Young 'America's Next Great Cartoonist' winner honed craft at Va. college paper

Twenty-year-old Olivia Walch of Fairfax Station, Va., has been smiling ever since she found out that she won the Post's America's Next Great Cartoonist contest. A rising senior at The College of William & Mary, she is finishing up a degree in math and biophysics and working as a cartoonist for her school's newspaper The Flat Hat.
By Michael Cavna
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 15, 2010; 1:15 PM

Olivia Walch ordinarily would have seen the announcement for a cartoon contest. As an avid comics-and-crosswords reader, she misses little in the middle of the Style section. Except that in May, while The Post was announcing its contest for "America's Next Great Cartoonist," Walch happened to be sitting obliviously at Oxford, temple-deep in Waugh.

Walch, a rising senior at the College of William and Mary, was completing a semester abroad. The math and biophysics double major recalls being in Oxford University's Evelyn Waugh Room, reading the great writer's works and sitting beneath an imposing painting of Waugh himself when comic inspiration struck. Her dad, back in Fairfax Station, had told her about the contest. "You should do it!" he urged.

The prize was $1,000 and the winner's strip would run for a month in Style and on the Comic Riffs blog, as well as be considered for syndication. Walch, who turns 21 this weekend, had been seriously drawing cartoons for only three years -- topical cartoons for William and Mary's campus paper, the Flat Hat -- but she decided she'd give the contest a shot.

Some 500 other aspiring cartoonists did, too. By reader poll, Walch bested the lot of 'em.

Post readers cast nearly 8,000 votes over two rounds of competition, and Walch's comic, "Imogen Quest," was the favorite in both rounds.

She was floored. "I've never seriously sat down and considered being a syndicated cartoonist as my career," says Walch, a native of Princeton, N.J., whose family moved to Virginia when she was 11. "In my mind, I'll go on to a doctorate in science and perhaps mathematics. But this contest has opened up a whole new world."

When Walch received the news she'd won, she was as on-the-go as ever in pursuit of her studies. Reached Tuesday evening in New York, she was taking a break from a computational cell biology class at a Cold Spring Harbor molecular biology lab. Thrilled, she immediately called her mother and father, whom she calls "the most supportive parents in the universe."

Did she inherit her cartooning talent from these supportive parents? "Well, my dad used to be an architect, so I inherited from him writing in block capital letters," Walch said wryly. "And my mom, I recently found drawings of hers [from when] she was a teenager: They're really good re-creations of the 'Peanuts' characters." (Mark Anthony Walch is now a software executive; Sharon Murphy Walch is a technology teacher at Rockledge Elementary in Woodbridge.)

Walch's dad fostered her interest in comics in the first place, in a strangely comic way. He noticed she loved "Peanuts," and when she was old enough, he introduced her to the more adult strips.

"When I turned 14, my dad was like, 'You ever read "Doonesbury"? Oh, incidentally, I used to get his mail all the time.' "

Seems when he was a younger man, Mark Walch lived down the street in Connecticut from "Doonesbury" creator Garry Trudeau. Somehow Trudeau's mail would get delivered to Walch.

How could Mr. Walch have known, though, that several decades hence, his only daughter would be voted the winner of "America's Next Great Cartoonist" contest -- and that one of the celebrity judges would be Trudeau himself?

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