Before I was the 2012 commencement speaker, I’d visited the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, Vermont once before, in 2009, as a visiting lecturer. CCS is an amazing and inspiring place. The classrooms, studios, offices, and library are scattered all around the little river town–in a former department store (Colodny’s), a former bank, a former telegraph office, and before it was flooded by Hurricane Irene, a former firehouse, it’s a two-year program and the classes are kept small. Founded by James Sturm (The Golem’s Mighty Swing; Market Day) and Michele Ollie, and with an outstanding faculty that includes Steve Bissette (Tyrant, Swamp Thing, Taboo), and Jason Lutes (Berlin, Jar of Fools), it’s the first school in the U.S. accredited to award an MFA degree in cartooning. The place is at once isolated (good for getting a lot of work done), and not (it’s only about 10 miles down the road from Dartmouth College), and both times I was there, I didn’t want to leave: I wanted to stay and draw comics. Not very feasible, of course–although, as a perk for delivering this commencement address, I was awarded an honorary MFA in cartooning. Man. How cool was that! I framed the diploma, naturally, and it’s hanging on a wall in my writing office. I look at it every day and yearn.
Thank you, all. Thank you, James…distinguished faculty… parents, family, and friends of the graduates … and especially to the class of 2012. I’m honored to be here today. But it’s crossed my mind that many of you, maybe all of you, might have felt a little…shall we say…crushed when you heard who your commencement speaker would be. A few years ago Kermit the Frog was the commencement speaker at a major American university and a number of students were pretty disgruntled about it. “I spent a hundred thousand bucks and four years of my life, and I get talked to by a sock ?!” I’m not quite a sock, but I’m not a cartoonist, either, and you’re well within your rights to wonder just how damn presumptuous I’ll get trying to give you all some pearls of wisdom. I’m a novelist, but you, you lucky dogs, are practitioners of the great American art. I’m a guy who deals in words, I put them down, I move them around. You, on the other hand, deal in words and pictures; you’re the lineal descendants of giants like Elsie Segar and Marjorie Henderson Buell, Harold Gray, Charles Schulz, Tarpe Mills, John Stanley, Frank King, and George Herriman, and the colleagues of living masters like Robert Crumb and Alison Bechdel, Chester Brown, Jessica Abel, Phoebe Gloeckner–as well as of those who’ve been your teachers and mentors over the past couple of years.
But let’s see if I can make a little case for myself as an appropriate guest speaker, and I think the simplest way of doing that is to say this: since the age of 7, and I just turned 63 last week–since the age of 7, in my heart of hearts, I’ve always been a cartoonist. My heroes, my greatest heroes and inspirations have always been cartoonists. It’s why I spent 20 years researching the lives and the careers and the profession of American newspaper, comic-book and underground cartoonists to write about them in three novels. I look at you today, you proud, talented graduates, and I’m filled with both delight and unbecoming jealousy. I love your calling. I admire, appreciate and need what you create. And I think: Oh! if only! If only there’d been a CCS back when I needed it!
As a young comics-crazed boy, and then later as a comics-crazed adolescent, I drew my own strips. I never had any training–I went to a Catholic parochial school in the 1950s and then a Catholic high school in the 1960s, and there was no art instruction, none, nada. All I had were the daily comics in the newspaper and my weekly pile of ten-cent, and later 12-cent, comic books: so, to learn how to draw, I copied. I copied from Chester Gould and Milton Caniff, Irwin Hasen, Wilson McCoy, Roy Crane, Bill Overgard, Leslie Turner, Zack Mosley, Ramona Fradon, Gil Kane, Carmine Infantino and, of course, Jack Kirby. My first comic-strip character, which I created when I was 8 or 9, was named–and remember, this was the 1950s–Be-Bop McCarthy. The actual title of my strip was “Be-Bop McCarthy, House Detective.” I must’ve heard the term “house detective” somewhere and my young brain just assumed that a house detective was somebody who went door to door, like an encyclopedia salesman, looking for crimes to solve. “Good afternoon, madam, are there any bandits or counterfeiters living here that you’d like me to remove?”
By the age of 10 or 11, I’d discovered, in an art supply store, a bunch of oversized books on how to draw cartoons. This was how I learned about such wondrous things as 2-ply bristol board, brushes, art-gum erasers, India ink, and the most amazing piece of equipment of all: pen nibs. God, did I like buying and experimenting with pen nibs! Except for introducing me to the tools of the trade, the books themselves were eminently unhelpful. Maybe when you started out, you used those sorts of books yourselves, so you know what I mean. There’d be a lesson called something like “Drawing People,” and Figure One would consist of one long vertical and slightly parabolic line bisected by a shorter horizontal parabola. Okay, I can do that. Figure Two consisted of those same two lines with the addition of one oval at the top, a larger oval below that and then two long skinny tubes at the bottom. Okay, got it, got it… But then–every damn time–Figure 3 would show a completely finished human being (always male) with a fully realized head, torso, arms, hands, fingers, legs, feet, toes, the whole megillah. Wait a minute, wait a minute! Now, just how was somebody supposed to make the leap from two lines, two ovals and two tubes into…that?! I needed 25 incremental Figures and I only got those lousy three! I needed more, I needed teachers, I needed a school! But there were no schools that I knew about! How did my favorite cartoonists learn to draw–how did they get their chops? I needed the answer.
So being a follow-through kind of guy–at least in my youth–I went to the Bayonne, New Jersey Public Library and found everything I could find about cartooning and cartoonists. Today, of course–and the holdings in your Schulz Library are proof of this–there are vast numbers of books about cartooning and cartoonists, but in those days there were very few: Stephen Becker’s Comic Art in America, Coulton Waugh’s The Comics, Martin Sheridan’s Comics and their Creators. Those were the first books I got, and I checked them out again and again, and that’s when I fell in love with the romance of cartooning–and it is a romantic profession, no matter what Dan Clowes says.
It was from those books that I learned how most cartoonists up till then had learned their craft. Either they were fortunate enough to grow up in the same neighborhood where a famous cartoonist lived and they just “hung around” and made themselves useful, absorbing everything (the way Bud Sagendorf did it, apprenticing with Elsie Segar), or else–and this was by far the more prevalent route–they took mail-order home-study courses.
The two earliest of those schools of cartooning were the Charles N. Landon School and the W.L. Evans School, both of them based in Cleveland, Ohio. It’s amazing how many of the great and famous 20th century cartoonists learned their craft (not only how to draw, but how to draw for reproduction) from one or the other of those courses. Chester Gould, Elsie Segar, Hank Ketchum and Bill Mauldin, to name only a few, subscribed to the Evans course; Carl Barks, Floyd Gottfredson, Roy Crane, Milton Caniff, Jack Cole, V.T. Hamlin and Chic Young, again naming just a few, subscribed to the Landon School. You could buy the course books for about eight bucks, but if you wanted your work corrected by Evans or Landon themselves, that would cost you an extra 20 to 25 bucks.
The Landon and Evans schools were both long gone by the time I was in need of instruction, but others, similar to them, existed in the 1950s and 60s, the best-known being The Famous Artists School of Westport, Connecticut. It was founded in 1948 by illustrators Albert Dorne and Norman Rockwell and originally cost $300 for the complete set of lessons. Full-page ads for the Famous Artists School, which offered courses in illustration and painting as well as in cartooning, appeared in popular magazines around the time I got super-serious about a cartooning career. For aspirants like me the Famous Cartoonists course was the sine non qua of professional instruction. (In the mid-1990s when Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly, who’d been married by then for decades, decided to get married again publicly and throw a big party–with Robert Crumb’s band supplying the music–Francoise had this brilliant idea to get the best-ever present for her husband, and she found a pristine set of the original Famous Artists course in their magnificent bright-yellow oversized binders. She gave it to him after the wedding and I was green–green, I tell you–with jealousy. When I spoke with Art a few weeks later, I told him about that bitter, galling jealousy and he said yeah, he could understand that, but…but Francoise hadn’t realized there were three separate courses and she’d ended up giving him the illustration course. Ever since then, I’ve thought, jeez, imagine how great a cartoonist Artie would be today if only Francoise had bought the right course!)
The lessons of the Famous Cartoonists School were written by (or ostensibly written by) such luminaries as Al Capp, Milt Caniff, Rube Goldberg, Willard Mullins, Whitney Darrow Jr., Gurney Williams and Virgil Partch. Of course, I sent away for the informational material, but the cost was prohibitive. My mother worked in a bank and brought home less than $45 a week. It was crushing blow, although (and this such was a wonderful thing, for which I’m still grateful) my mother looked around on her own and found a far less expensive illustration and cartooning home-study course, the Washington School of Art, out of Port Washington, New York. And she signed me up for it. Twelve booklets and an impressive, to me, box of supplies consisting of two pencils, one brush, one pen staff with three different nib points, a fabulous soft blue eraser, a few charcoal sticks, a Conte crayon, a bottle of ink, and a T-square. I took that course, imperfect as it was, and I wish I still had all my returned artwork with their taped-on see-through overlays with corrections made in red pencil. Unfortunately, for me, only two of the lessons pertained specifically to making comics, but even so, it was real instruction–and there were real teachers telling me what I’d done right, and what I’d done wrong and how to correct it.
It seemed incredible to me, though, back in my adolescence but also well into adulthood, that there weren’t real brick-and-mortar schools that taught cartooning, that had a living, breathing, talking, hectoring faculty of teachers, actual practitioners, on premises to train students about the tools, strategies and mindset of this astonishing profession. If things had been different 40 years ago, I might not be standing here now talking to you as a visiting civilian–I might very well be sitting over there with James Sturm, Jason Lutes, Bob Sikoryak, Alec Longstreth and the legendary Steve Bissette.
Mentioning Steve reminds me of this: after I’d given up on my dream of being an actual working cartoonist and gone on to write my first novel, and long after I’d abandoned hope of there ever being such a thing as a genuine school of cartooning, I learned about the Kubert School in Dover, New Jersey. New Jersey! My beloved home state! When it opened in 1976, I was 27 and hadn’t drawn comics in over five years; even so, I toyed with the idea of applying. But: nah. Too late. Yet even though it was too late for me, I still was fascinated by the reality of such a place, the same place, I later learned, where Steve Bissette, who was in the first graduating class, learned his craft.
In those days, it was known as the Joe Kubert School of Cartooning and Graphic Art. And in those days, too, I wrote regularly for a magazine called New Jersey Monthly, so naturally I pitched an article on the Kubert School. I was given the go-ahead, and with my wife and infant daughter in tow, I drove from Jersey City to Dover and met with Joe and Muriel Kubert (we have a photograph of my baby daughter Jessie–who is 33 today–being held by a wide-smiling Muriel, one of the nicest and kindest of women). They took us around the original school, which was a big old mansion. I dropped into several studios and just stood there watching–I vividly remember seeing sporty Irwin Hasen deliver a lecture–watching, taking notes, and thinking all the while, This is so cool. But also thinking: Damn.
You graduates are so fortunate that James Sturm and Michelle Ollie founded this school in 2004; what I dreamed about in the early 1960s is a reality, here: a bona-fide school with a bona-fide professional faculty, focused on just one thing: making comics. When I first came to White River Junction in 2009, I was stunned. Not only was this town like a Dylan Horrocks comic book come to life–young cartoonists swarming all over the place–it was as though an adolescent fantasy of mine (one of the non-sexual ones) had sprung to life 40 years later. CCS is not only a cool place to learn your craft, it’s also one of the most serious, demanding and inspiring places I’ve even been. That you’ve “finished the course,” that you’re graduating from such a school, that you’ve learned what you’ve learned and created the work you’ve made, is profoundly impressive. And, again, I’m green with jealousy.
My grandmother was a locally beloved grammar school teacher and when I was growing up, although she was long retired by then, scarcely a month went by that somebody in my home town wouldn’t come up to me on the street and say what a major impact she’d had on his or her life. So I grew up proud about that and also somewhat in awe of teachers, good teachers. Yes, of course, cartoonists were the greatest people in the world, and astronauts weren’t too shabby, and neither were homicide detectives, but teachers–teachers were…special, crucial, and if they were anything like my grandmother, magisterial. While I could pine to become a cartoonist (and, failing that, an astronaut or a homicide detective), I could never imagine myself being a teacher. I was much too shy, too shlubby, too off-in-a-corner-somewhere; well, you graduates know what I’m talking about: you were once kids-who-wanted-to-draw-comics. You know the drill: we were pariahs and proud of it, yeah?
Strange thing is, though, I am a teacher now, a college professor–and have been for well over 30 years. And, like your distinguished faculty, I teach what I practice: I teach fiction writing in the MFA program at Virginia Commonwealth University. How did that happen? How could I have gone from being unable to get out a single sentence in front of a group of people to earning the greatest part of my income from doing precisely that? Well, I think my grandmother is one of the reasons. And I think my gratitude to the writing teachers I had, and the recognition of how important they were in the creation and enjoyment of my fiction career, is another reason. But I also think that my terrible disappointment about not finding the cartooning teachers that I wanted and needed in my early life is one of the reasons, too. I’d been taught the craft of fiction writing by teachers who’d learned it themselves and practiced it honestly and faithfully; then I, in turn, went on to practice the profession, to follow the calling, and it seemed natural–and a great gift, a privilege–to be able to pass on to others whatever it was I knew from training and experience.
Which, I’m glad to say, neatly brings me to the wisdom (at least I hope it’s the wisdom) part of my remarks.
And the first bit of it concerns teaching. Not all of you will have the opportunity, or the desire, to become professional teachers, but all of you will have the opportunity–and if I may say so, the moral obligation–to pass along to others some of what you’ve learned here/now, elsewhere/later about your art and your craft and your calling. Please don’t be stingy, be generous, be as generous as your teachers here have been.
Six, seven years ago I was teaching a lecture course on the history of American comics, and I noticed this very scruffy looking guy I knew wasn’t on the roster showing up for almost every class. I used to conduct “office hours” at a local coffee shop, and this young guy–who kept reminding me of Arthur Rimbaud or Bob Dylan circa 1961–used to show up there too, sit down and start asking me questions about old-timey cartoonists like Harold Gray and Chester Gould. He said–actually he kind of murmured or muttered–that he intended to be a cartoonist himself, and I got the distinct impression that he was intentionally leaving off the descriptive adjective that was on the tip of his tongue, and that adjective, I always thought, was “great.” He wanted to be a great cartoonist. Anyhow, my graduate teaching assistant and I finally said, bring us some of your work, we’d love to see it. And finally he did. And I can remember the moment I opened his sketchbook: my eyes popped out of my head. Holy God. This kid was good. We both told him, look, you gotta send this to a publisher; I kept saying Kim Thompson, Kim Thompson, send this stuff to Kim Thompson at Fantagraphics. Yeah, he said, he’d probably do that some day. About two years later I was in a comics shop and picked up what seemed to me the fattest graphic novel since From Hell and–in cartooning parlance–I nearly plopped when I saw the author’s name: it was that scruffy Rimbaud/Bob Dylan kid from my class. Dash Shaw. Maybe he’d sent his stuff to Kim Thompson because I’d suggested it, or maybe he’d already shown his stuff to Kim when I knew him and was too shy or ornery to tell me so, but I’ve always been delighted that Dash hung out in my class while he was in Richmond and that I’d treated him well, encouraged him and answered every question he’d asked me. Always do that. Always find the time. Pass it on.
And something else: carefully nurture your career. Know what you want to do with your gifts and your training and go after it, but don’t be afraid to take a detour or two, or three. And know your profession, know how it works, what’s happening in it, who’s happening in it. Be savvy, too–savvy enough to know that once you start putting your work out into the world, you will be categorized immediately as a cartoonist who makes that kind of comics. And be savvy enough to know that there will be a price you’ll pay, often a steep one, if you suddenly surprise that world by doing another kind of comics. Follow up your exquisitely nuanced childhood memoir with a run on “Dial H for Hero,” or vice versa, and you’re going to be kicked right in the blogosphere. Don’t be naive; you can’t afford it.
When I was a novice novelist, I read an essay by Harlan Ellison in which he urged young writers to write in all of the genres, never stick to just one, and I thought that sounded wise; I took him up on it. My first novel was a contemporary fantasy, so I did a realistic crime novel for my second, and an historical novel for my third, a young adult novel for my fourth; then I did a book of novellas. I don’t regret the trajectory of my career, but my decision came at a real economic and emotional cost: reviewers and readers didn’t know what to make of me; what kind of writer was I? To surprise and shape-shift is, often, to confuse; and to confuse, often, is to be misunderstood, marginalized, and dismissed. I say this not in any way to suggest you follow one straight path during your career (I think that would be monstrously boring), but to urge you always to keep the realities and pitfalls of a professional career in mind. Do what you want to do, but consider the ramifications of your choices. Otherwise, you’ll turn into a bitter old guy like. (By the way, I once spoke with Harlan Ellison and told him that I’d taken his career advice, lo those many years ago, and he laughed uproariously and said, “Why the hell did you listen to me, you’re an idiot!”)
Another piece of wisdom, or at least advice, is this: if somebody offers you interesting work doing something that you’ve never done before, try as hard as you can not to admit it. You’re a professional and professionals can generally figure things out, given a little time and research. Someone called me up once and wanted to know if I’d be interested in writing scripts for an animated TV show. I said sure I would. Then the guy said, “Are you familiar with television scripts?” and I said, oh yeah, even though I’d never laid eyes on one! But! But I knew how to write stories, so all I had to do was check out the format for scripts–and that was easy to do; I used the library; you can use the internet. I taught myself in a day or two all that I needed to know–and ended up being a staff writer for “The Adventures of the Galaxy Rangers.” Great gig. And if I’d said no, I don’t know anything about television scriptwriting? The same thing would’ve happened that had happened a few years earlier when the film director Penny Marshall took me to lunch and asked me if I’d adapt one of my novels into a script for her. I said, I’d love to, but I’d never written any film scripts before and maybe it would be a good idea to have a co-writer. She smiled, paid for our meal–and I never heard from her again.
I’m not telling you to lie, mind you–just trust yourself. You have the chops, you have the smarts…which means you can stretch, which means you can do it.
Finally, this: all my life I’ve loved the word “cartoonist.” Because I know exactly what it means and I know what a cartoonist “does.” Lately, though, I’ve noticed that the term is falling out of use and being replaced by the term “comics artist.” A situation that frankly gives me the shivers. Among my graduate fiction students I’ve become known for my impassioned mini-lectures urging them never to call themselves artists, but instead to call themselves fiction writers or short story writers or novelists. That’s what you are, I tell them, that’s what you do. You may well be an artist, but it’s always better to let other people call you that. Call yourself an artist and you might be more inclined to talk about it than do it; call yourself a writer–or, dear graduates, a cartoonist–and you’ll be more inclined, more personally and professionally compelled–to get up every day and go to your studio to work. And the work, trite as it sounds, the challenge and the pleasure of the work, in doing the work, in making the work, of being present for and in the work, is the only thing that matters.
So to this impressive group of graduates…cartoonists…artists, my deepest congratulations and most sincere wishes for long, satisfying, and truly remarkable careers in the greatest profession on earth.
Thank you all very much.