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

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?

"Imogen Quest" won raves from some other top names in the industry:

"Olivia's panel is really current and smart," wrote critiquer Jerry Scott, the Reuben-winning creator of both "Zits" and "Baby Blues." "Her ideas are fresh and funny, and the drawings are consistent and likable. I'd like to know how she got to be this good at such an early age!"

Judge Hilary Price, the "Rhymes With Orange" creator who in the '90s became the youngest woman in syndicated cartooning, said: "I get that lovely surprise when the strip takes me off the beaten path of my usual thinking. I look forward to seeing her name in ink!"

And "Pearls Before Swine" creator Stephan Pastis wrote: "There's a cleverness and originality to it that just jumps off the page. . . . Very smart humor that is brave enough to be deadpan and not telegraph jokes."

It was Pastis's praise that elevated Walch's "coolness" quotient within her own home. "My brother, Henry, who's 15, has all his books," she says. "That's the one that got him really, really excited."

Walch says her cartooning has grown immeasurably while she has provided the student newspaper with three to five illustrations and campus-politics cartoons weekly -- "depending on how angry the opinion editor is that week" -- though there's no pay involved. "I do it all for the love and admiration of the Flat Hat staff," she says.

It's also at the Flat Hat that Walch has learned the power of critics. "I have one online commenter: 'Ilya,' " Walch says. "Ilya always disagrees with me. No matter what my cartoon is about, Ilya, my anonymous nemesis, will be against me."

Walch has also developed pet theories about writing for comics. "I try to be as original as possible. You can spend hours on a great idea and think it's the best idea ever -- and if somebody has done something even remotely similar, it's like you're discredited."

About writing comics, Walch also notes: "There's something uplifting that sticks with me when it veers in a direction you don't expect. . . . It's the newness I like, even more than something that's just laugh-out-loud funny."

So where did "Imogen Quest" come from?

"It's the name of a character in the works of Evelyn Waugh that's now in the public domain," she says.

So there, sitting in Oxford's Waugh Room, reading his works with Evelyn's own visage glowering down from a giant canvas, Walch found the final touch of inspiration.

Since it was Dad who delivered word of the contest from home, does she perhaps owe him a little thank-you?

"Are you kidding?" Walch said. "He's so supportive, by the time I get home, he'll probably have a big sign on the front lawn: 'Olivia Walch: America's Next Great Cartoonist!!!' "

The readers, it turns out, agree.

Michael Cavna writes The Washington Post's comics culture blog Comic Riffs.

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