The school is arriving at a time when cartooning itself is undergoing something of a renaissance. Mass-produced and mainstream superhero comic books have been adapted into Hollywood hits such as "X-Men" and "Spiderman." Graphic novels, the name given to more high-brow illustrated literature, have earned broad critical acclaim.
"This is a calling, like any other medium," said Sturm, whose own graphic novel about Jewish baseball players, "The Golem's Mighty Swing," came out in 2001 and sold about 10,000 copies.
White River Junction, Vt., an economically depressed former railroad hub, is being recast as an enclave for artists.
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He has already begun attracting the giants of the field to White River Junction, conferring legitimacy, he said, on the fledgling institution.
Art Spiegelman, author of "MAUS: A Survivor's Tale," an award-winning graphic novel about the Holocaust, gave a lecture here last month and is on the new school's advisory board.
Matt Groening, creator of "The Simpsons" television program, which began as a comic book, donated animation cells to be auctioned off to raise money for the school.
And Peter Laird, co-creator of the popular "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" series that spawned a television show and movies, donated $150,000 last month to help remodel the Colodny building to create classroom and studio space.
Renovations of the storefront, which had not been consistently occupied since the early 1990s, began about six weeks ago. Sturm has also raised money from a mix of private donors, state and local foundations, and government sources. He plans to spend about $250,000 on renovations, plus another $150,000 installing a computer lab in the basement.
Some store owners are skeptical that the changes will help the town regain its status as a commercial center. "Not unless you lower the sales tax," said Jeremy Dixon, who owns Professional Camera.
Still, seven cartooning students, who were required to submit a portfolio, have been admitted to the two-year program here, and five have made deposits. The annual tuition is $14,000.
In its first year, the school will offer five courses to be taught by Sturm and more than 20 local and visiting practitioners. He is seeking state accreditation to confer associate degrees. Eventually, he plans to expand the student body.
Ottmann said it may be years before a quantifiable economic impact on the town can be felt, but she has already noticed one major difference on Main Street since the artists began arriving a few years ago.
"You used to have no trouble finding a place to park, because no one was around," she said. "Now you have to drive around a little bit, but it's not a bad problem to have."