Vermont Names Alison Bechdel Cartoonist Laureate

Apr 7, 2017

The Vermont House passed a resolution Thursday designating the state's third cartoonist laureate.  The laurels were presented to Tony winner Alison Bechdel.

“Now therefore be it resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives that the General Assembly congratulates Alison Bechdel of Bolton on being named the third Vermont Cartoonist Laureate.”
Vermont House Speaker Mitzi Johnson: “All those in favor please signify by saying aye. Those opposed nay. The ayes do have it.”

“These aren't the comics of our fathers’ day.”  Vermont House Representative Thomas Stevens: ”But they get to what this world is in a completely different way than a novel or a joke or a radio show. Their artwork is outstanding. Their messages are clear.”

Stevens hosted cartoonists and representatives from the Center for Cartoon Studies, located in White River Junction, which selects Vermont's cartoon laureate. Alison Bechdel is the third to receive the laurels, following New Yorker illustrator Ed Koren and Johnny Boo and American Elf  cartoonist laureate James Kochalka.
During an informal reception all three met Governor Phil Scott.  Bechdel gave him a copy of her award-winning book “Fun Home.”  “I'm not really sure what my responsibilities are as the laureate. I’m gonna have to find out.”

As the group surrounding them laughs, Kochalka jumps in.  "The responsibilities are whatever you want. People ask you to do things and then you have to say yes or no.”
Bechdel" “I was hoping to just rest on my laurels!”

Bechdel first rose to fame with her comic strip "Dykes to Watch Out For."  The 2006 graphic novel "Fun Home" depicted her life growing up with her tormented bisexual father.  Time named it the best book of that year and it was a finalist for a national Book Critics Circle Award.  In April 2015 a musical adaptation opened on Broadway. It won Best Musical and four other Tony awards. Bechdel is also the recipient of a MacArthur Genius Grant.   “My career is so improbable. I never ever would have imagined it going the way it has. You know I started out doing this very sub-cultural fringe alternative comic strip about lesbians and now I'm a cartoonist laureate! It's funny, the culture has really changed a lot. It's become a lot more accepting of not just of gay people and narratives about gay life but about, has become more accepting of cartoons and in comics culture. And my work has been at the intersection of those two things. So it's kind of cool.”

Why are people drawn to her work?  “I don't know. I mean my comic strip was very much about just the everyday lives of a community of queer people and I tried really hard to make that authentic and accurate and true to what my experience was like. And then I went on from that to write these family memoirs which again I tried to do as true, tell as true a story as I could. And I think something about that trying to uncover the truth of a thing is appealing to people. It touches people when it works.”
(Why does putting it in illustration mode work better for you than text mode?) For one thing it's just something I can do. I can draw so I do. I feel like it touches people directly. I mean of course language does that too but if you can get people with both language and representational images there’s an extra power that you can get. Your message can really kind of seep into them in a very direct way that I find is more unusual with just…you have to be a much better writer to do that with just words than I am. So it helps to have both barrels.”

Bechdel was excited when the Center for Cartoon Studies began the tradition of naming a cartoon laureate and is thrilled to be named the state’s third.   “Six years ago James Kochalka was the first one. I thought it was really cool. We're kind of a cartooning hub with the great Center for Cartooning Studies down in White River Junction and per capita a lot of cartoonists in this state. So it just seems kind of like a nice natural fit for Vermont.”

Retiring laureate Ed Koren has been a contributor to the New Yorker since 1962.  “Having a cartoonist laureate it kind of makes us equivalent to many of the other art forms that are always given great honors and we now take our place amongst them.”

Vermont is the only state to regularly appoint a cartoonist laureate.  In 2008 Alaska named Chad Carpenter its cartoon laureate.