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Vermont's Cartoon College Throws a Party in Its New Quarters 

State of the Arts

A cold rain steadily dripping on White River Junction last Friday did nothing to prevent some 400 celebrants from turning out for the Center for Cartoon Studies’ open house in its new/old building. The former town post office was purchased about a year ago by the cartooning school, with the help of a generous local real-estate dealer, and adapted for classrooms and offices.

The move from CCS’ previous quarters was just a block or so, but it represents a big step forward for the 7-year-old school, which offers one- and two-year certificates in cartooning, as well as an MFA and summer workshops. Current enrollment is about 100 students.

From the outside, the school’s colonial-revival-style building, erected in 1934 on South Main Street, still resembles a post office — minus the de rigueur American flag. The inside, of course, is a different story. Up a few steps and through a foyer, the Schulz Library greets visitors with the promise of lots of funnies. A small front-desk sign reading “The librarian is in” is a nod to the “Peanuts” character Lucy — created by library namesake Charles Schulz — in her 5¢ psychiatrist mode. The long room’s floor-to-ceiling shelves, packed with thousands of comics, graphic novels and other publications, encourage browsing. But this enormous collection, saved from Tropical Storm Irene’s floodwaters at a previous location in August 2011, could take a lifetime to peruse.

A large and versatile central room dominates the first floor. Normally used for classes, last Friday night it was a noisy, cheery beehive of activity. School cofounders Michelle Ollie and James Sturm chatted up visitors, while attendees of all ages greeted friends, munched on snacks and ordered unique cartoon holiday cards. These were made on demand for five bucks each by a rotating cadre of CCS students, some in Santa hats or other jolly headgear. (Character options for the cards were Super or Sad Santa, Cartooning or Ninja Elf, Baby or Melting Snowperson, and Happy or Angry Yeti.)

At a row of tables in the back of the room, Vermont’s cartoonist laureate, James Kochalka, and Harry Bliss made quick line drawings (on sale to benefit CCS) and signed their books. In the middle, author and faculty member Sarah Stewart Taylor offered up her new middle-grade mystery, The Expeditioners (illustrated by recent CCS grad Katherine Roy). At the other end of the author lineup, Sturm signed the new Adventures in Cartooning: Christmas Special (which he created with CCS alums Andrew Arnold and Alexis Frederick-Frost), while cartoonist and faculty member Jon Chad signed Leo Geo and His Miraculous Journey Through the Center of the Earth.

In a smaller side room, little kids were busily drawing their own cartoons and coloring. That is, until Sturm called everyone to attention for the evening’s multimedia entertainment: a slide show and dramatic reading of Christmas Special. Curiously, Sturm chose a zany klezmer soundtrack for the presentation. But even more entertaining were the voices that he and senior students Romey Bensen and Laurel Holden mustered for the characters that appeared on-screen. (Bensen voiced multiple characters creatively and hilariously; if this print-cartoon thing doesn’t work out, maybe he could consider a career in voicing animations?)

The cartoon book — ostensibly for kids, but relevant to anyone facing holiday shopping for children — relates Santa’s dismay as he discovers traditional presents no longer appeal: “Sleds, tops, and puzzles — they once were a must, now all of these toys are gathering dust.” In Santa’s workshop, all the elves are parked in front of computer screens, writing code and sending digital gifts, well, digitally. Santa’s solution? To create a Christmas comic. Hence ensues a silly adventure, all in rhyme.

Spoiler alert: “On Christmas morning a great miracle was seen — all of the children turned off their screens. They took out some paper and started to draw…”

Yes, cartoons rule around here.

That sentiment is conveyed in the school “fight song,” written by Kochalka and performed by him following the reading in his trademark simple, catchy and tongue-in-cheek style. All the students belted out the chorus: “Go, CCS! We’re the best! We’re better than the rest!”

But CCS doesn’t need a boisterous fight song to demonstrate its school spirit; in White River Junction, this cartoon college seems to light up the whole town.

"Adventures in Cartooning: Christmas Special" by James Sturm, Andrew Arnold and Alexis Frederick-Frost, First Second, 64 pages. $9.99. cartoonstudies.org

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Pamela Polston

Pamela Polston

Bio:
Pamela Polston is the cofounder, coeditor and associate publisher of Seven Days.

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