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Owen at the Center for Cartoon Studies

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[James Owen sent us a nice piece on his trip to the Center for Cartoon Studies, which we’re posting.]

ALL OF YOUR BASES ARE BELONG TO US

A tale of small townships; or, how a revolution started when no one expected it, in places no one was watching, armed with nothing more than words, pictures, and lines on paper

A Note from the Periphery by James A. Owen

I don’t think revolutions can be planned. But they’re not accidental, either. Revolutions, more than anything, seem to arise from convergences of events, and trends, and cultural shifts that make the end result something both unplanned and yet, inevitable to everyone except Isaac Asimov by way of Hari Seldon.

Similarly, the personages at the forefront of any given revolution probably didn’t choose to be there — at least, not for the purpose of leading a revolution. More likely, they were just doing what they do, and happened to step into the intersecting cultural ley-lines at the right moment in history. And that’s when things began to shift.



Comics have always influenced popular culture and culture in general far more than most people were aware of; or (for many that were aware) were willing to admit. And now, in 2006, comics seem to have been embraced by the mainstream of culture in ways that no one seemed to expect: comics, and (harrumph) graphic novels, long the under-the-table source of inspiration for film, and television, and works in many other media, are now front and center. The book publishers have come calling, and now graphic novelists who formerly celebrated the release of a book by taking off an hour early from their day job now have agents and multi-volume hardcover deals. Venues like TIME magazine and THE WASHINGTON POST regularly cover new releases. And there is an unmistakably positive energy in the air.

But that’s only a part of the revolution. Sure, when a graphic novel charts on the bestseller list (ENDLESS NIGHTS) or gets nominated for a major literary award (AMERICA BORN CHINESE), there are obvious reverberations. But to effect real changes, the reverberations must also be economic. And the most important economic shift I see isn’t in the bestseller lists, or on the awards shows, or even in the sellthough figures.

It’s in White River Junction, Vermont.

I’ve seldom had a reason to travel to New York City. In the last few years, it’s been exactly three times. First, three years ago, to attend LunaCon in Westchester County, to give a lecture for Vincent DiFate’s classes at The Fashion Institute of Technology, and to do a signing at Jim Hanley’s Universe across from the Empire State Building.

Last year, it was a quick two-day trip to attend an art exhibition and deliver the edited manuscript of my novel HERE, THERE BE DRAGONS to my editor and publisher.

And earlier this month, I went back for an extended trip, to start the signing tour for DRAGONS (beginning with an appearance at Jim Hanley’s Universe, naturally), eat expensive cheesecake in The Pierre Hotel, and spend lots of time signing, sketching in, and talking about DRAGONS.


At the end of the trip, Simon & Schuster arranged, at my request, to jaunt me up to Vermont for a speaking engagement at the Center for Cartoon Studies, the recently founded school for comics and cartooning in White River Junction. I was mostly interested for one reason: one of the instructors and school mainstays is my old friend Steve Bissette, whom I hadn’t seen in almost a decade(!). Having experience lecturing at schools was a plus, and it was also a chance to take a firsthand look at what was going on with this CCS project.

I’ve read some of co-founder James Sturm’s work: THE GOLEM’S MIGHTY SWING; UNSTABLE MOLECULES; a great COMICS JOURNAL interview. But we didn’t know each other personally (and speaking as a primarily-former-but-also-still comics guy turned high-profile-novel-type guy, I think James agreed to my lecture mostly on Bissette’s say-so). But, aside from the reports I’ve read online, and my friendship with a number of thesis advisors, I didn’t know that much about the school beforehand.

It wasn’t what I expected it to be. It was much, much more.

To get to White River Junction from NYC with any expediency, you must fly in a puddle-jumper from Kennedy Airport to Lebanon, New Hampshire. There, it’s only a short ride to White River Junction, which is as charming a setting as you can picture: brick storefronts; gorgeous foliage; several decently-maintained historic buildings. The Hotel Coolidge was the inn of choice – and had more resonance with the Center for Cartoon Studies than I expected.

Steve came by to collect me for the stroll down the block to the school, and asked if I’d be interested in lecturing to the freshmen writing class first, then addressing his seniors. I said no problem, so he walked me down the short block to the school, and I jumped in.

The primary school building (see photo) is a converted storefront, with offices, classrooms, and (in the basement) workshop areas. But it’s as close to a LIVING environment as you can get. Every corner can be a lecture stage; every surface can be a worktable. And everywhere you look, someone’s talking about, or making, comics.


Steve introduced me to Sarah Stewart Taylor, an accomplished novelist who is extremely pleasant and whip-smart. Sarah was teaching a writing class, and we started with discussions about the differences between writing for comics, and writing prose. I told a number of personal anecdotes in the process, and Sarah kept things flowing and lively with very good questions – and then we opened it up to questions from the students. The class size was ideal: enough students to make for a good mix of opinions, without so many for it to become impersonal.

After the class, Steve introduced me to co-founder Michelle Ollie, who took me to lunch at a nice restaurant within walking distance.

The phrase ‘Within walking distance’ is a key to White River Junction, to the CCS, and to successful revolutions.

At lunch, Michelle, who has an astonishingly extensive background in marketing and design, and I got to get acquainted, and I told here about a few of the things I was doing with my own studio, Coppervale. Basically, it mirrors much of the intent she and James had in founding the CCS where they did. I returned to the small Arizona town where I grew up, and my brother and I restored the oldest building in town – an old church – as our Studio. We started an apprenticeship program for art students (one of who has a credit on the jacket of DRAGONS), and have started restoring other buildings in town to include, among other things, a bookstore.

From the center of town, I can see my house, the Studio, and the bookstore. Decorative ornaments lining the streets came from one of my apprentices, as did murals on one of the schools. We are terraforming the community. And the results that our efforts have produced here started with the beginnings of my career in comics, twenty years ago.

In White River Junction, they’re doing the same thing, on an even greater scale.

Michelle walked me back to the primary building to meet up with Steve who then took me to the SECONDARY school building: a former phone company facility that looks like a white plantation house. There, amidst lower floors still undergoing restoration, Steve walked me upstairs to where the seniors were congregated. There was a lecture area; a large working bullpen/classroom; and several private offices.

They were doing a peer review of one of the students’ projects, and after about fifteen minutes, we moved to the lecture area. Steve introduced me, and I started the lecture. I covered a lot of the same material as with the earlier class, but with one other emphasis: creating art is fine. But a creator has to also know how to present, market, and sell themselves and their work. I explained that they either approached this as professionals, or not at al (to make a living at it), because the real world rules didn’t give a free ride. They were very attentive and perceptive – and most interestingly, their questions had to do mostly with balancing a personal life with a career.

After the lecture, Steve asked if I’d be willing to do one-to-one reviews with the students, so I took over one of the offices, and met with each of the seniors. One has already won a Xeric, but several were already polished enough for publication, and I said as much. If nothing else, these were the right students at the right place of learning.

After the reviews, Steve and I went to dinner, again talking about comics, and the school, and film, and comics. And after our excellent meal, we drove up the hill so I could meet James Sturm (at his house), where it took all of two minutes to determine that we were indeed of Each Other’s Tribe.

We arranged to meet the next day, and I went back to the hotel for a newspaper interview, while Steve went to the school for ‘film night’.

At the hotel, the reporter took me into the adjacent hotel restaurant – which was decorated with oversized, laminated, classic comic book covers. Classic as in GEORGE EVANS classic. Old School classic. And he mentioned that James had put them up, and then pointed out (during the course of the interview) that a number of students lived there in a wing of the hotel set up as a defacto dormitory. And to underline the point, several of my students waved as they went in and out the entrance.

We moved outside (Steve had given me his car to go see James – a plan derailed by my allergic reaction to the Sturm family dog), and as we were chatting, one of the Freshmen walked by, said hello. Then a senior, heading for film night. Then I made a joke about a guy coming up the walk with a grocery bag. “And that’s probably Will Eisner’s nephew,â€? And the reporter introduced me to Rich Tommaso, who was living there in town while working on a graphic novel with James, and had stepped out to the market for sauce ingredients for dinner.

Everyone I met was either associated with the school, or knew – KNEW – about this unusual little enterprise that was transforming their town. The entrepreneurs who were doing other redevelopments all pointed to CCS as the driving energy in White River Junction. The hotel owners. The journalists. I swear, it felt like being at the San Diego Comicon in the 80’s, where the same hundred people, ate, played, and lived together in a few blocks of the city.

I went to film night just in time to come in for the middle of a movie where I got to see Julie Christie naked. Unfortunately that was immediately followed by seeing Donald Sutherland naked, but that’s all right. Nicholas Roeg, the director, was the subject, and movie night was just an extended class in storytelling, with a teacher who knows them both.


After the film wrapped, Steve and I went back to his office in the second building to catch up – and the whole time we were talking – well after midnight – I could hear students coming and going. Talking comics. Working on comics. Living and breathing and sleeping (yeah, sleeping) comics. It was amazing.

We finished off the night (morning) around 2 at a nearby hangout, and I went to the hotel to sleep. The next morning, waiting to meet up with James, I headed over to the school to chat with Michelle and ended up doing more one-to-one reviews. James arrived, and then took me over to the THIRD CCS building: the Schultz Library.

Housed in part of a restored firehouse (next to a lovely and eccentric museum), The library is small, but well-organized, and growing. And it’s an eminently comfortable place to talk comics, and literature, and art, and fundraising. James explained that having the library separate from the school gives the students a reason to get out and actually be a part of the community. And it’s a remarkable idea: the CCS isn’t one enterprise that’s housed in a single gulag-type building – it’s several bursts of culture and learning spread throughout an entire community. And as a result, it’s having a profound transformational effect on that community.

And as we left, I began to realize that James and Michelle had done much more than simply start a school. They’d begun a revolution.

I went back to the main building to do several more reviews with students before James took me to lunch, and then to the airport. But I’d been converted to the cause, and I wanted to join. I’m donating several cases of books to the students and library, and hope to return to teach at least twice a year, as well as take on one of the students who expressed the desire to have me as a Thesis Advisor. And in the future, don’t be surprised if I announce a Coppervale Fellowship for one or two CCS grads to apprentice here.

If the list of advisors, and contributors, and supporters, and teachers cannot convince you of the validity of the revolution which is beginning in a small town in Vermont, consider this: it’s in the fabric of small towns like that in Vermont, and here in Arizona, where revolutions are woven. Sales will be nice. Reviews are good. Acclaim and book deals, fine. But when the clerk at my grocery store knows who Paul Chadwick is; when the gas station attendant asks if Scott McCloud is coming to town; when they comment at the hotel that you’re as tall as Rick Veitch; when all of those things that are common currency to those of us in comics become common currency for the man-on-the street…

Now THAT’s a revolution. And I don’t want to miss what comes next.

  1. And it’s all true! Great writeup, James, and fun revisiting that glorious day-and-a-half. Hope to see you at CCS again soon — in the meantime, the revolution continues…

  2. Sounds magnificent.
    My 16-yr-old son has the drawing bug, (he’s already much better in many ways than I was at his age) and while he’s not sure at this point whether he wants to go into comics or animation, I have a hunch that in a couple more years or so I’m going to be looking very closely at CCS.

  3. I was reading comics in the eighties when we blew our first chance at becoming mainstream pop culture but this time we’re doing it right. Things like this and the varied press coverage the medium is receiving, people like Scott McCloud and James Sturm who are such great ambassadors for the medium, the popularity of manga and the growing number of post manga creators. It could really happen this time.

    Nice report from James by the way and thanks for posting it.

  4. Scott, the past two summers the school has done a week long summer program for kids 16 and older if your son wants to check that out. (I assume we’ll be doing it next summer too.) We get some amazingly talented kids in that group too.

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