The 'Riffs Interview: New Pulitzer winner MARK FIORE drafts a path less traveled
If things had worked out at the San Jose Mercury News, political cartoonist MARK FIORE might still have a staff position at a newspaper. Lucky for him, it all fell apart.
"I was pretty miserable down there," says Fiore by phone Monday from San Francisco, where he was still absorbing the day's news of his Pulitzer Prize win for distinguished Editorial Cartooning. "Either I left them or they left me -- I still don't know what happened."
The year was 2001, and Fiore had long dreamed of a staff job as an editorial cartoonist -- "the brass ring," he calls it. But then, when he finally had the brass ring in hand, the patina wasn't quite so grand.
"It was a bad time to be down there," Fiore says of San Jose. The dot-com bubble had burst. The publisher had resigned in protest. And he was out the door within nine months, looking for a new gig. Disillusioned by the traditional staff-cartoonist route, Fiore made a fateful decision: He was compelled to experiment fully with animation.
On Monday, the self-syndicated Fiore, 40, became the first artist to win cartooning's Pulitzer exclusively for animated work -- none of his entered work appeared in print; rather, it all was published on SFGate,com, the San Francisco Chronicle's Web site. Numerous professional cartoonists had murmured about this inevitability for years -- the day Pulitzer jurors chose all non-print work -- yet that doesn't decrease the sense that this feels like a potential watershed for political cartoonists. But first, let's get back to 2001. And the fateful day Fiore stumbled full-on into Flash.
"It was gradual over a period of two years -- I began experimenting with Flash [2.0 animation]," Fiore says. "I'd done a little animation, some character design. I knew how to break things down for animation."
Forever freelancing, Fiore -- who besides political cartooning also drew for games and other experimental projects -- worked with a traditionally trained animator, who taught him quite a bit. "My early animations were rudimentary" -- but he was hooked.
Fiore, a Mac devotee, says he still uses Flash, adding humbly of his art: "The stuff that I'm doing is a glorified flip-book." (Although he's a Mac devotee, Fiore does note that his iPhone app has been rejected by Apple because it "ridicules public figures" -- a decision that Fiore notes is reminiscent of MAD artist Tom Richmond's initial rejection by Apple.)
With such healthy humility evident, was Fiore particularly surprised by the Pulitzer news?
"It was surprise/shock," says the artist, whose 45-second to two-minute animations also appear on the sites of NPR, Mother Jones and Slate. "You obviously go over [winning a Pulitzer one day] in your head, but you try to push that out of your head as much as possible. So basically, I was shocked."
So did the Chronicle nominate him, then?
"No, I nominated myself," says Fiore, who began regularly drawing for SFGate.com in 2001. "More directly, my wife [Chelsea Donovan] did. She did most of the nitty-gritty work."
Fiore says he's glad to have won the Pulitzer for the Chronicle. "I'd hooked up with the Chron before the Merc-News -- they were my first client, running my animated work in 1999," he says. "They were happy to see me come back."
So with his Pulitzer win, does he see animated political cartooning as the future -- especially against the backdrop of disappearing staff newspaper jobs and many editorial cartoonists who are forced to grow their toolkit of skills?
"I think it's *A* future," Fiore says. "I hope it's not THE future. I hope there are still traditionally drawn print cartoons by staff cartoonists. ... Judging by what's happened, though, that won't be necessarily the only way."
Of being perhaps the foremost animator among traditional political cartoonists, Fiore says: "I've just been fortunate to tap-dance my way into something that works."
"CREDIT CARD REFORM IN ACTION"
Now that more editorial cartoonists are growing their animation talents, the question arises among some pros: Should there be separate Pulitzer categories for print and animated work?
"It's going to get sillier and sillier if you divide it up," Fiore says. "And a political cartoon can take many forms. ... Should we segregate multi-panel and single-panel cartoons? And color from black-and-white? And lithography from traditional offset? We might as well lump them all together."
Since Fiore graduated in 1991 from Colorado College -- where he studied political science -- the outlets for satire and commentary have grown considerably. Has that diminished the profile and import of the political cartoon?
"I think it's still going to be a big part of the fabric of the [political dialogue]," says Fiore, who cites the Pulitzer-winning Pat Olipant as a particular source of inspiration. "The change is going to be in figuring out how to get it to people" -- be it by mobile apps or by some yet-to-be-unveiled or invented means.
To tap strongly into political dialogue, Fiore says he focused his winning entry on cartoons that dealt with "the impact of people who are the high and mighty" upon those who are not -- animations about the economy, for instance, and healthcare. His winning portfolio included "Obama Interruptus," "Science-gate" and "Watch Credit Card Reform in Action." (Note: He also drew controversy, Bill O'Reilly's rancor and reported death threats for his 2009 cartoon "Learn to Speak Tea Bag.")
Fiore, though, also takes glee in his cartoons' small touches. To wit: "Dick Cheney was always a great gift," Fiore says. "He was my graduation speaker and he was really fun to caricature. So I did a subtle thing in the animation. If you watch his eyes, they blink more like a reptile's -- membrane covers the eyes before they shut."
Fiore identifies his politics as left-of-center but says: "I'm more than happy to go after the left. I just did a cartoon that got a lot of hate mail and people unsubscribed from my newsletter. I was going after Mexican druglords but people thought I was anti-marijuana. I was trying to walk the line between 'Say no to drugs' and 'Grow your own!' "
Now, though, with his name on the Pulitzer, Fiore is sure to get more subscribers, right? And more clients? And perhaps he won't even remain "self-syndicated"?
"We'll see," he says. "Right now, I don't even have a desk at the Chron. That's why I'm talking to you from the lobby."
Come Tuesday, Fiore shouldn't have much trouble rustling up a chair at the Chron. Or a desk. Or even a second chair -- that Pulitzer, shinier than any "brass ring," will have to sit somewhere.
| April 13, 2010; 7:30 AM ET
Categories: Interviews With Cartoonists, The Political Cartoon | Tags: Animation, Editorial Cartooning, Mark Fiore, SFGate.com, San Francisco Chronicle, The Pulitzer Prizes
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