James Sturm & Rich Tommaso

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Since his debut, James Sturm has always been an explorer of the darkest times of American History, in particular through his trilogy God, Gold and Golems. He has recently completed Satchel Paige: Striking Out Jim Crow, a biography of one of the best pitchers of baseball history, who ended up playing in the Negro Leagues because of the color of his skin. Rich Tommaso, who handled the drawing duties on this book, also shares his impressions regarding this collaboration.

Nicolas Verstappen : You seem to have a passion for American History. And it seems also to be a political statement. Do you write thinking that America has to know his past History to avoid future mistakes ?

James Sturm : I think any country, or individual for that matter, benefits from having a deeper knowledge of their history. How you see yourself as a person or how a country sees itself is depends upon the stories it tells. Myth, which is what popular history often is, can be empowering but it is often be harmful in its narrowness.

NV : The Revival, Hundreds of Feet Below Daylight and The Golem’s Mighty Swing are now presented as a trilogy. The idea of writing a trilogy was already existing back in 1996 or is it more like a fortuitous result ?

JS : After The Revival I started working on Hundreds of Feet Below Daylight. During early stages of making that book, I got excited by the Golem book so the idea of a trilogy occurred maybe 40 % through ?

NV : Could your story about the Fantastic Four be seen as a fourth part to your trilogy ? With God, Gold and Golems, it would be a look on America’s link to “Pop Culture” (but also to MacCarthysm) ?

JS : I don’t see it as a fourth part though it is historic fiction and follows chronologically. Certainly in all four stories there is an exploration of what informs a more “official” story (whether its historical gospel or four superheroes !).

NV : Why did you think about Craig Thompson for that project (before he was replaced by Guy Davis) ?

JS : A mutual friend suggested Craig who I had met once or twice at various US conventions. I contacted Craig who was interested. Craig dove in and drew some pages but it became apparent that working from my thumbnails would have been too constricting for him. It was great that Craig could do the covers of the comics. Marvel recommended Guy Davis and he was great to work with.

NV : What about the part II (The Mad Thinkers) and III (The Negative Zone) of that story ?

JS : I just made that up. I never intended for a part 2 or 3.

NV : You said that you “didn’t draw the Fantastic Four story because there was a built-in limited audience for it”. Why didn’t you draw Satchel Paige yourself and why did you choose Rich Tommaso for it ?

JS : I’m really slow when it comes to drawing pages. Rich was the most skilled cartoonist available at that time. The books I draw now are the ones that are most personal that I could not imagine someone else drawing.

NV : Your art is getting more refined with the years. You’re almost reaching the European “ligne claire” (clear line). How do you appreciate the evolution of your drawing style ?

JS : I struggle with my art work and don’t have any sense of how it is evolving.

NV : Talking about the “clear line”, is it linked to an European inheritance (Hergé, Chaland, Peyo) or to older American comic-strip artists (like on Seth’s work) ? Or none of those ?

JS : I wouldn’t consider the European clear line style an influence. Certainly Seth is an influence. He is one of my favorite cartoonists. The drafts of my books are more fully rendered. I love looking at American printmakers and artists from the 1930s : Raphael Soyer, Peggy Bacon, Thomas Hart Benton, Denys Wortman. But when it comes time to draw my finished panel I find the need to reduce the panel to essential elements. To be honest I am not sure whether I truly believe it helps the readability of the comic or I just don’t have the skill set to make a more illustrative style work.

NV : Why did you add a tone of color (bichromy) in The Golem’s Mighty Swing and Satchel Paige ? Is it linked to the mood/atmosphere of those times ? Or were you afraid of the empty space left by your line getting “clearer” ?

JS : So much of baseball is about atmosphere and the second color helps create that. If I didn’t use a second color my panels I would have to rely on more shading. I’m working on a full color book now and many of the panels seem like skeletons. The flesh will be the color.

NV : Could you tell more about the full color book you’ve just mentioned ?

JS : It is a day in the life a of a Jewish rug weaver set in eastern europe in the early 1900s. Drawn and Quarterly will publish it.

NV : It’s interesting that you work with colors on story where black and white would fit because our knowledge on this 1900’s period are mostly linked to b&w pictures or movies. Is it to work with more visual (and olfactive) sensations ?

JS : It was important to me that this world feels contemporary. Color seemed necessary in that regard.

NV : So you’re leaving America for Europe with this book. Is it linked somehow The Golem’s Mighty Swing ? To see the story of the generation of Jews preceding that story ?

JS : No, I do not see it linked in that way. The main character is a version of myself wrestling with issues of family, art, and commerce. Setting it in yiddishland certainly connects me to the material in a deeper way and allows me to avoid being suffocated by my own drama.

NV : This reminds me of a story by Sammy Harkham called Lubavitch, Ukraine 1876 in Kramers Ergot #6. Would you say there’s a link between those two stories ?

JS : Is there is link ? We are both American Jewish cartoonists ? It would be presumptuous of me to read into Sammy’s intentions.

NV : In my interview with Sammy Harkham, he told me that his Lubavitch story was a “experimental autobiograhical historical comic strip” where he sets himself in a small ukrainian town back in 1876. And as you seem to work an a similar experience of setting a “version of yourself” in eastern europe in the early 1900s, I thought there might be a link. As Sammy Harkham teaches sometimes at the Center for Cartoon Studies, I thought there might have been a discussion about that concept or experiment between you two…

JS : Sammy did come through White River Junction during the Center for Cartoon Studies’ first year. I had already begun working on Market Day before seeing his piece (which is excellent). I wouldn’t call what I am doing experimental. Characters that grow out of a writer/cartoonist’s interests, obsessions, and personal inventories are par for the course.

NV : Coming back to Satchel Paige — this is a book without “speech balloons”. Why did you made that choice ?

JS : I read a lot of oral history of America during the Jim Crow era. There was a poignancy from the testimony of those that bore witness to those events and the added perspective that time allows. In my mind, somehow not having the word balloons seemed to connect it more to the source material, the voice of the people who experienced such great oppression. Also, the oral histories I read condensed a lot of information while still being very dramatic and intense. Using narration I was also able to compress more story in fewer pages.

NV : In every of your stories (as far as I can tell), you’re using a system of three equal rows of panels. Is it to prevent distraction from the reader, to stay focus on the characters and the story ?

JS : Not all my books have a three-panel grid but I do rely heavily on that structure. I find the deliberate panel structure much easier to edit. I appreciate more organic and elaborate page designs but as a creator that is not where my strengths lie.

NV : For an American reader, I guess the rules of baseball are well known. For an European reader, baseball might seem mysterious. Was it something you tried to work on while working on Satchel Paige and The Golem’s Mighty Swing ? Making those baseball sequences understandable for every reader ?

JS : I’m a bit surprised by the Golem‘s warm reception in Europe. I try to make the baseball sequences work for the non-sports fan and yet still be authentic so those that follow the sport will find it credible.

NV : You’ve been teaching comics through the years. Was it on a specific subject (narration,art, theory, history…) or on a wider approach ?

JS : I certainly teach some basic studio stuff and some history gets thrown in there as I try to introduce artists whose work I think will inspire. My goal in teaching is to help students gain an intimacy with their own creative process. At the Center for Cartoon Studies, students are asked to produce finished printed work. I hope that each student come away with a deeper understanding of what it takes them to make a quality comic.

NV : You said that you introduce your students to artists whose work could inspire them. Maus by Spiegelman is part of it but what are the other “inspiring works” ?

JS : We cover so many artists in great detail at the Center for Cartoon Studies. Carl Barks, Jack Kirby, David B., Roy Crane, Chris Ware, R. Crumb, Harvey Kurtzman, to name just a few. Too many to list ! !

NV : How do you see the work of your students, of the new generation of artists ? Do you feel that they are going somewhere else than the previous generation, that their interests are different (fiction, autobiography, japanese influence, roleplaying influence, genres…) ?

JS : It is so hard to categorize students as a single group. They are all over the map in terms of their interests, influences, style, ambitions, and temperaments. I didn’t start incorporating a computer in my process until I was well into my thirties. Almost all the students are very comfortable in a digital environment (even if it is only used to assist production).

NV : I can’t find the source anymore but I think you wrote somewhere that there’s many women coming to the Center for Cartoon Studies (or at least more than you expected). Is that correct and, if yes, is there a specific path that led them in your Center ?

JS : There are more women at the Center for Cartoon Studies than at the art and design schools I have taught but still far from being equal to the number of men.

NV : What did you learn about comics while teaching about them ? Did giving classes had an influence on your own way to create comics ?

JS : I’ve learned the most about comics from making them. That is why, as a teacher, I require so much finished work. I can help students draw a map but they have to travel through that unknown territory themselves. I’m sure teaching has had a big influence. Mostly positive (trying to hold myself to the same standard I expect from them) but I am sure some negative too (less time to draw, making myself too self-conscious).

NV : I would like to conclude this interview with a question about a small booklet you did years ago. When I bought Return to Normal, I didn’t notice it was a book of yours. It just felt appealing. What kind of reactions did you got from the readers ? How do you see that book (and 9-11) seven years after its publication ?

JS : The way I react and process the world is through stories so it was only natural that I would respond to 911. The book is based on a children’s picture book about airplanes and airports that I was reading to my kids at the time of the attack. The reading of the book changed dramatically after 911. I wanted to lay down some images, construct a pretty open narrative, and allow the reader (and myself) to start figuring this new and disconcerting post 911 world.

Interview with Rich Tommaso
Nicolas Verstappen : How did you get into that project with James Sturm ? What were your feelings about a project quite different from what you did before ?

Rich Tommaso : James and I kept bumping into each other at comic cons and he would always mention his idea for starting a comics college. Well, it got off the ground and up and running sooner than anyone had expected. So, it was around this time he asked if I would donate an original page of art to the school accompanied by a sketch. I did so and then about two weeks later he called me up and asked, “Hey, how’d you like to draw a historical biography about Satchel Paige for Hyperion Books ?” I normally don’t collaborate with other people, but I knew if James had written the story, it would be a great project to work on for the next year of my life. It was also right when I was stressing out about my career and finances, too !

NV : Was drawing “sport-based” sequences difficult ? Did you use The Golem’s Mighty Swing as a reference to do it or to get closer to James’ mood ?

RT : It was very difficult ! More than 60 pages of the graphic novel were of men playing the game ! I had to draw the same poses (with different characters in those poses) over and over and over again. James was a big help to me with specific hand gestures and stances — he knows a lot more about the sport than I do. I did look at The Golem’s Mighty Swing quite a bit, as well as tons of photographs, baseball manga, and televised games. It’s hard when you’ve never really played the sport ; right now I’m working on a short piece about tennis and it’s so much easier for me to “nail” the characters’ poses because I play tennis and also watch a lot of it on tv.

NV : You’re mentioning mangas in your documentation about baseball. But you’ve chosen a very restrained way to work “sport” sequences (three row of square panels). You wanted to play on a more psychological intensity (characters face to face) ?

RT : No, I think that James’ decision to avoid using close ups for dramatic purposes was an important one for telling this particular kind of period piece — a story that is mostly about racism. The segregation and oppression of black people by whites in the southern part of the United States — a subject which would have been taken less seriously if dramatized like that of a comic book which is read more for entertainment purposes.

NV : Did the lack of “speech balloons” influence your way of work ? Did it make the break of sequences into panels more easier or not ?

RT : It didn’t necessarily influence my drawing in any different way, but it sure made it easier to pencil and ink — I didn’t have to worry about drawing around those balloons for the first time. We still had to do a little work to smooth out sequences when it was finished… there were still a few scenes that didn’t quite flow correctly into one another.

NV : Did this collaboration and this book change something in your way to look at your own work ? What did you learn from that experience ?

RT : It definitely sharpened my skills as an artist — I don’t think I would have been nearly as accurate in nailing down things such as baseball poses without James’ insistence that I draw them over and over again, until they were spot on.
It also gave me the confidence to try my own hand at doing historical work — something I’ve been planning to do for years, have had many ideas for, but having never put any of them into motion… until now. A lot of the discipline I applied in this work was also due to the fact that I could work every day, uninterrupted by an awful day job, and therefore was able to give my full concentration to this project and see it through efficiently.

NV : In your Best Comics list of 2008, there’s three French artists (Larcenet, Dupuy & Blain). Your interest and love for French comic books seems important. Could you tell more about that and if it has an influence on your work ?

RT : What impresses and inspires me so much about many of the French cartoonists like Sfar, Trondheim, and Blain, specifically, is that they look like they’re having a blast doing what they’re doing, like they really love to draw comics — this seems to be the opposite case with their “American counterparts”, who constantly gripe and moan and groan about what a depressing, lonely chore it is to draw comics. This may be why they’re more prolific than most Americans (on the art side of comics) are as well. Also, their artwork has a beautiful, free-handed fluidity to it — the kind of fluidity that some people achieve in their sketchbook work, but cannot capture in their narrative work for print. I’m definitely one of those cartoonists who sits and thinks (and second guesses everything) too much, all the while, producing finished work very infrequently — but, it’s something I’d definitely like to change. I’d like drawing and writing comics to become a more intuitive thing to do, like it was when I was younger–just playing off my strengths and not over-writing things to death.

NV : You’ve been teaching at the Center for Cartoon Studies. What kind of lessons did you provide there ?

RT : I taught at the Center for Cartoon Studies when it started in 2005, up until 2007, when I moved away to Atlanta. I mostly dealt with basic drawing skills, inking techniques, and materials that could be useful.
I did a class on shading the human form and face — not only demonstrating where shadows fall depending on where your light source is, but also, some tools and techniques with which to shade — pen and ink or brush — used for feathering, dry brush, crosshatching, etc. I also did a four-week class on hand lettering, along with Steve Bissette. Demonstrating lettering techniques which could be useful for creating Logo art, balloon text (using an Ames guide), and peripheral things like hand-lettering an indicia (or contents) page, page numbers, title pages, sound effects, etc. Besides that, I did some lecturing on the history of classically trained/styled cartoonists, from Roy Crane to Jaime Hernandez. All in all, I didn’t teach very often in the two years I was there — just once in a while.

[Interview conducted in March 2009 through emails for the #16 XeroXed pamphlet.]

Entretien par in September 2009