Why Does the Pulitzer Prize Committee Hate “Alternative” Editorial Cartooning?

Maui Time | April 16, 2013
Every year there is angst-filled anticipation over the announcement of the winners of the Pulitzer Prizes for journalism, and every year the results are greeted with a collective shrug. Someday, one hopes, people will learn not to anticipate something that proves so disappointing so frequently. You know, like the State of the Union address. It’s never good. It never makes news. Yet everybody thinks they need to pay attention. And everyone is surprised by the letdown.

This year’s selection for the editorial cartooning category, Steve Sack of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, alongside his two co-finalists, Jeff Darcy of the Cleveland Plain Dealer and Clay Bennett of the Chattanooga Times Free Press, continue a decades long trend. Nothing new here.

Steve Sack has been around a long time, is a nice, unassuming guy who is personally popular among the older generation of “mainstream” editorial cartoonists, so his win has been largely greeted as long overdue, sort of a lifetime achievement award as these things often are, a recognition of the fact that unlike many other political cartoonists who slavishly copied the artistic style of deceased Chicago Tribune cartoonist Jeff MacNelly, Steve developed his own drawing style. Like many other cartoonists at the so-called B papers, those in midsize cities, the finalist win has to come as a relief to Jeff. Clay Bennett, who has won every major and minor award in editorial cartooning, and whom I count as a friend, is in a tricky position. Personally, I think that once you win the biggest prize in journalism, it’s time to retire your contest applications, let other cartoonists have their chance, and focus on your work. After all, once you are a so-called Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist, no one really cares whether you are a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist. But there’s also a tactical consideration, one that Bennett coming in as a finalist highlights: for a previous winner to come in as a finalist makes him look like his career is on a downward trajectory. But there’s no way to avoid that risk when you apply for a second Pulitzer. Another reason that it’s better not to apply.

What’s depressing is that, once again, the committee has decided to snub my entire genre of editorial cartooning, the so-called alternative school of political cartooning. It’s not like we are new kids on the block. Jules Feiffer started it at the Village Voice in 1955. Matt Groening and Lynda Barry really launched the modern era of altie editorial cartooning in the 1980s, and things took off throughout the ’90s, with half a dozen cartoonists at the center of the scene: myself, Tom Tomorrow, Ruben Bolling, Ward Sutton, derf, Lloyd Dangle, and I’m probably forgetting a bunch of others. After 9/11, it could be argued – and I would – that the only relevant, truly hard-hitting, challenging, vibrant editorial cartooning being done in the Western world has been this genre, based in the comics rather than older traditions dating to the early 18th century. Out of this scene have come younger artists like my friends Matt Bors and Brian McFadden.

Eschewing labels, metaphors, donkeys and elephants, Uncle Sam, etc. in favor of multi-panel, word-dependent, ironic, sarcastic and cynical takes on America and its politics, the alternative genre and its practitioners – Tom Tomorrow, myself, Ruben Bolling, Matt Bors, Brian McFadden and so on – have reinvigorated and breathed life into a hoary artform that has generified itself into virtual oblivion. Unlike many of the older mainstream cartoonists, our work is opinionated. (Most big-city daily cartoonists illustrate the news, showing what happened and/or making jokes about it, without making much of a political point.)

Yet the gatekeepers at the major daily newspapers, and the prize committees that are made up of editors from those same print publications, have repeatedly and carefully refused to acknowledge that we even exist. In the entire history of the Pulitzer Prize, for example, there have only been three finalists from the alternative category: Jules Feiffer, who won in 1986, myself, a finalist in 1996, and Matt Bors, a finalist for 2011. Many editorial cartooning prizes have never had either a winner or a finalist from the alternative category: the Fischetti award, the National Headliner award, and before last year, the Herblock award. Makes it pretty hard to get editors to take a chance on you when you can’t get validation.

Part of the problem is that many of the editors who judge these things don’t know a lot about editorial cartooning. Some judges at the Pulitzer Prizes work at newspapers that don’t even run them, and if they do, they certainly never see the alternative stuff. Still, given a lot of the results year after year, it’s pretty clear that some very mediocre finalists and winners are prevailing over some really excellent alternative cartoonists. Given the fact that the alternative field is much more popular online – where there is a true meritocracy because people can look at anything that they want there – it seems obvious that there is a conscious decision on the part of prize committees to exclude a lot of the best work in the field.

Why? Because it’s edgy? Because it’s left of center? You can’t get a straight answer. When you ask jurors who were there, who sat on the prize committees, they always say that alties were seriously considered, that many of us came very close but just didn’t make the final cut. Sorry, but when that happens 20 years in a row across half a dozen major prizes – 120ish times – it’s hard to believe.

Why do we even bother? That’s the question that my alternative editorial cartoonist colleagues and I ask ourselves every year. Even last year, when Matt was a finalist, we knew that this was a quantum singularity, that it didn’t mark anything other than a bizarre aberration. And in fact, here we go again.

Obviously what keeps us going is our love of the field, and the fact that drawing cartoons that make fun of the President of the United States sure beats holding down a real job. Still, there’s no denying that it’s hard on the psyche to be repeatedly told, to be repeatedly sent the message, that the kind of work that you do isn’t serious, that it doesn’t deserve to be seriously considered.

It isn’t that I didn’t win. Although obviously I would’ve liked to have won. It’s that what I do – the way that I do it – my entire artform – has been shunned. Again. If one of my alternative cartooning peers wins, at least we know that the prize committee isn’t against what we do on an existential level. As things stand, we have to assume that the people who decide these things – our mainstream editorial cartooning peers, the academics who study the field of editorial cartooning who serve on these juries, and the editors and publishers who join them every year – think that what we do is somehow offensive and inherently unworthy.

That’s not a lot of fun.

More importantly to our culture, the committee that picked the three finalists for this year’s and previous years’ Pulitzer Prize in editorial cartooning once again missed an opportunity. Awards make a statement. Remember last year, when they decided not to award a prize for the fiction category, how independent booksellers and fiction writers were insulted by the idea that there wasn’t't a single novel in the United States worthy of such an award? By repeatedly shunning new developments in the field of editorial cartooning, the prize committee is discouraging stylistic growth, stunting the development of the field, quashing new careers and stopping the careers of alternative editorial cartoonists from moving forward, and most of all sending the message to younger cartoonists considering the field that they had better copy the old styles rather than develop new ones of their own. Moreover, these committees are contributing to the death of editorial cartooning, by making it harder for new cartoonists to initially get hired. This is because the vast majority of winners and finalists already work on staff at papers. No alternative cartoonist has ever worked on staff at a paper or magazine. It is not inconceivable that an alternative cartoonist who won, for example, the Pulitzer Prize, might be able to convince an editor or publisher to take him or her on. But that is never going to happen unless an alternative editorial cartoonist wins such a prize.

Let me be very clear about this: there is nothing new about what happened this year.

These are the kinds of choices that I have seen over the last two decades as a nationally syndicated editorial cartoonist. These choices were no worse or better than any other year that I can remember. Just same old, same old. And that’s the problem. And that’s the point.

Safe and staid = old and boring.

You could draw a comparison to the Oscars, which haven’t done a great job of rewarding the most experimental and groundbreaking movies, but it would really be a false comparison since the quality of the work that wins is usually respectably solid. It’s not like Battlefield Earth is going to win an Oscar. Similarly, you could make a comparison to the Grammys, which are really a joke, but those seem to be based more on sales and popularity and again, the artists who tend to win the Pulitzer Prizes and who are named as finalists often have little to no fan base in the real world other than the couple of editors who hired them.

Congratulations to all the winners. It’s always nice to be appreciated.

Not that me or my friends would know.

So what to do? This may be a question of what not to do. They say that you can’t win unless you enter, but the way things look after all these years, it seems pretty clear that you can’t win even if you do enter unless you draw in the same styles that have been around for decades. It may be that the best Pulitzer Prize that you can win is the $75 entry fee that you pocket, not to mention the time that you save, by doing something else rather than putting together a prize entry.

Of course, then they’ll blame us for not playing their sick game.

Maui Time

Maui Time Weekly provides insightful analysis and in depth reporting. We believe some issues are so important they require thoughtful consideration. We are not a “paper of record”—a daily journal of government meetings, ribbon-cuttings and corporate announcements. We decide what’s...
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