NATE BEELER: The backstory behind the uplifting DOMA cartoon that just won the Fischetti award

Nate Beeler's winning cartoon. (courtesy of the artist)
Nate Beeler’s winning cartoon. (courtesy of the artist)

 

UNCHANGED BY journalism’s ever-shifting technology is the magic of the distilled idea — that thunderbolt of inspiration that a cartoonist can deliver with an emotional jolt by way of a single image.

And that’s part of what makes the Fischetti cartoon competition so fascinating in 2014: It selects a winner each year based not on a chunky portfolio, but rather a single image (a practice the Pulitzers, by comparison, switched from long ago).

This year’s winner, based on a positively charged thunderclap of a cartoon, is Nate Beeler of the Columbus Dispatch, for his illustrated reaction last year to the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down DOMA, the Columbia College Chicago’s Journalism Department has announced.

“On the day of the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Defense of Marriage Act, I felt it was not a moment to be droll or cynical,” Beeler told the John Fischetti Editorial Cartoon Competition. “I wanted to simultaneously depict and celebrate the happiness experienced by same-sex couples and their supporters across the country. The court’s decision righted an injustice and was an affirmation of both dignity and freedom, which made Lady Justice and Lady Liberty logical icons to use in the cartoon.

“I hoped showing them rejoicing in a loving embrace would be an image that resonated with readers,” Beeler continued, “and gratifyingly, the response to the cartoon has been tremendous.”

Beeler, an American University alum, was the editorial cartoonist at the Washington Examiner for seven years before returning to his Ohio hometown in 2011 when his Dispatch perch opened up. Beeler, who is syndicated by Cagle Cartoons, is a recipient of the Clifford K. & James T. Berryman Award for Editorial Cartoons, the Overseas Press Club’s Thomas Nast Award and the AAEC’s Golden Spike.

After the Pulitzer-winning cartoonist John Fischetti died in 1980, his loved ones created the Fischetti fund with Columbia College Chicago’s Journalism Department; that money goes toward both student scholarships and the support of “outstanding editorial cartoonists.”

The Fischetti awarded honorable mentions to Steve Breen of the San Diego Union-Tribune (for his artwork about NSA spying) and the Miami Herald’s Jim Morin (for a cartoon captioned, “Path to citizenship”). The award will be presented Sept. 17 in a ceremony hosted by Columbia College Chicago.

Comic Riffs caught up with Beeler to discuss the creation of his winning cartoon, his adjustment to his current editorial home — and how the high reader praise for his DOMA cartoon was so different from the usual blowback:

MICHAEL CAVNA: Congrats on the award, Nate. How did you get the news, and what was your reaction?

NATE BEELER: While on deadline, I received a call from a number with a “312″ area code. Usually, if it’s a number I don’t recognize, I’ll just let it go to voice-mail. But this time, I happened to pick up. It was Nancy Day, the journalism chair at Columbia College of Chicago, telling me I won the Fischetti. It was a big surprise, and given the high-caliber list of past winners, I was deeply honored. I thanked her and then apologized for having to get off the phone because I had a half-drawn cartoon to finish.

I made deadline by the skin of my teeth.

MC: So many contests involve entire portfolios, but the Fischetti honors a single great cartoon. How did you whittle down what to enter — what were your criteria for culling?

NB: Drawing 240 or so cartoons a year leaves you with a lot of hits and misses — and it invariably feels like the latter vastly outnumber the former. But there can be two or three cartoons that stick with you as the months progress, which comes in handy when the Fischetti deadline nears. The criteria for my entries include, first and foremost, a striking image and forceful viewpoint that uses as few words as possible. I’ll consider reader reaction and feedback from colleagues as well, but I have to be passionate about the cartoon myself.

MC: You mentioned in your comments to the Fischetti competition that this cartoon was more joyful — more upbeat and less negative — than so much of what you necessarily traffic in. Can you speak more about that?

NB: An editorial cartoonist’s job is to engage readers in the debates of society. We do this by drawing our reactions to world events. Our palette includes the full range of emotions, although readers mostly see the negative ones. Fear, anger, contempt, annoyance, incredulity, distrust — these spring naturally from a stream of bad news. Sometimes you’re compelled to grab for a different brush or pen or emotion, especially when events call out for it.

 


Nate Beeler’s sketch that became his Fischetti-winning cartoon. (courtesy of the artist)

 

MC: Part of the [image's] emotion is that it isn’t just a kiss, but rather a sense of sudden joy, a rush of passion. A close-up without the dropped scales and sword stuck with obvious force would change the cartoon’s larger expression entirely. Could you speak to process — did you through many roughs, many angles, or did the image just come to you like this?

NB: That feeling of spontaneous reaction — a joyful running leap into a loved one’s arms — was what I wanted to capture. I assembled the image in my head fairly quickly that day and only drew one sketch. The hard parts for me were things like figuring out the right angle for Lady Justice’s leg, and how the two figures physically interacted. Should they be kissing or just nuzzling? I wanted to convey nuanced emotions without words, which is a struggle. I searched online for pictures of couples jumping, hugging, kissing, and touching noses, but in the end designed my own pose.

MC: You’ve been back in Columbus [since you left Washington] a couple of years now — how is it going, how is your connection to the local segment of your readership, and is there anything you miss about D.C.?

NATE BEELER
NATE BEELER

NB: I had wonderful, supportive editors in Mark Tapscott and Stephen G. Smith while I was at The Washington Examiner. I was incredibly lucky to find the same in Columbus at the Dispatch with editorial page editor Glenn Sheller and editor Ben Marrison. The savviness of the editorial writers and other reporters here has helped me immensely while adjusting to covering Ohio politics, which is very, very different than Virginia, Maryland and D.C. Being a mischief-maker, I do sometimes miss the bare-knuckle quality of Washington politics.

MC: Lastly, do you see yourself as a conservative cartoonist, or an independent or MOR cartoonist, or with streaks of libertarian? How do you self-define as a political cartoonist these days — and did you receive any … reader blowback when your winning cartoon ran?

NB: I slam President Obama, and liberals say I’m a conservative. Then I draw a cartoon bashing conservatives, and they call me a liberal. I don’t self-identify as anything other than an editorial cartoonist. My opinions lean libertarian, but when pressed to it, libertarians would likely reject me as one of their own. And I would have no problem with that. I worked in Washington long enough for it to strip me of most of my political idealism. Now I naturally use more of my head than my heart when it comes to politics.

I received zero criticism for my DOMA cartoon. In fact, I received more positive feedback to it than just about any other cartoon I’ve drawn. I’m not used to e-mailers addressing me in terms that are actually publishable in a family newspaper.

Writer/artist/visual storyteller Michael Cavna is creator of the "Comic Riffs" column and graphic-novel reviewer for The Post's Book World. He relishes sharp-eyed satire in most any form.
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