Thursday, November 13, 2014

Thirty Days of CCS, Day 13: The Applied Cartooning Manifesto

The free comics pamphlet The World Is Made Of Cheese: The Applied Cartooning Manifesto, was an interesting topic at SPX, where it was being distributed. Co-written by Center for Cartoon Studies president James Sturm and drawn by Marek Bennett, it asks young cartoonists to reconsider how they think of their careers. Basically, it calls his own school on the carpet for some of the critiques from outside of it: that it's a school that students spend a lot of money on in order to learn how to make minicomics. It starts off by noting that if we judge cartoonists by how much money they make, audiences they build and things created, then they're not worth much and cartooning as a career is highly problematic.

Sturm then goes into a series of events that should have many cartoonists nodding: living a spartan lifestyle, creating comics when they can, burning up time on social media and conventions to help build an audience and then find some way to make money off of all this labor. Sturm instead asserts that the world is changing and becoming more open to the use of comics than it used to be. Comics are being used in education, medicine, business presentations and community histories. This is what he calls "applied cartooning", wherein one's skills can be used in all sorts of profit-making sectors that aren't simply graphic design or illustration. Comics journalism is a kind of hybrid of this, as it has the passion of personal work but a platform, goals and audience quite different from the average comics fan--even an alternative comics fan.

He makes the useful distinction of "applied cartooning" vs "pure cartooning"; that is, comics strictly meant to be read as Art, not to be part of a larger project or purpose. He notes that becoming involved in Applied Cartooning doesn't mean that one shouldn't pursue their own personal projects. Taking that a step further, consider a journalist with a weekly column who also takes time to write a novel or series of essays. While Applied jobs might not be a cartoonist's passion, they are at least comics, and not illustration, graphic design or a job that has nothing to do with cartooning. For some cartoonists, especially those who don't consider themselves to be writers, Applied Cartooning could be an ideal career path. Dash Shaw, early in his career, was hired to do comics for a breast cancer website, and he mentioned in an interview I did with him that he enjoyed the job and experimented a lot with different sort of visual techniques.

The comic cribs heavily in terms of style from Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics, which means that it's clear, bold-looking and easy to understand but also that its attempts to convey meaningful information are sometimes facile. Bennett's simple and cute line was a deliberate choice, as the use of anthropomorphic animals bit directly from the McCloud "iconic characters are more identifiable" playbook. This is a manifesto and not a handbook, but there's some (admitted) fuzziness surrounding the concept. Indeed, on the last page, Sturm admits that this is not a new idea, but that giving it a name "gives it visibility, gravity and momentum". He compares it to the term "graphic novel", a term most actual cartoonists don't use very often but that "civilians" use quite regularly. All of this is prelude to offering Applied Cartooning at CCS, and this is really where the thrust of this comic will succeed or fail. How will CCS provide a diversified enough curriculum for Applied Cartooning, especially when the very concept is still such a scattered concept? It's an important question, though one must admit that CCS has had a powerful influence on comics pedagogy. It's had an impact both in inspiring other stand-alone cartooning schools (often founded as a reaction and even corrective to some of CCS's strategies) as well as mainstream art schools. After years of warning prospective students that they will likely not make any money with the degree they received from CCS, this is an interesting paradigm shift for Sturm's institution.

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