Long time CRNI board member and editor-in-chief of the International Journal of Comic Arts (IJOCA) and Professor Emeritus at Temple University, Dr. John A. Lent has some thoughts and suggestions about the recent changes to the award formerly known as the “Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Cartooning”.
This piece was originally published as an editorial in IJOCA and we reproduce it here with his kind permission.
It seemed only natural that editorial cartooning would eventually become one of the categories of the journalism prizes endowed by famed publisher Joseph Pulitzer (1847-1911) in his 1904 will, because, as we all know, Pulitzer himself was an enthusiastic promoter of comic art.
The Pulitzer Prize for excellence in journalism (it is also awarded for “letters and drama”) was given for the first time in 1917, six years after its endower’s death. Editorial cartooning was added as a category in 1922; the first winner, Rollin Kirby of Pulitzer’s New York World, was awarded the prize twice more (in 1925, 1929). Multiple winners were usual during the Prize’s first 25 years: Edmund Duffy won three times; Nelson Harding, Vaughn Shoemaker, and Jay Darling, each twice. Besides Kirby and Duffy, only three other cartoonists were Pulitzer Prize awardees three times: Herbert L. Block (Herblock), Paul Conrad, and Jeffrey MacNelly.
For reasons unexplained, the Pulitzer Prize in editorial cartooning was not awarded in 1923, 1936, 1960, 1965, 1973, and 2021. It may have been because all competitors in those years fell below the standard of excellence fixed by the Pulitzer Board, the governing body that meets twice annually, once to appoint nominating jurors in each category, and then to review the juror’s results. As stated in the plan of the awards, nominating jurors’ recommendations are “for the information and advice of The Pulitzer Prize Board only insomuch as the Board is charged with the responsibility and authority…to select, accept, substitute or reject these nominations, and may in extraordinary circumstances offer its own.”
As with many competitions, there have been harsh criticisms about the selection process of the Pulitzer Prize Nominating Jurors. Some concern has been expressed that only two women have been awardees (Signe Wilkinson in 1992 and Ann Telnaes in 2001) and that of the very outspoken and satirical, alternative cartoonists, for years, only Ted Rall had gotten as far as the finalist level. A number of cartoonists have voiced strong objections to how editorial cartoons have been defined by jurors.
Generally, “editorial cartoon” referred to a single panel political cartoon appearing in a newspaper. Thus, there was a particularly loud outcry when Garry Trudeau’s very political comic strip “Doonesbury” won the award in 1975; the critics argued that a multi-panel strip is not an editorial cartoon. After that, one other strip won a Pulitzer Prize in editorial cartooning, “Bloom County” by Berk Breathed in 1987, while Lynn Johnston’s “For Better or For Worse” and Tom Batiuk’s “Funky Winkerbean” in 1994 and 2008, respectively, were finalists.
One of my two times as a Pulitzer Prize nominating juror was when Batiuk’s strip was a contender. I liked Batiuk’s highly emotional story about his character’s doomed fate as a cancer victim, because of the large amount of research the artist brought to the task, the educational and social consciousness raising value of the story, and its vast impact, even leading to a comprehensive cancer center establishing a cancer research and education fund in the name of Batiuk’s character.
The decisions of the 2007 nominating jury, also, of which I was a member, drew the ire of part of the cartooning community, because all three finalists submitted animation in addition to their print work. Even more so than comic strips, animation to them (and to me) was a completely different medium with its own technology, style, and form. Immediately after serving on the jury, I wrote to the administrator of the prizes:
“You asked for comments on the selection procedures. The one aspect of the judging that troubled me was that of the online work. It seemed to me that the attention paid to online cartoons took away from the print cartoons. It takes much more time to watch the online works. I also believe something is lost in the announcement and subsequent publicity. Over the years, we came to expect to see a representative work of the winner–a cartoon that stuck in our memories. That is more difficult when pulling out one still from a piece of animation. I also believe animation to be part of other media (film and broadcasting) which the Pulitzer in the past did not include in its categories. My suggestion is to have a separate category for online works, if they are to be included.”
Later, some of the cartoonists also (though reluctantly) thought online cartoons should be given a separate category. The following year (2008), no online cartoons were among the finalists, not because the jury was adverse to them, but because the print ones excelled. As a jury, we did discuss online cartooning briefly, one juror saying that, “online cartooning might be funny, but not say something”; another, that, “print is meat; animation is dessert.”
The Pulitzer Board took these concerns under advisement and ruled that beginning in 2009, submissions from online-only news outlets would be accepted if they were “text-based” from news organizations, updated at least weekly, and included original reporting. Mark Fiore in 2010 was the first Pulitzer Prize awardee to win under those rules.
My experiences as a Pulitzer Prize juror in 2007 and 2008 left me with a few observations and impressions. First of all, I think it is commendable that the Pulitzer Prize Board thought editorial cartooning was worthy enough for inclusion as a category as early as 1922. The Board also has shown its high regard for comic art by presenting special awards to Theodor Seuss Geisel in 1984 for his cartoon-like Dr. Seuss children’s books and animation, and to Art Spiegelman in 1992 for his graphic novel Maus. These were among only 11 such awards presented in all categories of journalism and letters/dramas during the Prize’s history.
Second, I found the Pulitzer Prize selection process well-organized and -administered, especially considering that on just three successive days in March, 77 jurors scrutinize about 1,200 journalistic works in 14 categories. Submitted works go through a multi-tiered screening process, including, in some cases, that of the artists’ newspapers, besides the Pulitzer Prize Board and the nominating jurors. Though overall objectives and processes are specified by the Board (such as majority rules), jurors are free to choose how they operate. In the juries I served on, we eliminated by rounds, coming down to a shortlist from which finalists emerged. Discussion of particular traits of contenders, similarities between submitted works and those of other cartoonists, and other issues was given free reign.
Third, I was impressed that nearly all professional editorial cartoonists in the United States sent in entries, attesting to the prestigious position in which they held the Pulitzer Prize. Of course, the US$10,000 monetary reward was also a key attraction.
On the other hand, a couple of my observations left me curious, if not a bit disturbed. In the two years I served, only one cartoonist was included among the five member juries–two-time Pulitzer winner Dave Horsey. Besides me, representing comics scholarship and academia, all other jurors were newspaper editors in various capacities. Having worked part-time on the copy desk of an urban daily, I can vouch that not all editors are visually perceptive or appreciative.
However as I reflect on the works I saw, none sticks in my mind as memorable. This I notice about editorial cartooning generally. What I am referring to are cartoons such as Bill Mauldin’s depiction of the statue of President Abraham Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial bent over in tears after President John F. Kennedy was killed, or David Levine’s caricature of President Lyndon Johnson showing reporters his surgical scar, which the artist rendered as the map of Vietnam. (Levine never won a Pulitzer.)
And, finally, though there were many cartoonists entered in the competitions I was involved with, they represented fewer newspapers. This has resulted because overall, the number of newspapers has dwindled significantly and because newspaper managements have in a number of instances eliminated editorial cartooning positions, partly for fear of libel suits or protection of parent companies’ interests from their cartoonists’ barbs, and because obtaining cartoons from syndicates is less expensive than sustaining a staff cartoonist.
The rules were changed again in 2022, this time, renaming the editorial cartooning category, “illustrative reporting and commentary,” and redefining it to “recognize a distinguished portfolio of editorial cartoons or other illustrated work (still, animated, or both) characterized by political insight, editorial effectiveness, or public service value.”
By this definition, what would be included is what I call “investigative cartooning,” prevalent in many graphic novels of South Korea and social conscientization cartooning at one time common in South African comic books and others throughout Africa. And, Joe Sacco’s drawings. Or, even R. Crumb’s “Brief History of America.” It seems to me that my 2007 suggestion that the category be subdivided to accommodate different forms still makes sense.
Newspaper editorial cartooning in the U.S. and in many other parts of the world is at a very low level, and may even be approaching extinction. Whatever semblance of prestige it has held should be retained with its own Pulitzer Prize category.
Note – multiple past winners of the prize wrote an open letter to the Pulitzer Board earlier this year, expressing similar concerns and reservations. Read its text at the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists’ website.