Michael F. Epstein | BookMarks: The art of cartooning is thriving in Vermont

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What is it about Vermont that has made it one of the most creative centers for the cartoon arts in the United States?

We're the only state with a cartoonist laureate, a position created in 2011 by the state Legislature and granted every three years in a ceremony at the Vermont State House. Two of our leading art museums, The Fleming Museum at the University of Vermont and the Brattleboro Museum and Art Center, have had major exhibitions of cartoonists' work in the last year. The Center for Cartoon Studies founded in 2004 has brought new life to formerly abandoned buildings in downtown White River Junction and is accredited by the state to offer master's degrees in fine arts in cartoon studies. More than 100 students are enrolled in its MFA and certificate programs.

And, we have at least three of America's finest cartoonists living and working in our state!

Alison Bechdel is a resident of Bolton and is Vermont's current cartoon laureate. Her two memoirs, "Fun Home" (Houghton Mifflin, 2006) which was a National Book Critics Circle finalist and was named to the New York Times Best 10 of the Year and "Are You My Mother" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012) were important contributors to the increasingly popular graphic novel and memoir genre. These books tell the powerful story of a young girl's awakening sexual identity and her attempts to understand both herself and her parents within a complex family constellation. The graphics are exceptionally well done, and the story alternates between humor and tragedy. "Fun Home" achieved even wider attention when it was adapted for a Broadway musical that won five Tony's in 2013, and Bechdel was honored with a MacArthur grant in 2014.

Ed Koren, who was Vermont's second cartoon laureate, has been a Vermont resident since 1978, a volunteer firefighter in Brookfield, and a prodigious contributor to The New Yorker's covers and cartoons. The author of ten previous books and illustrator for 16 others, Koren has a new volume entitled appropriately enough "Koren in the Wild" (Button Street Press, 2018). Introduced with an appreciation by Ben Cohen (of Ben and Jerry's fame) and with an erudite preface by Vermont author Howard Norman, the book's nearly 200 cartoons will have you smiling knowingly, chuckling quietly, and laughing out loud as Koren uses his trademark hairy humans and animals to poke gentle fun at his Vermont neighbors especially those who spend part of their time in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Cambridge and other precious urban oases.

Though it proved impossible to choose one favorite, a serious contender is the cartoon which shows a bearded guy in a New York Yankee hat accompanied by his guitar case and dog hitchhiking by the side of a dirt road and holding a sign reading "Add to Cart" as an Amish couple rides by with their horse and buggy. Another cartoon is set in a rural town's bar where one guy with a baseball cap and a classic bushy head of hair and beard turns to another, beer in hand, and asks "Are you just pissing and moaning, or can you verify what you're saying with data?"

Koren gets us all just about perfectly and shines a clever light on our foibles, hang-ups, and most of all, our pretensions. This is the perfect holiday gift for your Vermont friends, appropriate for the table in front of the wood stove, the nightstand next to the heavily quilted bed, or the indoor or outdoor plumbing accommodations.

Finally, in a rather dramatic turn from Bechtel's exploration of her family and Koren's humor, there is Jason Lutes' recently released "Berlin" (Drawn and Quarterly, 2018). Twenty years in the making, this graphic book is a powerful exploration of how the Weimar Republic and the democratic hopes for Germany after the disaster of WWI and the end of the Kaiser's rule deteriorated into the Third Reich. Lutes, a member of the faculty at the Cartoon Study Center, takes the reader through 500 pages of fine drawings and gripping dialogue, blending real life individuals with fictional characters to show how the National Social Democrats gradually took power through violence and mayhem and how ordinary citizens of Berlin reacted.

Some like Carl von Ossietzky, who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1935 while in a Nazi prison, resisted with newspaper articles and political organization while others like the unemployed and brutal Otto Braun were drawn to the brown shirts and street violence. The conflict between the Communists and National Socialists spills into the lives of ordinary citizens like the Schwartzes, a Jewish family who leave for America after their antique store and home are vandalized, homosexual couples like Anne and Marthe who are beaten and humiliated in a police raid, and others as Germany lurches towards Fascism in the early 1930's. Hitler is not mentioned until nearly halfway through the book and doesn't actually appear until the final pages, but his shadow darkens that world from the beginning. Lutes has created a powerful and moving work that holds important lessons for our time.

Bechdel's "Fun Home" and "Are you My Mother," Koren's "Koren in the Wild," and Lutes' "Berlin" could not be more different from each other, but each is an outstanding example of the blend of art and words that is the unique gift of the cartoon. Vermont is fortunate to be the home to these fine artists/authors/cartoonists.

Michael F. Epstein is a retired physician who reads and writes in Brownsville and Cambridge, Massachusetts. His book journal and reviews with more than 1,000 ideas on what to read next can be seen at www.EpsteinReads.com.




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