The news from and about Russia hasn’t been good lately – what with Olympic doping punishments and suspicious hacking into Democratic party records. But this past week, as a member of the board of the Vermont Council of World Affairs, I got a different perspective.
Our Council hosted six members of a Russian collective called International Comics for Worldwide Respect. They were from several cities in Russia, working together to produce graphic novels and comics for social change, on subjects like dropping out of school, or the challenges of being an orphan or minority in Russian schools.
All in their 20's and 30's, these four men and two women were full of optimism about the potential effects of their chosen craft, which did not exist until the break-up of the Soviet Union. In their quasi-manifesto, they wrote rhetorically, "If we can't change attitudes of aggression and war, then what is the value of human life?"
Their first Vermont stop was at the newspaper, Seven Days, which coincidentally had just published its annual cartoon issue. From there they visited the studio of James Kochalka to discuss his career and term as a former Cartoonist Laureate of Vermont, including his work with youth to promote comics and the broader concept of "sequential art."
Then it was on to the Center for Cartoon Studies in Hartford, founded in 2004 as a degree-granting institution focusing on Comics and Graphic Novels. They also visited the Center's annual Summer Cartoon Club, a camp for youth ages 9 to 18 and interacted with some of the participants.
Then it was back to the State House in Montpelier to meet cartoonists Ed Koren and Tim Newcomb. Koren, Vermont's current Cartoon Laureate, described his 55-year career of non-political cartoons at the New Yorker Magazine.
Newcomb told about some of the tensions inherent in being a political cartoonist – like being sued for a cartoon about Killington ski area’s waste water plan, and losing a client over a political cartoon.
One of the Russians described how airport security personnel had nervously confiscated his bag of pens and ink until he persuaded them they were actually quite harmless.
And through it all, they never stopped writing and drawing in their book-sized notebooks.
Koren was enthusiastic about the opportunity to have what he called “micro cultural exchanges” and impressed by these young people who, he said, “were so open and curious about line and idea, so eager to figure out the world."