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Posted at 02:00 PM ET, 04/14/2011

HANDICAPPING THE PULITZERS: Which cartoonists might get the call next week?


One of Steve Breen's BP spill cartoons made from Gulf tarballs. (Steve Breen - San Diego Union-Tribune)
The 2011 Pulitzer Prizes are scheduled to be announced Monday, and this year, we have to take serious issue with the good folks up at Columbia University, because we have yet to hear even the faintest quasi-informed whisper about who might win. Or be a finalist. Particularly for Editorial Cartooning.

If only BP were running this show, we might have reasonable hope for some leaks. But no — the flow of information over cartooning is sealed as tight as a non-oil drum.

Which leaves us with only one option: To dabble in the game of chance that is Pulitzer Prognostication. Most years, as it is, trying to tab the winner for Editorial Cartooning is a crapshoot; this year, though, the odds are as long as betting against Bogart’s Rick at the Cafe Americain tables. So as we lay our money down today, we can only hope that — as with Bogie toward “Casablanca’s” young Bulgarian couple — the Pulitzer jurors will take pity on our plight. This is a fool’s errand, which means that for once, no one is more qualified than us.

So as we leap into the breach, our primary caveat is that nearly any of cartooning’s living prior winners could pull a repeat and we wouldn’t blink. This includes a seemingly infinite number of Michaels — including the Atlanta Journal Constitution’s Mike Luckovich, Michael Ramirez of Investors’ Business Daily or the Dayton Daily News’s Mike Peters, who just the other week won the National Headliner Award (based on that, how long till Detroit’s Mike Thompson or Denver’s Mike Keefe, say, wins one?). Plus, there are the perennial “already-won-it” contenders such as Clay Bennett and David Horsey.

(Those previous winners also include The Post’s Tom Toles and washingtonpost.com’s Ann Telnaes, who just last month finished first and second, respectively, for the 2011 Herblock Prize.)

Comic Riffs would also like to note that at least several alt-political cartoonists and indie cartoonists would get a long look from us for consideration, including the Charlottesville-based Jen Sorensen and “Tom the Dancing Bug’s” Ruben Bolling (next year, for sure, Bolling should enter this spin on “Huckleberry Finn” in his portfolio). And two alt-cartoonists, previous Pulitzer finalist Ted Rall and Matt Bors, will likely pick up multiple awards down the line for graphic journalism based on their weeks-long 2010 trip through Afghanistan.

But as we know, the Pulitzer folks seldom look beyond more traditional newspaper perches when picking a winner.

So factoring all that into the equation, here are a half-dozen cartoonists who we believe have a better-than-fair chance to have gotten especially serious consideration as 2011 Pulitzer finalists. Roll the dice and let the crapshoot begin:

STEVE BREEN: Thinking outside the cross-hatched box, the San Diego Union-Tribune cartoonist had two projects that especially merit attention. First was what Comic Riffs dubbed “Operation Tarball,” wherein Breen traveled to the Gulf and trawled the shore for actual BP oil. Returning to Southern California with his pirated petroleum booty, Breen cut the tarballs with gasoline and converted the thinned mixture into both his muse and his medium, painting a week’s worth of editorial cartoons about the BP spill using actual BP oil. The elegant result was the furthest thing from crude, and the fact the cartoons were rendered in BP’s own roiling product gave them an extra potency.

Breen also tackled the constant border-city issue of illegal immigration. More than two decades ago, Jonathan Freedman of the then-San Diego Tribune won a Pulitzer for his editorials on immigration. Breen found equal inspiration by doing his own reporting, interviewing illegal immigrants himself to try to put human faces to the debate. The result was the multimedia cartoon project “Living in the Shadows.”

Perhaps the only thing working against Breen: He’s already won the Pulitzer twice. Will the jurors be quick to award him a third since 1998?

MATT WUERKER: The Politico cartoonist recently signed his first major syndication contract, with Universal Uclick. And for good reason. Ever since Wuerker joined Politico at its very launch several years back, he’s settled into a perch that allows him to create consistently incisive and powerful work. Wuerker seemed to hit his stride with the 2008 presidential campaign and hasn’t let up since.

In recent years, Wuerker — working in a traditional format yet developing a true signature style — has won the Herblock Prize and the Berryman Award. He’s also been a Pulitzer finalist each of the past two years, so he’s definitely knocking at the ivy-covered door.

This, at last, just might be his year.

GARRY TRUDEAU: Ever since 1975, the “Doonesbury” creator is oft-cited as the first comic-strip artist to win the Pulitzer for Editorial Cartooning. Far fewer people, however, are aware that Trudeau has twice been a Pulitzer finalist since the start of the Iraq War. As Trudeau has spent many hours with the troops both in the States and overseas — including a 2010 trip to Afghanistan — his strip has mined emotions and military realities that largely transcend partisan politics.

By digging into the very sand of soldiers, in other words, “Doonesbury” has discovered ever-poignant depths.


Garry Trudeau's retrospective collection. (Garry Trudeau - Andrews McMeel)

The jurors, however, might be a mite reluctant to award a second editorial cartooning Pulitzer to a “comic strip.” Well, we have your answer: The committee at Columbia should rightly award a Pulie to 2010’s “40: A Doonesbury Retrospective.” The book is weighty in more ways than one (“Lift from the knees,” Trudeau says) and allows the reader to fully appreciate the achievement of creating a potently relevant comic strip for four decades — a feat debatably matched by few if any.

Want to celebrate “Doonesbury” for career accomplishment”? It is time, then, to honor the tome.

MIKE THOMPSON: For the first time, the Pulitzer folks acknowledged a profound change in the industry and gave the 2010 award to a political animator — freelancer Mark Fiore, for his work that was published on SFGate.com.

Well, at the Detroit Free Press, Thompson offers a blend of traditional editorial cartoon and, occasionally, his own brand of political animation.

Thompson — who last month won the 2011 Scripps Howard cartooning award — is a gifted illustrator and an insightful commentator who does a deft job of bouncing between national and state/local issues.

It doesn’t hurt, too, that Thompson has thrice been a finalist since 2006. As with Wuerker, this just may be the year he gets to step into the winner’s circle.

GARY VARVEL: Last month, the Indianapolis Star’s Varvel won the 2011 Grambs/Aronson Cartoonist With a Conscience award for his recurring series “The Path to Hope,” which illustrates the effects of financial hardship on the residents of Indianapolis — where, according to Varvel, one in every four children lives in poverty.

Domestic violence. Poor nutrition. Illiteracy. Varvel gets upclose and personal with residents — and his readers — to put a (caricatured) human face on these community ills.

As the Grambs/Aronson judges wrote: There is “a level of empathetic detail rare even in print news accounts.”

NATE BEELER: The Washington Examiner artist, who is in his 30s, represents hope for the next generation of editorial cartoonists. Beeler blends a clean, elegant style — one that nods to such greats as Borgman and MacNelly — with true pointed satire (an ingredient so often missing in many of today’s go-for-the-common-gag cartoons). Some year soon — if not 2011 — we expect to hear his name called.

We will applaud his ascension.

By  |  02:00 PM ET, 04/14/2011

Tags:  editorial cartooning, 2011 Pulitzer Prizes

 
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