Author Archives: sturmreader

Hot Off The Presses

What has now become a CCS signature project, The Golden Age assignment, freshman split into four groups (5-6 per group) and produce a full-color comic in two weeks. The comics must conform to specific genres and tone to those that could be found at newsstands in 1952. This project combines comics’ history, production skills, and a punishing deadline. Many all-nighters during these weeks.

This year’s genres were superhero, western, romance, and true crime. Paul Karasik/Alec Longstreth, Jason Lutes, Robyn Chapman, and Steve Bissette served as each title’s respective editor.

CCS faculty is beaming with pride this week as the freshman class delivered the goods this past Tuesday. The level of quality was incredible given the tight turn around. Congrads CCS freshman!

Steve Bissette has a great post about the project here.

— James Sturm


The More Things Change…

White River Junction, circa 1909

— James Sturm


“A single photograph, it’s provocative, it’s an idea, but if you can do two or three you make of that a phrase and if you can do ten maybe it’s a sentence. It’s a hard obscure language but it’s worth studying.” — Dorothea Lange

I recently read Linda Gordon’s excellent biography of photographer Dorothea Lange. I enjoyed learning about Lange’s process— from the way she put her subjects at ease to her thoughts on arranging groups of photos. In 1939 Lange, along with her husband, the academic Paul Schuster Taylor, put together American Exodus, A Record of Human Erosion, a “photo-textual book,” According to Hill, Lange was looking for a full synthesis of text and image with the goal that the two parts “so mesh that their impact transcend either medium alone.”

To combine photographs and text and have them read as a fluid language is a very difficult task.  A single photo stops you in your tracks. A still image is pulled from the stream of time (evocative in and of itself) and invites the viewer to linger and seek connections in the image’s details. An ominous sky, an ill-fitting suit, and calloused hands reveals character or become representational of some larger truth.

Reading comics comprised of photos instead of drawings (often referred to as “fumetti”) can quickly induce headaches. Because each panel contains so much information it is hard to slip from image to image. It’s a halting experience, like trying listen to someone struggle to speak in a language that isn’t their native tongue.

Photo-textual books grew out of the body of work created by Lange and her fellow FSA-OWI photographers that depicted beauty and dignity in the trying circumstances of the depression. Lange and Taylor hoped American Exodus would be a call to action and help sway public policy. The Movement, Documentary of a Struggle for Equality (1964) also seems to be cast in a similar mold.

In each of these works captions and short descriptions are sprinkled throughout, but the books’ engine are the photos. If a strong breeze blew the words off the page they wouldn’t be missed. These books are content to visually document their selected subject. As a cartoonist I’m often trying to ground my work in a specific time in place and books like The Factory, Portrait of a Leathergoods Factory in Downtown New York City (1977) provides the type of telling details that can help make a comic feel authentic (and who knows when I’ll want to create a comic set in a leathergoods factory!).

The photo-textual books that I’ve come across that rely more heavily on text like Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941) have a hard time in crafting a singular aesthetic experience. Walker Evans’ photos are austere and arresting but are all bunched together, separated by James Agee’s rambling text that makes up the majority of the book.

In Invisible Strangers (1999), Arturo Patten’s portraits of residents of a small Maine town are accompanied with text by Russell Banks. Five-to-seven pages of text alternate with a similar number of pages of photos throughout the book. The New Englander’s steady, weary, and guarded gaze confronts the reader but Russell Banks’ text strains to find some larger philosophical meaning while also celebrating Patten’s work. The portraits, however, speak quite capably for themselves—and for Patten’s skill as a photographer.

The most successful photo-textual book that I have seen that combines text and words to create something greater than the sum of its parts is The Oxford Project. Photographer Peter Feldstein juxtaposes photos of residents of Oxford, Iowa, taken 25 years apart. The writer, Stephen G. Bloom, asked the residents about their lives and then expertly distilled their responses and placed them alongside the photos to create an indelible portrait of a small town. Some Oxford residents are incredibly candid, others reveal more in what they don’t say. Comparing the two portraits taken two and half decades apart along with the text was often heartbreaking and awe-inspiring.

By adding comics, Guibert, Lefévre, and Lemercier’s The Photographer (2009) successfully weds photos and text into a seamless whole. Perhaps one reason it works so well is because the photographs telling the story are photos taken by the book’s protagonist as he documents his own narrative.  Photographs function not just as a storytelling technique but as the actual story.

But that conceit aside, Guibert’s drawings are spare and bold and hold their own graphically against the more detailed photos. I’d be curious to know more about the process between Guibert and Lemercier, the book’s graphic designer and colorist, and how they went about designing the actual pages. The Photographer, as much as The Oxford Project, represents the full synthesis of text and image that Dorothea Lange aspired to create and never did.

Have there been a lot of other good photo-textual books put together? I’m pretty ignorant of this field so if anyone knows of others (with or without comics) let me know.

— James Sturm

Badaboom Twist

As I was moving about CCS today I noticed a mini-comic on several desks. It was an autobio/diary comic called Badaboom Twist by David Libens. I was instantly taken with it. Art wise it was somewhere between Mark Marek Jeffrey Brown and R.O. Blechman (but with the soul of John P!).

Turns out that David was in town visiting his friend and current CCS fellow Max de Radigues (fellow Belgian). Had the pleasure of meeting David later in the day and got my own copy.

It was as good of a mini comic as I have read in awhile. His site is here.

— James Sturm

Recommended: Nine Recently Read Books

In No Particular Order…


1. Another Glorious Day at the Nothing Factory

This Xeric award-winning book by Erroyn Franklin documents the dissolution of her marriage and the ensuing emotional vortex that results.  The illustrations on each page are white paper cut-outs and their intricately sliced shapes, all empty inside, look as if they are in danger of being swallowed up by the black page. The technique is brilliantly suited to the subject matter.




2. Monsters

This is a semi-autobiographic tale of one cartoonist’s struggle with herpes. Jason Lutes’s blurb on the back of the book says it best, “ Ken Dahl’s is one of the great unsung talents in American comics.”




3. The Vulgarians

I confess with not being too intimate with Robert Osborn’s work. Published in 1960, The Vulgarians is an angry love letter to his country. It’s a tirade to be sure but its a funny, insightful and dead on. The way the images and text work together (a paragraph of hand written text alongside an illustration) reminded me of Maira Kalman’s blog for The New York Times even the though the tone of these two artists couldn’t be more different.




4. Untitled

This a great little zine by one of my Adventures in Cartooning collaborators Alexis Frederick-Frost. It reminds me a little of Virgina Lee Burton’s The Little House, but with a ship instead of a boat. Alexis is a great brush man and this book, with it’s stormy skies and churning waters, really allows him to showcase his talents. Can be ordered for five bucks from One Percent Press.




5. The Sultan’s Procession

I can’t tear myself away from this large art/history book. In 1657, a Sweedish envoy visited Istanbul. Besides keeping a detailed diary of everyday life, Claes Rålamb also aquired 121 small water colors depicting the different “types” in characteristic outfits. Even more impressive are the 20 large paintings depicting an imperial procession.




6 They Called Me Mayer July

Like The Sultan’s Procession, this book also acts as a time machine. The reader is transported to Mayer Kirshenblatt’s childhood in the small Polish town of Apt in the early 1900s. Kirshenblatt didn’t start painting until he was 73 and then the memories started pouring out. This is the type of history book I love— colorful and intimate details of day-to-day life accompanied by heartfelt artwork.




7. George Sprott

Seth is one of the best cartoonists working today and he just keeps getting better and better. Seth possesses the literary gifts of our finest novelists along with unparreled cartooning chops. As a book designer he brings it all together. I was deeply affected by the life and death of George Sprott. Seth shows us that life (even one full of regrets, vanity, and insensitivity) is still a magic act that is over far too soon.




8. The Toon Treasury of Classic Children’s Comics

This is a beautifully packaged and produced book chock full of delightful comics. My girls (ages 7 and 9) and I all loved it. I wrote a more comprehensive review of the book here.




9. 3 Story, The Secret History of the Giant Man

From its elegiac coloring to the way interior panels are lined up to produce x-ray effects to its die-cut cover, Matt Kindt has produced a beauty. Ultimately however, it’s the book’s emotional authenticity that takes a b-movie conceit—that a man who grows to be the size of a three story building was used as a US spy during the cold war— and transforms it into something moving.


—James Sturm

Without These Two Books Who Knows?



— James Sturm

Incoming: Mélisande


Mélisande by Margery Sharp and Roy McKie is a light-hearted rags-to-riches story about a canine opera singer. Like Don Freeman’s It Shouldn’t Happen (1945), Mélisande (1960) is a pantomime story featuring a dog. And like Freeman, McKie is best known for his children’s books— Ten Apples Up On Top is one of my all-time favorites for it’s delightful character designs and simple and expressive brushwork.

Each image in Mélisande is a double-page spread. The art is a cartoony rococo combo that is utterly charming— like a five-year-old playing dress-up. This book was donated by John Fox, a local photographer, who has been dropping off little stacks of interesting material for years.

— James Sturm