For cartoon-college grads, future is hard to sketch
The first class to graduate is looking to break into the fast-growing world of graphic novels and comics.
White River Junction, VT.
On a Thursday at the end of March, three student cartoonists shuffled into an airy room clutching portfolios bulging with superhero-inspired sketches, doe-eyed girls drawn in Japanese manga style, and endearing panels of a Vermont winter. An editor awaited each one. They were there scouting new talent on behalf of First Second books, a publisher of literary graphic novels, and children's book divisions of two major publishing houses, Hyperion and Simon & Schuster. The cartoonists, students here at the Center for Cartoon Studies, were hoping to walk away with business cards, contacts – maybe, possibly, even a break.Skip to next paragraph
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Ding. A tiny silver bell rang. Ten minutes had passed. Reluctantly, the students pushed back their upholstered orange chairs to make room for the next group to cycle through. It felt, a little disconcertingly, like speed dating.
As with any commencement, what follows is cause for excitement and uncertainty. For the 18 artists who will graduate May 12 as members of CCS's inaugural class, those feelings may be especially heightened.
The issue at hand: What exactly do you do with a $30,000 diploma from cartoon college?
Graphic novels and comics are one of the fastest-growing sectors of publishing. Since 2001, graphic novel sales have more than quadrupled to $330 million, according to Milton Griepp, publisher of ICv2, an online trade publication that tracks pop-culture trends. In 1992, Art Spiegelman made the genre respectable when his graphic novel "Maus," a Holocaust allegory told with cats and mice, won a Pulitzer. Since then it's become commonplace for graphic novels to win awards normally reserved for books without pictures.
But it's a tough business to break into. Drawn and Quarterly, a highly sought after publisher of literary comics and graphic novels, puts out only about 20 new titles a year.
And now for the hard part
Like anxious suitors, the soon-to-be graduates circled among the visiting editors.
"I've got illustrations, my thesis, all the comics I did this year – what are you interested in?" Colleen Frakes asked as she took a seat across from Mark Siegel, editorial director of First Second books.
He began flipping through her portfolio.
When Ms. Frakes, a second-year student from Olympia, Wash., who earned her BA from Evergreen State College, first told friends and family she was off to cartoon school, "There was mostly laughter," she said. "I still get a lot of jokes: 'Oh, you couldn't get into clown school.'" Two years later, she was sitting across from an editor whose young imprint boasts an impressive catalog of well-regarded graphic novels.
On Sept. 12, 2005, in a space first occupied by the Colodny Surprise Department Store circa 1925, a drawing teacher and an arts administrator opened a two-year school. James Sturm, whose graphic novel, "The Golem's Mighty Swing," (Drawn and Quarterly), was honored by Time magazine in 2001, and Michelle Ollie, formerly at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, envisioned a place where the next generation of cartoonists could learn their craft.
Today, the building has the lofty feel of an art school. The floors are the original wood. Silver wire is strung across white walls, where student work hangs from matching silver binder clips.
The first two years have been a success. They're working toward accreditation. Applications are up. Enrollment is steady. And the professionals who pass through as guest lecturers – as many as 15 a semester – are luminaries of the comics world. Mr. Spiegelman. Chris Ware. Alison Bechdel.
But now comes the real test. With little more than a month to go, it was unclear whether the school would be able to grant degrees.