Matt Wuerker was touching up the colors on a cartoon of President Obama wearing gym shorts, a tank top and sweatband, when he was interrupted by a sudden burst of commotion in the Politico newsroom. The Pulitzer Prize winners had just been announced online.
“It was very surprising,” said Wuerker, who hadn’t expected any sort of excitement during what seemed like a typical Monday afternoon. He had just won $10,000 and journalism’s top prize for his editorial cartoons. “The newsroom all jumped up, and I got to run around and high-five everyone.”
Breaking news alerts and tweets quickly pointed out the significance of how Politico – along with The Huffington Post – was one of the first online news outlets to win the Pulitzer Prize since its inception in 1917.
But in the wake of Wuerker’s win, the cartooning profession has also come under scrutiny, as media critics debate its contemporary relevance in the increasingly digital world of infographics, photo memes and data visualizations.
Slate’s Farhad Manjoo fired the first shot with his piece, “Editorial Cartoons Are Stale, Simplistic, and Just Not Funny,” in which he called Wuerker’s genre “an increasingly timeworn form…blunt, one-dimensional jokes, rarely exhibiting nuance, irony or subtext.” Manjoo went on to suggest that the Pulitzer committee should “cast a wider net and get more flexible in how they recognize graphical journalism.”
Wuerker is the first to admit that political cartoonists have enjoyed a monopoly over editorial graphics until now. “We had it really good for several centuries when American political cartoonists – even dating back to the Revolution – didn’t have to share that part of the media landscape with anyone else,” he says.
The earliest example dates back to the 1870s when cartoonist Thomas Nast took on New York City’s political machine Tammany Hall and its leader William “Boss” Tweed.
Nast’s cartoons about their corruption plastered the cover of Harper’s Weekly. Eventually the power of ink and paper sprinkled with satire led to the downfall and arrest of Tweed. Fast forward to the 1950s when cartoonist
“Herblock cartoon’s against McCarthy had a profound effect in the same way Doonesbury cartoons were effective during Watergate,” said Hess. But whether he could name a recent cartoon with similar impact, “Oh, I don’t think so.”
Hess partly blames the blunted impact to the simple fact that the traditional home for cartoons is on the wane. As print newspapers fold and aggregation websites blossom, cartoonists – along with anyone working in journalism – are left to compete in a fragmented and chaotic media landscape.
“When Thomas Nast was doing cartoons, he had a huge chunk of the media pie, maybe two-thirds since there were very few newspapers then,” said political cartoonist Steve Brodner. “If Nast was a cartoonist today, even with all his talent and passion, he’d only have a crumb of that pie.”
The fight over crumbs is pushing some veteran cartoonists to figure out new ways of giving life to their paper characters.
“I’m finally finding my footing,” said Brodner, who’s been a cartooning for 35 years but only started dabbling in animating his cartoons in 2008.
Brodner’s style fuses his traditional paper cartoons with cutout photos, music and politician sound bites. Viewers of Brodner’s work often see his hand in frame drawing his cartoons. In his most recent work for the Washington Spectator, a pencil sketch of Mitt Romney is layered over photos of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini while Brodner voices his own commentary.
Brodner says his style is a work in progress as he finds his sea legs in the ocean of digital media. And though he continues to weave a satirical thread throughout his work, Brodner’s definition of himself has evolved from cartoonist to “an artist, illustrator and filmmaker.”
Other cartoonists have learned to fully embrace the digital revolution from paper, pencil and water colors, producing full-fledged animations that look like Saturday morning cartoons.
“A big part of what I do is trying to make cartooning work in the new world,” said Mark Fiore, whose cartoons don’t come in black and white static drawings but colorful 45 seconds to two minute videos. He was the first to win a Pulitzer Prize in 2010 for animated cartoons. Fiore started as a print cartoonist but gradually taught himself to animate his drawings, starting with blinking eyes or small hand motions.
While Fiore spends three days on the actual cartoon animation, one solid day is dedicated to distribution: Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Google+ as well as updating his iPhone app NewsToons.
But widespread facetime on as many online platforms sometimes isn’t enough when it comes to fighting for that thin slice of the media pie. Brodner says he’s had to learn the laws of this new media landscape for cartoonists.
“The rule is I can riff on anything in video,” said Brodner, but there’s a caveat. “When everyone and their cousin can make a video on the same topic, I become unexceptional and unoriginal. So it’s not best to go for the quick joke or easy laugh because everyone else is already on it.”
Brodner referred to his recent cartoon video about the Mitt Romney’s family trip when they strapped their dog to the roof of the car.
“After I posted my Romney dog video [on YouTube], I asked my girlfriend what she thought about it, and she said, ‘Did you see how many other Romney dog videos there are?’” recalled Brodner.
“Infographics have never instigated a riot the way a cartoonist has,” said Matt Wuerker of Politico. “No one’s ever called a fatwa on the heads of graphic designers who design pie charts.”
And in today’s age of Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and Bill Maher, the appetite for political satire is well alive. For many, these popular shows, which rely heavily on Photoshop and caustic graphics, can trace their provenance back to the humble editorial cartoon.
Wuerker says during the days when his cartoons were printed, the highest compliment was when someone would cut it out and tack it up on the refrigerator. Though most editorial cartoonists agree that their profession has been late to the game of adapting to the Internet, there’s a silver lining.
“The Internet and social media are now one giant refrigerator door for cartoons,” said Wuerker. “I get tons of cartoons reposted on Facebook and Twitter and they have a great sticky quality online.”