AS WARD SUTTON accepts the prize tonight that is named for Herblock, he can’t help but marvel at what a different world the legendary Washington Post cartoonist inhabited.
For most of the 20th century, Herblock got to hurl his inky slings and arrows from a rare Post perch, fearlessly coining the term “McCarthyism” to metaphorically unmask one Capitol Hill demagogue, and then, two decades later, visually tying crimes to the White House in the immediate aftermath of the Watergate break-in. The four-time Pulitzer Prize-winner — for cartooning and public service — enjoyed a full-barrel freedom of powerful influence almost unfathomable now.
Ahead of the Herblock Prize ceremony Wednesday night at the Library of Congress — during which NPR’s Scott Simon will deliver the annual lecture and Sutton will speak as this year’s recipient of the award — the winning Boston Globe cartoonist weighs Herblock’s still-relevant legacy.
“My parents gave me Herblock’s autobiography as a gift years ago,” Sutton tells The Washington Post’s Comic Riffs. “Although I’d surely seen cartoons of his before that, this was my first big introduction to his work. I love his drawing — his Joe McCarthy and [President] Nixon caricatures are especially cutting — his ability to make clear points so succinctly and, of course, his bold stands, many of which seem timeless.”
In recent weeks, Sutton has been revisiting that book and appreciating the photos and stories of Herblock “interacting with presidents, movie stars and other notables — as well as not interacting, such as the time when [President] Reagan singled him out and refused to invite him to a White House event because of his unflattering cartoons,” Sutton says.
“It’s amazing to think of a cartoonist being able to travel in those orbits,” the Globe contributor says. “Right now, social media and the Internet afford many platforms from which cartoons can be viewed, but Herblock’s work held such a high profile that we modern cartoonists can only dream of that kind of visibility and influence.”
Yet even as Sutton picks up the Herblock trophy — what he calls “the biggest and most prestigious award I’ve ever received” — he relishes the opportunity to have his editorial say in a newspaper.
“I feel very happy that I was able to explore a real range of topics and approaches with my work for the Boston Globe in 2017,” says Sutton, noting several in particular.
“The cartoon ‘Full Moon Fever’ was cathartic to create as a narrative of my own personal experience,” he says.
“ ‘Men: Aren’t They Swell?’ packed a large, single panel with accused sexual harassment/assault perpetrators with no further word balloon or comment,” he continues.
And, “If I had to pick a favorite, I would say the cartoon ‘Trumpflakes,’ where I look at Trump supporters through the same lens with which they look at liberals and call them ‘Snowflakes.’ ”
Sutton, who grew up in Minnesota and began cartooning for the Edina Sun community newspaper while in middle school, has built an enviable career by drawing for dozens of clients, including the New Yorker and the Village Voice, Rolling Stone and MAD, as well as the satiric “Stan Kelly” persona of a political cartoonist for the Onion.
“I’ve spent my entire professional career as a freelancer — it is a fun and liberating way to work, and I’ve come to take the insecurities that come with it in stride at this point,” Sutton says. “It can be exciting to find new outlets for my cartoons.”
Yet, the Colorado-based cartoonist says, he still feels “somewhat old school in that my work that won me the Herblock was all for the Boston Globe, a venerable daily paper. Although I don’t have the ‘staff cartoonist’ job in the way, say, Herblock did with The Washington Post, I do have a solid paper that I create cartoons for exclusively that gives me incredible support.
“It’s a lot different from when I used to self-syndicate my ‘Sutton Impact’ strip to alt-weekly papers” starting in 1998, spawning a book in 2005. (Sutton’s wide-ranging career has also included creating posters for Broadway, the Sundance Film Festival and top 1990s-sprung rock acts.)
It’s so different that after decades of doing political work, Sutton now finds himself picking up an editorial award just down the Mall from the White House that has so motivated him to create worthy work.
So what might Sutton say to President Trump if he gained such an audience during his visit?
“I feel so much outrage at what the White House is doing to this country that it would be hard to keep my composure,” Sutton says. “But given [that] scenario, I would simply invite Trump to read cartoons. They’re shorter than the presidential briefings that he reportedly has no patience for. Plus, most these days are focused on his favorite subject — himself!
“Who knows, maybe he would give it a try and actually learn something.”