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

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.

14 Comments.

  • “As things stand, we have to assume that the people who decide these things think that what we do is somehow offensive and inherently unworthy. That’s not a lot of fun.”

    Yeah, well … when you run cartoons like the Ebert obituary, which referred to the recently deceased film reviewer as “having awful taste, establishmentarian, politically unsophisticated, not smart, etc …” don’t expect to be particularly like, nor rewarded. Why? Because people generally don’t respond to hateful diatribe.

    To be clear, if hateful diatribe is your thing — and it is, and that’s ok — don’t whine about not being accepted. There’s nothing more pathetic than someone on the outside looking out, but truly wanting in. As if The Sex Pistols would show up to the Grammys or something. Pathetic.

  • Everywhere, technical skills like Mr Rall’s are devalued, and social skills–i.e., sucking up to the Powers That Be–are everything. It was a long time ago that someone like Mr Rall could get to be a finalist. That can’t happen any more. The people who award the Pulitzers, as Mr Rall says, are all from the mainstream, and so it was shocking that Mr Bors made the finalists recently (as Mr Rall says, his art is attractive, even if the message it presents isn’t prize-worthy).

    There is a pyramid, and the apex is NOT going to give Mr Rall any prizes. He foolishly speaks the TRVTH, which is NOT what the deciders want to hear. And which is NOT what most Americans want to hear.

    ‘America is the greatest’ in an innovative way will win the prize.

    No one wants to see or hear anything else. And they ain’t giving anything else any prizes (except maybe Drone Target of the Week).

  • alex_the_tired
    April 16, 2013 4:25 PM

    Ex,

    I’m gonna call you on one thing: “[P]eople generally don’t respond to hateful diatribe.”

    I didn’t really catch the whole “hate” vibe on Ted’s cartoon. I can think of many artists whose work I simply don’t like. That doesn’t mean I hate them. Also, just because someone has just died does not mean that they have instantly been elevated to sainthood. Ted thinks Ebert’s taste was awful and so forth. Some of my neighbors have awful taste. It doesn’t mean I’m hoping they all perish in a house fire.

    You’re right that being unpopular or unflattering, especially at an inopportune moment, is not the optimal path to success, but that’s when being unflattering is often most necessary, when it’s the least opportune.

    The other day I watched as a conversation I was marginally involved in was shut down by someone who thought it was really inappropriate to discuss slaughterhouses and the fur industry. Apparently, the right to go through one’s life without ever having to synthesize the crueler aspects of existence is now guaranteed. I’ve seen the “could we not discuss this, I think it’s inappropriate” card played more and more frequently. It is the tidied version of “I want to continue to eat my steak, play with my iPhone, and buy super-cheap clothes online. I don’t want to think about the animals suffering, the slave laborers who made the food, or the children who sewed the shirts that I’m about to save 40% on. I want my life to be perfect.”

    Ted’s standing there — the prick — showing us the video tape of the cow with the broken legs trying to run away while the workers at the slaughterhouse laugh themselves sick. I think that deserves an award much more than I think some Obama the Drone President deserves the Nobel Prize.

    You know that those prizes CAN be rescinded. But then the Nobel committee might not get invited to the best DC parties.

  • alex_the_tired
    April 16, 2013 4:27 PM

    Oops. In my most recent screed. “made the food” should be “made the device.”

    Even Homer nods. Mmmm …. beer.

  • Hindsight is 20-20. Maybe I should have gone into investment banking years back?

  • […] Why Does the Pulitzer Prize Committee Hate “Alternative” Editorial Cartooning? […]

  • I know you don’t have a ton of free time, but I still suggest you and a few alties get together, create one or two cartoonist pseudonyms, and just flop out the usual trite crap replete with self plagerism and unoriginal ideas under these pseudonyms. Then when one of the pseudonyms wins an award you can collectively pull back the curtain and rub the prize committees face in their love of all that is wrong with modern political cartooning.

    As little time as you all have, it seriously can’t take that much effort to flop out single-panel self-plagiarized cud a few times a week especially if you are all trading off. I mean I guess I can agree that all that cross hatching takes a ton of time, but if it doesn’t already exist one could pretty easily program a photoshop filter to take solid colored regions of various shading and convert that into spaces filled with cross hatching of equivalent tone, so even that temporal barrier to complete zero-effort production can be eliminated with modern technology.

  • Agree with you, Ted – but your failure to mention a cartoonist like Dwayne Booth («Clowncrack»), who certainly merits a place here, gives me pause….

    Henri

    • There are many other altie cartoonists I didn’t mention, like David Rees and Max Cannon. Check out my Attitude books if you want a good overview…there are 69 of them in there, of whom maybe 35 are still around despite everything.

  • Good points, but isn’t this a chicken and egg problem? I.e. which came first, the phoney stupid cartoonist or his undeserving newspaper job?

    Its moot as you are not interested in doing it, but I feel like if enough alties were in on it, and created enough buzz for this “really up and coming” cartoonist, then the phoney stupid cartoonist would quickly gain the attention needed to get his undeserving newspaper job.

    I have personally been toying around with the idea of writing a “Virtual (mainstream) Political Cartoonist” – scrapes the internet looking for headlines, then glues keywords from those as labels onto precreated scenes from pop-culture references. Near major holidays it swaps out the pop-culture reference scenes for precreated holiday themed scenes, or scenes of major natural disasters when appropriate. Any of these things will be interrupted with a scene at the pearly gates if and when it is scrapping headlines it is hit a major Obit.

    Coding the drawing engine would take some serious work to be convincing, but the bit of code designed to pick a topic and formulate the “joke” could probably be written in a fairly leisurely evening.

  • alex_the_tired
    April 18, 2013 4:36 PM

    Ted,

    Never got around to answering your question. Why does the Pulitzer committee hate alternative editorial cartooning?

    Sigh. For the most part, the only practical purpose a news organization has is to make sure both sides hold up their parts of the social contract. Schools have to teach to a certain minimum standard. The courts have to be fair. Etc.

    When you look at the New York Times, there is very little of the social contract review. There are articles about what sort of housing you can buy for $700,000. There are reviews about restaurants where dinner for two will set you back about $150 (and thus is completely unrealistic for most people). There are reviews of wonderful Broadway shows that, again, most people cannot realistically hope to be able to buy tickets for.

    There’s news too. For instance, the unemployment rate is in the 7.x% range. That figure is completely fiction, but the Times won’t address that issue. There’s also editorials, like the one from one of the inmates at Gitmo who is on a hunger strike. Having run that one piece, the Times will now return to ignoring the issue. There’s also the recent item about the Boston Marathon, where Pres. Obama criticizes the “cowardly” attack upon innocent civilians. No one — at least not the cowardly reporters — asks the president what adjective describes his bombing of innocent civilians via drone. And so on.

    You see, Ted. If they start letting the cartoonists win who actually have something harsh and unpleasant to say, the rest of the journalists might have to start working hard too. Or, even worse, they might have to confront (for themselves and for others) why they spent so much time just pushing deckchairs around while people suffered and criminals in business suits prospered.

    It is the “good German” problem in a different time and place. But it’s the same fundamental issue: most people don’t want to do the heavy thinking, the hard searching. Very few welcome the long dark tea-time of the soul. And they absolutely hate those few who do. Four hundred years ago, they would have tied you to a stake and burned you. This is how the herd always culls the oddballs. You can be leader or follower, but you may not be challenger to the status quo.

    Does that answer your question?

  • […] Sack, cartoonist for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, who won the Pulitzer Prize last year. As I wrote at the […]

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