By now, a poet laureate’s job seems pretty obvious: spread poetry to the masses.
Joseph Brodsky did literally just that during his tenure, handing out poems at supermarkets, airports, hotels, and hospitals so that people could “kill time as time kills them.” Long before Robert Frost became Vermont’s first poet laureate in 1961, he famously ended his poem “New Hampshire” with the poke, “At present I am living in Vermont.”
But a cartoonist laureate? Yes, there is such a thing, and right now Vermont is the only state to regularly appoint one. And, Tillie Walden is about to find out just how, as the newest cartoonist laureate of Vermont, she is supposed to spread cartooning to the masses.
“It’s a tiny little position in a tiny little state, but name another state that has a cartoonist laureate!” said Walden, whose 400-page graphic memoir, “Spinning,” a story about growing up and coming out set in the grueling world of competitive ice-skating, won the Eisner Award (the Oscar for comics).
The three-year appointment is intended to “put a spotlight on a medium that is often kind of either misunderstood or casually dismissed,” as well as to draw attention to Vermont as a “national mecca for cartooning,” said James Sturm, director and cofounder of the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, Vt., where Walden graduated from and now teaches.
Walden, 26, will be the fifth cartoonist laureate of Vermont, and its youngest. Past laureates include Alison Bechdel, Edward Koren, and James Kochalka, who held the inaugural post in 2011 and compared the honor to being named the state flower (the red clover, if you were wondering).
A Texas transplant, Walden was still a student at the Center for Cartoon Studies, or CCS, when she began to work on “Spinning,” which was published in 2017. Entertainment Weekly called her one of “the most essential graphic novelists of her generation.” Walden herself identifies simply as a “cartoonist.” Or maybe “a gay cartoonist.”
“It’s like a signal,” she said of that self-designation during a recent Zoom interview. “It’s like raising the flag. It’s the way people find each other.”
There’s no rulebook (or honorarium) for cartoonist laureates, who are selected by CCS with input from the Vermont Arts Council and others. Sturm noted that if there were a general directive “it would be to embody the spirit of cartooning” in Vermont in their own unique way.
“I think of myself as the COVID laureate,” Veitch said in a phone interview. Leading up to the presidential election, he took to social media to share repurposed monster comics that were part of a personal campaign encouraging people to “vote like a beast.”
For Walden, the position will mean visiting schools and libraries around the state, talking to young people about the issues that are most important to them, and spreading her love of comics as a means of connection and self-expression, particularly around gender identity and sexual orientation.
She knows what it’s like to be censored: In Florida, home of the so-called Don’t Say Gay law, “Spinning” is on a list of books banned in various school districts. And last year, her memoir was one of several titles that were pulled from libraries in Llano, Texas, prompting residents to sue, claiming public officials violated the First Amendment by removing books with viewpoints or subject matter they disliked.
When Walden learned her book was yanked from shelves in Texas, “I wasn’t surprised, but it does sting,” she wrote in an e-mail. “Book bans are so futile, as if kids aren’t going to be able to google what they want to find.”
She pointed to her serialized webcomic “On a Sunbeam,” a sci-fi opus about a constellation of queer characters who build a utopian society in outer space, which is available online for free: “I made it like that because of situations like this, so kids can find my books without needing money or any kind of gatekeeper.”
Walden came out at age 14 in Austin, but she knew she was gay long before then. Growing up in New Jersey and later Texas, she often felt like the odd girl out. She started competitive figure skating at age 5, training and competing for the next 12 years; along with being a twin (she has a brother), being a skater defined her to the outside world.
It wasn’t until her father signed her up for a comics class with Scott McCloud, author of “Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art,” that she discovered she liked to draw. She was 16.
Her first comic, about a boy who turned into an octopus, “did not look good or make any sense,” Walden said, but that didn’t matter. “I came home, and I was like, ‘I don’t want to skate anymore. I don’t want to do anything anymore other than draw comics.’”
By the end of high school, she’d decided she wasn’t going to college. She was moving to Vermont for cartoon school — technically, a two-year MFA and certificate program at CCS.
Walden started working on the story that became “Spinning” at the end of her first year. She intended to make a comic that was short and funny — about the time she performed “Glee” or dressed as Cookie Monster on skates, “but every time I started to draw myself on the ice, and I got to my legs, I couldn’t breathe, I dropped my pen, I had a panic attack,” she recalled.
She hadn’t yet processed all those years spent in the rink: the early-morning training, exacting coaches, pressure to be thin, sexual trauma, and “a lot of baggage about femininity and being gay,” she said. There was also the question of “what it meant to be in such an aggressively feminine environment and to also know that I loved girls.”
Walden took a break from the project but couldn’t stop thinking about it. When she returned to it a few months later, she drew the panels by hand in pen, using a combination of ink wash and digital color to achieve the book’s melancholic tone: a pre-dawn palette of deep purple, lavender, and yellow. In one chapter, she re-creates a page of her skater’s notebook detailing every turn and change of edge in painstaking precision.
But most of the book has a looser feel: a universe of adolescence conveyed in white space and expressive lines. She now sees her spare style as telling: “I drew the book really fast, kind of as a way to outrun my own emotions,” she said. “I was trying not to doubt myself.”
With the money she made from “Spinning,” Walden traveled to Tokyo, where she gazed out at the snowy cityscape and drew the webcomic that eventually became her 538-page book “On a Sunbeam” (2018). Back home, life in Vermont also informs her work and infuses her sketchbooks.
At the moment, Walden is too busy to even sketch; she’s working on a graphic novel trilogy set in the “Walking Dead” universe and two middle-grade graphic novels created with Canadian indie-pop duo Tegan and Sara.
When she’s not cartooning, Walden teaches at CCS, where in 2019 she met her wife, Emma Hunsinger, also a cartoonist. They share a home studio in Norwich. And now, they are starting a family. Walden is pregnant and in her second trimester — an experience that could be fodder for a future comic.
“It’s really interesting to engage with the health care system married to another woman,” she said. “We’ve been thinking a lot about the way the laws in Vermont make it way easier for us to be parents than the laws of other states. That’s so different from a coming-out story.”
Come to think of it, Walden will be Vermont’s first pregnant cartoonist laureate when she’s crowned during an official ceremony April 13 at the Vermont State House in Montpelier, assuming responsibilities from her predecessor, Veitch.
“We’re hoping for a peaceful transfer of power,” Sturm quipped. “You never know these days.”