The wide stylistic and thematic terrain trod by today’s creators of comics (indicated by the relatively new, more serious-minded category “graphic novel”) is glimpsed in “Cartoon College.” But the focus is less on art than on artistic process and personalities, as the pic follows a diverse class of students at Vermont’s Center for Cartoon Studies who labor and fret toward graduation as well as (hopefully) a career. Josh Melrod and Tara Wray’s insinuating docu will delight fans of the form, while inspiring the unconverted to visit their local zine and comix store. Prospects are modest, but viable for all formats.
The pic follows a group of artists invited to participate in a two-year MFA program that accepts only 20 applicants each fall. The small-town setting provides little distraction from the work at hand, forcing serious dedication to developing a craft that not everyone is ready for: One student wants to deal with his unhappy childhood in sequential art, but finds that task so upsetting that he drops out for a time; a young woman whose chosen subject is menstruation has trouble applying herself, and ends up receiving her degree long after giving her commencement speech.
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A 67-year-old man quits his university job to realize a dream by studying at the center; he’s dismayed enough by his unimproved drawing skills to quit, yet returns after his retirement. While making comics might superficially seem like a fun occupation, the pic makes it clear that it takes a lot of hard work to be good, let alone to achieve any kind of commercial success.
The students — and, to a lesser extent, their professionally established teachers — are colorful as well as likable; there’s just one budding egomaniac in the bunch, and it’s hard to take him seriously with his silly Prince Valiant haircut. There are also brief encounters with a few stellar veteran artists, notably Jules Feiffer, Lynda Barry and Art Spiegelman.
The smartly packaged pic has a particularly good soundtrack of indie rock cuts.