James Sturm hits a nerve among cartoonists with ‘The Sponsor’

James Sturm hits a nerve among cartoonists with ‘The Sponsor’

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On Monday, James Sturm, cartoonist and director of the Center for Cartoon Studies, posted a cartoon at The Nib called “The Sponsor”. I’m sure if you are a cartoonist you’ve already read it, since it was the talk of the town for a few days. Basically it concerns cartoonists, jealousy, the low bar for success, anxiety over one’s abilities, tumblr hits, Kickstarter and more. All in 24 panels. I’d call that a good job.

The basic conceit is that as in various 12-step programs, (the subtitle is “The first step is admitting you have a problem”) cartoonists have sponsors they can call in moments of stress. A young cartoonist named Casey calls his sponsor, Alan, in the middle of the night to fret about another cartoonist named Tessa who has a six figure Kickstarter, a line out the door at a Rocketship signing,  and a book deal with D&Q. Tessa’s success sends Casey into such a tizzy that he has to work things out and consider grad school, despite Alan’s insistence that Crumb never thought about hits. And despite his “stay strong” rhetoric to Casey, Alan soon picks up the phone to call his OWN sponsor.

Of course we all know that judging your own success by someone else’s is a short cut to despair. By the same token, we’ve all done what Casey does, looked at other people’s book deals, Facebook likes, retweets or dinner companions and found ourselves feeling shitty about someone else’e\s perceived success. It’s human nature. You do it, I do it, we all do it. And then, if we want to actually be a success in some measure, we move on.

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I know this cartoon ignited much talk in cartooning circles, but the one I caught spun out of this one by Colleen Frakes:

In this link, you can see the responses from MK Reed, Johanna Draper Carlson, Mike Dawson, Alison Wilgus and more. To be honest, the gender question here is, for once, a red herring. I think Sturm’s satire—and it is a satire, not an autobiographical comic—was based on the image of two white guys fretting over the success of a younger female cartoonist. That was kinda the POINT. This cartoon was about the toxic effects of jealousy not about gender relations—that the more successful, nimble cartoonist is a woman backs up setting as the twilight of the “pap pap era” that is implied by the reference to Crumb.

Another subtext of “The Sponsor” is that Alan and Casey are only reacting to the external aspects of Tessa’s career, and eschewing an examination of the artistic merits of her work that might lead to inspiration as opposed to mere envy. We get better at what we do by studying better things, and applying what makes them better to our own work, in a sensible way. Easier said than done, I know.

BTW, for those who think this is a lonely cry for acceptance by a put upon white male cartoonist, more of those thoughts are publicly expressed in this Metafilter thread, including guesses as to the real Tessa and so on. Come on people…IT’S A SATIRICAL STORY. I am well aware that all art is filtered through the social status of the creator, but but interpreting all storytelling as confirmation bias is the ultimate no-win situation. Can you imagine if Dan Clowes’ “Dan Pussey” came out today?

No, “The Sponsor” is about insecurity and the trivial uncontrollable fretting that destroys your own creativity. A few years ago I linked to this piece by Rob Liefeld called “How to Beat The Haters”, and you know, if Rob Liefeld can do it any one can—although external criticism is far from the corrosive internal struggle discussed in “The Sponsor.” But some of the same rules apply. You can only control one person’s work—your own. And yes, I am aware of the irony of quoting a cartoonist whose entire career seems oblivious to the painful self-examination Casey and Alan are dealing with.  The way forward lies somewhere in the middle.

Kind of tangential to this, but I’ve updated the Beat’s “How to Get Into Comics and Survive Once You’re There” page with a few links. It’s still only an outline. Share more resources or self-help or ideas for what Casey and Alan should do in the comments.

And a final PS: Man, the Nib is awesome. That is all.

Comments

  1. says

    ufh come on really? This is just a great expressing the bs that any many if not all creatives get on occasion. To sit there and say anything else is just silly and indicative of folks with a wild hate in their arse

  2. Johnny Memeonic says

    Anyone seeing some kind of sexism in the comic is being a bit too oversensitive. What it means is pretty much just there on the page with an old guy and a young guy expressing frustrations with not being as successful as someone else.

    These frustrations are understandable even to the rest of us that just follow the industry. Some people hit that right combination of talent, luck, and current mood of the zeitgeist and get a successful career out of it. Others don’t. That’s just the reality of pretty much every field of entertainment.

  3. --MC says

    Two other cartoons came to mind when I read this (after nodding my head and saying “Seen” a dozen time).

    There’s Feiffer’s cartoon of an aging man getting passed by his younger associates in the rat race. The woman whips past him, he can’t help himself, he says, I bet she uses her body to get ahead. The idea that women get a better deal because of their gender creeps in sometimes, but I don’t see it in Sturm’s story. The young winner in question could have been an eighteen year old male, wowing them with skills honed at SAW. Gender is irrelevant to the story.

    The other image is a panel from Eddie Campbell’s “How To Be An Artist” — he talks about being bitter watching others succeed before him. He suggests a way to think about it is not You guys won the game, I’m so jealous, but rather, Wait for me and I’ll be with you shortly. In my often bitter and unsuccessful time working on my own comics, this thought has helped me cope.

  4. patrick ford says

    A controversy out of nothing. How is it the two protagonists worrying about the success of a woman is anything other than a criticism of them?
    Why do people immediately think the protagonists are people they as readers are supposed to relate to? That they are supposed to be sympathetic?
    It reminds me of someone once telling me they didn’t like MR. ARKADIN because there was no one in the movie they could identify with. Everyone seems like a louse. So?

  5. johnrobiethecat says

    It’s much more interesting when cartoonists talk about the world around them this way. Instead of always living in this constant fantasy land of crime, alien invasions, noir, wars, space dramas and superhero events. Not that those aren’t valid subject but do they have to be 90-95% of the American comics medium ?! Cartoonists have a lot more freedom than movies or TV to explore these subject matters in a big or small way and not get shut down, The lady complaining about the two white guys probably hasn’t seen that well endowed fantasy writer who makes a habit of showing her wares every 5th tweet or so while jumping at the top of Kick Starter with Millar endorsements and cosplay shots. She may be good but it is what it is. So there’s people like that out there. It doesn’t mean all women creators are like that. Or that men are are all petty or disrespectful about their success, But don’t be so PC that people can’t comment on that in a legitimate way.

    Look at what Image is putting out , mostly gruesome murder and horror comics every week. Doesn’t seem to be offend anybody in the comics community and they walk around expecting industry respect. That seems worse to me.

    The Nib is very good. A much needed alternative.

  6. says

    I’m name-checked in this particular comic, so I can’t say much, but I’m pretty certain James made the young successful cartoonist a woman just because it says “new generation,” the same way the Kickstarter reference does. As Heidi points out, this whole comic is pure satire. Even the melodramatic set-up is funny because it’s just a couple of cartoonists, not some Vietnam vet addicted to heroine or something. Is that so hard for people to get?

    Oh well. In other news, Randy Newman DOES NOT ACTUALLY HATE SHORT PEOPLE.

  7. says

    I read it more as just the person he was fixating upon, not that she was female. Maybe that’s my male-centric glasses on, but I took from it that the writer was giving a name to his experience, and probably really felt this about a female he knew. And he’s not mad at her, he just is having trouble handling it, which I think is pretty relatable. Not because she’s female, but because she’s doing better.

    That isn’t to say gender isn’t something to be dealt with carefully, but just that in this case it felt to me like a person writing their personal experience, not picking on women.

    Also, I’ll admit that this comic REALLY got to me. I’ve been going through a LOT of this lately, and it’s a dark road but unfortunately an easy one to walk down.

  8. Jack says

    Thanks for taking a mature level view of the strip and its spot-on satirical take on such a common human inner conflict. Extra thanks for explaining the “controversy” without exploiting a wild hare for clicks in the title or article. Sorry, Ms. Frakes, you probably should have thought about that tweet a little more when you felt your knee jerking.

  9. Kristine says

    I thought Sturm nailed the 12-step call-your-sponsor-in-time-of-crisis framework. (Including the risk of passing along cravings, er, urges toward wallowing in unhelpful comparisons.)
    ONE PANEL AT A TIME, PEOPLE; one panel at a time.
    Good overview.

  10. says

    I liked this article way more than I liked that Twitter-fueled debate, which I found very, very off-point from the cartoonist’s (very clear, at least to me) original intent.

  11. Chewy Goldman says

    Are we the first generation that doesn’t get past the surface meaning of things? These are two clownish old men getting mad at a Kickstarter. Has professional jealousy been that elusive an emotion amongst the people annoyed at this?

  12. says

    This comic is the best of 2014. Everyone sees themselves in it and are interpreting it through the lens of their super-ego. It’s great. That’s what art should do.

    That having been said: There is an aspect of the culture wars going on in the comic, intended or not. Women are moving in and they are destroying the Boy’s Club. (Good fucking riddance to it.) To say that it’s not there in the comic is dishonest. The comic is obviously reflecting the subculture around the medium. If it looks like that culture is built out of a pile of neuroses and self-serving actions, that’s because it is… and the responses so far seem to bear that out.

    (Speaking as someone who has also felt the glorious touch of Scott’s recommendation and then proceeded to tear himself apart with self-doubt, self-pity, and pettiness to the point that he stopped making comics, I feel for the guy. But you know how it is: Do it or get out of the way so someone else can. )

  13. says

    Mind you, the comic does fail to comment on how small and incestuous the community is. Tessa is probably sitting in Ron’s den and doodling on his CINTIQ while he’s talking to Alan…

  14. VichusSmith says

    Yep. This was not a case of women vs. men. It’s a case of a career on a good track vs. one that’s on the rocks. I wonder what Colleen Frakes thought after making that claim.

  15. says

    How about this — as a woman artist/cartoonist, and MORE to the point one without a lot of money…will there be a sequel where it’s revealed that “Tessa” has been downplaying the privileged background that allows her to promote herself and schmooze publishers, the bulk of contributors to her Kickstarter were monied friends and family? And that someone with an art/publishing background will finally let Casey in on this years and several permanent scars after the fact? And yeah, guy cartoonists/artists/musicians what-have-you pull the same kind of smoke and mirrors.

  16. Derf backderf says

    Funny cartoon. Don’t see what the beef is. Comix people were such babies sometimes. Jenny Gonzalez-Blitz hits it on the head with he post here.

  17. Derf backderf says

    ARE such babies, not were. Although I can probably use all the tenses and the statement is still accurate.

  18. says

    Thanks for a sensible take. I had read it from the POV of a one-time wannabe novelist and saw it as simple a satire of the constant struggle to decide if your work is good enough and to define “making it” and laughed at the idea of a support group helping people NOT quit which is a very funny reversal. The flood of twisted undies really took me by surprise — I thought it was pretty straightforward.
    http://www.weeklystorybook.com/comic_strip_of_the_daycom/2014/11/of-human-bristolboardage.html

  19. says

    Derf – can’t quite tell if you’re laughing “with” me or “at” me, which may be fitting for discussion of a comic strip that’s been read in a number of different ways. :) Yeah, when I first saw the comic it took me back to that professional jealousy place — and rationally I don’t even need to be there anymore so much really! But the jist of that mini-rant still stands…not every time, but often with those who come across as “making it” so quickly and easily, there can be stuff behind the scenes – privilege, connections, favors, what have you. And that’s simultaneously consoling and an ever deeper pit of despair!

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