This Thursday, March 10, the grand state of Vermont will name James Kochalka as its first Cartoonist Laureate. More information about the position can be found at Vermont’s own Center for Cartoon Studies website. The title was conceived and advocated by CCS’s founder James Sturm. I was lucky enough to be in the right room when he was looking for somebody to design an official seal to accompany the honor.
When somebody is crowned Laureate, an obvious choice of leaf with which to adorn the title is laurel. The freakin root of the friggin word, alright? Cartooning has something to do with ink and with panels, Vermont has something to do with mountains, and above you see some variations on these themes. Before I got to sketching, James and I also talked about incorporating an image of the exhaulted cartoonist honored for each three-year term into the design itself. Some demented version of Kochalka’s American Elf self-portrait therefore found its way into many of these drawings.
Sturm added some information to my first doodle (top-left in the previous image). We discussed replacing the shield at the bottom of the design with just an ink pot. We also decided that we’d make two versions of the crest, one with the descriptive text encircled by the laurels, and one with the Kochalka elf head replacing at least the “Vermont Cartoonist Laureate” language. While we talked, James (Sturm, that is) also recommended some places to eat in Seattle.
I went off and drew this. To me, the graphic needed to feel as if it had all the weight and power of officialdom. I was searching for something Victorian and Protestant-ly New England in the rigor of its details. Perhaps that’s what led me to draw something approaching an actual laurel branch, rather than the iconic version seen on metals, crests, plaques and coins since the Roman Empire.
With some digital tom-foolery, the initial pencil sketch looked like this. We went through several drafts back and forth, redrawing the laurels and the ink, moving the honoree’s name into a banner (and actually spelling it right… and “cartoonist” too, while we were at it).
Most of these changes I made on the computer, so I printed the eventual approved “pencils” in blue ink onto Bristol board so I could move on to the final inks. James (still Sturm) and I agreed that, while the design should suggest historical significance and time-honored government institutions in its staid nature, it should also have it’s heel firmly planted in the world of cartooning, and be drawn by a brush dipped in ink.
To lend the original art a certain touch of being discovered in a forgotten Congressional flat file, I signed the work for both of us in a sort of old-fashioned manor. The finished piece blends elements of nineteenth- and mid-twentieth- century hand-made design, and is hopefully an intriguing blend of fun and stodgy.
The last, delightful touch, of sticking that little James Kochalka elf right on top of his banner, was a Sturm move. It kept the thing from becoming too serious, while balancing the black of the ink well. That’s why he’s James Sturm, and this was how the Vermont Cartoonist Laureate seal came to be.