WHITE RIVER JUNCTION, Vt. — When the Center for Cartoon Studies first opened its doors in 2005, cofounder and cartoonist James Sturm was hoping to legitimize his chosen field. You could get a master’s degree in sculpture or printmaking, he reasoned, but a cartooning education was available “only on the backs of matchbooks.”
He’s spent much of his adult life arguing that comics are a valid art form. In recent years, however, comics have earned increasing respect as a distinctly expressive art form: Graphic novels now make the bestseller lists, and many major motion pictures are based on popular titles, from “Ghost World” and “Road to Perdition” to the current glut of superhero features.
“That battle’s been won,” Sturm said recently, sitting in his studio. There’s no longer any debate about whether cartoonists are genuine artists.
Now his little school is taking on another cause, this one at a much larger local institution that knows a thing or two about battles: the White River Junction VA Medical Center, where more than 70,000 military veterans from Vermont and New Hampshire go for health care and treatment. Cartoon students and faculty have been working with veterans to tell their stories — some harrowing, others heartwarming — in comic-book form.
The resulting comics are a far cry from the Archie and Superman comics an earlier generation of GIs kept under their cots. The Center for Cartoon Studies (CCS) has just released the first product of this unique collaboration: a 48-page comic book called “When I Returned,” a wide-ranging collection of tales adapted in illustrated form from the lives of New England veterans, from one World War II survivor’s experience in a German P.O.W. camp to a Vietnam veteran coping with post-traumatic stress disorder through his art.
“The whole reason I came here is I like drawing and telling people’s stories,” said Kelly Swann, a recent CCS graduate who co-edited the anthology. Growing up near Santa Barbara, Calif., she was struck by her grandfather’s reluctance to talk about his own experience in the military, in Korea.
“He had shrapnel that would still come out of his face,” Swann said. “I’d love to tell his story sometime. It’s a very delicate thing — he’ll still get nightmares.”
She and her classmate and co-editor J.D. Lunt took on the project’s most unusual tale: “Kevin’s Story,” about a veteran living in Lebanon, N.H., whose traumatic experience occurred after he returned from service stationed in Germany. He’d spent the previous 30 years trying to outrun the memory of one New Year’s Eve when he was sexually assaulted in a snowstorm and left for dead. The blunt storytelling format and the stark black-and-white illustrations lend “Kevin’s Story” a particular power, like watching a disturbing real-life incident unspool.
Over the past few years Kevin Willey has been through intensive psychiatric treatment known as prolonged exposure therapy, at the VA Hospital.
When a recreational therapist told him about the cartoon project, he thought it sounded odd. He grew up reading “Beetle Bailey,” which told a very different story about military life. But he was intrigued.
“There are so many men in the military who are hiding something, I thought, we gotta let them know,” said Willey, who is 56. “My goal was, if I could help one person, I’d be happy.”
When Willey first met with Swann and Lunt in a park in White River Junction, he could tell they were a bit daunted by the frankness of his story.
“I kept looking in J.D.’s eyes, and I could sense, oh boy, he’s never heard nothing like this before,” Willey recalled. “They’re used to combat stories, but this is deep and personal, somebody’s private life. It was a whole new arena for everyone.”
The anthology includes a selection of strips by New Bedford resident and onetime CCS student Thomas Marino, who has been coping with PTSD by drawing an online comic called “That’s Life.” There’s also a piece called “A Different Kind of Beautiful,” which describes how Steve Lagasse stumbled into a six-year stint as an Air Force officer “by happenstance.”
“I was the last person you would have guessed to have joined the military,” Yet his service is an experience, he told his collaborator, that remains second only to fatherhood in terms of the accomplishments he’s proudest of.
“Not every story has to be a tragedy,” said Sturm, the CCS director. Having grown to accommodate as many as 48 students in its two-year program, the Center for Cartoon Studies now occupies two prominent buildings — the former post office and a defunct department store — along Main Street.
As he made his way through the school’s Schulz library (named for “Peanuts” creator Charles Schulz, whose widow, Jean, is a supporter), he picked up a copy of a recently published graphic novel by former Marine Maximilian Uriarte, who draws the popular Web comic “Terminal Lance” strip based on his two deployments to Iraq.
The CCS project is not the first to combine military stories with cartooning, Sturm noted.
In fact, about eight years ago the Department of Defense funded the production of an educational comic book called “Coming Home,” co-created by noted comics artists Ernie Colon and Sid Jacobson. (They’ve also collaborated on a graphic novel version of the 9/11 Commission Report.)
Paula Schnurr, executive director of the Department of Veterans’ Affairs’ National Center for PTSD in White River Junction, says she’s a strong advocate of veteran storytelling.
“One of the key things our center aims to do is to try to communicate knowledge about PTSD in whatever format necessary,” Schnurr said in an interview. And she knows her comics: “Many people think of [Art Spiegelman’s] ‘Maus’ as the classic, but there’s many more, shorter, less dark but effective ways to reach people.”
For Sturm, the cartoonists’ and veterans’ communities have more in common than he first assumed.
“Both populations are very strong, but fragile too, and living on the margins,” he said. To him, the new comic book isn’t so much the culmination of the CCS collaboration with the veterans as it is a document of an ongoing project: “It’s a byproduct of a process that’s meant to bring the community closer together.”
Willey has been surprised at the response he’s gotten to “Kevin’s Story.” He gave a copy of “When I Returned” to a friend at the VA Hospital, who sent it to the VA in Baltimore.
When the CCS hosted a recent event marking the publication, he found himself sitting next to a woman he didn’t know. She got up and spoke to the group about how moved she was by reading “Kevin’s Story.”
By now, Willey said, he has far surpassed his self-imposed goal of helping one person by telling his story.
“It gets better all the time,” he said. “I’m glad I did it.”