Comics are for kids? This Vermont college begs to differ.

Why We Wrote This

Frustration and seeming limitations can also be sources of inspiration. For Michelle Ollie, confronting her own personal struggles with learning disabilities opened a door, for herself and others, into the world of cartooning.

Riley Robinson/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
Michelle Ollie is the president and co-founder of the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, Vermont, Jan. 25, 2020.

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As a child, Michelle Ollie struggled to overcome her dyslexia. What helped her learn to read was comics, an art form that is now the foundation of what may be the only college in New England dedicated to cartooning, in White River Junction, Vermont. 

The Center for Cartoon Studies that Ms. Ollie co-founded 15 years ago is inspiring a new generation of cartoonists to learn their art, find a career, and make a difference in their communities. Students can earn certificates and a master’s degree, and college alumni have found success as illustrators and graphic novelists; others have worked with educators to embed visuals into complex coursework. 

The college’s growth has helped White River Junction to nurture a vibrant arts community, while CCS students and alumni often volunteer for local nonprofits. All this on an annual budget of $1.1 million. “We didn’t know it would create such a community, that so much good would materialize out of people’s work,” says Ms. Ollie. 

Diagnosed with dyslexia, Coco Fox’s niece was struggling with reading until she found comics. Now the 14-year-old is reading up a storm, says her aunt.

The comic that had this transformative effect on this young reader is by Michelle Ollie. The cartoonist had charted her own struggles with childhood dyslexia and showed how she went on to set up what may be the only college in New England to focus entirely on cartooning.

Just as comics inspired Ms. Ollie to read, she’s inspiring a new generation of young cartoonists to learn their art, find a career, and make a difference in their communities. 

Ms. Fox is one of 27 full-time students enrolled at the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, Vermont. Classes are held in a former post office building and a nearby former department store in this old railroad village of just over 2,000 people. Students can earn a one-year certificate, a two-year certificate, or, for those who already hold a bachelor’s degree, a Master of Fine Arts. 

And just as the school encourages its students to make a difference with their work, its growth has helped White River Junction to nurture a vibrant arts community, while CCS students and alumni often volunteer for local nonprofits. (All classes went online on March 16 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but two campus buildings have remained open as students observe social distancing.)  

Riley Robinson/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
Michelle Ollie (right) chats with Tess Scilipoti, a second-year student, at the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, Vermont, Jan. 25, 2020.

When Ms. Fox first read “From the Desk of the President of the Center for Cartoon Studies” by Ms. Ollie, she was struck by its uplifting message and emotional honesty.

“The comic was so good that I cried, and so I got about 10 copies and brought them all home,” Ms. Fox said. One copy went to her niece – and a new reader was born. 

“We didn’t know it would create such a community, that so much good would materialize out of people’s work,” says Ms. Ollie, who co-founded CCS in 2005 with cartoonist James Sturm. It runs on an annual budget of $1.1 million. 

Its 249 graduates include several prize-winning illustrators and graphic novelists; one, Charles Forsman, recently had two of his comics adapted as scripted drama series for Netflix.

The co-founders of CCS never saw that coming. “At the beginning, it was about making the case for comics as an art form, a medium,” says Mr. Sturm. 

Riley Robinson/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
A student reads at the Schulz Library at the Center for Cartoon Studies on Jan. 25, 2020, during a rainy afternoon in White River Junction, Vermont. CCS was founded in 2004.

The power of comics

Today, visual storytelling is everywhere, from online comic strips and anime to graphic novels and richly-illustrated children’s books in libraries and bookstores. Take graphic novels: Publishers put out 12% more in 2019, and the young-adult section has grown even faster. “It’s been breathtaking,” says Mr. Sturm. 

CCS’s mission doesn’t stop at its campus. Its educators and students have brought the power of comics into a variety of educational settings, ranging from elementary grades to college-level online courses. 

“We tend to see a fair amount of (CCS students) who want to lecture or teach or conduct workshops,” says Ms. Ollie, adding that local schools often request CCS workshops. “There’s a lot of interest, and it’s growing fast.”

One popular topic is democracy. “This is What Democracy Looks Like: A Graphic Guide to Governance,” a CCS comic book, has had three print runs totaling 40,000 copies, and has been used to teach classes in school districts across the country. 

Mr. Sturm and his colleagues have led some of these workshops. Ms. Fox says when she joined one in Columbus, Ohio, a teacher was amazed at how kids responded. “She was tearing up, because one of the students in the class, who pretty much never talked, drew 10 comics,” says Ms. Fox. 

Mr. Sturm said this isn’t uncommon. “A lot of young students who are on the autism spectrum, parents say comics are their way of connecting with the world,” he says. 

There’s a lot more openness from teachers and school officials to the idea of comics as an educational medium than there used to be, adds Ms. Ollie. 

Riley Robinson/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
The Schulz Library at the Center for Cartoon Studies is named after the creator of "Peanuts," and includes works by students, faculty, and alumni in its collection.

That exposure has also led to some unexpected partnerships, including one with Dartmouth College’s Thayer School of Engineering in 2016. Ms. Ollie, who has an engineering background and was a visiting scholar at Dartmouth, introduced Thayer faculty to CCS alum Katherine Roy, who drew a series of illustrations for a popular online course to explain complex engineering concepts. 

“I wanted to make engineering friendly and accessible,” says Vicki May, an engineering professor at Dartmouth. “We’re only beginning to see the application of comics to help many different industries.” 

Ms. Ollie agrees. Some CCS students tell her they want to work with doctors and in other professional fields, showing just how adaptable comics can be. 

Take Dan Nott, the lead cartoonist for the democracy comic. He’s working on a graphic novel for Random House, tentatively titled “Hidden Systems,” about the infrastructure systems we often take for granted.

Welcome to boot camp 

Comics start with creativity. But that’s not all that’s imparted at CCS: Students learn everything from drawing skills to getting their comics published and promoted, and can tap into a strong network of faculty and peers for collaboration. 

“It’s a little bit of a boot camp,” Ms. Ollie says. “You’re creating a lot of material. You get the idea of building those skills and adapting them.”

She’s seen a lot of changes over the last 15 years, both at CCS and in the community, as the cartooning school has helped spark a downtown revival. 

“When we started the school, we had no idea about some of the things we’d see happen,” she says. She remembers a talk where Ms. Fox shared the story about her niece. She cried afterwards in her car, grateful that her work had touched a young girl. 

For Ms. Fox, who is due to graduate in May, that experience is a motivator. Her niece read Jen Wang’s “The Prince and the Dressmaker,” a 2018 graphic-novel fairy tale, so much that the binding wore down. 

“As someone who writes comics for kids, knowing they could read it so much they could destroy it, that makes you want to get up and write every day.”  

Editor’s note: The photo captions in this story have been updated to correct the spelling of the name of the library at the Center for Cartoon Studies. It is the Schulz Library. 

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