August 15, 2013

Convenient Truths -- CARTOON COLLEGE

This Column Originally Ran on Comics Bulletin
Sometimes the most universal truths can be found in the smallest slices of life. That’s what makes independent documentaries so powerful, engaging, and entertaining. Not only do they show you little worlds to which you’ve never had access, but they oftentimes also tell the larger story of what it means to be human. Armed with this intellectual conceit, a bag of Funyuns, and a couple of Miller beers, Daniel Elkin curls up in front of the TV and delves deep into the bowels of Netflix Streaming Documentaries to find out a little bit more about all of us.
Today he and his friend Jason Sacks found 2012's Cartoon College directed by Josh Melrod and Tara Wray.

Sacks: I don't know about you, Elkin, but if I were an aspiring cartoonist, I'd be very tempted to make the journey to White River Junction, Vermont, and enroll in the Center for Cartoon Studies – if they'd have me, of course. The story presented in Cartoon College portrays CCS as an extremely intensive, extremely stimulating opportunity to earn an MFA in comic art.
This documentary is basically a portrait of the school and several of its students, profiling them as they work through their creative and occasional emotional struggles as they complete their theses and learn the craft of being a professional cartoonist. As usual with documentaries, those portraits are the most interesting aspects of the movie.
A few students really stand out in the film. One is Blair Sterrett, a nice kid from Utah who desperately wants to create his graduating thesis on his missionary travels as a member of the Church of Latter Day Saints. But Blair is just not able to complete that project, continually running into problems with his material that cause him to deliver a mediocre, half-assed thesis presentation. We're allowed to be in the room with Blair as he presents his thesis. Maybe the most powerful moments in this film happen when we watch his obvious pain as he receives the bad news that his project has been rejected. His story has a redemptive second act, though, and that is part of the real heart of this movie.
Another intriguing student, Al Wesolowski, is a much older man, with a long white beard and enormous belly who enters CCS as an improbable student of the program. Wesolowski worked a long career in the field of archaeology before entering CCS, and it's clear that while he loves White River Junction and its bucolic atmosphere, Wesolowski is also overwhelmed by the experience of attending school with all of these excited young people and by the relentless deadlines he faces. Al's story has a redemptive second act as well.
Then there's Jen Vaughn, a young woman from Texas, who's one of those people who seldom seems to stop moving. She has two jobs in addition to her studies; we view a few scenes of Jen hard at work at a bakery at the same time that she also creates a stack of minicomics about her favorite topic: menstruation. It helps that I know and like Jen, but I thought she came across as fun, charming, and somehow very normal and self-actualized in this movie.
We watch these three students, and many others, navigate through their academic and professional education, going to conventions, receiving advice from their professors and guest lecturers (the main takeaway seems to be that you'll never become rich doing comics – heck, the great Lynda Barry makes her living selling things on eBay) and generally living a frantic student lifestyle.
Elkin, I really enjoyed this very low-key look at a school that I wish had been around when I was ready for college. Do you daydream of enrolling in the Cartoon College, too?

Elkin: I would love to go to Cartoon College. I would also like to go to Clown College. Do you think they have a Cartoon Clown College? If so, do you think they make sandwiches? I'd like that even more. 
I agree with you, Sacks, that Cartoon College was a film made with heart, and it had moments that were touching and engaging. It certainly gave us access to this little world in White River Junction, and it did a decent job of letting the students and the teachers tell the story of the school.  The word that I would use to best describe this documentary is “nice” – this was a nice film.
I had wished it went a little further in one of two directions, though. I wish it had focused either on the school itself – its struggles, its curriculum, its successes, its heart – or really focused on the struggles and triumphs of one of the professors or students instead of diluting itself by taking on such a large cast of characters. The film chose a middle ground between these two and, by doing so, took some of the meat off its own bone. Instead of something excellent, it ended up being “nice”.
Still, it did shine a light on a couple of topics. The first is that comics are a craft and one that can be taught. The second is to what end the teaching?
As a high school teacher, I often wonder why this country moved away from trade schools. Let's be upfront, here – not everyone wants or needs or can thrive within a general liberal arts curriculum. There are students out there that really want to work with computers or makeup or cars or animals or construction or fashion design – why the fuck do they really need to read The Canterbury Tales or understand the unified field theory? What seems to happen to many of these young men and women is that they struggle with the disconnect between what they want to learn and what they are told to learn, and this struggle leads to failures (with its accompanying blows to self-esteem) and engenders either a distrust or hatred of learning.
Were these students given a curriculum and experience tailored to their actual interests, they would have greater intrinsic motivation and therefore a higher chance of success and, perhaps, see education as a positive factor in their lives. 
The Center for Cartoon Studies is, for all extents and purposes, a trade school. It teaches students how to be professional cartoonists and tries to prepare them for life as such. As with other trade school in this country, it is privately owned and relatively expensive. If a student applies to an automotive or computer tech trade school, there is a certain ROI expected. But a cartoon college? Tuition at CCS is $18,000 a year (NOT including room and board and supplies), which is a chunk of change to invest in a future profession that is almost guaranteed to NOT make its practitioners any money. 
So to what end is the experience Sacks?
Sacks: Oy, $18,000 a year to attend CCS! That's a whole lot of money to spend to attend a school that prepares talented folks for jobs that will pay next to nothing. (Really, I'm still having trouble getting over the idea that Lynda fucking Barry has to sell stuff on eBay to make ends meet.) That's definitely the major difference between the Cartoon College and a vocational or trade school where people could learn about how to cut hair or gain an electrician's license or learn how to write JavaScript or make a perfect sandwich.
The documentary mostly skips past the topic of the cost for CCS. There are a few references to the expenses of the school, and of course Jen is shown working two jobs to help her meet her costs, but it would have been interesting to get more of a take on how the students think about their large investment in the school. Obviously many of these students decided to take out large loans to pay their way, and it would be interesting to read if they still feel the school is worth it now that they've been away from CCS for a few years.
My guess is that most of the scholars would say that they're happy that they spent their money on the school, for a few reasons. For one, the individualized instruction and intense workload at CCS forced these very creative people to decide how they wanted to approach their artform. This movie devotes a huge amount of time and space to the intense energy that these creators put into their work. These artists are always drawing, always creating, always refining their work and analyzing the material of other creators. In that sort of hothouse environment, creativity emerges quickly and potential can turn into real artistry; it's hard to imagine anyone attending the school, even Blair Sterrett, complaining about that factor.
Secondly, it's clear that these students receive intensive attention to their work from instructors and peers. In that way they're constantly being pushed to improve their comics, even if the criticism is sometimes a bit off-target or misses the point – another idea that was subtly implied in the film.
But maybe most importantly of all is that, as several of the guest lecturers point out, the comics medium has been exploding over the last few years. In the last twenty years, the artform has seen a wider diversity of great material being created, and a much larger acceptance of sequential art by ordinary readers. As such, it feels these days that we comic lovers are on the cusp of a revolution. We're watching a great and incredibly diverse artform emerge before our eyes. More and more publishers are embracing graphic novels, more and more people who never would have read sequential art are now reading them as a matter of course, and more and more creators are finding comics to be a fulfilling field in which to work.
Given all that, it makes sense for there to be an intensive school for studying the art of making comics as well as a wide group studying that artform. Comics are a popular artform in which many people are extremely nice, so doesn't it seem right to avoid the art snobs of ordinary MFA programs and get involved in a field that offers almost infinite possibilities?
If one of your students wanted to attend CCS, would you push them to travel to Vermont, Elkin?

Elkin: I would absolutely push them in that direction, as long as they fully understood what they were getting into first. There are a number of programs around the country for students interested in becoming cartoonists. I would make sure that my student looked into all the options, familiarized themselves with the programs the staff, and made sure they grokked exactly why they wanted to attend as well as what their expectations were.
Ultimately, this is art school. Students buckle down and focus on their art in this program. They learn what works, what doesn't and, hopefully become better at their craft because of the experience. It is exactly like going through an MFA program in painting or poetry or film or dance. Students get out of the program what they put into it. They create networks, they create products; they create their own sense of self. Can they create a career? Is that the point? I dunno.
What I do know is that Cartoon College provides a specific point of view on a specific program offered at a specific place at a specific time. To that end, it is a great recruiting tool (CCS even touts the documentary on their web site). As far as a documentary goes though, it's nice.
I'd be more interested in a follow up film. What has happened to graduates of CCS or other programs? Was the experience and expense worth it? Given an opportunity to reflect, do people who go through these programs find meaning and purpose to that time in their life? Would they do it again? Would they advise others to do so as well?Cartoon College doesn't really answer these questions. It doesn't really even pose them with any great intent. And that, perhaps, limits its scope, limits its effectiveness and limits its reach.

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