Editorial: The Cartoon Laureate

Koren Draws Inspiration From Vermont

Vermont enjoys a reputation as an oasis of progressive thought, tolerance, civility and out-of-left-field quirkiness. That the oasis turns out occasionally to be a mirage does not deter Vermonters from embracing the caricature nonetheless. For instance, what other state in the union regularly anoints a “cartoonist laureate”? Exactly none, according to people who track such things.

“A cartoonist laureate is the kind of thinking outside the box that Vermont supports,” says Gov. Peter Shumlin. We are certainly on board with the idea, especially because the new holder of the title can be relied on to puncture any pomposity that attaches to the office. He is Ed Koren, whose distinctive style and subversive social commentary have been elucidated in more than 1,000 cartoons published in The New Yorker over the past few decades, as well as in work appearing in many other publications.

In doing a little research for this editorial — and what pleasurable research it was! — we ran across a fairly recent cartoon that to our mind neatly illustrates the Koren project. Two birds, immediately recognizable as Korenic by their long beaks and somewhat furry aspect, perch on the edge of their nest, about to feed the three youngsters within. As one holds a worm about to be delivered to the chicks, the other asks, “Wait — did you procure that worm humanely?”

Koren, who bought a house in Brookfield, Vt., in the mid-’70s and eventually moved there full-time from New York City, has endeared himself to his adopted state not only by making reference to it in his cartoons, but also by donating his work to various Vermont groups and causes over the years. So when he was honored last week with a joint resolution read at the Statehouse and officially became the state’s second-ever Cartoonist Laureate, succeeding James Kolchalka of Burlington, it seemed a fitting “part of the weirdness of Vermont,” in Koren’s own words.

That Vermont places cartoons alongside poetry in the pantheon of laureates is testimony in good measure to the development of the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, whose co-founder, James Sturm, says that Vermont’s combination of quirky culture and accomplished craft make it a hot-bed for cartooning. This is a hot-bed being further nurtured by the cartoon studies school, so it promises to become a permanent attribute.

Koren, as staff writer Maggie Cassidy reported following his appearance at the Center for Cartoon Studies last week, described cartooning as a “contrarian, critical, skeptical, individualistic activity that is also an art form. … To be in Vermont is to really take your citizenship seriously . … so by extension, if you think being a social satirist is a form of citizenship, which in a way it is, then having a cartoonist laureate is just natural.”

Indeed, social criticism can be among the highest forms of civic engagement and to be contrarian, critical, skeptical and individualistic is often a duty of citizenship, and not only in Vermont. Long live the laureate, and long may he draw.