On Monday, Bell was named the 2019 winner of the Pulitzer Prize “for beautiful and daring editorial cartoons that took on issues affecting disenfranchised communities, calling out lies, hypocrisy and fraud in the political turmoil surrounding the Trump administration,” as announced by the Pulitzer Board and Columbia University. Bell, who lives in the Sacramento area, is the first African American recipient of the editorial cartooning Pulitzer, which has been awarded since 1922.
“I’m honored that my work’s received this recognition,” Bell told The Washington Post on Monday. “All the nights I called home and told my wife and kids I had to stay at the office to cover something that just happened were not for nothing.
His own family was part of the picture, too, when Bell decided to add editorial cartooning to his heavy schedule of creative production. His political cartoons are now syndicated by King Features.
Amy Lago, his longtime Post Writers Group editor, says she had been urging Bell to do editorial cartoons since she arrived at the syndicate in 2004. “There were two things that prompted him to finally accept: the death of Trayvon Martin and the birth of his son,” says Lago, who calls Bell “quite possibly the hardest-working cartoonist among my [many] acquaintances.”
(At one point, she notes, Bell was writing and drawing two daily comic strips, creating three editorial cartoons a week, successfully submitting New Yorker cartoons and working on a “secret” storyboard project.)
Real-life slayings of black men and teenagers in recent years, often at the hands of police, compelled Bell to express himself through political cartoons.
Such violence is “personal because I’m going to have to have that talk with my baby boy in about seven or eight years, about how to behave when police are around, so as not to provoke them,” Bell told Comic Riffs in 2014. “And that’s the kind of talk a parent should only have to have with his child with regard to pit bulls.”
Bell also remembers receiving “the talk” when he was young, which might have saved his life.
“My mother, who’s white, had ‘the talk’ with me when I was around 6 or 7,” Bell said in 2014. “She was terrified because she’d caught me playing with a water gun another kid had loaned me. It looked like a real gun. She told me I’m a lot more likely to be shot by police than my friend was if they saw me with it, because police tend to think little black boys — even light-skinned ones — are older than they really are, and less innocent than they really are."
His commentary on race, politics and culture — as filtered through the intensity of his experience — elevates his work.
“Political cartoons are at their best when their authors actually display some human emotions,” Bell told Comic Riffs in 2015. “If you can talk about people being treated poorly or denied equal rights and not be emotional or sensitive to that, then there’s something wrong with you, and you probably could use some counseling.
"One of the common retorts to my cartoons is that I’m being ‘emotional’ or ‘angry.’ And my reply to that is always, ‘You’re damn right,' ” continues Bell. “There’s a time to be emotionally detached, purely objective and entirely analytical. Like when I’m doing my taxes, or playing chess — not when I’m creating political cartoons.”
During a speech at The Post on Monday, Bell said of his adding political cartoons to his output: “In comic strips, you still need to make people laugh. Some things, I don’t feel like laughing about.”