Get to Know the Viral Comic Artist Who's Also a Ph.D. in Applied Mathematics
So how does a viral web comic artist balance her job as a math researcher with her passion for doodling? We got the chance to speak with Olivia to find out what makes her tick and how comic book artistry and math actually go hand in hand.
Sweety High: What's your educational background?
Olivia Walch: I majored in math and biophysics in undergraduate and went to the University of Michigan for my doctorate. Last September, I got my Ph.D. in applied math. I'm a math researcher and I research how we can apply math to medicine to help people live better. It's a funny day job to have when you're also drawing comics, but they complement each other really nicely.
SH: How does art play into your work, and vice versa?
OW: There's a lot of give and take. I was always doodling in middle and high school, and when I started doing math, nothing really changed. You can burn out drawing a comic if you're working on it for eight hours a day, so having the math to go to when I do is really nice, and when I'm burnt out on math I can go back to the doodling. It's also nice to nurture a visual skill, which helps when you're doing math. It makes you a better explainer and a better teacher because you can present ideas in a clear way.
SH: When did you start drawing comics?
OW: I fell into it. I went to college in Williamsburg, Virginia, at the College of William and Mary and wanted to work for the school newspaper, so I wound up doing these very niche editorial cartoons. It's near colonial Williamsburg, so there are all these people walking around in three-point hats and colonial garb, and you'll bump into Thomas Jefferson every other day.
The experience of drawing comics about life in Williamsburg gave structure to previously formless doodles and I really fell in love with that format. Comics are so accessible that they're an ideal way of presenting certain information. After I did that for a few years I entered this contest at The Washington Post for cartoonists and I won it. Go me! That basically solidified it. It was something I loved doing and I decided I'd keep doing it no matter where my day job took me.
SH: Do you ever use comics to demonstrate complex math ideas?
OW: Totally. I taught a summer camp where I drew a lot of comics like that. It was about math as art. If you take an art class you learn about one, two and three-point perspectives. Those are actually math concepts. I really love drawing comics to explain those mathy things.
I'm forcing it on my friends all the time, asking if they want to learn some math and [I share] comics I've drawn about mathematics. I think the pictures and the visuals can really clarify and make accessible math that might be inaccessible otherwise for silly reasons. In a lot of cases the symbols we use for math are really outdated and dumb. We haven't updated them, but it's probably time we did.
SH: What are some of the main themes of your comics?
OW: It's a way of me getting catharsis in my day-to-day life. Originally a lot of my comics weren't about me. They were about the abstract things I was thinking about, like hating the feeling I get when I don't respond to emails. I'd draw a comic about it and it would help me process the world better.
Lately I've been doing a lot more comics with me in an active role, but their function is still the same. By drawing them, I understand my life better. It's very therapeutic. Drawing comics is really about self-therapy.
SH: What's your process for mapping out a comic?
OW: I'll come up with an idea that's completely inscrutable and write it in the Notepad app on my phone. I have to let it simmer for a few days after I've made a note of what I'm feeling and thinking. There's a seed there and I plant the seed. If in a few days I think it could be an okay idea for a comic, I draw it on my iPad and send it out to the world.
SH: What has it been like to see your comics gaining attention on social media?
OW: It's really cool and I'm so touched. It really hasn't set in yet, especially after the first few years of publishing my comics. I'd post and things didn't get a ton of attention. I updated once a month maybe, and I repeatedly had to ask myself if I could keep doing it. The answer was yes because it's so therapeutic and I feel so much happier when I can give a name to what I'm feeling.
To have people respond so positively is like a trust fall exercise. I feel like I've been caught by a million strangers who've gone through the same things. It's nice and gratifying to see that they relate.
SH: Which other web comic artists influence or inspire you?
OW: There are so many, and many of us are actually friends online. A lot of us web cartoonists got together and we have a chat going where we talk about things. Usually happy, fun things, but occasionally like, "Hey! This person ripped off my work." We all send them mean emails. I play Dungeons and Dragons with some other web cartoonists. We hang out at cons together. It's almost too many to list, but I really love Jane of The Pigeon Gazette, Megan McKay of Doodle for Food , Kelly Angel of Anything Comic and Julie Kaye of Up and Out Comic.
SH: What advice do you have for somebody who wants to draw comics?
OW: I think finding a way to draw them sustainably is so important. Figure out what you want to get out of it. Knowing that will help you keep drawing comics. That's one of the hardest things. I've seen some people draw comics and put them on the internet and they immediately take off and they have a lot of success and that's really gratifying for them, and I see other people who start putting a comic out there and it isn't immediately noticed and they lose interest and it dies off.
If you can find something sustainable that makes you want to keep drawing comics, it keeps you going in the absence of external validation. For me, it was finding a way to process my life and get catharsis, but for somebody else, it might be that they just really enjoy the act of drawing. If they isolate that as something that brings them joy then it'll make it a lot easier to keep doing. That's probably the most important thing. Keep making those silly pictures—or not silly pictures—whatever kind of picture that your type of comics embodies.
SH: What do you think is the best way to balance your school or work with a hobby like drawing a comic?
OW: For me it's about finding the right hobby. That makes it easy. Work is less of a challenge to force yourself to do because there are boundaries you can push off on. There are the natural constraints of being expected to be somewhere from this time to that time. But with a hobby, you don't have those constraints, which means that if you're doing them, they suck up a lot more willpower. You can enjoy doing them but it still takes willpower to follow through.
Unless I really find the hobby that is the one for me, which in this case is comics, it becomes hard to get myself to do it consistently. You can kind of fake constraints that you would get from school or a job by setting goals and always doing them in a healthy, realistic way. I decided not to break the promise to myself to do one comic a week. A goal like that can really help you find the energy to keep going on your project even when you don't feel up to it, which is going to happen sometimes.