I first read James Sturm’s The Revival in 1996, not long after he’d self-published the book with the help of a Xeric Grant. I was in my second year of graduate school at the University of Connecticut and just starting my first semester as a teaching assistant—which, at UConn, meant I was responsible for a small group of students in my introductory English 105 class. Late in the semester, one of the students told me, a few minutes after the start of class, “You have no idea what you’re doing.” I think she may also have said I was the worst teacher she’d ever had. I don’t remember exactly. Either way, she was right. I kept teaching anyway, and I’d like to think I’ve gotten better in the almost 20 years since then.
As I struggled with the class and with my graduate courses, I read The Revival and the early issues of Chris Ware’s Acme Novelty Library. Although when I first started grad school I began to re-read Watchmen and a few of my other favorites, I’d stopped reading comics on a regular basis in the late 1980s. I’d gotten tired of all the black & white atomic rodent comics copied from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (with the notable exception of Adolescent Radioactive Blackbelt Hamsters, which I’ve always promised I’ll write about someday) and spent the early 1990s learning to play guitar. But every few months I’d visit a comic book shop and pick up a single issue or a graphic novel, usually a dog-eared remnant of the mid-1980s direct market boom. When I read The Revival, however, at the urging of my fellow UConn graduate students Gene Kannenberg, Jr., and Charles Hatfield, I felt that the promise of the comics I’d adored in the 1980s—Tim Truman’s Wilderness, for example, William Messner-Loebs’ Journey, Art Spiegelman’s Maus—had finally been realized. Are there more like this, I asked?
In a couple of weeks, Nhora Lucía Serrano and I will be moderating a panel with Sturm and painter Enrico Riley at Michael Chaney’s Illustration, Comics, and Animation Conference at Dartmouth College. Here is Chicago artist Amara Leipzig’s poster for the event:
Amara has filled the image with references to Enrico’s paintings and to Sturm’s comics. The small figure in the foreground, surrounded by what might be birds and clouds, is on a journey, but appears relaxed, maybe certain of where they’re headed. The open space and the possibility at work in Amara’s poster are elements that I think Sturm and Riley share in common. Nhora and I have talked about the questions we’d like to ask them, but the one I keep coming back to again and again has to do with these spaces, the locations they imagine and represent in their art.
Both of them have been working in the Upper Connecticut River Valley now for several years—in Enrico’s case, almost two decades—so I’m curious to know how White River Junction and Hanover and Norwich have shaped their work. But I also wonder what other spaces find their way into Sturm’s stories, especially The Revival, which he wrote and drew long before he co-founded The Center for Cartoon Studies in Vermont . The story begins, a text box tells us, in “Eastern Kentucky, 1801, Saturday before dawn.” Joseph Bainbridge and his wife Sarah are travelling to Caine Ridge, Kentucky, to take part in a “camp meeting” (as the text on the comic’s inner front cover tells us). The narrative is set, then, during America’s Second Great Awakening of the early 19th century. The first three panels look like woodcuts:
Sturm has arranged the trees in a skeletal pattern in that first panel. We see two figures—we don’t learn their names until page 3—a horse, a dog. The trees are almost as abstract as the images in Seam, a wordless comic Sturm originally published in Seattle newspaper The Stranger. That pattern, however, eventually leads the eye of the reader to the two figures and the two animals, who animate the scene, and lead us through the darkness of this Saturday morning before the woman, in the third panel, trips over a branch and startles both the dog and the horse. Her fall brings the character—and the reader—back to earth again, and in that last panel we no longer see the tree branches but only bark and trunks and roots. That inner front cover of The Revival tells us that this story is “A Thorough Inspection into the Power of Faith,” but I don’t think this is a faith made manifest in abstract shapes or in the “evidence of things not seen.” This is something else, a holy catalogue of images and objects like the ones found in a Walt Whitman poem (or an Allen Ginsberg poem imitating Walt Whitman and Christopher Smart). The dog’s tail, the tree knots, the fallen branches, and the covered wagon transform what otherwise would have been an abstract arrangement of trees into a landscape specific to this Saturday morning in Kentukcy in 1801.
In his essay “Local Color in Art,” included in his 1894 essay collection Crumbling Idols, novelist, memoirist and short story writer Hamlin Garland writes about both the quotidian details and the abstract images in classical literature. When I first read this passage, not long after I read The Revival for the first time, I began to wonder if I could read Sturm’s work as part of the same tradition of these late nineteenth century American writers, not only Garland, but also Charles Chesnutt and Sarah Orne Jewett and even some of Stephen Crane’s stories. You might remember them from your high school American Lit. textbook: the Local Color writers or the Regionalists. “Historically,” Garland writes,
the local color of a poet or dramatist is of the greatest value. The charm of Horace is the side light he throws on the manners and customs of his time. The vital in Homer lies, after all, in his local color, not in his abstractions. Because the sagas of the North delineate more exactly how men and women lived and wrought in those days, therefore they have always appealed to me with infinitely greater power then Homer. (Garland 49)
On this page, however, Sturm isn’t illuminating “the manners and customs of his time.” The Revival, at least on the surface, doesn’t tell the story of the United States in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In his 2003 Comics Journal interview with Tom Spurgeon, Sturm explains a few of the inspirations for the story, which began with an idea for a comic book “about Paul Bunyan and Johnny Appleseed” until a research trip to the University of Washington pointed the artist in a different direction:
I kept coming across descriptions of the Cane Ridge Revival. Also, from being into the Grateful Dead, these passages reminded me of these Grateful Dead parking-lot scenes—just the craziness, the weirdness, a frontier mentality where anything is possible. That was also in the air in Seattle itself—all the wealth that was being generated. Not even the wealth, it was more like the promise of computers and how they will transform our lives, the technological frontier. (Sturm qtd. in Spurgeon 95)
Several of Enrico’s paintings from his 2012 show Portable Vision (at the Jaffe-Friede & Strauss Galleries at Dartmouth’s Hopkins Center) reverse this process of moving from the abstract to the specific. Look closely at the lower, right-hand corner of this image and you’ll see the words circle dance, written there (with a brush? a finger-tip?) perhaps as the paint was drying. The words refer to the title of the painting, or maybe it’s the other way around. This one is called “Circle Dance: Village Green, Norwich, VT” (dated 2011, the original is a 22 x 20 oil on canvas on panel, according to the program for the show).
There are trees here, too. I think I see branches, but these are covered in leaves, purple and orange. The branches are light blue and purple, and the figures in the foreground stand in a ring. Like Sturm’s two pilgrims, these figures—one of which Amara references in the poster for this event—are in motion, the action here implied not by text boxes and panels but instead by color and texture. I don’t recognize the figures, or the green, but I know them, as they trigger memories of a lunch I had with my first-year writing professor at a small café in Norwich two years ago. Mostly I remember trees and the curve of the Connecticut River.
If you’re in Hanover in a couple of weeks, please join us for the conversation. I think you’ll enjoy it. In the meantime, visit the conference’s Facebook page or read the blurb we’ve written for the roundtable, which I’ve also included at the end of this post. Thanks again to Michael Chaney for his support in developing this roundtable for his conference and to the Comics Studies Society for sponsoring the event. And thanks again to Amara for the wonderful poster.
A Conversation with James Sturm and Enrico Riley
In a 1983 interview, Will Eisner asked fellow cartoonist C. C. Beck to describe Chicago in the 1920s. Eisner was curious about Beck’s Midwestern upbringing and its impact on the artist’s style and career. “The reason I’m questioning you about that is that I believe geographic origin impinges on style of art considerably.” How do these origin points shape an artist’s work? What roles do memory and nostalgia play in shaping visual narratives? Eisner’s question, which Beck never answers, lies at the heart of this roundtable discussion between these two innovative and visionary artists and educators.
James Sturm is the founder of the Center of Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, Vermont. Over the course of his now almost two-decade career as a cartoonist, Sturm has produced a body of work that ranges from the abstractions of Seam to the mysticism of The Revival and the historical narratives of The Golem’s Mighty Swing and Market Day. He also wrote the metahistorical graphic novel Unstable Molecules for Marvel Comics and has written for children and young adult readers.
Enrico Riley is an Associate Professor of Studio Art at Dartmouth College. The strong narrative impulse in his paintings can be traced in equal measure to his experiences as a musician and to his experience of life in the Upper Connecticut River Valley. His most recent paintings are vibrant hallucinations, each one a fragment of a longer story he’s beginning to tell about a boy, a girl, a surfboard, and a beach. His earlier work references jazz pioneers including Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane.
The artists will discuss their work, their lives in the Upper Valley, and their practice as both artists and teachers.
For more about James Sturm and the Center for Cartoon Studies, please visit http://www.cartoonstudies.org/
For more about Enrico Riley and his work, please visit http://www.enricoriley.com/
Garland, Hamlin. Crumbling Idols. Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1960. Print.
Spurgeon, Tom. “James Sturm: ‘I Have My Good Days and My Bad Days.'” The Comics Journal #251 (March 2003). 77-115. Print.