Friday, May 11, 2007

Cartoon U.

I steal all of my ideas from Mike Lynch, who pointed me to an article in the Christian Science Monitor about the first graduating class of the Center for Cartoon Studies. Located in Vermont, the center offers a two-year, $30,000 degree program whose mission appears to be teaching students to produce literary graphic novels. This emphasis seems a bit different than that of the Joe Kubert School, which has been running successfully for 30 years and takes a very hard-nosed vocational approach to comic art education.

As I commented on Mike's blog, I have some mixed feelings about a program like this. Drawing an analogy with journalism, the best reporters and editors I knew never went to journalism school. They majored in history, political science, English, or even hard science, then used that background to enrich their journalism careers. Some never went to college but had decades of life under their belts. A good editor once told me he'd rather hire kids who know something about the world and teach them journalism than those who know nothing but journalism and teach them about the world. I agree with that sentiment.

Turning to cartoon school, I just wonder if they're missing the point that cartooning isn't technique, it's ideas. Art Spiegelman didn't win a Pulitzer for Maus because he's the best cartoonist ever--he's not--but because he communicated great ideas. I knew a lot of kids in high school and college who were excellent cartoon artists but quickly fizzled out because they had nothing interesting to say about the world. Good cartoonists are smart, curious and well-read--really, all the qualities required of a good writer plus the ability to draw. Surely that description fits some graduates of the Center of Cartoon Studies, but I wonder if anyone there ever emphasized that?

Still, I'm sure these students worked hard and learned some great stuff--just as journalism school students work hard and learn some great stuff--and some will surely go on to achieve tremendous things with their training. It'd be interesting to survey that graduating class in 10 years and find out how their expectations met reality. I suspect some--many?--most??--will discover they're the best unemployed cartoonists they know.


Otis Frampton said...

Wonderful post. I totally agree.

"All the qualities of a good writer plus the ability to draw" is exactly how I would put it, also. I've always referred to myself as "a writer who can draw", and I think that this way of thinking about making comics is what is missing from some creators and their approach to the work. Usually, it's a focus on the writing or the art (usually the art) and both suffer for it in the end.

My view is that story and character should rule the day when creating comics (or books/film/theater). I've found that people will forgive less than amazing artwork if the story being told and the characters they encounter are fully formed and interesting.

As for having lived a life to draw upon when working in this field, I;m in agreement there, as well. I never thought I'd take a detour into the Air Force for six years, but it's an experience that has only enhanced my creative life. I'm not sure I would have the same perspective if I'd gone straight from high school into a creative cocoon of a specialized school and then directly into the profession after that.


Mike said...

Agreed all around. I tell kids not to major in journalism, but suggest they maybe pick up the masters if they can do it as part of a five-year combined degree because (A) some schools won't let you work on the necessary student publications unless you're a member of the club and (B) some idiots who believe in J-school degrees are in a position to make hiring decisions.

Pretty lame reasons, yes.

Oddly enough, I was just talking to an author yesterday about this sort of thing. She cited the number of rejection slips she had before she was published and how you have to be resilient but you also have to be monomaniacal. I mentioned a college acquaintance who is now a successful actor but the only one in her prestigious MFA course who is working in the field.

I said I thought about three-quarters of the people in acting schools are there so the ones who really ought to be there will have someone to be in plays with while they're learning.

Which leads to the cynical question: How long does it take you repay $30,000 in tuition if you're working as a cartoonist?

Brian Fies said...

"...Which leads to the cynical question: How long does it take you repay $30,000 in tuition if you're working as a cartoonist?..."

That was my first thought as well. As I'm sure Otis can attest, only a tiny percentage of cartoonists who manage to get published earn enough to think about doing it as their primary job (I'm not one of them). And that's of those *who get published*, which is another tiny percentage of those who want to be. Only a fool would do it for the money.

Education is never a purely economic proposition. If you have a passion to master a subject you love, I respect that. Still, when a person comes out of a two-year program with a degree in HVAC or auto repair, they've got a pretty good shot at finding work fixing air conditioners or engines. Cartooning? Always a long shot no matter what you know. All that counts is what you can put on the paper.

Otis, Thanks, I always appreciate and respect your perspective, and agree with everything you ever write. Stop reading my mind.