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.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

Moreover, no one had landed a coveted book contract. The student whom classmates singled out as having already achieved a measure of success was Alexis Frederick-Frost, a lithe, ponytailed cyclist from Atlanta who studied studio art in college. He won a prestigious Xeric award earlier this year to self-publish a slim comic book about an Italian bike race. "La Primavera," which sells for $9, is inked in black and shades of blue and has the feel of the French animated film "The Triplets of Belleville."

"I'm trying to generate buzz with this comic, or use it as a calling card," he said.

He has accepted a summer internship with Drawn and Quarterly in Montreal. After that? He's not sure. But like others in the class, he plans to stay close to this town, where the White River flows into the Connecticut River, near the school that has nurtured his talent for the past two years.

Josie Whitmore, a classmate from Freeland, Md., will work a "regular Joe-Schmo job" while trying to launch a freelance illustration career. Meaning, she'll keep her job at the front desk of the Hotel Coolidge, across from the school, and pay a $120 annual fee to use the school's production lab.

At Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, Ms. Whitmore was an East Asian studies major. Opening her laptop, she clicked on a cartoon panel of a man clutching a dripping mop, drawn in brush strokes unmistakably reminiscent of Eastern calligraphy.

Comics pioneer

There's one other school in the country devoted to comic art. The Joe Kubert School of Cartoon and Graphic Art in Dover, N.J., opened in 1976 and offers a three-year program more vocational in focus than CCS's. If there were a way to predict the job prospects of CCS graduates, it might be found in the track record of Kubert alumni.

"While we do teach comic-book techniques, our goal is to try to teach the students how to make a living," says Michael Chen, who helps with job placement at Kubert. He estimates that of approximately 25 students who graduated in 2006, 85 percent found work in the general field of commercial arts.

Kubert grads have gone on to sketch cards for Hallmark and design action figures for Hasbro. Some work at dream jobs with Marvel or DC Comics. But they're in the minority, says Mr. Chen.

As for CCS students, whose aspirations tend to lean more toward literary comics, they seem pragmatic about their prospects (the day jobs), but also optimistic.

After Saturday's ceremony at a nearby park, Frakes, will remain here with her boyfriend, also a second-year student, volunteering at the school and making ends meet with her day job at a ceramics studio in town. She'll build her portfolio, hoping in the next few years it will yield a publishable body of work. "I think I can definitely make a career out of it," she said. "Whether I can make a living, that's another question."

Frakes is known for being wildly prolific; she once wrote and illustrated a 68-page story in two weeks.

Her thesis, a sweetly dark collection of "tragic romances," is based on world folklore. The characters are wide-eyed and Disney-like. In one, a sailor falls in love with a mermaid. He takes her home only to have his mother, who has mistaken her for a large fish, cook her for dinner. It was the first thing Siegel complimented Frakes on when they met. Skipping back six months in her portfolio, he said, "The leap looks like a couple of years."

"CCS is boot camp," Frakes replied. It's a refrain heard here often – a brochure put out by the school refers to itself as "a cartoonists' boot camp." And the approach seems to work.

"We're getting a sense of the first harvest and it's impressive," Siegel says later by phone from his Manhattan offices. "All the editors on the graphic-novel beat, they're aware of the Center for Cartoon Studies and are keeping an eye on it."

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