Virginia college student named 'America's Next Great Cartoonist' in Washington Post contest

A pair of abstracted women inhabiting a cubist painting cast aspersions on a third, whose eyes hover close to anatomical accuracy: "Oh, she's definitely had work done." A duo of English aristocrats take an Enlightened spin on Abbott and Costello's most famous routine before veering off in a decidedly different direction. And a newspaper cartoon strip character experiences a Jekyll-and-Hyde transformation into Sunday color as he tries to sort out the pattern behind it all.

All of this comes from the mind of Olivia Walch, a Williamsburg, Va. resident and senior at William and Mary College who on Tuesday won the Washington Post's contest to name "America's Next Great Cartoonist." After a three-month selection process, Walch's years of doodling and drawing up editorial cartoons for her school newspaper paid off all at once: She'll receive $1,000 and a month of publication in the Post starting in August.

"I haven't actually decided what to do with the money, but first I'll probably roll in it," Walch told Money College. "I mean, it's probably going to be a check, but if it happens to be ten hundred dollar bills, I'll probably lay them out on the floor and just roll back and forth." (Walch later added that she'd likely buy a computer with the cash.)

Walch, 20, deprecates herself relentlessly during an interview, but her comic strip, "Imogen Quest," wooed a prestigious panel of professional cartoonists judging the competition, including household names like Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau and Marvel Comics legend Stan Lee. Walch lasted through two rounds of submissions -- a portfolio of six sample strips, followed by a larger Sunday strip for the finalists -- and beat out a diverse field of 500 competitors to clinch the prize in a readers' poll. She came in as the youngest of the ten finalists, and the only woman among them.

While studying abroad at Oxford University in pursuit of her degree in math and biophysics, the young cartoonist got word of the Post's announcement of the contest in May via an e-mail from her dad. She decided to enter at his urging, although she'd never seriously considered taking a shot at becoming a syndicated cartoonist before. In fact, although Walch followed the funny pages with a rabid zeal since childhood, she originally took to cartooning in her late teens as a way to channel her compulsion to draw aimlessly on whatever media she came upon.

"I've always been drawing stupid little doodles on any sheet of paper that came within a three-foot radius of me," she said, "so I wanted to harness this ability to deface paper, receipts I got from gas stations, photos of people and so on. I wanted to use those powers for good, so the first thing I did when I went to college, I went to the newspaper and said, 'I want to be a cartoonist.'"

Lacking a cartoonist at the time, WMC's Flat Hat Newspaper took her on faith despite her lack of samples (although, ironically, the Flat Hat now requires prospective cartoonists to submit a portfolio, and Walch says she'd never make it). She honed her drawing skills and incongruous brand of wit there for three years, laying the groundwork for what would become her winning strip, the surrealist riff-fest of "Imogen Quest." Although the ideas didn't cohere into a single strip until the contest forced her to create an umbrella for her work, "Quest" came out of Walch's desire to fuse the free-form style of single-panel comics like "The Far Side" with a traditional multiple-panel structure.

"The idea behind 'Imogen Quest,'" she said, "is that I couldn't ever do something with repeated characters and a storyline and a plot, where I had to make some of the characters semi-likable, because I'd be really bad at it and it would never be funny. So if there is one sort of unifying theme, it's to do something new instead of something laugh-out-loud funny."

Instead, "Quest" deconstructs the medium with jokes on and about the nature of a comic strip, and offers an outlet for Walch's slightly-cracked take on contemporary media and digital culture (as when a mother of two, mourning the family's newly-dead cat, intones that they'll remember her through "the passwords to all of our e-mail accounts"). Walch said the Post's contest awed her with the chance to receive feedback on her new strip from some of her comic-strip idols, including "Rhymes With Orange" creator and contest judge Hilary Price.

"I am really excited by Olivia Walch's 'Imogen Quest,'" Price wrote for the Post. "I get the lovely surprise when the strip takes me off the beaten path of my usual thinking."

As for advice to prospective cartoonists who'd like to follow her example, Walch said the simple forced repetition of her regular gig at the school paper elevated her to the level of craftsmanship that took home the prize.

"It's amazing, the effect that having to do something regularly can have on your style and ideas," she said. "When I first started, my art wasn't that good, and my ideas weren't that great either. But having to do it two to three times a week, I've definitely come to believe it's a practiced skill and not something you're just born with."

Walch now has a month of publication in the Post to attract a readership and take a shot at syndication. She said she gives it "a 60-40 chance that the only person who enjoys those thirty days" will be herself, but her success in the readers' poll seems toward a different result.

"I think my biggest goal now," Walch said, "is just to stave off becoming tired and less than original. And if I can't do that, then I'll just do some cheap meta-jokes."

If the Washington Post gave out awards for knowing more about hip underground music and culture than any post-collegiate student, Steven Kent would have few if any rivals. Our Dollar Store Dilettante is taking a well-deserved week off after catching all the way-cool bands at Chicago's Pitchfork Festival. Can Lollapalooza be far behind? Email Steven at MoneyCollege@WalletPop.com.

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