Cartoon College isn't on DVD yet. It's also not in theaters. But you don't have to miss this professionally made documentary that brings you inside Vermont's own Center for Cartoon Studies. (Trailer here.)
If you love comics, you shouldn't miss it. Especially if you've ever dreamed of drawing them for a living.
Filmmaker Tara Wray did. In 2007, she headed to CCS as a comics fan and potential student — but eventually decided she "couldn't draw," she told me in a 2008 interview. Instead, she stuck around to film the students as they progressed through the rigorous two-year program, from first-year "boot camp" to a nail-biting final thesis review.
Wray and codirector Josh Melrod ended up spending three years filming the students in White River Junction, and followed them to a convention in New York City where they strove to market their wares. The filmmakers collected interviews with famous indie cartoonists, such as Art Spiegelman of Maus, Chris Ware, Lynda Barry, Charles Burns and Francoise Mouly.
Well-known CCS faculty such as James Sturm and Stephen Bissette contributed their two cents, too. Punchy editing and an energetic indie soundtrack tie it all together and give Cartoon College a well-paced professionalism as well as an appropriately punk-rock feel.
That irreverence is appropriate because, despite prize-winning "serious" graphic novels such as Maus or Alison Bechdel's Fun Home, comics still don't get no respect. OK, not much respect. Comic artists, one interviewee points out, still tend to be "outcasts" at traditional art school. At CCS, they can all be outcasts together.
Are the students a motley crew of quirky types, each with his or her own story about being picked on in high school? You bet. There's material for multiple single-camera sitcoms here.
The faculty are quirky, too — and refreshingly free of anything resembling pretension. Near the beginning of the doc, Sturm calls up prospective students to decide whether they'll fit into the tight-knit community. "A lot of famous cartoonists are assholes," he tells the camera, then reflects on the pluses and minuses of having talented assholes in the student body. To a student on the phone, he muses, "You seem relatively sane."
If only all grad programs went through a similarly frank screening process.
Sure, it may sound like "clown college," but the film demonstrates that cartoon college is pretty damn tough. (Perhaps clown college is, too?) One young cartoonist, struggling with a story about his childhood and his Mormon faith, fails his thesis and has to return with fresh inspiration. Then there's Al Wesolowski, a 60-something with an academic career who couldn't resist the call of comics — but wonders, like Wray, if his drawing is good enough.
The doc doesn't dance around the impracticality of "cartoonist" as a job title or the odds against individual success. Wray and Melrod don't focus on the technical aspects of the craft of cartooning, despite giving us fascinating insider glimpses of instruction and peer reviews. Their interest is in the wacky, wonderful outcasts who are obsessed enough to try to do this for a living.
For that reason, Cartoon College is a movie that anyone who's ever contemplated an arts career — or struggled with the vicissitudes of one — can appreciate.
Where can you catch it?
Cartoon College has its Vermont festival premiere next Friday, April 26, at the White River Indie Films opening gala (6 p.m. at the Tupelo Music Hall in White River Junction; $35 or $20 for students at the door).
If you can't make it there and still want to see it, here's how to organize a screening in your town. You'll need a critical mass of people willing to buy advance tix online, though. Two previous efforts to screen the film at Merrill's Roxy Cinemas didn't draw enough takers to happen.
In Theaters Today:
Tom Cruise explores a devastated Earth in Oblivion. Tommy Lee Jones plays Gen. Douglas MacArthur in Emperor. Québécois sperm-donor comedy Starbuck is at the Savoy. There's an inspirational baseball movie called Home Run at the Essex. (Showtimes here.)
Or you could stay home and see Django Unchained finally — on DVD. Or every nerd boy's sweethearts — Lizzy Caplan and Alison Brie — starring together in Save the Date, another Movie You Missed.