Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Reviewing Cartoon College, the New Documentary about the Center For Cartoon Studies

Cartoon College by Josh Melrod & Tara Wray
FilmBuff, 2013
As a storytelling medium, comics have existed about as long as film, but acceptance of comics is still nascent. The past fifteen years or so has seen the medium grow leaps and bounds, and a big part of that has been the rise of educational institutions that have graphic art and storytelling as a focus - though there aren't that many. One of the premier institutions is James Sturm's Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, Vermont. Cartoon College is a new documentary feature by Josh Melrod and Tara Wray that follows some of the students of CCS as they hone their craft in the school's two year masters program.

Cartooning is a hard, lonely road. It requires a dedication to the medium that asks long hours with small output, and success is far from guaranteed. As Art Speigleman rightly points out in the film, cartooning is more a calling than a career, and watching the film certainly paints a picture of a community of creative individuals dedicated to a vibrant field that is still looked down upon by some of those outside it. Individuals who, like pretty much everyone at ever art or film school ever, overestimate both their own creative capabilities and their potential of future success.

The point of creative arts schools like CCS is to refine the skills of those who can cut it and cut out those who can't. Cartoon College follows a small handful of students as they wind their way through the program, getting an education from some of the best creators working in comics today along with the standard classmate criticism that comes with any good art program. The curriculum is centrally focused not just on theory but on producing a finished product; this isn't about making a student film that no-one outside the classroom will ever see, but about making comics that are ready for self-publishing primetime (if not necessarily crossover success).

The type of cartooning on display here focuses on mini-comics, that exploding sub-medium of comic storytelling in usually small and personal handcrafted comic creations. The best parts of the documentary show the students as they produce their pieces and ply them for trade and sale and street cred at the annual Museum of Cartoon and Comic Art Festival here in New York. This window into the cutting edge of the art form are far more interesting than the rather standard look at the motley group of folks at art school. While I like the students selected for the documentary, their story isn't quite as interesting as the look into the culture of mini-comics and graphic novels we see.

The documentary interviews many of the best cartoonists working in comics today, who, to a person note the difficulties of their profession - the solitude, the hard work, the lack of financial windfall no matter the crossover success they may achieve. We see James Sturm as he produces his elegiac and beautiful graphic novel Market Day, only to be reminded of the pratfalls of mid-level success. We see Lynda Barry, overflowing with love of the medium and those who dedicate their lives to it, talking about selling items on eBay just to stay afloat. And we see Chris Ware, one of this country's single greatest cartoonists, as he characteristically laments the solitary, almost downtrodden life of the cartoonist.

The film does its best to show the small world of cartooning these students and the working cartoonists profiled find themselves in. But the focus is a bit too narrow to sustain the doc's length, and it might be better served at 56 minutes instead of 76. To those who know this word well, it's a nice, light diversion, not terribly incisive, but still entertaining. For those who are completely unaware of the subject matter, Cartoon College is an effective primer on the world of mini-comics.

And for any audience it's especially exciting to see in-the-flesh interviews with the likes of Ware, Mouly, Feiffer, Sikoryak, Spiegelman, and many more, all hugely important figures who started out at the bottom, exactly where these students are now.

Cartoon College will be screening at the Society of Illustrators on 63rd Street in Manhattan Tuesday, July 23. It is currently available for download on iTunes and will be released on DVD next month. For more visit http://www.cartooncollegemovie.com/

1 comment:

  1. Someone may interested this documentary film that explores the life and art of one of America's greatest cartoonists, Eldon Dedini., he is best known for his full-page color Playboy cartoons.