Va. student Olivia Walch named 'America's Next Great Cartoonist' in Post contest

By Michael Cavna
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 15, 2010; 1:51 PM

After three months of comic plot twists, the final panel has arrived.

The Washington Post put out the call in May in search of "America's Next Great Cartoonist," and 500 aspiring comic artists responded. Now that readers, judges and celebrity critics have waded through talking gators and flaming manatees and dead pets -- "Oh my!" -- the final five cartoonists have been culled to one. America's Next Great Cartoonist is . . .

Olivia Walch, a college student whose single-panel comic, "Imogen Quest," received the most votes in both the first and second rounds of reader voting.

She is the youngest of the 10 finalists, and the only woman.

A rising senior at the College of William and Mary, Walch turns 21 this weekend. Her first birthday present just came early.

"This contest has opened up a whole new world for me," enthused Walch, a math and biophysics double-major who said she's eager to come up with the requisite month's worth of new strips for publication in Style in August. She also admits that, yeah, she's pretty stoked about winning the $1,000 prize, too.

As a serious scholar, Walch -- a Princeton, N.J., native who grew up in Fairfax Station -- seems to be going places already. She entered the contest from Oxford University, where she was studying abroad. She received word of her win Tuesday evening while in New York, where she's taking a summer biology course at a molecular lab.

Walch's winning entry is a gag-cartoon comic that relies heavily on metahumor. In "Imogen Quest," her whimsically rendered people seem to be deconstructing the accepted notions of a comic strip even as they are populating one.

Walch says she tries to figure out what the natural punch line of her cartoon might be -- then she veers in another comic direction entirely. Many readers responded positively to her playful metacomedy: She received more than 1,000 votes in each of the two rounds of voting.

In contest polling in June and July, readers submitted nearly 8,000 total votes. The work of the 10 finalists was critiqued by a dozen top comics-industry professionals, including Spider-Man co-creator Stan Lee, "Doonesbury" creator Garry Trudeau, Stephan Pastis ("Pearls Before Swine"), Darrin Bell ("Candorville"), Hilary Price ("Rhymes With Orange"), Signe Wilkinson ("Family Tree"), Richard Thompson ("Cul de Sac"), Lalo Alcaraz ("La Cucaracha") and The Post's Tom Toles.

The final five emerged from 500 submissions. Four of them are from the Washington area; the other is from New York. They are:

-- Daniel Boris, a 45-year-old online-education artist in Leesburg. His strip, "Hoxwinder Hall," centers on a boy and his wise-cracking pet gator.

-- Bob Erskine, a 58-year-old painter and illustrator from Silver Spring. His comic, "Real Time," features pithy pen-and-ink gag cartoons. (A number of the judges particularly liked his cartoon of a man on a park bench quipping: "Sure, I'd read the paper online, if I didn't need the home delivery bags.")

-- Thomas Mullany, a 50-year-old graduate of the Corcoran School of Art and a Washington, Va., resident. His single-panel "Forever Endeavor" offers line drawings that deliver quick-hit gags.

-- Zachary Snyder, a 22-year-old electrical engineering student from New York. He started his strip, "Stupid Inventor," about an oft-thwarted scientist, as a biweekly webcomic.

The Post held the contest both as an invitation to rising and undiscovered talent, and as an affirmation of the popularity of the newspaper's print and online comics.

"Cartoons and comic strips have had a central role in The Post's history and success, especially in print, and have a fiercely devoted audience," said Post Managing Editor Raju Narisetti. " 'America's Next Great Cartoonist' was not only an opportunity to discover and showcase new talent, but also use the inherent advantages of the digital world to make it a fun contest that our readers can have a say in along the way."

The modern American comic strip was fully born by 1897, the same year Mark Twain famously said reports of his death were "greatly exaggerated" -- and in recent years, reports of the comic strip's impending death have been greatly exaggerated.

Even in tough economic times for syndicated comics and newspapers, millions of readers decline to surrender their daily funnies fix. Like vinyl and roadside diners, comics give off the glow of nostalgic warmth and a sense of enduring Americana -- qualities whose worth, on an ever-shifting pop culture landscape, aren't easily exaggerated.

"It's heartening to see how many people ... are fascinated by the comic-strip medium," said Amy Lago, a judge in the contest and comics editor for The Washington Post Writers Group, which will review the finalist strips for possible syndication.

Lago says she was also heartened by the high quality of some of the entries. "While anyone who's a comics fan could spot the finalists' influences, it was refreshing to see how they stood upon the shoulders of giants and managed to see farther," says Lago, who has edited such strips as "Peanuts," "Pickles," "Dilbert" and "Opus."

The pros spoke highly of the submission by Mark Thompson of Leesburg, whose "Odd Bluff Inn" strip was one of the 10 finalists.

By making the finals, Thompson, 50, received feedback from top cartoonists. Trudeau said "Odd Bluff Inn" was the "only strip that really clicked for me." Stan Lee wrote: "I think this has great potential because it's an original theme," and Jerry Scott, creator of "Zits" and "Baby Blues," praised Thompson's dialogue, drawing and comic premise.

And Post columnist and "Barney & Clyde" cartoonist Gene Weingarten declared: "This is my choice for the winner, but only because it's got the best concept and is the best drawn, the most fully realized, the best paced, and the funniest, with the most compelling characters and the best use of sequential art. Other than that, it doesn't have much going for it."

Replied the flattered and flabbergasted Thompson: "As for Gene Weingarten's comments, I think etiquette demands I send that guy a fruit basket, or, at the very least, offer to rotate his tires."

Another middle-aged hopeful, 54-year-old Joe Sutliff of Centreville, was thrilled when his strip, "Big Daddy," was named a top-10 finalist. "When you do this kind of work, affirmation is very important, no matter how much experience you have."

The public didn't vote either Thompson or Sutliff into the final five. Yet for both entrants, positive results were forthcoming.

After he was named a finalist, Thompson got more good news: Last month, he made his debut as a paid artist in a national publication, when his gag-cartoon submission was accepted by no less than the New Yorker magazine.

And Sutliff, a stay-at-home dad, was contacted by Lago, who, intrigued, wanted to see more samples.

"Hopefully that will turn into an opportunity," Sutliff says. "I'm incredibly optimistic about the future of newspapers, magazines and publications in general. As the medium changes and everything switches to iPads and Kindles and other things that haven't been invented yet, it will all be about content, not production costs.

"And what does everybody -- at least everybody I know -- turn to first? The comics!"

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

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