With her quite serious double major in math and biophysics at William and Mary, you may not think when you meet Olivia Walch that she has one funny bone in her body.
Well-known cartoonists and humorists like Jerry Scott and Gene Weingarten say different.
They, along with several other judges in the Washington Post’s America’s Next Great Cartoonist Contest, think she’s one of the five best new cartoonists in the country out of 500 or so who entered at the beginning of the month. The 20 year-old is also the only woman who cracked the top 10.
Walch has always been obsessed with doodling, she says. “I doodle on most sheets of paper within 10 feet of me. I can’t help it. I’ve ruined reports and problem sets with doodles.” Don’t worry, though. She usually re-writes them on a clean sheet of paper.
She’s been doing that forever, she says, but never thought the drawings were any good. Once she got to college, Walch saw the opportunity to focus her doodles into something more coherent.
“At college, I started really trying to put stories and jokes into cartoons,” she says. She’s done some editorial-type pieces for the college paper, The Flat Hat, but mostly those were about the town or relevant to the paper’s content and not necessarily what she would have done if she had her own comic strip.
Inspired to get her ideas and doodles on paper more appropriate than her schoolwork, Walch grabbed a blank composition book at the campus bookstore one day. She thought it would just end up like all her other journals and notebooks from past attempts, about 10 pages of thoughts and then empty pages collecting dust on a shelf.
“But I actually filled one,” she says, laughing. Her friend even took a picture to record the moment for posterity. “It was really a ‘wow’ moment. I’ve never completed anything to do with my [previous] notebooks before. It was a great sense of accomplishment.”
Walch admits the thoughts in her idea book weren’t always hilarious. She’d probably even say they weren’t always that well drawn. But they were good ways to practice and get her grey matter going.
She’d gone so far as to submit a few cartoons to the New Yorker, but her rejection slips arrived right back at her door pretty quickly, she recalls.
But her dad, who has always been very supportive (as has her mom), told her about the Post’s cartoonist contest. She figured she didn’t have anything to lose, so she sat down for round one of the contest and tried to come up with six original comic strips.
It’s not as easy as you might think to come up with something funny that everyone will get.
“Two [strips] were ideas from the idea book, but coming up with the rest was a bizarre process,” she says. “I can’t control it. Sometimes I think I have an awesome idea and the next day, it’s just not funny anymore – or not funny to anyone but me.”
Drawing the last strip was the hardest, says Walch – she didn’t come up with it until just a few days before the deadline.
Of the 500 or so entries, the submissions were narrowed to about 100. Walch was surprised enough to find out she’d made it to the top 10 a few weeks ago, after which the submissions were opened for public votes and commentary.
“Last week, I heard I was a finalist in the top five,” she says. “I was so excited, and I was totally surprised. It’s a huge honor. I keep working it into conversations where it’s inappropriate just to talk about it with people,” Walch jokes.
It’s probably worth bragging rights for a while when well-known cartoonists like “Baby Blues” and “Zits” creator Jerry Scott have compliments to share. “Olivia’s panel is really current and smart,” Scott wrote about her entry. “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!”
Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and all-around funny man Gene Weingarten said of Walch’s cartoons, “I respect this for its surrealist edge, and I like the drawing, which seems like ‘Rhymes With Orange’ on hallucinogens. I like the out-of-box thinking. But I am seriously worried by that dead-Fluffy-as-a-password gag. … If the joke is original, then so is she, and I’m impressed.”
Right now, Walch is at home in Northern Virginia at her folks’ place getting her second challenge entry done. This time around, she has to create a large, color Sunday-style comic with an accompanying character sheet or an explanation of the cartoon’s comic philosophy.
She knows a one-in-five chance isn’t bad odds of winning, but doesn’t want to jinx her chances by thinking about that part. The winner gets a one-month strip in the Washington Post and a chance at syndication (all the finalists could be offered possible syndication, according to the website), which is a thrilling prospect for a 20-year-old who likes to doodle.
Walch’s future will be grad school – she’s always loved science and technology for as long as she can remember, she says. “Since I was a kid, I’ve wanted to be a scientist.”
If she wins the contest, which could launch a career as a cartoonist, it might complicate things. “I’ll have to sit down and have a talk with myself about the future,” she says with a laugh.
Can a scientist also be a cartoonist? Who knows. But a smart, science-minded college student can certainly have a good sense of humor and a talent for doodling, which could make an interesting basis for a master’s thesis.