‘Comics’ elevated to literature at Center for Cartoon Studies

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(Host) A new Vermont school for cartoonists is collaborating with a major publisher to create a series of biographies of famous Americans.

As VPR’s Steve Zind reports, the project reflects a continuing trend in an art form that has outgrown the name “comic books.”

(Zind) The Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction won’t open officially until later this year, but it’s already gaining national prominence. The center is working with Disney-owned Hyperion Books to create a series of biographies about prominent figures in U.S. history. The difference between these books and standard biographies is they’re… well, comic books doesn’t really describe what they are.

(James Sturm) “The default setting right now is, everybody calls anything with word balloons and panels a ‘graphic novel.’ Of course, if you use the word ‘comics’ everybody thinks it’s going to be funny.”

(Zind) James Sturm is the director and co-founder of the Center for Cartoon Studies. Sturm says the name comic book is still around, but the genre has changed dramatically since 1986 when Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize winning “Maus: A Survivor’s Tale” was published.

Spiegelman’s work influenced a generation of writers and illustrators who moved comics in a new direction. Many major publishers now have graphic novel lines.

As Sturm sees it, the change had to happen because television and movies had co-opted the original appeal of comic books.

(Sturm) “In the 1940s or 50s, if you wanted to see a man fly, or see a town be pelted by meteorites, you’d open up a comic. What’s happened now, of course, is that special effects and digital technology have totally stripped comics of that prominent position. In a way comics have had to reinvent themselves.”

(Zind) Serious biographies are just one more manifestation of that reinvention. Brenda Bowen is editor in chief of Hyperion Children’s Books, which will be publishing the biographies created by the Center for Cartoon Studies.

(Bowen) “What graphic biographies can do is tell the story in a very visual, cinematic way.”

(Zind) The first two in the series of graphic biographies are slated to come out next year. They’ll tell the life stories of illusionist Harry Houdini and Negro League baseball great Satchel Paige. The hardcover books will be 96 pages long with extensive reference materials included.

Bowen says each will be a serious treatment of its subject, based on research from original source material. She says the books will try to convey to young adult readers what it was like to live in another time in America.

Sturm has been doing research for the Satchel Paige book, reading oral histories of African Americans during the Jim Crow era.

(Sturm) “I understand how to cultivate cotton and deal with boll weevils and the price and the weight of a good plowing mule. And it’s this kind of historical detail for me that really makes the story come alive.”

(Zind) Sturm says teams of writers and illustrators will work on the Hyperion series.

The Center for Cartoon Studies will begin offering a two-year program for aspiring graphic novel and comic book creators this fall.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind.

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