutes about formal constraints and games. I tried to suggest that although there are plenty of constraints that only limit the things you can write or draw, there are also process-oriented "generative constraints," like the ones we used in some of that comic for Elfworld, or the constraint that propels the Mapjam project. These sorts of constraints can help you find your way to ideas you wouldn't otherwise have, and I think that having a few such constraints in your toolkit can help you get clear of any artistic stuck spot.

Anyway, then I taught them how to play Jesse Reklaw's game shuffleupagus. It's a hard game to explain, but we got three pages of shuffleupagus stuff turned out in about 45 minutes, with the second-year students working in three groups.

Here's a little picture of Jason Lutes in his group, with my lame attempt at explanatory doodles on the dry-erase board behind him:

... And here's a result from the session, not quite completely inked. (You can click to enlarge it.)

If any of the CCS students who drew this page happen to read this, please drop a note in the comments so I can give credit to the artists! I didn't get y'all's names while I was there.

All in all, it was a really pleasant day. I got to see a place that I've been wanting to see since before it even existed, and I got to meet a few people whom I'm sure I'll be glad to run into at MoCCA or SPX in the future. I got a really good feeling about CCS as a program of education and as an institution that's having a positive effect on the cartooning world. I hope I'll get to drop in there again some time.


Ben Towle said...

"Why couldn't this place have been around when I was college-age?!" was pretty much what I was thinking the whole time I visited CCS. (And also, "Does everyone in Vermont own a Subaru wagon?)

Mike said...

I find it hard to believe that you include Oxford, of all places, among the "sort of ... imaginary place[s]" you "probably wouldn't ever see"--and I'm not just saying that because I'm back in Oxford at the moment! I think you have hitched your wagon to at least one star that might land you in Oxford eventually.

That said, I don't (yet) know of any Oxonian cartoon greatness to compete with CCS, and it sounds like quite a special place indeed. I'm glad that Jesse's Shufflupagus is finding new practitioners, too. And "generative" is a good way to think of some constraints, even if the term "constraints" seems to take away from the generative aspect somewhat. That's why Jon Lewis's term "seed" seems so good to describe his method for growing stories out of single sentences for his Local Stations mini.

Isaac said...

I mentioned "Local Stations" during my presentation, too. In some ways, I think of that project as paradigmatic for the sort of "generative constraint" that I'm thinking about: a set of rules that produces art -- that requires the artist to look into narrative or poetic possibilities he or she hasn't imagined yet.

Skull-a-Day would be another example. I should have mentioned that one, too. And of course there are the various alphabetical projects of Tom Gauld, etc. -- which reminds me... I have some inking to do, don't I?

Isaac said...

As for not believing in England (or Oxford more particularly), I'm with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern on that one. I'll believe in it when I see it with my own eyes. (You know, in July, for example.)

Mike said...

To switch plays for a moment: would you be satisfied with some ocular proof in the form of photos, or does it have to be proof viewed with your own ojos? 'Cause two can play this posting-photos-of-travel game...

PS Nice Stevens gesture in your original post, BTW