All three men are editorial cartoonists, and on Friday, all three were announced as Pulitzer Prize finalists — Alcaraz and Bolling for the second time in their careers. They all had gratitude for the recognition, yet they were also bewildered: Just who was the winner in their category?
Seeing the tweet from the Pulitzer account only stoked their confusion. It read: “No prize was awarded in Editorial Cartooning.”
Alcaraz appeared so puzzled that his colleagues on the animated Nickelodeon series “The Casagrandes” asked him during their virtual meeting Friday whether something was wrong. His response: “I’m trying to find out whether I lost — or won — a Pulitzer.”
Then came clarification. The five-person jury for the category picked the finalists but the larger Pulitzer Prize Board, which selects the winners for all the prizes in journalism and the arts, did not do so for cartooning because no consensus pick emerged. That happens every so often in various categories, but this was the first time in nearly a half-century that it had happened to political artists.
The decision sparked a flurry of questions and comments on social media, followed by pointed criticism from cartooning outlets and organizations. Common responses amid the backlash were “disappointed,” “insulted” and “wrong” — and frustrated a community within journalism that has often felt imperiled, downgraded and disrespected in recent decades.
Bolling, whose real name outside of the cartooning profession is Ken Fisher, was recognized for his comic “Tom the Dancing Bug,” including its depiction of life in Trump’s America. He told The Washington Post that he is “deeply thrilled” by the honor and doesn’t want anything else “to diminish my appreciation for that.”
But the decision not to name a winner, he said, “is frustrating, baffling and wrongheaded.”
Added Bolling: “I’ve honestly never been insulted by losing an award — I don’t feel I’ve ever deserved anything. But I am insulted by this decision by the board, on behalf of myself and all cartoonists.”
The Association of American Editorial Cartoonists — of which Bolling and Alcaraz are members — issued a statement Friday: “We are mystified by the pointed rejection of talented Finalists, as well as the many other artists who have been creating powerful work in these most eventful and challenging of times.”
In 2017, Bolling and Two Bulls were honored by the Herblock Prize for cartooning. On Monday, Herb Block Foundation executive director Sarah Alex told The Post: “It’s a surprise that a Pulitzer award is not given in editorial cartooning at a time when support for journalists and the need to protect the freedom of expression has been so relevant.”
Elsewhere, the Cartoonists Rights Network International group, the National Cartoonists Society, the cartoon subscription newsletter Counterpoint and Andrews McMeel Syndication (which distributes Alcaraz and Bolling and hosts Two Bulls’s work) were among those criticizing the Pulitzer decision. “In a year with such strong cartoons and such strong finalists, I think it’s shocking, and an abdication of duty, for the Pulitzer committee to refuse to name a winner,” said Shena Wolf, Andrews McMeel’s director of comics and acquisitions.
On Wednesday, King Features and Creators joined with Andrews McMeel in disagreeing with the Pulitzer decision, which “diminishes the prestige of the award and is disrespectful” to political cartoonists, the three syndicates said in a statement. They added that the board was failing “to acknowledge the hard work of so many editorial cartoonists, particularly the work of cartoonists from underrepresented backgrounds.”
The finalists were still absorbing the news days after the announcement. “I’m a little confused and a little exasperated,” said Alcaraz, noting that he entered work that offers strong opinions on issues that concern his Latino readers. “I’m just trying to keep this art form alive.”
“They led us up to the door,” he added, “but they didn’t let us in.”
Two Bulls, whose primary client is the weekly Lakota Times in South Dakota, offered a positive spin. “I thought it was strange they didn’t pick a winner,” he said. “But then I thought: Our work was so outstanding that they had trouble picking a winner. So basically, we’re all winners.”
So what did happen, exactly?
Bud Kliment, the interim administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes, told The Post that he could not discuss details of the board’s deliberations, except to say: “Despite considerable discussion by the board, none of the three finalists achieved a majority vote in the Editorial Cartooning category.”
Kliment pointed out that in the century-long history of the Pulitzers’ cartooning category, “no awards were given in 1973, 1965, 1960, 1936 and 1923,” and he noted that “the nominating juries are briefed and aware of this possibility when they deliberate.”
Yet Bolling’s interpretation was: “It sure looks like they were saying that no cartoonist did work that was Pulitzer-worthy this year.”
This year’s jury in the category consisted of two Pulitzer-winning political cartoonists, two editorial page editors and a comics curator at Columbia University, whose journalism school administers the Pulitzers. Juries forward the names of three alternates to the board in addition to the finalists.
Juror Signe Wilkinson, the first woman to win the cartooning Pulitzer, told The Post she delighted in what her group chose: “I don’t see Marty Two Bulls’s and Lalo’s work every day, so to open their portfolios and be bowled over by the power of their pens is why I love this profession.” (Back in 1973, the last time this happened, cartooning finalists weren’t even announced.)
The cartooning world has been hit with seismic shifts this century, as newspaper staff positions and alternative-weekly opportunities have dwindled. The AAEC says fewer than three dozen full-time newspaper staff jobs remain in the United States. Plus, the Pulitzers have broadened the criteria for the category in recent years, awarding in 2018 non-opinionated comics journalism published in the New York Times — a controversial pick within the community.
This year’s three finalists have had to adapt to those shifts. Two Bulls, for instance, who is also a painter, said he curated his portfolio largely based on social media response. He’s a member of the Oglala Lakota tribe, and some of his submitted cartoons centered on national politics through a Native American lens.
He added that some of his work might not speak to a wider audience. “Native American humor is different than mainstream humor that you’d find in the New Yorker or something. We like satire and being ironic. We find humor in the worst times — things that happen to our lands, to our people, to our water. Still, we’ll joke about it.”
The finalists do appreciate the broader awareness of their work that Pulitzer recognition can bring.
Two Bulls says he plans to mention it in his advertising. And Alcaraz says he still basks in the uplift of being a Pulitzer finalist again: “I’m not going to tattoo it on my forehead, but I am going to talk about it all the time.”
This article has been updated.