First Second’s Tenth Year: James Sturm’s Decade of Adventures in Cartooning [Interview]
As original graphic novel publisher First Second celebrates its tenth anniversary, we’re talking to some of the cartoonists and creators associated with the publisher to reflect on their work over the last ten years.
Today we speak to James Sturm, one of the most established and respected cartoonists in the business. Sturm's comics include early '90s work for Fantagraphics and Drawn and Quarterly and acclaimed graphic novels such as The Golem's Mighty Swing, Market Day and Satchel Paige: Striking Out Jim Crow. In the last decade, he has become known as much for being an educator of cartoonists as for being a cartoonist himself, having co-founded the Center for Cartoon Studies in Vermont in 2005. His work for First Second includes the Adventures In Cartooning series, created with two of his CCS students, Andrew Arnold and Alexis Frederick-Frost.
ComicsAlliance: As we look at First Second’s tenth anniversary through the eyes of some of the cartoonists who have worked with the publisher, I’ve been asking them where they were in their own careers ten years ago. Looking back at your biography, it appears that in early 2006, the Center of Cartoon Studies would have been a few months into offering classes? Can you tell us a little bit about your 2006?
James Sturm: The Center for Cartoon Studies opened in the fall of 2005 so this year is also CCS’s tenth-year anniversary. Both First Second and CCS seem to have been born from the same moment --- when comics/graphic novels were moving out of the genre neighborhood and staring to reside in the literary, children’s books and fine art world (and right before the crippling economic recession).
For me, 2006 was an insane year. Between getting CCS up and running, two young children (ages 4 and 6), and the various books projects I was working on, my days were bursting at the seams.
CA: When First Second started releasing its first books, you were already a long-published cartoonist, and had worked with Fantagraphics, Drawn and Quarterly and even Marvel. Do you recall what your initial impressions of First Second and its earliest books as a publisher?
Sturm: I think the first First Second book I saw was [Lewis] Trondheim’s A.L.I.E.E.E.N. My initial impression was kudos to any publisher who got behind such a strange and wonderful book.
CA: Your professional relationship with First Second began in 2009 with Adventures in Cartooning, with Andrew Arnold and Alexis Frederick-Frost. I remember being struck by how unusual it was at the time, in that it was simultaneously a "how to" book and a satisfying read that told its own story. Can you tell us a little bit about how that book came about?
Sturm: Andrew and Alexis were students of CCS’s inaugural class. I used to give an assignment where students had to make a comic based on the visual iconography found in Ed Emberley’s amazing Make a World book. What I liked about that assignment was that it required students to think about the mechanics of comics and not get hung up on the drawing part.
The idea for Adventures in Cartooning was to build on what Emberley was doing. Once kids understood how to construct simple figures and objects, then the next step would be to teach them cartooning basics to tell stories.
I asked Andrew and Alexis to partner with me and take my notion for a book and help flesh it out. Those two had worked together on previous projects and I knew I would enjoy working with them from the time we spent together in the classroom.
CA: At this point, Adventures in Cartooning is the original book in what’s become a six-part series. Do you remember the point at which you guys became aware of the fact that it was something of a hit, and that you would be making more books of its kind?
Sturm: So far we have done eight books (two more are in the can awaiting release). The first book received a tremendous reception from parents, librarians and teachers, but it was the response from kids that made me realize we had caught lightning in a bottle. I’d see "most circulated" books lists from school libraries and AIC was always up there with Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Guinness Book of World Records.
I always saw the AIC books as a call to arms trying to empower kids to not only consume media but to make their own. We’ve received so many comics from AIC readers featuring their own creations and the AIC characters over the years. This is as good of indication as any of the books’ success.
CA: Are you surprised that it has turned into so many books at this point?
Sturm: Yes! It’s not easy to sustain a series in publishing and I’m surprised that I have been able to sustain interest as a creator in a project for that long.
I genuinely love the goofy and buoyant AIC world and its lead characters. It makes writing the books a lot of fun. I think the books also reflect how well Andrew, Alexis and I work together. If we didn’t, this whole thing never would have worked.
CA:Do you see the series continuing indefinitely, or will you guys ever reach a point where you’ve said all you’ve had to say with the characters, and taught readers all there is to learn about cartooning…?
Sturm: I think there is plenty to do with the characters as well as territory to explore in comics. That said, we’ve done a lot of books together for over a long period of time and each of us have other projects that call for our fuller attention.
CA: One of the interesting aspects of the series is the rather unique way it teaches cartooning while being cartooning, which seems to fit in with at least one broad observation about First Second. It publishes a lot of non-fiction books for various age groups, many of which seem classroom-ready. In your opinion as a cartoonist and an educator, does First Second seem a more education-focused publisher?
Sturm: Comics have the magical ability to engage with even the most reluctant reader. [Editorial director] Mark Siegel is no dummy — he recognizes the vital role comics can play in education. I would also imagine that school library sales is a big part of the First Second business plan.
CA: Today, First Second has so many books in print target many different audiences, but I know that when the company first started publishing, a lot of folks seemed to regard it as an all-ages and YA-focused publisher. Adventures In Cartooning, while all-ages, was definitely more kid-friendly than some of the other works First Second were publishing in those first few years. Were you and your collaborators terribly conscious of addressing a particularly young audience, and did that inform your creative process?
Sturm: The creative process is the same, but I was very conscious of writing to a young audience. At home I had two young kids and as any parent does, I was adjusting how I communicated in order to connect with my children. Every project I’ve ever worked on has it’s own unique set of restrictions. And I have found restrictions only enhance creativity.
CA: As someone in the comics world in general, rather than someone who has worked with First Second, how do you perceive the publisher’s general place in the comics industry and market at this point in its existence? Has the publisher evolved, in your estimation?
Sturm: First off, it’s remarkable First Second has published so many incredible books over so long a time. It hasn’t been smooth sailing in the book trade and Mark, [senior editor] Calista [Brill] and [marketing and publicity manager] Gina [Gagliano] and the rest of the First Second crew have done an incredible job of charting those waters.
First Second seems to hold a singular place in the comics industry — they are part of a huge publishing house (and all the benefits and headaches that implies) but at the same time are run by a highly regarded cartoonist who has a deep understanding of the art form.
First Second felt like a start up at the time — not just a new imprint. They had a mission and wanted to further advance the comics’ revolution. They have done just that.
CA: Do you have a favorite book First Second has published, other than the Adventures in Cartooning books?
Sturm: It’s hard to choose just one given how many different types of books they publish. Here are a few favorites: The Photographer, Anya’s Ghost and This One Summer. The Sardine books are a household favorite, and I also look forward to every Sara Varon book.