"I was a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin when I fell in love with R. Crumb," James Sturm said of the cartoonist with the signature big-footed characters, an icon of the counterculture. "I can honestly say that this comic that you are looking at caused me to drop out of school."
Nods of recognition rippled across the high-ceilinged space that once held women's dresses, men's suits and first-Communion outfits for this 19th century mill town. Just over a year ago, the defunct Colodny Surprise Department Store was reborn as the Center for Cartoon Studies, with the mission of offering college-level training in a discipline often dismissed in the more tradition-bound halls of academe.
An increasingly visual culture has turned cartooning into a field with a future, serving a seemingly limitless audience for stories told through hand-drawn pictures. The field has exploded with the growth of graphic novels, imported comics from Asia and a global passion for cartoon-based animation.
CCS co-founder Sturm taught drawing for years, and in 2001 his graphic novel about Jewish baseball players, "The Golem's Mighty Swing," was Time magazine's comic of the year.
About four years ago, he moved to Vermont with his family and stumbled onto a tired industrial hamlet intent on repackaging itself as a 21st century arts haven.
Sturm, 41, describes CCS as both a cartoonist's boot camp and a think tank for graphic novelists. He argues that cartoons offer a unique synthesis of fine art and popular culture, and afford an arena for biography, fiction and improbable dreams.
"Wish fulfillment: That's the birth of a comic book," he told the students one recent day. "A man can fly. You can shoot flames out of your hands. In a comic, that is possible. That is what this class is about: laying legitimacy to your own wish fulfillment."
In White River Junction, Sturm found a community of 2,500 that once was one of this country's most active railroad centers. Late in the 19th century, 100 locomotives a day steamed out of the depot here. When the train traffic dwindled, White River shriveled.
But the town Sturm encountered was stretching in new directions. Dormant for decades, the old Briggs Opera House had become home to a repertory theater company. Artists' studios occupied defunct factory space. A printmaking cooperative, used bookstore and natural foods co-op had sprung up in the four-block downtown center. In the old Tip Top bread factory, an upscale bistro dished up avocado Napoleon.
The school received a grant from the state and financial support from other cartoonists. Jeannie Schulz, widow of "Peanuts" creator Charles M. Schulz, said she provided start-up funds for CCS because her husband maintained that cartooning was about depicting human emotions and maintaining high artistic standards.
Jeannie Schulz said conventional colleges — even those based at museum schools — "never gave cartooning its full credibility." She said training students to write believable dialogue was as important as teaching them to draw properly.
"If you don't have some sensitivity to the reality of an emotion, you can't parody it," she said. "I don't think you would learn this in most places. At CCS, I think they are stretching the field."
Annual tuition for the two-year course is $14,000. The first group of students will graduate in May, and it is not clear yet what form of certification they will receive. The state is in the process of appraising the school for "degree-granting authority."
Sturm and co-founder Michelle Ollie — a former director at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design — say they are not certain how large the school will grow, but applications continue to increase.
Nearly all of the 38 CCS students, mostly in their mid- to late 20s, already have college degrees. Lacking dormitories, CCS helps students find local housing. Ollie said that counting shopping, paying for rent and putting up visitors in the local hotel, CCS contributed as much as a quarter of a million dollars to White River Junction in its first year.
The school has brought guest lecturers including such cartooning stars as Art Spiegelman, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1992 for "Maus: A Survivor's Tale," a graphic novel about the Holocaust. Homework assignments include group outings to the Polka Dot Restaurant, where students transcribe overheard conversations in hopes of mastering dialogue.
"These visiting artists come and tell us the tricks of the trade," said Jaci June, who came to CCS directly from Dana Hills High School in Orange County. "There is a big focus on making connections within the industry. These are things I could not get without going to this school."
Modern-day cartoonists spend endless hours in the artistic counterpart of solitary confinement. They draft complex stories that might as easily be based on Jane Austen as on bright-green visitors from another galaxy. Some create panels evoking their own youthful traumas, or allegories that illustrate broad social issues.
They invent scenarios such as second-year student Elizabeth Chasalow's "Dead Pets," proffering eight "sad-but-true stories" of pets who perished. Another second-year student, Andrew Arnold, tackled the cosmic mystery of where superheroes go to relax. (The answer, of course: the Superhero Hotel.)
Some CCS students choose the lucrative world of greeting cards, or leap directly into a cyber-commercial universe based on the convergence of fantasy and superior artistic skills.
"You can do just about anything with cartooning, not necessarily comics," said Robyn Chapman, 28. "Here, we can talk very clearly about the way cartooning works, the basic building blocks: improving stories, pacing, page composition — even anatomy."
New York literary agent Judy Hansen said "a steadily greater interest in the comic book format along with, culturally, more and more movement toward visual literacy" had fueled demand.
When major booksellers began to allocate increasing space to cartoons, the need for specialized training became apparent, Hansen said.
"I think what they are trying to do at CCS is instill a certain level of professionalism and high quality in the medium. I think that is the way any artistic endeavor advances," she said.
Brenda Bowen, vice president and editor in chief of Hyperion Books for Children in New York, said the graphic-novel medium was booming in "a very visual culture, fostered by websites. Words and pictures are now so inextricably bound. And that is how these young people are thinking," she said of those at CCS. "They are at the cutting edge. They have futures. I really think they do."
Sketching feverishly between seminars, June said she knew in third grade that she wanted to be a cartoonist. At 18, June is the youngest student at CCS. She said her friends in Southern California were perplexed when she headed to CCS.
"They were like, 'You're going to Virginia?' I was like, 'No: Vermont.' And they said, 'Where's that?' " June said. One friend teased that she was going to clown school, not cartoon school. Now, June said: "I wish they could see what I have done since I got here."
Second-year student Alexis Frederick-Frost, 28, said he was already doing "legitimate art" when he came to CCS with a fine arts degree from Bates College in Maine. Frederick-Frost selfpublished a graphic novel about an Italian bicycle race and is at work on a new graphic novel about a post-Impressionist painter.
But unlike his previous experience studying art, "the focus of this school is to make an object. It's like film school," he said. But whether he can make a living is another question: "It's pretty uncharted territory, but the field has a lot of momentum right now."
In Dover, N.J., the founder of the country's other full-time cartooning school recalled that when he got his first job at Catman Comics at age 12, the medium was considered "pure, unadulterated junk."
Joe Kubert, 80, said he was not remotely upset about the appearance of a potential competitor to the Joe Kubert School of Cartoon and Graphic Art. "If they are successful, that means there are enough people who are interested in this to feed the field," he said.