“Gridlock” was among the 20 cartoons in Mike Keefe's Pulitzer-winning portofilio. (Mike Keefe/Denver Post)

To many in the cartooning community, Mike Keefe’s Pulitzer win Monday for editorial cartooning was perceived as exactly that — a doff of the cap to acknowledge his 36-years-and-counting of continued excellence at the Denver Post. And it takes a hard heart not to applaud that. Sometimes, rules were made to be token.

Surviving, let alone thriving, in the current era of political cartooning is no small feat, often depending on talent, ingenuity, doggedness, relationships and — occasionally — more than a pinch of luck. So for the political cartoonist, 36 years of excellence from a single perch should be considered by another metric, one that approaches a conversion to “dog years.”

Keefe said he was “gobsmacked” by the award, having figured that in perhaps the autumn of his career, the chance for a Pulitzer had pretty much passed him by. “Stunned and completely taken by surprise” was how Keefe described his reaction to Comic Riffs.

Acknowledging Monday’s Pulitzer finalists, Keefe also told ‘Riffs that he was “honored to be on the same podium with Matt Davies and Joel Pett, two of the very best in the business.”

It it worth noting that Davies, the 2004 Pulitzer winner, was canned last fall by the Gannett-owned Journal News (N.Y.) — yet another reminder that even elite staff cartoonists aren’t safe from cuts. And Pett — another beacon of sharp talent and nimble survival — joined the Lexington Herald-Leader in 1984.

Comic Riffs hopes the Pulitzer will only help Keefe secure his cartooning perch for many years more. This would be a wise move by the Denver Post, which in the mid-’60s hired another then-young talent as its staff cartoonist.

That talent is the influential Pulitzer winner Patrick Oliphant, who is still as vital and biting and incisive nearly a half-century later, providing hope that sometimes, dogged dedication to craft is long rewarded. Even in dog years.

VARVEL REACTS TO RFK WIN

Indianapolis Star cartoonist Gary Varvel tells Comic Riffs that he’s “very honored and humbled” to win the 2011 RFK Journalism Award for cartooning.

Varvel tweeted Monday that he’d won. On Wednesday, the folks at the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice & Human Rights made it official, announcing all their 43rd annual journalism honors (other winners included Dan Rather, NPR and James Gandolfini).

Varvel was praised for his “Path to Hope” work — the series of cartoon reportage that Comic Riffs praised last week in our short list for the Pulitzer. The project took readers up-close and personal with Indianapolis’s poorer residents.

“When I started the research for the ‘Path to Hope’ series, I really didn’t know much about the subject of child poverty,” Varvel tells Comic Riffs. “The neighborhoods I was going in to were only known to me as places I drove by on the interstate system for most of my life.”

The cartoonist says he took a six-week class in “Poverty 101” and met people who’ve devoted their work lives to inner-city ministries.

“They told me about these amazing success stories,” Varvel says. “When I met the people who became the subjects of my series, I was inspired by what they had overcome. Although each one had a different story, they all shared the same resources that led to their ultimate success: Long-term mentoring relationships with stable adults who helped them with their physical needs and education.”

Varvel credits his boss, opinion/community conservations editor Tim Swarens, for the seed of the idea.

A panel of 60 judges picked the RFK winners. The awards will be presented May 18 at Washington’s United States Institute of Peace.

CAGLE ON ONLINE CARTOONS

Political-cartoon syndicator Daryl Cagle doesn’t believe that highlighting cartoonists by their own names is the best way for media outlets to draw readers to their illustrative work.

“We suffer from perceptions — editorial cartoons are displayed poorly, in automated, dated archives,” Cagle tells Comic Riffs, “and then the editors argue that our content isn’t popular.”

Cagle, who runs his MSNBC political cartoon site, says he wants to the ”webmasters” at newspaper take “a less passive role” in how political cartoons are presented.

“Editorial cartoons were conceived as islands of art in a sea of text on the editorial pages — they work best when mixed appropriately with related content, to liven up dull text,” Cagle tells ‘Riffs. “Imagine posting news articles by date alone, or by the names of reporters — who would care?

“I’d like to see the cartoons run online in articles and columns on the same topics.”

On his own site, Cagle indexes cartoons both by topic and name. Those topics run the gamut from the serious to the celebrity..

“Many news sites, and scores of newspaper sites” have these automated, dated archives, Cagle wrote on his blog this week, adding: “More examples of terrible editorial cartoon sections on popular newspapers sites are The New York Times and The Washington Post.”

Webmasters at The Post point out that the paper has redesigned the pages for cartoonists Tom Toles and Ann Telnaes — designs that they say have more visual appeal.

Cagle’s prescribed approach raises several interesting issues, among them:

1. In decades past, numerous cartoonists were stars whose very names were a “brand name” and they had national followings. Today, Cagle’s stance suggests the question: Just how much less dim does that starpower now burn?

2. Grouping hundreds of political cartoons by topic online might compel some sites to devote an editor to that task, rather than leaving such groupings to automation. In this lean-and-mean fiscal era for newspapers, how many sites would be willing to put a single body on that job? (Short answer: Probably depends on how many more clicks such a revamp could generate.)

3. Grouping cartoons by topic would necessitate buying cartoons in sufficient quantity to feed the new model. That typically means additional cost to the online site.

Of course, Cagle is also in the business of making new cartoon sales to online sites.

Comic Riffs should also note: We occasionally offer galleries grouped around a hot topic of national chatter — be it as serious as the BP oil spill or as silly as Charlie Sheen. Readers, for the most part, say they like and share these galleries.

So does grouping cartoons by “Trump,” say, now trump listing cartoons by artist’s name in terms of national recognition? And in a pipelining era of #hashtags and trending topics, do the most clicks come to those with the spot-on, SEO-worthy word?

I think I just answered my own questions.