Refreshingly, Josh Melrod and Tara Wray spare us any trite “comics aren’t just for kids anymore” declarations at the start of their documentary, Cartoon College. From the outset, the filmmakers acknowledge that graphic novels have shed their old stigmas and been embraced by popular culture. However, they do dubiously suggest that anyone studying sequential art should expect skepticism from family and friends. Using this largely unfounded assertion as their launching point, they then slip us inside the Center for Cartoon Studies in quaint White River Junction, Vt.
Accepting only 20 entrants a year, the highly regarded institution is home to a predictably motley assemblage of students, all aspiring to careers in illustration and none with designs on pencilling Batman or X-Men. Amongst their number are a 61-year-old archaeologist who’s now following his muse, a young Mormon aspiring to recount his theological crisis and a woman whose body of work deals solely with menstruation. After enduring a year-long bootcamp, the students are granted a second year to complete their thesis projects. This intense workload pushes many of them to a breaking point.
Drawing parallels between independent comic creators, punk musicians and DIY filmmakers, Cartoon College also identifies the challenges that are specific to the students’ chosen medium. The film’s most revealing passage details how learning the skills and work ethic required to realize their unique visions also familiarizes them with precisely how labor-intensive the process is. Consequently, even before they’ve launched their careers, they’re forced to confront the fact that they’ll simply never have enough time to tackle every project they envision. In reconciling themselves with this harsh reality, they also accept that they’re condemning themselves to a future of frustration.
Given this, it’s hardly surprising that the veteran artists interviewed here are all hesitant to endorse the paths they’ve chosen. While fans will welcome appearances by luminaries like Art Spiegelman (Maus), Charles Burns (Black Hole) and Chris Ware (Acme Novel Library), they’re unlikely to be surprised by their warnings that comics are best viewed as a hardscrabble calling rather than a career. That said, Lynda Barry (Ernie Pook’s Comeek) lends the proceedings some characteristically bleak humor when she claims that the majority of her annual income comes courtesy of eBay.
Alas, precisely what Barry might be hocking online is never addressed, as Melrod and Wray seem reluctant to delve into any subject in great detail. Running a scant 75 minutes, the documentary almost has an apologetic air too it, seemingly not wanting to take up too much of a viewer’s time. As a result, sound bytes and stray observations frequently stand in for genuine insights.
Similarly, rather than entangling us in any of the students’ compelling individual dramas, the documentary flits between its subjects, operating under the mistaken belief that they’re equally fascinating. While this serves to illustrate the breadth of work being created at the Center for Cartoon Studies, it leaves us with only a vague sense of the impulses that drive the creators. Instead, the directors inexplicably devote an entire chapter to detailing the nesting instincts of the students and cataloguing the romances that’ve blossomed on campus. During this lackluster segment, Melrod and Wray forget that the only relationships of consequence here are the ones between the artists and their work.
While it’s commendable that the first-time documentarians refrain from manufacturing conflict, it’s aggravating that they seem so adverse to capturing the tensions already present. Tellingly, when two would-be collaborators start to butt heads, Melrod and Wray respond by immediately cutting away. Never is the lack of drama more evident than when the documentary’s cameras are unexpectedly banned from the school’s thesis review sessions. Deprived of their equivalent of a “big game” finale, the filmmakers are left looking on from the sidelines. And perhaps that’s only fitting for a film that’s been content to linger around the periphery. Failing to practice what it preaches regarding the focus and devotion that superior storytelling demands, Cartoon College remains little more than a rough sketch.
Directors: Josh Melrod, Tara Wray
Starring: Lynda Barry, Stephen R. Bissette, Charles Burns, Scott McCloud, Art Spiegelman, Chris Ware
Release Date: June 11 (VOD)