HANDICAPPING THE PULITZERS is a fool’s errand, which makes Comic Riffs, as I like to say, just the person for the job.
The good folks at Columbia U.’s journalism school are scheduled to announce the 2012 Pulitzer Prizes on Monday, and the safe bet is that some terms that helped define 2011 — be it Penn State or Arab Spring — cropped up often when culling the finalists. Picking a winner for Editorial Cartooning is a dicier game of chance than other categories, I would submit, because the recipient may well have excelled at satirizing 20 separate topics.
Still, as a passionate fan (and former practitioner) of editorial cartooning, Comic Riffs approaches Monday afternoon’s announcement (3 p.m. ET) with a handful of key questions that just may help point the way toward cartooning's 2012 Pulitzer.
First, a proviso: As Comic Riffs wrote in last year’s prediction piece, any of the living previous winners still working could repeat as the honoree and I wouldn’t raise an eyebrow; the field is fertile. Second, any of the seemingly endless number of political cartoonists named “Mike” could win and I wouldn’t flinch. (And for those who live for Venn-worthy overlaps: Six times a “Mike” has won the cartooning Pulitzer in the past three decades of derbies. As they say: You could look it up.)
With that out of the way — and without further ado or to-do — here are Comic Riffs’ Five Key Questions About the 2012 Cartooning Pulitzer:
1. WILL AN “ALTIE” be among the finalists?
It’s been a quarter-century since Village Voice legend Jules Feiffer won the Pulitzer — and more than 15 years since Ted Rall (then of Chronicle Features) was a finalist. Can a cartoonist from “alternative” media crack the top three in 2012?
My opinion: This year seems more promising than most for alties, partly because of the growing recognition of such talents as Matt Bors, Jen Sorensen and Brian McFadden.
The syndicated Bors — who has already bagged the Herblock Prize and SPJ Sigma Delta Chi Award this year — delivered hard-hitting cartoons all last year, when not also creating and championing international comics journalism. Sorensen (“Slowpoke Comics”) — a finalist for the 2012 Herblock — is an utterly unique voice. And McFadden really delivered after scoring prime (albeit decidely “non-altie”) real estate as part of a New York Times experiment.
As the Internet increasingly embraces “the alties,” so, too, might “the Pulies.”
2. WILL A COMIC STRIPPER be among the finalists?
Commonly known fact: In 1975, “Doonesbury” creator Garry Trudeau became the first person to win the editorial cartooning Pulitzer for a comic strip.
Much-lesser known fact: Since that win, Trudeau is a three-time finalist.
Perhaps even lesser-known fact: “For Better or For Worse” (Lynn Johnston) and “Funky Winkerbean” (Tom Batiuk) have also been finalists for the Pulitzer. (The former for a storyline centering on homosexuality; the latter for an arc involving a character’s breast cancer.)
Relatively seldom do comic strips gain Pulitzer recognition, but it’s time for “Doonesbury” to earn a repeat honor. Trudeau made headlines and maintained high relevance in 2011 — and his sequences involving the nation’s military continue to be insightful, powerful and well-reported.
3. WILL ONE OF “younger guns” break through?
Besides Matt Bors. another ‘under-35” talent deserving of Pulitzer’s gaze is Nate Beeler, the former Washington Examiner staffer who just relocated to his hometown paper, the Columbus Dispatch.
Beeler has a beautiful line, a pithy wit and a nib that cuts his political targets like an (old-school) X-acto knife. And perhaps also working in his quirks-of-competition favor, he became partly identified with a specific issue in ’11 — the right-leaning artist created a series of cartoons that hammered away at Occupy Movement protestors like a bongo drumbeat.
My opinion: Maybe not today, but one of these years, and soon, Bors or Beeler — deservedly, Bors and Beeler — will break through to the Pulitzer stand.
[NATE BEELER: Cartoonist has a front-row seat to Occupy mockery]
4. WILL MATT WUERKER win a first Pulitzer for Politico?
In 2009, Politico made two giant strides of acceptance in the Pulitzer arena:
1. Executive Editor Jim VandeHei was elected to the Pulitzer Board.
2. Political cartoonist Matt Wuerker was a finalist for the first time.
Wuerker, who would repeat as a finalist the following year, renders incisive judgment in his beautiful ink-and-watercolor work.
The president-elect of his profession’s AAEC is also a Herblock Prize recipient. who has gained national syndication — as well as a national following.
My opinion: Wuerker is due.
FROM MARK FIORE’S WINNING ENTRY:
5. WILL THE PULITZERS recognize another online-only cartoonist?
We’re only two years removed from political animator Mark Fiore becoming the first entirely non-print cartoonist to win the editorial Pulitzer — one of several Pulitzer firsts for the Bay Area-based freelancer. In its embrace of digital, the Pulitzer accepted online-only entries this year, so it will be especially intriguing to see whether that increased the field of entrants — and how that just might play out among the finalist picks in all Prize categories.
The state of editorial cartooning — particularly given the shrinking of such full-time staff positions — continues to be in serious flux. Last year’s Pulitzer winner, Mike Keefe, decided to retire from his longtime Denver perch. Likewise Tony Auth, the Pulitzer-winning stalwart of Philadelphia, who just last month took the Inquirer’s buyout.
And we certainly hope the Sacramento Bee will, in due time, decide to replace the supremely gifted Rex Babin, who died last month at age 49. (In some ways, of course, there is no replacing a beloved colleague like Babin; the Bee held a special public commemoration for him Sunday, featuring cartooning colleagues Joel Pett and Jack Ohman as scheduled speakers — and the California governor declared it “Rex Babin Day.”)
Babin, we should note, was a 2003 Pulitzer finalist.
Such gifted editorial cartoonists deserve to be recognized by the Pulitzers and their reading public.
Today, may three satirizing finalists earn a piece of that hard-won recognition.
MONDAY AFTERNOON UPDATE : Wuerker, Bors and Ohman react to being recognized by the 2012 Pulitzer jurors.