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Posted at 8:30 AM ET, 03/ 2/2009

How to Save Cartooning's Pulitzer From Extinction

By Michael Cavna

As the ranks of staff political cartoonists continue to shrink -- most recently last week with the twin job losses of Ed Stein (his Rocky Mountain News was shuttered) and John Branch of the San Antonio Express-News (layoff) -- the trend raises certain questions during the thick of journalism's awards seasons.

Ed Stein's farewell strip for the Rocky Mountain News last week. (Courtesy of Enlarge Comic

Such as: If we're now down below 100 full-time newspaper editorial cartoonists (and some industry types put estimates closer to 75), how small will the pool of contenders get before the Pulitzer folks -- perish the thought -- seriously weigh doing away altogether with their award for Editorial Cartooning? A category award, we should note, that has a particularly rich history that reads like a who's-who of cartoon titans since the '20s.

The trade journal Editor & Publisher noted the other day that Pulitzer jurors are meeting this week in New York to select finalists in the 14 journalism categories. In handicapping the awards, E&P's Joe Strupp wrote:

"The editorial cartoonists category has a history of citing the same pool of candidates as either finalists or winners in recent years. The last three winners, Michael Ramirez, Mike Luckovich and Walt Handelsman, had each won previously. Other regular finalists or winners to look for are Clay Bennett, David Horsey, Mike Thompson and Nick Anderson. Of course, with at least 14 daily newspapers dropping their editorial cartoonists in the past year, the pool decreases even more."

Strupp raises an excellent point that, in various strains, has been bandied about in cartooning circles for years. And roughly 20 Pulitzer-winning cartoonists are still working for a newspaper or syndicate (Jim Borgman and Ben Sargent among the notable buyouts in recent months). At least in theory, then, the math is that if you've won a cartooning Pulitzer before, there's probably at least a 1-in-5 shot that you might repeat the honor. (If, that is, you can successfully stay employed in these tough times.)

My primary concern here, though, is that the cartooning award not be endangered. It's one of the few cartooning awards that resonates with the general public, and it also serves a link to such nostalgic-rich figures as Rollin Kirby, Bill Mauldin, Rube Goldberg and Herblock.

Rollin Kirby's editorial cartoon drawn days after the 1929 stock-market crash. (New York World / Scripps-Howard)Enlarge Comic

So what's the remedy? This might strike some in political cartooning circles as the height of blasphemy, but I'd love to see more sociopolitical comic strips get serious consideration. The only two "strippers" to have won the award are Garry Trudeau and Berkeley Breathed, possibly three if you count Jules Feiffer's format. (Finalists have included Lynn Johnston and Tom Batiuk.)

About a decade ago, while chatting briefly with Charles Schulz, I mentioned to the "Peanuts" creator that a columnist colleague of mine was lobbying for Schulz to win the cartooning Pulitzer.

"It will never happen," Schulz replied instantly, as though he'd fielded this one before. "They don't take a comic strip like mine that seriously."

Pity, that.

By Michael Cavna  | March 2, 2009; 8:30 AM ET
Categories:  The E-Mailbag, The Riffs  
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