SPX Panel: Cartoon College Screening / by Patrick Smith

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Ok, so my initial plans to cover a lot of panels for SPX didn’t quite shakeout the way I had hoped. I either got to certain panels late due to poor time management on my part OR the panels I went to will eventually be incorporated into some larger pieces that I’m working on that you will hopefully see in the coming months. Anyway, the one panel I did get to was for the screening of a new documentary, Cartoon College, and as Spandexless' de facto film guy I figured this would be a good enough time as any to bust out my film critic hat (which I put on a shelf right next to my comic critic hat and my World Champion hat). Anyway, Cartoon College is the new and long-anticipated documentary film by directors Josh Melrod and Tara Wray centering on the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River, Vermont. As the films' opening credits state, CCS invites twenty students each fall semester for a two year long master's class on comic book creation in both theory and practice, culminating in a one shot thesis project that will then be critiqued by the school's staff, who will then determine if they are equipped to earn their master's and strike out on their own into the ever-demanding world of professional comic book creating. The film was introduced by faculty member Alec Longstreth and former student Jen Vaughn, the latter being I think the closest the flick has to a protagonist. There were plenty of other subjects in the film, but Vaughn was one of the few Cartoon College actually stuck with for any extended period of time, with maybe two or three other cartoonists coming close.

The flick was interesting, given that I think there’s an unintentional aura of mystique around schools that teach comics. I say unintentional because if you actually seek out the information about these places, whether they be CCS or SCAD or the Kubert School, it's overall pretty hard to find and see what they’re all about, but for the general public if you tell them there are schools specifically designed to teach people how to make comic books their first question would inevitably be “Why the hell would anyone want to do that?”

That unto itself is an interesting question, and one I think Cartoon College answers pretty well by illustrating that it takes a pretty rare individual to want to learn to do this for a living, and an even more rare to find one with the drive and ability to actually make it. The film divides its time between various students, faculty members, and more recognizable “name” cartoonists such as Art Spiegelman, Chris Ware, and Scott McCloud which gives the film a wide berth of insight into the sort of emotional and personal tolls it takes in order to give yourself over fully to your art.

However, like most documentaries it still has to try and work within the confines of a narrative, and that often means skimming over large swaths of information or occasionally giving a vague sense of artificiality. I’ll give credit where credit's due, with a documentary with a cast this large the filmmakers never sink to the worst habits of the genre by editing the film to the point where the people on film devolve into caricatures. You know what I mean: you're watching a documentary and every character can be summed up in two words like “The Nerd”, “The Academic”, “The Prep”, “The Bitch”, etc (the 80s might be gone but they forgot to take their stereotypes when they left). No one in this flick is ever portrayed as anything less than a real human being. Some might come off better than others but pretty much by and large every one of the subjects is engaging and insightful in their own way.

Anyway, this brings us back to Vaughn in a weird way because a lot of ancillary information about the flick came about both from the chat between herself and Longstreth after the screening and when I got to talk to her briefly the next day when she was manning the Fantagrapics booth. In the discussion afterwards both Longstreth and Vaughn admitted that although the film was very good it also left a whole lot about life at CCS out. Whether that be the slight exaggeration concerning the antagonistic relationship between faculty and students around the time for thesis critique (the school is so small everybody knows and is generally friends with everyone) or the sheer amount of work each student has to do (the film seems to imply the only thing the students work on is theri final thesis project but talking to Vaughn the next day she told me that is quite literally a fraction of the overall work they do) I want to make it clear that neither of them were bashing the film for being inauthentic--far from it. They both seemed to enjoy what the film conveyed immensely and I also believe the film is very good, but it skims over a lot. Hell, it even cuts through time over the course of three or four years, which I think strains the overall narrative almost to a breaking point. It's not deeply flawed but neither is it comprehensive.

However, if there is one pinpoint for what makes this film work it’s that it gives a pretty good representation of just how much work goes into making comics. Although there isn’t a lot of diversity shown in the overall work, the stuff we do see gives us a snapshot of a group of hungry young artists who have so much energy that they give themselves over completely to comics. I think the film works best when it really makes it clear that that is all they do for two years. Comics, more comics, try to figure out how to pay the bills, and even MORE comics. I think for a lot of people, especially for people who consume art, it’s sometimes easy to take for granted how much effort it takes to create this stuff. So for a glimpse at that and just a general look at the process in general I think a lot of people could find a lot to like about this flick because as much as cartooning is about having an inherent love in the craft this flick is about the inherent love FOR that craft.

Cartoon College is a film by Josh Melrod and Tara Wray and is currently in a limited release but you can find out where it's playing or request a screening via their website