White River Junction, Vermont boasts the highest per-capita number of cartoonists in the country, thanks to the Center for Cartoon Studies.
The school has attracted students from all over the world since its first class in 2005, but when Tillie Walden discovered it during her senior year of high school in Austin, Texas, she initially scoffed. She loved to make art and wanted to turn her passion for comics into a career. However, she says, “I didn’t think the school was legit. It honestly seemed too good to be true.”
But the Center for Cartoon Studies, which offers a master of fine arts in cartooning, kept popping up on her radar, and she became a student in June 2014. From the beginning, the school surprised her. For example, she expected to focus on improving her art in order to enhance her comics. “But I learned how important lettering, storytelling, pacing, staging, and composition are to comics,” she says. “Once my focus got off my art, I was really able to stretch out and improve.”
Another unexpected benefit: She was instantly welcomed into an ardent community of cartoonists. “I had never been surrounded by people who were just as passionate about comics as I was. We could talk comics, draw comics, and debate comics all day long. Plus, no two people here draw comics the same way, and everyone has their own vision. This completely expanded my idea of what comics could be.”
White River Junction also caught Walden off guard. “It looked like a movie set,” she says. “I remember sitting at the coffee shop, looking at the mountains, and hearing a train go by.” While she adjusted to a new life in a slightly edgy, formerly booming railroad town, Walden discovered that the small-town setting made it possible for her to turn her full attention to her work.
So far, it’s paid off handsomely: Comics news website Broken Frontier recently heralded Walden as a “major new talent,” and her first graphic novel, The End of Summer, will be published in June by Avery Hill Publishing.
“Outside of White River, I still have to explain to people what a cartoonist is, and that it’s not a hobby, it’s a career,” she says. “Here, there’s no need for justification. Everyone here takes comics seriously.”
While she plans to head elsewhere after graduation, she expects to have a soft spot for White River. “I’ll always associate New England with my time at cartoon school,” she says. “And every time I hear a train, I’ll think of comics.”