Thanksgiving in Toon Town

WHITE RIVER JUNCTION, Vt. — Stepping through the darkened doorway, shaking a wet mix of snow and rain off my coat, I’m greeted by the yellow triangles of a nuclear fallout shelter symbol.

I’m in an old telegraph building, built in the 1920s. Some changes were made to the structure in the middle part of the past century, updating the building to the sterile Cold War aesthetic that’s been more-or-less maintained in the years since, like the yellow signs letting me know I can try to hide from radiation here.

That’s not the building’s primary purpose anymore. The people I encounter on the second floor aren’t waiting out a nuclear winter or sending telegraphs. They’re drawing comics.

The building is one of three that form the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, Vt. This one houses a basic studio space and the off-site storage annex of the school’s Charles M. Schulz Library, named after the creator of the beloved comic strip Peanuts. My twin brother is in his second year of this Masters of Fine Arts program (said to be the first in the country), and I’ve just arrived by train from Washington, D.C., to stay with him for Thanksgiving.

Nestled within the town of Hartford and between the White and Connecticut rivers, White River Junction is a village of less than 3,000 people. It’s just a 15-minute drive on a hilly — and this time of year, slick — road to Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H, yet the two places could be worlds apart.

White River Junction can be quite beautiful. It is, however, also small, rural, and — with exceptions — fairly poor. A town in recovery, maybe, but still a work-in-progress.

Many of the young people from here don’t go to college. They stick around town, get work at the handful of restaurants and bars, or maybe get a job across the bridge in West Lebanon. Less than 12 percent of White River Junction’s residents have a bachelor’s degree, according to recent census data, and more than half never earn a high school diploma.

There’s some spillover from Hanover; students that enjoy the hip quaintness of places like the local coffee shop the Tuckerbox, or professors looking for a cheaper house away from the student-charged bustle of campus. For the most part, though, White River Junction is still like most of the other small rural communities that dot the United States. This is to say, it may not be the first place that comes to mind for housing a Master of Fine Arts program.

Now, with the addition of the Center and local businesses cropping up like the White River Yarns knitting shop and the quirky Main Street Museum, it would seem that the village’s evolution is in full swing.

“There was a lot of great work being done on the ground for years before we got here, and the foundation for this town to become an arts community was well-laid,” says cartoonist James Sturm, who founded the school a decade ago. “But we were an important piece of the puzzle, pushing the town over the top. There’s nothing like the energy of a college community to really ignite a place.”

There are two types of people in White River Junction: the locals, called townies, and the transplanted artists, called toonies. According to cartoonist Jon Chad, a lab technician and teacher at CCS, it’s easy to spot the difference. “You can tell who the toonies are,” Chad says to a small group of us as we continue an impromptu, late-night tour of the school.

Chad happened to run into our group as another teacher, Nicole Georges, was showing us around. He’s an apt tour guide, his knowledge of the school and comics seemingly only surpassed by his knowledge of pinball and pinball fan zines.

“And it’s even easier to tell who the new toonies are,” he continues. “You see them walking around, looking a little lost. Like, ‘is this really the place?’”

A similar thought was on the mind of student Eleri Harris when she first moved here in 2012. Harris came to White River Junction from Canberra, Australia, leaving behind a career as a political radio reporter. A friend had given her The Fixer by cartoonist journalist Joe Sacco, and she became “enthralled” by the idea of journalism comics. Two years later, she was on her way to the States.

“I remember ‘exploring’ Main Street and being completely baffled by it,” Harris says recalling her first impression of her new home. “I’ve never lived in a town before. I’ve never lived less than a 25 minute walk, ferry, or bike away from the center of a major city before.”

The sprawl of the area — small townships linked together by rural roads populated by roadside homes and businesses — was also an adjustment, she says, “but I had prepared myself for something completely different and that’s what I got.” The fact that there is little to do within walking distance helps keep the students from getting distracted, Harris adds. “In the winter,” she says, “all I have is comics.”

A cartooning school planting its roots in Vermont would maybe not be surprising now. In 2011, it became only the second state to actually designate a cartoonist laureate, placing comics on the same pedestal as art forms like poetry. The current laureate is cartoonist James Kolchaka, who himself is from Springfield, Vt., and the creator of the highly-regarded but recently-concluded comic series American Elf. One of the strips detailing the artist’s emotional goodbye to his long-running series actually takes place in White River Junction, in the supposedly haunted Hotel Coolidge.
But when Sturm and educator Michelle Ollie created the Center for Cartoon Studies, Vermont was far from a hotbed of cartooning talent. The school was founded in White River Junction simply because Sturm had a studio there and liked the place.

In 2001, he quit a teaching job and moved his family eight miles south of the village to live with his in-laws, before later finding a small home of their own. After the birth of Sturm’s second daughter, the lack of room in the house forced the artist to rent some studio space in White River Junction. At the time, comics were finally coming into mainstream acceptance, he says, making good on promises laid out in the 1980s when Maus, Art Spiegelman’s comics account of the Holocaust, won the Pulitzer Prize.

“After Spiegelman, there was all this talk of ‘comics aren’t just for kids, anymore,’” Sturm says. “But nothing really came in its wake. Then all the kids who grew up reading this stuff were now coming of age. I was seeing all these young artists doing comics, but they couldn’t do them in college courses. Not really.”

Sturm decided it was time to give cartoonists a place to do just that. In the fall of 2005, the Center for Cartoon Studies welcomed its first class of 18 students. Two years later, the school was approved by the State of Vermont as a degree-granting authority, and it began awarding Master of Fine Arts degrees. The Center now brings some of the biggest names in comics to this tiny town in Vermont, including Alison Bechdel, Seth, and Chris Ware.

“I fell in love with this small village,” Sturm says now. “And all the stars aligned.”

Jon Chad leads us back out into the cold for a quick walk across South Main Street to the Center’s primary building. Like the studio space, this structure is also far older than the school — another piece from White River Junction’s more prosperous past tooned up to fit its colorful present.

CCS is housed in what used to be the Colodny’s Surprise Department Store. If the art deco design and large, bronzed windows don’t tip you off, the glowing sign shouting “CLOTHING FOR THE ENTIRE FAMILY!” that still hangs in the building’s foyer should do the trick.

(The third building that makes up the Center’s disconnected campus is the home of the full Charles M. Schulz Library, a fantastic collection of comics and graphic novels from every genre. It is, of course, housed in an old Post Office, a colonial revival structure built in the early 1930s.)

While the toonies make sure parts of White River Junction’s history seep into the Center’s presence, hints of the cartooning world are scattered throughout town. At the Tuckerbox, framed pages of cartoonists’ work hang above the tables. Flyers for local businesses are drawn up by the now-local talent.

“I’ve been told that the students make the town feel more safe and friendly,” Harris says. “Also, small business owners say that having a constant stream of young people wanting minimum wage part time jobs helps the economy, too. There’s always students working in the cafes, the hotel, the co-ops.”

At the Colodny, I ask Chad how much these two parts of the community mix, and if anybody from town has ever been a student at the Center. Just one, he says, but there’s plenty of interaction otherwise. A number of students stick around town after they graduate.

“The students all create a certain vibe in the town,” Sturm says when I pose the question to him. “Which attracts even more artists, giving the place an even larger reputation of funkiness.”

A few days later, I’m celebrating Thanksgiving at the house Eleri Harris shares with her partner, Tom, and my brother. Many of the cartoonists I’ve met during my visit are here, as are their partners and friends. But there is also a good mix of locals gathered around the table.

There’s Mary who works at the yarn shop, and Brandon who works at the Tip Top Cafe. I recognize a guy who rang me up at the co-op where I bought the ingredients for my incredibly popular baked Macaroni and Cheese dish, and I overhear a discussion of military history being carried out in both Russian and Australian accents.

It’s a pretty eclectic group of people.

“It’s easy to have a virtual or online community, and that’s really important, but when you see people face to face, counting on them day in and day out, I think that’s something that’s more rare in today’s world,” Sturm later says to me. “I do think places like White River Junction and schools like the Center foster this tightness, this sense of community.”

It is, he says, a community of nerds, punks, geeks, weirdos.

“That’s what this is,” Sturm says. “A community of very talented, interesting people that outsiders might call weirdos. And that we call our own.”