As any longtime reader will tell you, comic books traditionally feature some awesome origin stories. From the bullet-strewn beginnings of Dick Tracy to the cosmic saga of the Silver Surfer, comics are famous for their secret histories and iconic backstories.
Perhaps then it's appropriate that the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction has an iconic origin story of its own.
According to their website, the CCS was created by legendary comic-strip artist “Inky” Solomon, who had hopped a freight train to Vermont in his quest to find the perfect home for a new cartooning school. “Inky” trained hundreds of young artists until he mysteriously vanished in 1958, shutting down the school for decades. It wasn't until present day that 'Inky” was found living in a hidden subterranean realm, urging his discoverers to reopen the school and literally passing the torch along to a new generation of cartoonists.
“There's the fictional story and there's the real sweat equity sort of story,” laughed Michelle Ollie, who co-founded the CCS with comic-book artist James Sturm. A Director at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, Ollie first met Sturm when she interviewed him for a job position in 2004. When Sturm later told her that he was seriously considering opening a cartooning school, the idea felt right.
“James basically said, 'Hey, how 'bout we open a cartoon college?' Ollie explained. “And after a fair amount of conversation, and research of course, and a few trips and meetings together, it just seemed to make sense.”
Cartooning programs already existed at art colleges across the country, but Ollie and Sturm had their sights set on something different – a school that would teach the art of comics instead of simply the craft. Ollie and Sturm envisioned a small school, where students would have the opportunity to build strong connections with their instructors and work together in a creative community.
“With my experience and background, and also having a lot of passion towards comics in higher education, we both felt the opportunity was there and the audience was there and the need was there to have a program that was different than what was out there,” said Ollie.
The months that followed were a blur of activity as Ollie and Sturm recruited faculty and raised funds. One of their first major tasks was to find a location for their new school, and they wanted a place that would compliment the educational mission of CSS. Eventually it was decided that downtown White River Junction was the ideal spot. Not only did it offer the intimacy of a small town, but it came with the added benefits of shops, cafés, and a nearby Amtrak train station.
“It just seemed to be a place that was almost calling for a school like ours to open,” said Ollie.
In 2005, after plenty of hard work and a lot of “24-hour all-nighters,” the Center for Cartoon Studies was ready to open. Their first incoming students, with freshman from all over the country, were dubbed “the pioneers.” Ollie felt the nickname was appropriate. “They had faith in what we tended to do and believed in themselves to make the investment of not only money, but time to move here and pursue the two year program.”
CCS offers one and two-year certificate programs and a two-year MFA program. Students at CCS learn about drawing, design, and publishing, in addition to comic-book theory and the history of comics as a medium. Classes consist of small, seminar-style courses and lectures from visiting faculty, whose ranks have included famous cartoonists like Jules Feifer, Garry Trudeau, Chris Ware, and Alison Bechdel. Second-year students spend their time producing a thesis project, working one-on-one with an advisor to develop and publish a comic of their own design.
Ollie stressed that synergy is a big part of the experience at CCS, believing that there are “too many non-moving parts” in a traditional classroom. Students at CCS regularly participate in large group projects coordinated between many different classes. In one of the latest projects, called “The Golden Age,” students researched and wrote a comic in one course, which was then drawn and inked by another, and finally assembled and printed by a third – and all in just two weeks. According to Ollie, members of the visiting faculty have frequently been astonished by the results. “When they see the outcome of the finished project, they are just blown away,” she said.
Offhand, one might not be inclined to pick Vermont as the home of a thriving “Mecca for cartoonists,” but sure enough, CCS is entering it's fifth year of enrolled students and the school continues to prosper. It only goes to prove there is often more to a town like White River Junction than first meets the eye.
“If you have the interest, there's always an opportunity,” notes Michelle Ollie. “Perhaps even around where you are.”