THE ANNOUNCEMENT Monday afternoon that an “electronic comic book” had received the Pulitzer Prize sent shock waves through some corners of the cartooning community.
In nearly a century of Pulitzer jurors honoring editorial cartooning, the award — much as with such sister categories as commentary and criticism — had never been given to multiple creators for a single entry. On Monday, freelancers Jake Halpern and Michael Sloan jointly won for “Welcome to the New World,” a long-form visual narrative about a Syrian refugee family that ran across 20 parts in the opinion section of the New York Times.
The win marked the first time that the Times — which famously does not employ a daily staff editorial cartoonist — had won in this category. The fact that the winners are freelancers also speaks to huge economic shifts in the comics industry at large; in recent decades, the number of daily staff political cartoonists in the United States has dwindled from hundreds to dozens.
As a result, many newspaper editors are not only running syndicated cartoons in lieu of staff works but are also experimenting with what kinds of visual storytelling and commentary formats to buy and employ.
Acknowledging just how much such comics journalism has grown in an online era, some cartoonists applaud the Pulitzers’ latest artistic pick.
“I have to say this year’s [prize] was a surprise,” says Matt Wuerker, the Pulitzer-winning cartoonist for Politico. “On the positive side, I think it’s great to see the old-fogy prizes evolve and get with the times. The Herblock Prize broadened the category years ago. Awarding the great work being done in comics journalism is a good thing.”
Matt Bors, a past Pulitzer finalist and winner of the Herblock Prize for editorial cartooning, strikes a similar tone.
“I think broader approaches to comics in journalism being considered for the Pulitzer is a good thing,” says Bors, founder of the comics journalism site the Nib. “I hope more media outlets will take note of how you can apply nonfiction and satire — and then hire some cartoonists.”
Joel Pett, the Pulitzer-winning cartoonist for the Lexington Herald-Leader, echoes that sentiment, telling The Washington Post’s Comic Riffs: “I hope the New York Times will now support even more comics and cartoonists.”
And Jack Ohman, the Pulitzer-winning cartoonist for the Sacramento Bee, cheers what this year’s winning works reflect at large.
“It’s a good sign that we don’t get locked into the [lone] rectangle cartoon format that people are familiar with. We’re all trying different things that are vital and cross-platform,” says Ohman, noting that he recently experimented with virtual-reality cartooning. He also points out how such practitioners as Pett and Nick Anderson of The Washington Post Writers Group have long varied their work between single panels and longer-form comics.
The win for “Welcome to the New World” is the latest cartooning victory to signal a change in the Pulitzers’ course. Two of the most prominent outliers: In 1975, “Doonesbury” creator Garry Trudeau became the first cartoonist to win the Pulitzer for a daily comic strip; and in 2010, freelancer Mark Fiore became the first person to win the Pulitzer for an animation-only portfolio.
“As far as the different choice for the Pulitzer editorial-cartoon category this year, I’m fine with it,” says Fiore, who Monday was named a Pulitzer finalist. “I think it’s just fine to expand the category of ‘editorial cartooning.’”
“Remember,” the Bay Area-based cartoonist adds, “I’m the guy who sent a spite Pulitzer entry for about five consecutive years before they accepted submissions made up of online-only cartoons.”
“I welcome graphic journalism, comics journalism and even cartoon journalism,” Fiore says. “Cartoons like these could just as easily fit the explanatory-journalism category or maybe even nonfiction” in the literature category.
Fiore’s description of the fluidity of Pulitzer categorization leads to a strong counterpoint: Some cartoonists say they object to how the Pulitzer jurors might effectively redefine the traditional term “editorial cartooning.”
“While I think the work was worthy of a Pulitzer,” cartoonist Wiley Miller says of “Welcome to the New World,” “it was not worthy of this particular prize, as it’s neither a cartoon nor an editorial.
“It’s graphic journalism, and there should be a category for that, as it’s a growing new field,” continues the past staff cartoonist and Reuben Award-winning creator of the syndicated strip “Non Sequitur.” The cartoonist, whose work is often credited just to “Wiley,” says freelancer Brian Fies is one the best currently working in this form.
(Miller also contends that neither winner of this year’s award was functioning as a “cartoonist”: “One [Halpern] is a writer and the other [Sloan] is an illustrator. A cartoonist is one who writes and draws their own material.”)
Politico’s Wuerker has a different criticism of Monday’s cartooning win: Should the award go to work that is only tangentially connected to President Trump?
“Seeing as we’re living through one of the wildest and most unruly periods in American politics, it’s truly strange for the Pulitzers to not fete the bare-knuckled, unruly end of the cartoon spectrum,” Wuerker says. “The cartoons being cranked by today’s editorial cartoonists are as good, tough and spot-on as the work that was being done in other earlier golden ages for political satire — such as the Vietnam-Watergate era, or before that, the cartoons created during the Gilded Age.
“If our roiled political waters ever calm down, then sure, it’s great to recognize new, softer forms of cartooning,” Wuerker continues. “But it seems in these political times, the Pulitzers really should have gone with something political. In the time of Trump, how can the editorial-cartoon prize not go to the best Trump cartoons?”
So were the Pulitzers trying to send a distinct message?
“I don’t actually think anyone was trying to make a bold statement of any sort,” Pulitzer Prize administrator Dana Canedy tells The Post on Tuesday.
“The fit within the rules, like all good cartooning, was provocative,” Canedy says of the winning cartoon portfolio. “I think that was a huge part of the appeal. I know that for purists from any creative realm, change is difficult. But in journalism and in the arts, change is happening. We can’t stop that, and I think the best thing we can do is embrace it.”
“With creative expression, there should be room to open it up and let these categories breathe a little bit,” adds Canedy, a former senior editor for the New York Times. “We’re very proud of this [cartoon] selection. It doesn’t take anything away from the purists.”
The only cartoonist to previously win a Pulitzer Prize for long-form reportorial comics is Art Spiegelman, whose groundbreaking Holocaust epic “Maus” received a 1992 special citation from the Pulitzers — a category, he says, that is “designed to honor anomalous creators like E.B. White, Duke Ellington, Bob Dylan and Dr. Seuss.”
“Another award in my medium has seemed long, long overdue,” Spiegelman tells The Post of nonfiction comics. “The Pulitzer committee has honorably grappled with how to recognize a medium that has newsprint in its DNA.”
He sees the recognition of “Welcome to the New World” as a tribute to the “avalanche of jaw-droppingly significant achievements in comics over the past decade or so, as it continues to flourish.”
And now, if “I’m ever tapped as an adviser to the committee,” Spiegelman says of the Pulitzers, “I’d love to bring a dossier with a couple dozen other comics artists who deserve to be immediately invited into the club.”
This post has been updated.