Seven years in, the Center for Cartoon Studies is expanding its facilities—and still handing out unconventional diplomas.

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Jim Rugg/CCS

Two years after graphic novelist James Sturm (The Golem's Mighty Swing, Satchel Paige: Striking Out Jim Crow) founded Vermont's Center For Cartoon Studies (CCS) in 2005, he presented the first diplomas to a new generation of cartoonists, comics artists, and graphic novelists. But those diplomas didn't exactly resemble the framed pages you'd see on doctors' or lawyers' office walls. The students who received MFA and Certificate degrees instead took home colorfully drawn diplomas (with a new one designed each year by, respectively, Ron Rege Jr, Michael Kuperman, Ivan Brunetti, and Jim Rugg, among others), making for a fitting culmination of intensive cartoon training.

That CCS has already graduated more than 100 students is a credit to Sturm's belief that comics are as legitimate as any other art form, "yet higher education's attitude towards comics has been largely one of either contempt or condescension."

Influenced by the underground comix artists of the 1960s, who "didn't need to be sanctioned by the publishing establishment to feel legitimate," he adopted a somewhat rebel attitude in regards to creating his college of comics: "I didn't see the need to sell a university or college on the idea of a MFA for cartoonists for it to happen." He did it on his own. It helped, of course, that comics have come to be accepted in a ways that the underground comix crowd would never have dreamt. "The days of preaching that comics are more than just superheroes and Garfield are over," he says.

Seven years in, the program thrives. This year, CCS bought and renovated a classic two-story post office. And the school accepts only 20 students a year, making for a competitive admissions process (fulltime tuition is $17,500 a year). Many of the graduates have jobs, as Sturm says, "working in publishing as editors and designers, winning comic industry awards, and making work that has been well received ... in publications like the annual Best American Comics series."

When CCS began, the big publishing houses were beginning to embrace the potential of comics. Graphic novels arrived commercially just in time to see the economy tank and publishers panic as they tried to figure out how to remain solvent in the digital age. Today "how comics are read, created and distributed is changing," Sturm says. "The big traditional comic book publishers (Marvel, DC) make their money in movies ... In terms of what I see in the classroom, more and more students are drawing with a Cintiq and fewer with a crow quill pen."

What makes CCS different from more-traditional art departments or other art schools? Sturm says it's intensity. Rather than taking the usual one or two cartoon classes, all CCS students participate in the same integrated curriculum that "allows them to tackle increasingly ambitious projects and cover a lot of ground in a short amount of time. Even the schools that offer cartooning majors have students mixing and matching classes for any given semester. This often sets up a situation where students have to decide which class or project to really invest their time in (at the expense of others)." Sturm, who received his masters at New York's School of Visual Arts MFA in Illustration as Visual Essay program, also books an impressive line-up of visiting artists, which have included Jules Feiffer, Kate Beaton, Alison Bechdel, Garry Trudeau, and Seth, as well as non-cartoonists like Lewis Hyde, Jonathan Lethem, and David Macaulay.

CCS embraces a wide range of comic genres in the classroom. Judging by the student newspaper, Cartoon Crier, a slew of influences—from Art Spiegleman's brilliant and deliberate use of comics' formal elements to Chris Ware's narrative precision—pervade the CCS halls. Yet Sturm is quick to note that training only goes so far. "No program can teach someone to draw with the passion of Jack Kirby or the electricity of Crumb," he says. "But CCS tries to teach students to get the most out of their own abilities and become intimate with their own unique way of working."

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