Don’t we all love cartoons? At least as children, we do, but how does the delight of Saturday morning TV and Sunday morning newspapers turn into a less than respected field of study or profession? As children did many of us wish we too could draw comic strips? Not everyone outgrows that dream and these are the people who attend “Comic College.”
With the popularity of Iron Man, the Avengers, Superman and Spiderman–all very old comic book characters, you’d think that cartoonists would have a new found respectability. Not so according to “Comic College.” Josh Melrod and Tara Wray follow a handful of students at the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, Vermont as they attempt to finish a two-year program on cartooning.
White River Junction is a cozy little town–not so small that the train passes it by. Amtrak has an enclosed waiting area without Wi-Fi. According to the White River Junction website, the village is a historic railroad town with a “booming downtown art colony.” The town’s population of 2,569 makes it smaller than many high schools or colleges. About 52 percent are female and the median age is 40. The majority of the population is white at 96.54 percent. Asians are 0.70 percent and African Americans are 0.58 percent. That accounts for much of what follows.
This is Melrod’s first feature length documentary as director. He previously worked with Wray on the 2006 “Manhattan, Kansas,” an autobiographical documentary about Wray’s relationship with her mentally unstable mother. Melrod was an associate producer in that movie; here he wears several hats. Wray and Melrod are both among the documentary’s producers. Wray handles the cinematography. Melrod with Christopher Branca edited the film.
At this cartoon college, 20 students are accepted each year. That means there are approximately 40 students. The first year students work on the basics: drawing, story boarding and style. The second year students focus on a one-year thesis project.
Some of the students don’t finish on time for a variety of reasons. Some as you might expect, drop out. The students we see are a motley crew of outcasts. There’s a man who uses his background as a Latter Day Saint and his experience on his one-year of service for material. There are a few women, one of whom is obsessed with the “whole menstruation rainbow.” Now that’s a niche market. Somewhere there might be women who want to be reminded of their monthly cycles beyond PSM jokes, young girls who want to learn about it and even men who might have a fetish about it. I don’t see myself picking up such a graphic novel or giving to my nieces or nephews. There’s also a non-traditional student: A 61-year-old man who works for an archeological journal out of Boston but has little actual drawing ability jumps in.
The documentary doesn’t just look at the scattered and harried lives common to grad students, but also to the changing marketing of graphic novels. With the rise of technology, and the spread of the comic-con, self-publishing and self-promoting has become even easier than ever before. The cast includes some world-renowned artists such as Chris Ware, Lynda Barry, Art Spielgelman and Francoise Mouly so this isn’t all about the students themselves.
I was surprised that there wasn’t any interest in anime and a very limited influence of Asian comics. Moreover, none of these illustrators are attempting to fit themselves into the Disney mold of animated and often formulaic features.
The blinding whiteness of the cast is easily explained by the demographics which is at odds with the national trends and that brings us to a problem of just how skewed this graduate programs learning experience is. Perhaps that is why this kind of college program is more about looking inward toward personal fulfillment rather than looking outward into the global market in this Internet Wi-Fi and social networking age.
As you might expect, “Cartoon College” is making the rounds at festivals and even comic festivals. The documentary is also available on iTunes and you can pre-order the DVD on the official website.