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For A Small State, Vermont Sure Has A Lot Of Speech Bubbles

A drawing completed by both Ed Koren and Alison Bechdel, the second and third cartoonist laureates of Vermont, respectively. In the image, Koren presents laurels and a large pen to Bechdel. Courtesy of the Center for Cartoon Studies hide caption

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Courtesy of the Center for Cartoon Studies

A drawing completed by both Ed Koren and Alison Bechdel, the second and third cartoonist laureates of Vermont, respectively. In the image, Koren presents laurels and a large pen to Bechdel.

Courtesy of the Center for Cartoon Studies

To James Kochalka, when words and pictures are mixed, "some kind of magic alchemy happens."

That alchemy is the creation of cartoons, an art form that Kochalka worked to promote as Vermont's first cartoonist laureate.

Oh, you've never heard of that? That's probably because Vermont is the only state to consistently name cartoonist laureates. The position was created in 2011, as a way for Vermont to promote and celebrate cartooning in the state. Alaska appointed a cartoonist laureate in 2008, but has not named another since then.

On Thursday, Vermont will usher in its third cartoonist laureate, when Alison Bechdel succeeds Ed Koren in the position during a ceremony on the State House floor.

Bechdel wrote the graphic novel "Fun Home," which details her coming out as a lesbian and struggling with the death of her father. It was adapted into a Broadway musical, which won five Tony Awards in 2015. She's also well known for her comic strip, "Dykes To Watch Out For," and her comics have appeared in a variety of publications, including The New Yorker and The New York Times Book Review.

In fact, James Sturm, the director of the Center for Cartoon Studies, the school in charge of choosing the cartoonist laureates, says if you've seen Bechdel's credentials, it's obvious why she was chosen.

"She's like the best we have, and not just in Vermont, but in the world of cartoonists," he says. "I mean, her work is just smart and generous and, you know, really wonderfully constructive and tough-minded in its own way. She's just a spectacular cartoonist by any account."

Honor the art form

When Kochalka was asked to take the position in 2011, he didn't quite know what it meant.

"It felt really strange and unreal, like maybe it was a fake thing," he says. "We just didn't know how the rest of the world was going to react to this idea of a cartoonist laureate."

There are no official duties; Kochalka says the primary thing he did as the laureate was speak at schools and libraries.

"It shines a spotlight on you," he says. "And most importantly, the whole reason for it was to shine a spotlight on cartooning itself. I mean, it was nice to be honored, but the purpose really was to honor the art form and to highlight its importance in Vermont."

A self-portrait of James Kochalka, Vermont's first cartoonist laureate, with his Johnny Boo character sitting on top of his head. Courtesy of James Kochalka hide caption

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Courtesy of James Kochalka

A self-portrait of James Kochalka, Vermont's first cartoonist laureate, with his Johnny Boo character sitting on top of his head.

Courtesy of James Kochalka

And it seems the state of Vermont has many cartoonists to highlight.

According to the Center for Cartoon Studies' website, though small, "Vermont has had a disproportionately large impact on contemporary cartooning." The Center being located there has helped.

"I mean there were always great world-class cartoonists here, but that school has really helped shine a spotlight on cartooning and on Vermont," Kochalka says. "A lot of great, talented students go to that school, and then they often tend to linger and stay in Vermont when their schooling is done."

Sturm looks at it in a different way. Vermont, he says, is a state that has given people Ben & Jerry's and Bernie Sanders.

"It's a state where kind of quirky ideas take root, where there's a kind of do-it-yourself entrepreneurial spirit in the state," he says.

Even the state's motto, "Freedom and Unity," is something he thinks resonates with the artists that make their way to Vermont.

"And maybe they make their way here for that very reason," he says.

Part literature and part art

And though the position of cartoonist laureate is purely ceremonial, Sturm says the past two cartoonist laureates, Kochalka and Koren, have participated wholeheartedly.

Kochalka worked with the poet laureate of Vermont at the time, Sydney Lea, to put together a publication of illustrated poetry. And Koren, the current laureate, well known for his work in The New Yorker, has been very involved with the Center for Cartoon Studies, giving lectures.

Kochalka says though cartooning may be more recognized and honored in Vermont, promoting art in general is important for everybody.

"It's not like Vermont needs art more than any other state," he says. "We're just lucky that here in Vermont, there is some support for art and artists."

Cartooning, he says, is a deep and rich artistic medium, part literature and part art. There's acting, in the way characters are posed and made to express themselves, and there's poetry in the writing itself.

And in today's digital age, when we communicate visually, comics have a way of facilitating communication, Sturm says.

"Comics have this magical ability to kind of cut through race, gender, socioeconomic divides," he says, "and just, you know, connect with people."

Cecilia Mazanec is a Digital News intern.