A SEMI-CIRCLE of women cartoonists sat talking in the lobby of Washington’s Omni Shoreham Hotel as Saturday turned into Sunday, all of them dressed in formal attire from the just-concluded Reuben Awards ceremony to salute their industry, and several noted that the evening’s honors felt special.
It felt, in fact, historic.
For decades, the National Cartoonists Society, like so many American professional organizations dating back to midcentury, was an old boys’ club, a reputation and legacy that some members say the group is still trying to shake off.
On Saturday night, in a ballroom holding hundreds of top cartoonists, the organizers might as well have piped in Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off,” because for only the third time in the event’s six-decade-plus history, a woman — the New Yorker’s Roz Chast — received the group’s big honor, the Reuben Award for Outstanding Cartoonist of the Year. And her trophy capped what may well be the event’s winningest night ever for female writers and artists, as six women won in the 16 competitive categories.
As the ceremony turned to the awards presentations, male illustrators and animators, as happens most years, won the first half-dozen trophies. But then something apparently unprecedented for this organization happened: Women proceeded to win five of the next seven awards, and suddenly it felt as though the NCS — which in its earliest, postwar years barred women from even joining the club, and which infamously used to feature nude renderings of well-known female comic characters in its program bill — was taking strides toward more closely representing, and recognizing, the larger community of cartoon art. And toward looking more like a world in which Raina Telgemeier absolutely dominates recent New York Times bestseller lists for graphic novels, and “Saga” artist Fiona Staples receives multiple 2015 Eisner Award nominations at San Diego Comic-Con — and where even Chast herself, since last year, has won a groaning shelf of trophies and laurels, some groundbreaking, for her first graphic memoir, “Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?”
It was just a couple of years ago that Chast received an NCS divisional award (now dubbed a Silver Reuben) in the Gag Cartoons category — one of only several women in nearly 60 years to win that award. But then, Chast — who began drawing for the New Yorker in the late ’70s, prompting some critical backlash then from even some intra-magazine male colleagues — has long been a cartooning trailblazer. So when, in her Reuben acceptance speech via video, Chast cited not only her diverse influences but also her crucial early editorial supporters (including Lee Lorenz and William Shawn), it reflected just how high many of her hurdles had been. Now, she shines like an inspiration to many, including to women who have followed her at the New Yorker itself, including Liza Donnelly.
And only a couple of years ago, just up the road in Washington, it was Donnelly — gag cartoonist, political cartoonist and editor, author of “Women on Men” — who helped emcee the Small Press Expo’s Ignatz Awards evening at which all the presenters were women. Of course, SPX, as a festival, draws a much-younger crowd than a Reubens industry convention, but in doing so, it also points toward the very future of comics, as roughly half the SPX exhibitors are women (as are a high percentage of the reading fans roaming the showroom aisles).
That stands in stark contrast to what you see on the newspaper comics pages, as well as on most of the nation’s editorial pages. From its very inception, the NCS has been a newspaper-centric professional organization, and largely as a result, the group’s representation has been as male-dominated as the newspaper pages where cartoon art appears. But there are encouraging signs for the NCS: Both of the only two women who appear on The Post’s funny pages, for instance — “Rhymes With Orange” creator Hilary Price and “Reply All” creator Donna Lewis — were in attendance Saturday night at the Reubens, with Price (also a Reuben Award nominee, like Chast) winning the Newspaper Panel Cartoon category.
Price’s prize, in fact, capped that 5-of-7 run of category wins by women, kicked off by Marla Frazee’s win for Book Illustration, for “The Farmer and the Clown,” and continued by Donnelly’s honor for Magazine Gag Cartoon.
(Also notably in attendance, to spearhead Saturday seminars: Post political animator Ann Telnaes, who was moderator-turned-debater for an especially lively free-speech panel, in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre; and artist/author Juana Medina, who in 2009 was the inaugural recipient of the NCS’s Jay Kennedy Memorial Scholarship.)
Outgoing NCS president Tom Richmond has worked to help the slow-to-adapt event better reflect the times, and current marketplace, for cartoonists, and one of the smartest moves during his four-year term has been the addition of Reuben categories to recognize long- and short-form online comics, where creativity and diversity are booming, free of institutional gatekeepers. Last night, those two categories were swept by women.
In the Online Short Form division, Danielle Corsetto won for her recently wrapped strip “Girls With Slingshots.” And it was genuinely great to see Corsetto — who tends to be withdrawn at industry events — respond so warmly to the love in the room toward her work; in her acceptance speech, she graciously cited older newspaper strips (including “Garfield” and “Luann”) that she enjoyed reading as a young girl.
Her win was followed by that of Minna Sundberg, who won the Online Long Form category for her feature “Stand Still, Stay Silent.”
The last two honors of the night ahead of the Reuben Award went to two frequent nominees: Investor’s Business Daily political cartoonist Michael Ramirez (who has won this honor four times in seven years — a head-turning dominance not remotely seen with other major Editorial Cartooning awards); and to 2015 Reuben nominee Stephan Pastis, whose “Pearls Before Swine” took home the Newspaper Comic Strip honor for the third time.
And if the ceremony had a particular feel-good moment besides Chast’s win (as the first woman ever to win the Reuben, Lynn Johnston, looked on), it was the presentation of the first NCS Medal of Honor to legendary MAD caricature artist Mort Drucker, whom Richmond — in quoting his MAD magazine predecessors, called “everybody’s hero.” And perhaps fitting given the growing diversity of the NCS honorees, Drucker told me in an interview a day earlier that he advised his children, as they matured, not to forsake their life passions in choosing a partner, but rather to follow the path of what they love.
As his daughter Laurie beamed from near the stage Saturday, it was obvious she has found happiness in part by listening to her father’s advice, born in the spirit of creative equality.
Here are the recipients of 2015 NCS Reubens ceremony honors, where were hosted by Australian comic/cartoonist Jason Chatfield: