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Author Interview

Your book, Satchel Paige: Striking Out Jim Crow, is the second in a series of cartoon biographies associated with the Center for Cartoon Studies, the school for aspiring comic artists in Vermont.  How many books will be in the series and what is the intention of the project?

James Sturm: There are five books in the series. Houdini, The Handcuff King by Jason Lutes and Nick Bertozzi is in stores. Thoreau at Walden by John Porcellino is due out in Spring of '08. Amelia Earhart and Helen Keller are in the pipeline. Subjects were chosen concurrently with the artists working on the project. It was important that the authors had a deep connection and knowledge of the book's subject. Houdini has long fascinated Jason Lutes. I explored issues of baseball and race in a previous work, The Golem's Mighty Swing, and Striking Out Jim Crow was an opportunity to explore these themes further. Thoreau has tremendous resonance to John Porcellino and I could not imagine another cartoonist working on that book. This series is curriculum driven and hopefully will be useful to students and teachers.

How did you settle on Satchel Paige as a subject?

Satchel Paige was the suggestion of Brenda Bowen who was the instigator of this series of books. I love American history and Paige's life certainly highlights several compelling and tragic aspects of the American experience. I've always been fascinated by the Negro Leagues and the obstacles that those players faced on and off the ball field.

Rather than present a straightforward biography of Satchel Paige, the book creates a story about Emmet Wilson, a Black Alabama sharecropper of the 1930s, for whom Satchel Paige becomes a major touchstone.  What made you decide to take this approach?

Paige did a great job of mythologizing himself and it was hard to separate the facts of his life from the fiction. And in the end, I didn’t want to. What was important to me, and what I decided I wanted the book to be about, was the impact he had on society and those that followed his career.

Striking Out Jim Crow was influenced by the short story Up the Cooly. Written in1891 by Hamlin Garland (1860-1940), it is about a successful son who returns home to find his mother and brother trapped on a poor farm. I used this narrative device and imagined Paige's doppelgänger, someone similar to Paige, who, instead of succeeding at baseball, remained in the South during the miserable Jim Crow years.

What were the origins of the characters of Emmet Wilson, Mr. Jennings, the white plantation owner and his baseball-playing twin sons?

I made up the character Emmet Wilson, but he felt more real to me than Paige. The foundation of Emmet Wilson lies in a book I owe an incredible debt to, All God's Dangers. The  book is an oral history of Nate Shaw (AKA Ned Cobb), an Alabama sharecropper. His story is incredibly compelling and rich with detail. Cobb was also a proud man. I could not have imagined Emmet Wilson if not for Ned Cobb. Mr. Jennings and his sons were fictional, but their attitudes were all too real and prevalent in the Jim Crow era.

What was the process through which you developed the book with Rich Tommaso?  What sorts of decisions did the two of you make about the look of the book?

To me, comics is picture writing. So I actually drew a version of the book in a glorified thumbnail form [see Draft Choices]. Rich took my thumbnails and transformed them into something quite stunning. He actually moved to Vermont when he started drawing the book which worked out real well. We saw each other several times a week and it allowed us to look over pages in progress. I think the book grew about four pages as we worked on it, allowing a few scenes to be fleshed out a bit more or making some images bigger for emotional emphasis.