To make it in a specific industry, the first stop is usually getting an education. For those who want to make a life out of working in comics there are more options than recreating Tippy the Turtle for admission to the Draw Me! School for illustrators or investing in an exclusive and expensive fine art institutions where a focus on comics might be an option. Instead, The Center for Cartoon Studies might be the right fit.
Filmmakers Josh Melrod and Tara Wray spent several years taking an up-close view of the school and its artists in training, most of who are working their way to an MFA. The result of this time is the charming documentary Cartoon College. This film, like many educationally based documentaries, introduces a cast of potential graduates and follows their trials and tribulations as they work toward their degrees. The make up of the film is generally what you might expect to find in a school that creates independent comics: the post riot girl, the nerdy couple, and many others who will describe a part that would put themselves historically in the camp of “outsider”. However, it is the inclusion of those who don’t fit the traditional comics mold such as a charming archeology professor who is on leave from his teaching position while he investigates comics, or the Mormon man who is trying to relay his faith in his planned publication, that elevate the film above the stories that you might hear at any typical convention.
Perhaps the most important aspect of the film is the visualization of the amount of work that it takes to create even the most modest, independent comic, which Melrod and Wray portray with a very honest and sympathetic eye. For those who are within this industry, the amount of work will come as no surprise, but for the rest of the audience for whom Cartoon College will be a peek into a world that they are probably not associated with, this will probably be a real eye opener. The artists in the film are constantly working. If they are not in class, then they are at home drawing, or planning with classmates, or at conventions, or in those other few hours of the day, working at traditional jobs so that they might be able to earn money to survive. This theme of constant work carries into the discussions with those who have made it in the industry; the professors and visiting artists, who are also constantly in motion and working hard to stay afloat. One of the professional artists describes how she makes a large portion of her income selling things on EBAY because creating independent comics is such a hard economic path to pursue.
Structurally, Cartoon College front-loads the documentary with many interviews with those that are esteemed within this small world. From Art Spiegelman to Scott McCloud, viewers are given explanations from successful creators about the hard world of independent comics. This is the greatest fault of the film, in that it feels almost like the experts are brought in to justify the experiences that the audiences only later really get to experience with those it follows at The Center for Cartoon Studies. Perhaps this was done for those outside of the medium as a method to introduce them to this unique world, but I think the earnest stories of those studying at the school could have easily had the same emotional weight as somewhat generic statements of Chris Ware. The documentary at times feels like it needs to follow the old writers adage, which is highly important to comics as well, which is “Show, don’t tell”.
Despite this small structural foible, the film as a whole is a light enjoyable window into a world that most people do not get a chance to experience. It illuminates the world of indie comics and The Center for Cartoon Studies in a way that is sincere and approachable, allowing those who often come across as the “outsider other” in the day-to-day world to actually appear as the hard working, invested, smart creative and completely approachable artists that they are.
Cartoon College will be screening at the Orange County Museum of Art as part of their Cinema Orange Summer Series on August 30th at 7:30. One of the comic artists, Lena H. Chandhok, featured in the film will be in attendence to answer questions after the screening.