FOR MUCH of the history of American editorial cartooning, the standard format has held strong: a bold, single image carrying the entire metaphoric weight of the opinion being expressed.
Major mainstream contests have reflected that primacy, including the Pulitzer Prizes for nearly a century, and more recently the RFK Award and the Herblock Prize, named for the legendary Washington Post cartoonist. Sure, occasionally the Pulitzer would go to the creator of a multi-panel comic strip (Garry Trudeau, Berkeley Breathed and Jules Feiffer) or a political animator (Mark Fiore), but the traditional editorial cartoon dominated, friendly as it sat within the print newspaper’s opinion pages.
The past few years, however, have trained a hotter spotlight on the multi-panel political comic.
The Pulitzer Prizes have more recently honored as finalists such alt-weekly comics creators as Matt Bors, Jen Sorensen and Dan Perkins (a.k.a. Tom Tomorrow), as well as “Funky Winkerbean” comic-strip creator Tom Batiuk. And last month, for the first time ever, the Pulitzer Board awarded its editorial cartooning prize to a long-form narrative comic: “Welcome to the New World,” by the freelance team of writer Jake Halpern and artist Michael Sloan working for the New York Times.
Then last Friday, the RFK Awards announced that its cartoon-prize winner for work created last year was Ruben Bolling (a.k.a. Ken Fisher), the cartoonist behind the syndicated strip “Tom the Dancing Bug.”
And on Wednesday, the Herblock Prize ceremony at the Library of Congress will present this year’s honor to Boston Globe contributor Ward Sutton, whose winning portfolio consists mostly of multi-panel comics. The award continues its recent trend of largely recognizing artists who create editorial comics, including Bors, Sorensen and Perkins — and other prizes are increasingly on board.
Many veteran political cartoonists occasionally create longer-form comics, but traditionally that work hasn’t garnered the mainstream awards. Now, formal recognition is catching up to both changing technology and new pools of talent.
“Without the space constraints print always had,” Sutton notes of drawing in an online era, “the number of panels in a cartoon is no longer the pressing issue it once was” — so more cartoonists can diversify their formats.
Sutton tells The Washington Post’s Comic Riffs that the rise of alt-weekly talents since the 1990s is a crucial component.
“Perhaps it is a result of a certain generation of cartoonists coming of age,” Sutton says. “The work of the [top alternative] cartoonists has been appearing for decades, and is consistently excellent, so it makes sense that it is gaining in recognition.”
Fisher is one of those cartoonists. He’s created high-caliber comic-strip work for decades, but only recently did he decide to go all-in with political content — reflecting the high malleability of the form. “I made a decision to refocus the comic strip on the unique threat Trump represents to America,” says Fisher, who received the Herblock Prize last year.
Halpern, whose serialized New York Times comic also recently received an Eisner Award nomination last month, says: “Personally, I love standard single-panel editorial cartoons. I grew up reading the Buffalo News, and Tom Toles was a hero of mine . . . I think there will always be a place for cartoons like this.”
Halpern says he isn’t aiming to radically alter political cartooning. “I just see my and Michael’s award as being part of a small but, hopefully, significant expansion of the genre,” Halpern says of the comic, which chronicled a Syrian immigrant family’s American experience.
“I think that the best pieces of journalism — whether they are 10,000-word New Yorker pieces or single-panel editorial cartoons — tell a story,” he says. “In the end, that is really all that matters.”
“The world of journalism is in flux,” Halpern adds. “Reported podcasts are on the rise. Thanks to venues like Netflix and Amazon, documentary series are getting more airtime. Places like the Moth are helping revive oral storytelling. So I think we need to run with all of these new possibilities.
“What’s more, when it comes to tough issues — and refugee migration is one of them — people get tired of paying attention,” Halpern says. “That places the burden on us — as journalists, artists and storytellers — to find new and creative ways to reconnect with readers and make them care.”
Still, Sutton says that spoofing hackneyed political-cartoon tropes in his meta-satiric “Stan Kelly” cartoons for the Onion for a dozen years has heightened his regard for the single-image format. “In this age of memes and people wanting their information faster and faster,” he says, “I wouldn’t count single-panel editorial cartoons out of the game.”