Bearing Witness : an interview with James Sturm
James Sturm, after toiling to achieve national obscurity like many Fantagraphics artists in the early ’90s, has recently caused surprise and excitement with his comics novellas The Revival and Hundreds of Feet Below Daylight. These short historical fictions (part of a planned trilogy) are hard to compare to anything else currently being done in North American comics.
When I mentioned his earlier work before the beginning of this interview, Mr. Sturm was rather alarmed and asked me not to talk about his “artistic development” — since we were both familiar with the type of Comics Journal interview in which an artist’s childhood sketchbooks are exposed to the world. I promised that I would try to remain entirely fixated on the present moment, but fortunately I quickly failed.
Eli : Let me start with what you’re doing right now. You’ve really been getting around in the last couple of years. You are now in Georgia, and you’re teaching ?
James Sturm : Yeah. There’s a college down here called Savannah College of Art and Design ; it’s the only college in the country that has an undergraduate and graduate degree in sequential art. The program’s only six years old, and it’s really been quite a blast. It’s grown from six students six years ago to about 250 students today, and it’s quite a fertile environment. You have all of these young cartoonists who are just super-enthusiastic about making comics. It’s been fun for me to try to articulate the things I know about comics and help structure the curriculum for this program. Teaching offers me a different way to have an impact on comics than just my own work.
E : You went to the School of Visual Arts in New York, right ? Were you in the comics program there ?
JS : No, it was for my MFA ; they only have an undergraduate program in comics there. I went to University of Wisconsin for my undergraduate degree. Personally, I’m not really a big proponent of these programs ; I mean, if I were an undergraduate, I don’t know if I’d go to Savannah College of Art and Design. I like a big liberal-arts school where you get a little bit of everything. But everybody has different needs.
E : You were in Philadelphia before that, and then in Seattle before that, where it seems like pretty much everyone is a cartoonist.
JS : Yeah. We moved down about a year before this last summer, to Savannah. I was in Philadelphia for about one year ; my girlfriend at that time (later my wife) was in graduate school at Tyler. Before that I was in Seattle for about five years. And before that, New York City for graduate school for about two years.
E : And when you were in Seattle, were you completely immersed in comics ?
JS : Oh, pretty much, yeah. I went there for two reasons. One was, I got a letter from Gary Groth who wanted to publish my comic book, and Fantagraphics was out there …
E : Which book was this ?
JS : The Cereal Killings. And I wanted to leave New York, because after two years in New York City, I was no longer going to have graduate school as a community where I would see other artists, I just wasn’t looking forward to just living an isolated life as a freelance illustrator. That seemed like a pretty gloomy existence. It is difficult to maintain a community in New York City ; you can live in Queens and have friends in Brooklyn, six months go by and you don’t see them. That’s normal for the place.
E : It kind of sucks, yes.
JS : So I wanted to leave New York … I had a great two years in New York, but I just wanted to get out before things went sour. I’ve always thought that living in New York is like being involved in an abusive relationship. It’s got its drama and thrills, but on a certain level it’s destructive …
And then I went to Seattle, and I helped start a newspaper out there, the Stranger. I was the first art director for that paper, as well as designing covers, illustrating, comics, distribution, selling ads — a little bit of everything. After about a year and a half, I really wanted to concentrate more on my comics. Working on a weekly paper with a short-handed staff is a real pressure cooker. It wasn’t until I tore my retina that I was able to give myself some distance from the paper.
E : You did what ?
JS : I tore my retina …
E : Oh my God. Is that related to too much drawing ?
JS : I don’t think so. I always had a really poor left eye, I was legally blind in that eye, incredibly nearsighted. I think it had to do with stress … you know, it was just time for it to go. I don’t think it was the drawing.
E : Good. And you did The Cereal Killings in 1993 ?
JS : I think I started in ’91, and I finished the last issue the year before I left Seattle. It took me maybe about four years do to the whole thing — eight issues.
E : And that is the longest thing you’ve done, right ?
JS : That’s pretty much the longest thing, yeah, that I’ve ever done. And I have to say … I’m really glad I did it. It was an amazing … well, the piece isn’t amazing, but I’m glad I did it, because I learned a lot about the process of how to make a comic, a extended narrative. I could never work that way again. I didn’t know what I was doing. It was the equivalent of a writer writing a really quick outline of a novel, and then attempting to write one polished chapter after another, and then never going back and revising. And getting picked up by Fantagraphics, at the time I thought it was a great thing — “I’ll be a big famous cartoonist now.” I think I would rather have cut my teeth without having an audience for it. Not to say that I am not appreciative of Fantagraphics for giving me that opportunity. Knowing that my work would see publication could only have had a positive effect in regards to sustaining my effort for such a lengthy project. But, again, no regrets. I learned a lot about storytelling, and I got a lot of stuff that I wanted to deal with out of the way, and could concentrate on different material.
E : So, I’m sorry, I caused you to talk about your artistic development after all. (laughter)
JS : That’s all right. I guess it can’t be avoided.
I was no different than a lot of my students, young cartoonists who have these incredible epics in their minds that they’re trying to share with the world. I had this huge, sprawling thing : I wanted to talk about pop culture, I wanted to talk about food and entertainment, I wanted to talk about spiritual redemption, and a man finding … I don’t know the words … something like Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin … I wanted this character to have a spiritual conversion. What an unfocused mess ! I’m both embarrassed and proud of it.
E : I had read some of The Cereal Killings when it appeared, and then I didn’t read your last two stories until recently. When I went back and read The Revival…
JS : Can I make a guess why you hadn’t read it ? The art was just … just rough and butt-ugly.
E : Uh, no. I think I was so unaware of it that I hadn’t seen the art. But compared to what other people were doing, there weren’t many small books that were produced as well as that. I think it just wasn’t distributed for very long, and I might also have had some personal resistance at that time to the subject of the story.
Anyway, once I had finally corrected my mistake and went back and read it … I was just wondering how this came about. I mean, there’s quite a shift in style and in subject from The Cereal Killings.
JS : Yeah. Well, with The Cereal Killings, you had these breakfast cereal characters, these American commercial icons, brought to life, and their lives inspected. And what I wanted to do was to explore the notion of America, what makes an American, and how this country shapes our lives. I liked dealing with these American icons as real characters, so I was thinking about doing some stories about Johnny Appleseed and Paul Bunyan, which I don’t feel is that much of a leap from these cereal-box characters — American icons equally mythic but of a less commercial nature.
When I was doing The Cereal Killings, I researched a lot about the breakfast cereal industry, and when you read about the breakfast industry, you read about the Kellogg Brothers in Battle Creek, Michigan, and the Seventh-Day Adventists. I became very intrigued by where the Seventh-Day Adventists originated, in that area of western New York referred to as the Burnt Over District, because the fires of revival had scorched the earth. I read a lot about that area, and that also led me to read the Joseph Smith biography, No Man Knows My History.
E : Is that the same part of New York described in Ben Katchor’s new book, where the forest is full of religious pamphlets ? Have you read that ?
JS : You know, I have it, and I’ve pored through it, and I’ve admired it … but I have yet to be able to read it.
E : Same here.
JS : So anyway … I was reading about religion in early America, I was very interested in that, and then I started doing research on Johnny Appleseed. I was going to the University of Washington library, which is just a terrific library, and I was finding old books about Ohio and the historic Johnny Appleseed, and I kept coming across notices and descriptions about the Cane Ridge Revival. And Johnny Appleseed himself was a missionary from the Church of the New Jerusalem, a Swedenborgian church.
E : I did not know that at all.
JS : It’s true. There were many famous Swedenborgians … Helen Keller, William Blake, and Johnny Chapman, who was Johnny Appleseed.
E : The notice in the inside cover of The Revival — “We invite you to Cane Ridge, Kentucky,” etc. — is that taken verbatim from some newspaper ?
JS : I probably pieced that together from a bunch of different things like that. So, the more I read about the Cane Ridge Revival, the more intrigued I was, and I felt like that’s really more interesting. I had an idea : I wanted to do a story about Johnny Appleseed, the American psychic Edgar Cayce, and Emanuel Swedenborg. I wanted to somehow take all three of these lives and work the narrative so it would go between these different times and places. But after doing The Cereal Killings, I was reluctant to start another sprawling mess of a work. I’d wanted to do a story where I can get in and get out and have a halfway decent chance of succeeding. Limit my focus to one idea.
The Cane Ridge Revival seemed like an exciting backdrop to a story. It reminded me of the mid-to-late ’80s, when I used to see a lot of Grateful Dead shows. Traveling through the country, being in these parking lots … what I loved about these things is just how the totally absurd becomes normal. You can be sitting around with friends, the sun’s coming up, you can’t sleep ’cause you’re still so worked up and suddenly three naked people in hysterics just run through the parking lot … and you just of look, and accept it as just being part of the whole scene. You see so much weirdness, the line between normal and abnormal becomes awfully hard to distinguish.
And that’s why I picked this frontier setting as well. On the frontier, you’re challenging your assumptions and you’re rewriting all your rules of what’s possible and what’s not possible. So I thought with the Cane Ridge Revival, that would be a great place to test this idea of faith … I wanted to offer Sarah and Joseph Bainbridge an environment where believing they could bring their daughter back to life seemed credible.
E : Does the frontier also represent the idea of space ? And what is the relation between the mainstream culture of the cities, and subcultural activities like revivals and Grateful Dead shows ?
JS : The more populated a region, the more individuals will need to conform to certain norms of behavior.
E : That story takes place in 1801. When does Hundreds of Feet Below Daylight take place ?
JS : Early 1870s.
E : And what’s changed between the two stories ?
JS : I see The Revival as kind of a hopeful tale. A horrible tragedy has struck this family, and they look towards God for redemption, towards God for the possibility of regeneration — to be delivered. They’re all optimistically looking skyward, up towards the heavens.
In Hundreds of Feet Below Daylight, it’s the exact opposite : they’re looking straight down into the earth. Their orientation is different. Instead of looking to God for salvation, they’re just looking to money to solve all their ills.
And at the end of The Revival is optimistic, although people have argued this with me. If everybody in that crowd actually believed that that baby could have risen, I think it could have. There’s this moment where the hand rises, and you don’t know if the woman just hugged the baby so hard she pushed the elbow up, or maybe just …
But to a large extent what’s allowable really is just a consensus reality that we all decide upon.
The end of Hundreds of Feet Below Daylight is a tragedy, but there’s part of me that is always trying to have a silver lining — so the healer and the little girl have all this money, so maybe they can make a fresh start of things. The ending became an unintended metaphor. Many Americans are blessed with a degree of affluence and wealth, an education. My affluence is based upon a lot of people suffering –Native Americans, Africans, Third World workers who produce many of my consumer goods. And for those of us fortunate enough to be born into affluence, it’s not something we should feel guilty about, but it is something that we should acknowledge, and ask ourselves, “Okay, we’ve been afforded these advantages, now what are we going to do with this opportunity ?” Are we going to make the world a better place or a worse place ? And the young girl at the end of Hundreds of Feet will face this choice. After witnessing all she has, I’m hopeful that she won’t be too scarred and can use her new wealth positively.
E : When you talk about the frontier and that period of time, and you tell those stories, it’s often perceived as being “revisionism” … you know, as if the accepted idea was that history progressed in an innocent way, and that this is now being rewritten to cast us all in a bad light, and so on. But I assume if you go back to the original sources, these things were not completely buried and unacknowledged, even at that time. Has there been a deliberate forgetting between then and now ?
JS : Many myths that our country is built upon do not allow us to acknowledge the violence that is also part of our heritage. But of course the world we are now part of is horrifically violent and only getting more so. But personal history works the same way, no ? I’ve done some fucked-up shit in the past. Right afterward I felt horrible or denied it. As time goes by I feel less bad about it. Over a period of many years that “you” back then was a different person that the “you” now doesn’t feel so responsible for.
E : But at what point does the myth displace the reality ? I know that’s an impossible question … but it just seems that that kind of protective reaction that we see now, trying to defend the myth, can’t have much to do with how people saw themselves and what they were doing at that time.
JS : Well, no, probably not. But … the short-story writer Grace Paley said that any story told twice is fiction. And I think any time you’re trying to tell “the story of the West,” or “the story” of anything, it’s an impossible thing. I’m sure there were a lot of romantic stories about the old West, and hopeful, and violent and humorous and everything in between. To try to tell one overarching story … the story of the West, it can only be a myth. I think the best you can hope for is to tell some more concise, little, specific stories, and hope that they’ll add up to a point of view that’s maybe a little bit more honest.
E : There’s a very helpful list of sources and historical references in the back of both of these books. How directly were these stories taken from history ?
JS : There were incidents that I read about that were folded into the books. For instance, in the book No Man Knows My History, about Joseph Smith … they bring Joseph Smith in and he’s preaching, and telling them that anything’s possible … and someone brings in a dead child, and he is kind of stopped in his tracks. The same thing happens in The Kingdom of Matthias, saying all things are possible. Some of the dialogue came directly from these sources.
E : Since you mentioned Joseph Smith — did you have any connection with the Mormons, or what is your religious background, if you don’t mind my asking ?
JS : Oh, no, I’m Jewish. I think I’ve been kind of avoiding doing anything about that … I don’t know why, consciously or unconsciously. But the next piece that I’m doing is about a Jewish baseball team in the 1920s. The research has taken me closer to my background and history, which I’m pretty ignorant about.
E : The visual style of both of these books … what went into that ? I mean, I see certainly, especially in The Revival, some resemblance to what you’ve done in the past, in your work for Fantagraphics ; but in that and especially in Hundreds of Feet Below Daylight, it seemed more consciously drawn from 19th-century art.
JS : In The Revival, a lot of visual information came from illustrations from old magazines, like Harper’s and Leslie’s, the broadsides, and the styles that were being drawn then, the etchings … I love those old artists. It’s very enabling, in a certain sense, to see these artists who went out and actually drew these things, because … they were bearing witness. Even though their drawings were clunky, and they had no real command of the figure (like me), there was a certain blunt honesty to them.
I don’t want my own insecurity about my drawings to prevent me from tackling a subject or a story. So when I look at that work, it kind of gives me permission to say — okay, you’re trying to bear witness to a story that hasn’t really been told, so just do it as best you can, and if you sort of try to be as honest or straightforward as possible, hopefully you’ll get that same quality that these kind of clunky etchings have. And I think it’s the same thing, when I look at a lot of folk art as well, there’s something just very inspiring about that, and it’s very enabling. Unless it’s in service to my stories, I don’t feel that my art is anything that anybody should particularly go out of their way to look at. I’ll never be able to draw like Jaime Hernandez, but I feel I’m continuing to improve and I can’t ask for more than that.
E : The art looks like a combination of brush and some woodcut-like effects ; do you use scratchboard ?
JS : I just use a brush on Bristol, and then sometimes I’ll brush things out with white ink. I don’t use scratchboard.
E : It doesn’t really look like a reproduction of 19th-century magazine art, but the atmosphere is very strong, and I think it does serve the story.
JS : I think probably one of the reasons Art Spiegelman is such a patron saint for me is because he is very honest with his work, and he approaches it from a very straightforward design perspective. His drawings are … actually, I really love his drawings, but he’s not somebody whose facility for drawing is going to blow you away, yet there is an urgency and immediacy to his drawings…
E : What can you tell us about your next work ?
JS : It’s going to be about 96 pages. It takes place in the 1920s. There’s a Jewish barnstorming baseball team …
E : Was there an abundance of Jewish barnstorming baseball teams in the 1920s ?
JS : Not that I know of. There was a team called the House of David, and a couple of books cited them as being Jewish, but in actuality they weren’t Jewish at all. They did have these long beards. I have yet to come across a barnstorming Jewish baseball team, but the photo of the House of David inspired my “Stars of David.” The coach is named Noah Strauss, who’s called the Zion Lion.
The team gets a promoter who has just seen the German film The Golem — which was released in New York in the 1920s, and was the first really big international hit — and the promoter procures a replica of the golem costume that was worn in the film. He wants to dress up one of the players, this African-American player who travels with the team.
Basically, the book is about identity. In all these stories I’ve been telling, I’ve been struggling with the idea of America … a country that has very quickly manufactured an identity for itself, myths for itself … and with the Jews there’s this tradition that extends before the concept of America existed. I’m thinking about the construction of identity of American Jews, and in the story I’m curious about how the media amplifies stereotypes.
What I also want to do with this book is just make a really good baseball comic. I like sports, and it’s been challenging trying to orchestrate the rhythms of a baseball game in comic form. The Japanese do it well.
E : Well, two things you really have not seen a whole lot of in American comics are sports and history. I really can’t think of any examples of sports comics.
JS : There’s Cottonwoods, which was a comic strip from the 1950s by Ray Gotto ; it was reprinted in a collection by Kitchen Sink. It’s really beautifully drawn, but a little stiff and hampered by its daily format. Lots of forced dialogue : “Hey, Cotton’s going to steal home !”
Some of the technical challenge of this book is not to have this phony voice-over — which does deliver a lot of useful information to the viewer. So I’m trying to figure that out … I don’t want every at-bat to last ten pages. I’m planning on using a voice-over narrative.
E : In the other two historical stories, there’s no voice-over, no captions … well, there are one or two little place-and-time captions … but the reader is just dropped directly into the scene.
JS : Yeah, I like that challenge. It involves me in the narrative in a way that, if I have a voice-over with a lot of exposition, it doesn’t. But with this baseball book, it’s so action-oriented … and you’re so used to hearing exposition when you experience baseball on TV or radio–the play-by-play, the commentators. Maybe we take in a few games live, but for the most part we’re so used to broadcasts that voice-over doesn’t seem all that intrusive.
E : Back to historical comics. Were there any particular precedents, stories or writers that you had in mind, either as inspirations or as things to avoid, in terms of how to approach historical drama ?
JS : Well, I think there are a lot of things to avoid. But as far as historical comics go … I don’t know, I can’t answer that question.
E : In America, I’m not sure who else has been doing historical comics ; there’s Jack Jackson …
JS : Yeah, Jack Jackson’s stuff, I’m not that familiar with it. I like Mack White. He did a story called “Cindy, the Tattooed Sunday School Teacher” … I think it appeared in Snake Eyes … there’s a quality to that story that I just loved. Even though his stuff takes place during modern times, I felt like our sensibility is similar, and I like some of his other stories quite a bit.
I like Jason Lutes’ Berlin. Visually it is often quite stunning. He has a very romantic viewpoint, very sentimental ; I feel like I’m coming from maybe a different angle, but our intentions with comics seems somewhat similar.
E : Speaking of an unusual approach to history — and I don’t know if I’d call it documentary or drama — one of your sources for Hundreds of Feet was the book Wisconsin Death Trip. I’m not sure how to describe this book ; Lesy calls it “an exercise in history.” It’s basically a collection of 19th-century small-town photographs interspersed with news articles about death and insanity. And in contrast to the romantic vision of the West, and the denial of murder and corruption, here you have a book of virtually nothing else — this singular vision of decay and despair and the emptying out of the rural community.
JS : In a sense, though, it’s not really “nothing else,” because that book was created in the context of how we learn history in this country, and how we’re used to looking at the West. You can’t read that book outside of that context.
One of the reasons I love Wisconsin Death Trip is not so much the articles, but I’m really also interested with how the images … how a series of images takes on a content. There’s a great designer named Sean Tejaratchi in Portland, and he does a zine called Craphound. Craphound is just a collection of clip art … or rather, black-and-white images. There’ll be an issue of “Hands, Heads, and Hearts,” and it’ll just be a whole magazine of just images of hands, heads, and hearts, designed on pages over and over again, or “Sex and Kitchen Gadgets,” or “Clowns, Devils, and Bait.” It’s purely visual, but they start taking on some kind of narrative content.
Although I think of myself in some ways more as a writer, I recognize the fact that comics is primarily a visual medium. Wisconsin Death Trip and Craphound juxtapose images, without any words, and create powerful, resonant works.
E : Now, in between The Revival and Hundreds of Feet, you did a shorter piece, Sight Unseen, that was serialized in the Stranger and the Philadelphia Weekly. This is a very different kind of thing, to say the least. How did it come about ?
JS : The Philadelphia Weekly hired me to redo their comics section. I’d previously done a comic called Seam — a pantomime comic along the lines of Sight Unseen.
[At this point we are visited by the electronic presence of Loleck, who has been dying to talk about this small comic.]
Loleck : The writing in Sight Unseen seems totally spontaneous — a syncopated rhythm, abrupt transitions, Lewis Carroll logic.
JS : I like to work in a more spontaneous fashion that the historical fiction stories doesn’t allow for. Put the antennae up and see what is received. And although there is a seat-of-the-pants approach, these stories always seem to fold back in on themselves. I guess I’m intrinsically attracted to structure.
L : It seems that we’re in a dream, that you’re telling the story just as you dreamed it. Is the dream-like quality really spontaneous, or did you construct it very precisely to achieve this effect ?
JS : No, it wasn’t a dream, but scenes have been dreamed. It’s more spontaneous than the historical fiction, but a construct nevertheless.
Page 11 was the first page I laid out — it’s a transcription of some Indian guru whose book I found in a free bin outside a thrift store. The story spun forward and backward from there. I dropped in everything from poems by Rilke to quotes from stories in the New York Times.
L : In the “logic” of this story, it seems that there’s a constant deception — in scene after scene, every possibility of human contact or help turns immediately into violence, trickery, and loneliness again (the little boy, the cheerleader, the guru). This loneliness, this inability to connect — is it a personal experience ? In other words, is it more of an autobiographical dream story or a comment on humanity in general ?
JS : Those two things aren’t mutually exclusive. The line between me and you, between me and “humanity,” is quite tenuous if it exists at all. The closest thing in Sight Unseen to my actual dreams is the high-school part ; that’s also probably the most clichéd aspect as well.
Sight Unseen began with a man’s plea for a drink. The protagonist presumed he knew what was best for the suffering man and ignored his request. It took the entire comic for him to realize that he didn’t know shit, and then he could suspend his judgements and help someone in need. Perhaps the story is about dogma — although I say this in hindsight. I wasn’t conscious of creating a theme of constant deception.
L : The story begins with a celebration — even though we don’t know where it’s happening, or why, or whether it’s really very happy — and it ends with this morbid image of hanging bodies in the snow. There’s a progressive collapse into a kind of waking nightmare, and there are images of death throughout. This is also the case in The Revival and in Hundreds of Feet. Why this constant presence of death, the impossibility of resurrection or awakening ?
JS : I don’t think in The Revival there is an impossibility of resurrection. In Hundreds of Feet, there’s a scene where Ned talks to his dead partner. Doesn’t that qualify as a resurrection of sorts ?
L : The giant float that’s the center of the celebration at the beginning, which provokes the suicide of its followers when it’s deflated, could be seen as a symbol of God or of religion. And it’s after this thing has been deflated and crushed that finally the main character can come to the aid of that suffering man from the beginning. Here again it seems like the story is illustrating, in dream form, a critique of religion which is also in The Revival.
JS : It could be a symbol but I don’t think that was my specific intention. As for the rest, that’s a big question. My only reply is that I didn’t imply The Revival to be a critique of religion.
Interesting note : a week after Sight Unseen came out, the Heaven’s Gate mass suicide took place in San Diego. Several readers thought that the comic was a response to that event, but of course I had never heard of Heaven’s Gate until after I had finished the comic.
E : You obviously have some very particular goals in your own work. How do they connect to your approach to teaching ? Well, first of all, what is the nature of your class ?
JS : Well, briefly … there are different classes, and I have one class that just focuses on observational drawing, and doesn’t really even talk so much about the language of comics as much as just getting students to go outside and observe the world and draw. But primarily in my other classes, I try to get them away from getting overly concerned with their drawing skills, because I feel that everybody can learn to draw. If you have good drawing and nothing else, it’s kind of like fool’s gold. So I’m trying to get them to be aware of telling the story in cuts, about how to read a comic, how to take it in, what’s the engine that drives a narrative. A lot of them have been reading comics all their lives and are very insular in their tastes. I try to present to them a wider frame of reference, exposing them to a lot of work. And I don’t just mean alternative comics. For instance, I’ll give a lecture about why Hank Ketcham is significant … and even though they’re all familiar with him, to be able to approach that in a new way.
I’ll ask them at the beginning of an intro class, who is one of the most influential cartoonists historically in this country, as far as his ability and his influence on American culture and on other cartoonists. People will suggest a lot of different things, but I’ve never had somebody suggest Harvey Kurtzman, and for my money I think he’s one of the top dogs. So then by the end of the quarter I’ll have introduced Harvey Kurtzman, and talk about him and his influences … and, again, just expose them to as much stuff as I can.
And at that point, it’s going to be up to the students, what whets their appetite, and then it’s up to them to go where they want to go with it. A lot of them just want to do superhero comics. My hope is that their superhero comic will be a cut above the rest in terms of craft. Others go in different directions. I have one student who doesn’t want to draw any more, just wants to do screenwriting, and she’s going to go to Hollywood after she graduates ; if that’s what she wants to do, I’ll try to help with that.
E : For the ones who do stay with it … at this moment in time, how bleak is the picture for someone young who’s got something they think they want to do ? What are their entry points into comics ? And do you think that the current state of the market, etc., is really going to have terrible effects on the next generation ?
JS : Well, with the current state of the market … there would probably be more cartoonists if there were more opportunities, perhaps. In the last year or so, I’ve just given up on the industry of comics to a certain extent. If my work continues to find a larger and larger audience, terrific. But I make comics because I feel I have to do it, and these are the stories I have to tell. And my students, when I tell them it’s going to take me two years to finish this comic I’m working on, they can’t believe it. But if I said that it took Tom Wolfe ten years to finish A Man in Full, or that a novelist takes five years to do a book, that doesn’t seem surprising.
E : Although they probably have an image of Tom Wolfe making a slightly better living at that point.
JS : Well, this is true. And every time I kind of feel down about being a cartoonist I just think, “Thank God I’m not a poet.” (laughter) Thousands of people will seek out and buy my work … that’s pretty amazing in and of itself.
E : But then who do the poor poets have to look down on ? (laughter)
JS : I shouldn’t have said that. But you get the idea. All I mean is that I do have a small group of people that are interested in my work, and I’m grateful for that.
And I think I’m doing work now for the right reasons. I think when I first started doing comics, I envisioned this great massive audience, this lucrative career. And, you know, those things would be great, but I’m not going to tailor my work to try to attain that ; and the cartoonists that do that, I think their work suffers. And secondly, what are the prospects for cartoonists ? Well, if people just want to do comics because they want attention and be loved, then they should go into filmmaking, go into another medium, or work in an advertising agency. But if they’re interested in comics as an art form, and that’s what sustains them, then it’s never going to be that bleak.
Right now I’m teaching, but if I weren’t teaching, I’d find some other way. What I tell my students is — if you’re capable of making a good comic, then you have writing skills ; you have research skills ; you have design skills ; you have coloring skills … in the program at SCAD they also take a computer coloring course, they all know computers, much more so than I’ll ever know … they have this whole collection of skills. And, yeah, maybe you might not be able to make a career doing your comics, but you can be a successful freelancer in a zillion different areas. And instead of going to a job and saying “Hi, I’m a cartoonist, can I have some work” … people have such a narrow idea of what cartoonists are … just say, “Hi, I’m a multimedia artist. I combine words and pictures. I can do all these things.”
E : Well, why do you think that it’s gotten that way — in this country, anyway — that comics are in this peculiar basement corner of the culture ? I guess you could probably teach a whole other class on that subject …
JS : I wish I knew. I wish I knew. If you look at the point where comics really first came into their own in this country, an artificial starting point is The Yellow Kid ; well, that obviously predates film, and it’s not too far behind photography. And, God, if I locked myself in a room and wanted to see all the great films that were ever made, I would be in that room for a long, long time. If I went in with all the great comics that were made since then, I wouldn’t be in that long ; I’d order a pizza and I’d be out the next morning.
I’m sure there are a lot of theories about it, but I don’t really have any. The good news is that I can do some pretty mediocre work and people will take it seriously. (laughter) In the other arts … if you pick up a paintbrush, Pablo Picasso, Miro, Van Gogh are all standing behind you casting a shadow on your canvas … so many great painters. When I think of cartoonists, there are greats –but it’s not like other media.
E : I often get the impression that in Europe they’ve got some kind of utopia for cartoonists, although they tell me that that’s not quite realistic. Still, there’s an obvious difference in what the average person on the street is going to be familiar with.
JS : I think what would help, too, is if there were more … you know, you can tell someone, “Oh, comics aren’t just for kids any more, they’re the real deal,” and then they’re like, “Okay, what can I read ?” And you give them Maus, and maybe you give them Ghost World … and then there’s not that much. There are of course a few other things out there, but … so much of it is comics about comics. Even pieces that I really like and admire, such as Dylan Horrocks’ Hicksville… even with that, you really have to know a lot about who Jack Kirby was and so on. And with Seth’s It’s a Good Life If You Don’t Weaken, I don’t think you need to know about cartoonists necessarily, but it still is about somebody who’s obsessed with cartoonists and comics. And you can’t give people a copy of Watchmen for the same reason, although I enjoyed that because I grew up with all those comics.
E : In the late ’80s, with the popularity of Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns, maybe they were just recapturing part of an audience who had already been reading comics in their youth … and maybe they used up that audience.
JS : I agree, yeah. And I don’t think there are that many really great things out there. Sometimes, say, DC Vertigo will send me some free books, I’ll get some graphic novels … but if I’m in the middle of a good novel — right now I’m reading Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter — I’m totally engrossed, and when I get these graphic novels in the mail, I don’t enjoy reading them as much as reading a good novel. It’s not so much the medium itself — I mean, obviously I enjoy comics as much as books — but there’s just deeper and more resonant material that writers are producing than what cartoonists are at this point.
E : Why do you think … well, it’s not like I really expect you to answer this … among the people who are now writing deep things in prose, why are more of them not interested in working with artists and doing comics ?
JS : Oh, I don’t know. Most of them, for good reasons, don’t have the highest regard for comics in general. It’s the same reason that I wouldn’t want to write Hundreds of Feet Below Daylight as a novella — which I did try, a 70-pager that was horrible ; granted it was a first draft, but I realized this is not my medium, I’m a cartoonist. I’m sure a lot of writers see the world in terms of just blocks of text and not images, and it just wouldn’t make sense for them to write a comic.
E : Well, some novelists are also decent screenwriters, for instance.
JS : Yeah, I don’t know … it’s probably just the prejudice that comics is a juvenile medium, which is just so ingrained, and most people don’t see it as more than a novelty medium in a sense. Something like Isaac Mizrahi’s Millie the Model book, I don’t know if you saw that …
E : Oh, Lord …
JS : That book was horrible. It was just horrible. It’s comics as a novelty item with no concern for the craft.
I just hope there will be a critical mass of good work that will be produced. I do believe there is a solid, stable mass of people who are approaching comics in a really thoughtful way, who are taking it seriously and who have aspirations for their work. If there’s not that critical mass, if that doesn’t develop, then the great work that’s happened will just disappear into our cultural memory ; the history will be forgotten, because there won’t be any touchstone for it. We’ll see what happens.
E : That would be depressing.
JS : Yeah. But, I mean, Chris Ware, Archer Prewitt, there are so many … Julie Doucet … Debbie Dreschler, I think it’s really brilliant what she’s doing. And I just read The Extended Dream of Mr. D … it’s beautiful. So … I don’t know … I’m optimistic.
E : Good.
This interview was conducted through various forms of communication between New York City, Savannah, Georgia, and Paris, on and after February 14, 1999.
James Sturm bibliography
Hundreds of Feet Below Daylight. Drawn and Quarterly : 1998.
Sight Unseen. Fantagraphics : 1997.
Seam. Self-published : 1996.
The Revival. Drawn and Quarterly : 1995.
The Cereal Killings. (8 issues) Fantagraphics : 1992-95.
Check-Up. A Fantagraphics one-shot, 1991.
Published and edited Savage Love 1 & 2, written by advice columnist Dan Savage with art by Sturm, Debbie Dreschler, Jay Stephens, Marcellus Hall, R. Sikoryak, Ellen Forney and others. Bear Bones Press : 1993-1994.
- My fear was unfounded ; I had no trouble reading The Jew of New York.
- Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772), a Swedish government official, founded a controversial branch of Christian theology based on his visions of Jesus. John Chapman (1774-1845), a missionary from Massachusetts, traveled on foot through colonial America and became known for planting apple trees for settlers.
- Michael Lesy, Wisconsin Death Trip. New York : Anchor Books, 1973.