Two Kindred Spirits Drawn Together
Annie Murphy was working in the library of the Center for Cartoon Studies (CCS) in White River Junction when she happened upon the Spring 2005 issue of the Hunger Mountain literary journal, published by Vermont College, and read the story of a 19th Century Vermont woman named Achsa Sprague of Plymouth Notch, who communicated with the dead.
A photograph accompanied the article. As soon as Murphy, a cartoonist, saw the photo, she knew she "had to draw [Achsa's] story," she says. "Most of my comics are inspired by photos," she explains. "Photographs are like little mysteries, small fragments of a puzzle." After many long hours of research and writing and drawing, Murphy created "I Still Live," a 50-page graphic biography of the spiritualist, as her final thesis project at CCS.
"I have a passion for discovering the stories of fascinating women in history who have been almost lost to obscurity," Murphy declares, and Achsa Sprague certainly fits that description. A bundle of causes and contradictions wrapped in a single, charismatic package, she was not the best known of the dozens of female spiritualists who hit the American lecture circuit in the 1850s and 1860s. But Sprague did have hundreds of adherents who fell in love with the passion she displayed on stage as she spoke about angels and spirits and the ways in which they guided our earthly lives.
Sprague's trust in angels was based on painful experience. Born on November 17, 1827, the sixth of eight childre, Sprague went to work as a schoolteacher at the age of 12 to help support her family. A childhood spent disciplining unruly pupils turned her into a fiercely independent young women -- making it all the more difficult for her to cope when, in her late teens, she developed a "scrofulous" joint disease, most likely rheumatoid arthritis. She was bedridden by the age of 20, and spent the next five years looking for cures, consulting doctors, and enduring all the treatments that the great age of medical quackery could throw at her. None of it worked. She grew increasingly despondent. In her darkest moment, she prayed for death to release her of her sufferings.
Sprague's epic poem "The Angel's Visit," describes her turning point. The verses describe a literal dark night of the soul, in November 1852, when her despair was met with radient light and a sensation of fluttering wings all around her body" "In melody thee words she caught/ Like angel voices through the room/ "God heard thy prayer, we come, we come!"/ A wild thought swept o'er her then/ That she shoud wake to live again/ That her deep prayers were heard in heaven/ That angels unto her were given." She was back on her feet by the following spring. In gratitude for the heavenly aid, she dedicated her life to spreading the spiritualist message.
The outlines of Sprague's life rang true for Murphy. She quickly saw "a list of synchoronicities" between the spiritualist's life and her own. "We had both succumbed to confusing and debilitating illnesses in our teens to late twenties. We were both inadvertantly drawn into radical spiritualites and artistic expression," she notes.
In her final eight years of life, Sprague traveled thousands of miles to deliver hundreds of lectures, produced reams of trance-induced automatic writing, and turned out poems at a rate of 200 to 500 lines a day. Perhaps she realized her time was short: She died suddenly of fever on July 6, 1862 at the age of 34.
"I took it as a stroke of luck that the subject of my new obsession lived and died just a short drive from where I was living," says Murphy. The Vermont Historical Society, which holds the bulk of Sprague's papers, was just 50 miles to the north. "There was no excuse for me not to draw the comic."
Murphy is a native of Portland, Oregon, "where," she jokes, "It trains maybe 80 percent of the year, so most people who grow up here either take up an indoor hobby, or lose their minds." Drawing and writing were her creative outlet from an early age but "it wasn't until three years ago that I realized I could put the two together and turn them into comics."
"I realize now that I always wanted to be a cartoonist," Murphy says. "But something in my brain decided that this was impossible." Most of the cartoonists she loved were male. "I think that somewhere along the line I took that to mean that cartooning was one of those jobs that maybe girls could do, but mostly didn't -- for reasons unknown, and somehow culturally and societally reinforced."
She found the path in the fall of 2006 in the back of an overdue library book. Reading cartoonist James Strum's Above and Below, she found a "manifesto of sorts" on the back page about the author's desire to open a school for cartoonists that focused on graphic novels, biography, and other art-comic forms. She did a little research and found out that Sturm had made his dream a reality just a year earlier. The Center for Cartoon Studies (CSS) opened its doors in the old Colodny Surprise Department Store building in White River Junction in the fall of 2005. "I applied, had a phone interview with James, and got accepted," Murphy says.
Strum, who lives in Hartland, funded the launch with help from the State, the Vermont Arts Council, and private donations. Offering several one- to two-year program options, the school has grown to 36 students, ten of them women. Strum wrote in a 2005 blog positn that about half of CCS applicants were women "which is refreshing because comics have traditionally been a boys club."
"Cartoonist are equipped with marketable skills that can be applied to many fields," says Michell Ollie, president of CCS. "The career outlook is strong, given demand and interest in cartooning skills." CCS works to give students as much practical experience as possible, including a partnership with Sunrise Greetings, a division of Hallmark, to produce a line of student-created greeting cards. Alumni have already won self-publishing grants and collaborated on book projects.
Murphy says her year in residency at CCS was "full of incredible opportunies, fascinating lectures on the history of comics, and lots of hard work." She had the chance to learn directly from some of her personal heroes, including female artists like Lynda Barry and Vermont's own Alison Bechdel, creator of Dykes to Watch Out For.
SO the career outlook is bright. But Murphy admits that "it's taken me a long time to call my art-making process 'work.' There is such a divide in this country between work and art, it's been really empowering to realize that this is my work, this is exactly what I'm supposed to be doing."
"I think everyone should do a comic," Murphy adds. "I'm always trying to get my friends to draw their life stories -- partly because I know they would be something I would want to read, and partly because I know it would be unique. Like, something the world had never seen before. And I think the world is ready."
Heather Michon is a Vermont woman currently living in Virginia.
* Original appeared in the August 2008 issue of Vermont Woman Magazine. This version differs slightly from the print version.