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April 21, 2009

Behind the Scenes with James Sturm

Posted by tom

James Sturm

James Sturm, author of the just-released Adventures in Cartooning and the director of the Center for Cartoon Studies. Located in White River Junction, Vermont, the Center for Cartoon Studies is a two-year program for aspiring artists. Sturm has also been behind the graphic novels The Cereal Killings, The Revival, Hundreds of Feet Below Daylight, and many more.

Do you remember your first comic book or graphic novel? If so, what was it?
When I was five or six years old, I was in a Medi-Mart in New City, New York, and came across the Fawcett Peanuts paperback Fun with Peanuts. I had read Peanuts in our local newspaper but something about reading strip after strip in one sittting was extra exciting. It made the world Schulz created even more formidable to my young self. A year or two later, in Paramus Park shopping mall in New Jersey, I picked up a used copy of Fantastic Four #139. I had now completely entered the rabbit hole.
What do you love about the graphic novel as a format for storytelling?
Comics work on a lot of different levels. Each element of a book (i.e., writing, artwork, design, color, lettering) can enrich the narrative and play off the other elements. As a creator, it’s like directing an orchestra or mixing music in a studio. The goal, of course, is to have all these elements come together as a singular piece.
Whose work do you admire?
Too many to name them all! There are literarily thousands. I’ll read anything and everything by Chris Ware, R. Crumb, Seth, Dan Clowes, and Frédéric Coché. I’ve been really inspired lately by the work of Virginia Lee Burton and Marie Hall Ets, whose children’s picture books are perhaps the true precursors to the modern graphic novel.
Who do you read outside of the graphic novel format?
I love the writers Steven Millhauser, Philip Roth, and Allegra Goodman, to name just a few. Love reading great fiction. Right now I’m reading They Called Me Mayer July, an amazing memoir of Jewish life in a Polish town before World War II. It’s part written memoir and part art book. Mayer Kirshenblat taught himself to paint at 73 (!) and the book is chockfull of these incredible memory paintings.
How many graphic novels do you read a month? How many of those are manga?
I look through a fair amount of stuff but probably read only one or two graphic novels monthly (if that). I just read the third installment of Brian Ralph’s amazing Daybreak. Along with Acme Novelty Library, it is my favorite serialized story. Maybe I read one or two manga a year.
Which do you prefer and why: color or black and white?
No preference. Depends on the book itself.
How did you first get involved in the field professionally?
Cartooning a daily strip, The Adventures of Down and Dawg, for my college newspaper, The Daily Cardinal, UW Madison. This experience allowed me to be cartooning every day, learn to meet regular deadlines, and about reproduction. It was thrilling to have an enthusiastic audience for my work as well. From that strip I just kept on cartooning, one thing always leading to another.
What kind of reaction do you get when you tell people what you do?
People usually have very positive associations with comics, so there is a level of surprise (most people don’t know working cartoonists) and excitement.
Do you collect comics? What is the most valuable piece of art, graphic novel, or comic book in your collection?
I used to but not so much now. Where I teach, at the Center for Cartoon Studies, we have an incredible collection of graphic novels, reprint books, and books about comics. So to have access to that treasure trove makes keeping a personal collection unnecessary. My own most valuable pieces are letters and artwork that I have exchanged with my fellow cartoonists over the years. These pieces are evidence of a fellowship that has provided me with so much inspiration.
Is there something you covet adding to your collection?
Yes, more books by me!