It was a big day for fans of James Sturm on Thursday at Comic-Con International in San Diego. Sturm got his spotlight panel off to a start with a special surprise as the creator was awarded the Inkpot Award for Achievement in Comic Arts.
"Is this recognition of the most under-recognized?" joked Sturm.
"I didn't bring you anything," admitted Tom Spurgeon of "The Comics Reporter," who accompanied Sturm on the panel.
After receiving the award, Sturm walked the audience through a slideshow of his career, beginning with "Fantastic Four" #139, the first comic he ever picked up at a mall in New Jersey. Sturm's love of comics began early, but began to wane as he got older. "When I got to college, I was less interested in super hero comics and then I discovered underground comics," he said.
Inspired by underground hits like "Fritz the Cat" and "Maus," books outside of the mainstream reinvigorated him and refreshed his creative spirit. "I couldn't believe my mind," said Sturm. "One of the things I really loved about it was how accessible they were."
The comics made him feel more confident about his own art, which led him to do his own cartoons and get in on the ground floor at "The Onion."
Sturm and Spurgeon then talked about his first book, "The Cereal Killings," and what didn't work about it. "I didn't have the patience," said Sturm, explaining that his rush to make his name actually impeded on his work. "It's kind of more important to be known than to do good work when you're younger."
Sturm's projects over the next few years, "The Revival" and "Hundreds of Feet Below Daylight", improved in both quality and length. "Every comic kind of doubled in size," joked Sturm. Finally, it was "The Golem's Mighty Swing" that really put him on the map, earning him nationwide recognition. "I think it's maybe one of the best things I've ever written, but maybe not the best thing I've ever drawn."
Moving on to current work, Sturm talked about his latest book, "Market Day." "It's the story of a rug dealer in the 1800s as he tries to make art and make a living." When asked if the story of the struggling artist was inspired by today's economic recession, Sturm answered that it wasn't based on current events.
"I feel like with artists and writers and people living on the margins, this is always an issue," said Sturm. "I think that's always a struggle. I would always like to have more time for my work and more time for my art. The concern is always there, but you have to do what you have to do and hope for the best."
Sturm also talked about his four month break from the internet, which ended last Monday. The reason behind the virtual self-exile was to avoid the temptation of obsessing over online reaction and reviews for "Market Day."
Of course, the first thing he did on Monday when he returned to the was to "[spend] thirty minutes googling 'Market Day James Sturm' looking for reviews," laughed Sturm. "I did thirty minutes and that was it."
Sturm said removing himself from the internet afforded him the time and opportunity to step back and make some improvements to his life. "I realized that at the time something was wrong with my life and I took some deliberate steps to fix that," said Sturm. "Everything you get, you lose something too."
A questioner from the audience, after learning about Sturm's offline experiment, said he was convinced "Market Day" was also a story of rebellion against technology. "I wasn't thinking that to be honest with you," said Sturm. "It's not a concern at all. I think somebody's going to create an incredible comic for the iPad and God bless them. It's not so much about the resistance of technology, but it was more about that making art versus making a living thing."
Sturm will be doing ten columns about his life without internet for Slate.com. "It's kind of my diary about being offline."
When asked about how it felt to put his character in "Market Place" through such a constant state of misery, Sturm explained that he wanted to examine how perception can affect a person's view on the world. "In the beginning of the book he's going to the market and everybody's sunny and kids are playing," said Sturm. "Later he sees the beggars and the crime and the corruption."
"I'm always amazed at how one's experience is based on blood sugar or the fight you just had."
Switching subjects to Sturm's school, the Center for Cartoon Studies, Spurgeon asked about filling out the staff. "You had this 'Stranger' experience, and this 'Onion' experience, and you had this experience of having a team of cartoonists. What have you learned about this group you've assembled?" asked Spurgeon.
"With the faculty it's like a 'build it and they will come' kind of thing," said Sturm, praising each member of the crew.
When a member of the audience asked how his experience has shaped the way he teaches and how teaching art has shaped the way he looks at his own art, Sturm answered, "I find I'm a more effective teacher by being a cartoonist. In some ways, I can't over simplify the process. I feel you learn most from doing, so at the school I wanted to create an environment where you just put out a lot of pages."
Sturm added, "It's weird hearing me say this, but you can't teach art. You have to learn it for yourself."
When asked what's next for Sturm he replied, "I'm working on another 'Market Day' book," he announced. The sequel to "Market Day" will take place two years after the first story and will hopefully be part two of a three-part story. "I'd like to see this become a trilogy."