Syndicates: An Interview With Pulitzer Prize-Winning Cartoonist Mike Keefe

By: Rob Tornoe

Syndicates: An Interview With Pulitzer Prize-Winning Cartoonist Mike Keefe

Two officers pull over a driver making his way through the Arizona desert. One officer compares the driver’s skin color to a set of brown paint swatches held up to the driver’s face. With a skin color just brown enough the other officer, gun drawn, tells the driver, “Step out of the vehicle and place yourhands on your head.”


Arizona’s tough new immigration law was just one of the many issues that made it into the Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoon portfolio of The Denver Post’s longtime staff cartoonist, Mike Keefe (syndicated by Cagle Cartoons).


A former math instructor at the University of Missouri in Kansas City, a “gobsmacked” Keefe spoke to me about how it felt to win journalism’s highest honor.


So you’ve been drawing cartoons for The Denver Post since 1975. What attracted you to drawing cartoons for a living, and what kept you in one place for so long?

I got interested in editorial cartooning during Vietnam and Watergate. I can tell you the day I became a political animal: May 4, 1970. I was in a Marine Corps enlisted men’s club, watching the tube when news of the Kent State massacre was suddenly on the screen. My fellow Marines cheered the National Guard. You don’t want to take on a bar full of drunken Marines, so I had to find another outlet to express my rage. 


What makes Colorado such a great place to draw political cartoons?

For national and international topics, I could draw from anywhere on Earth. But Colorado is also rich with local topics common to many western states. The environmental impact of mining, petroleum exploration, and logging; water issues; guns; anti-tax movements; Focus on the Family. And the fierce independence of

westerners is something to both applaud and, at times, to chide.


Who gave you your first big break in the business?

The Denver Post. I was working on a doctorate in mathematics around 1974 while drawing cartoons for the UNews (University of Missouri at Kansas City). I sent out query letters to scores of colleges and universities regarding teaching positions. There was a nasty recession going on then, and not one institution gave me a positive response. I panicked.


I’d heard from Kansas City Star cartoonist and early mentor Bill Schorr that Bill Sanders of the Milwaukee Journal often critiqued young cartoonists’ work, so I sent a batch to him. At that point I’d drawn no more than 50 cartoons in my life. He wrote back saying he really liked what I was doing and had forwarded them to The Denver Post, which was searching for a cartoonist (Pat Oliphant had just left for the Washington Star). After an interview in Denver, they offered me the job.


After winning, you said that you thought your day had passed in terms of your chances of winning the award. Why?

Word was out that the Pulitzer folks were looking to recognize new media, new journalism, and innovation. Last year, Mark Fiore was the first win based entirely on a portfolio of animation. While I have done animation going back to 1991, I had done none the last couple of years. My work is pretty traditional.


An important issue in your cartoons has been fighting for the right of gays to openly serve in the military. Why is it such an important issue to you?

It’s a simple case of civil rights. There is absolutely no logic to banning a certain class of society from serving the country. If a gay man or woman is physically and mentally capable of doing the job, then they should have that opportunity. 


One of my favorite cartoons in your Pulitzer collection was your MC Escher-styled cartoon demonstrating the political gridlock in Washington. How did you come up with the idea and how difficult was it to illustrate?

That was one of the lightbulb ideas. As soon as I said to myself, “Gridlock,” the image appeared above my head in a thought balloon. It was a little tricky working out the design. But I’ve been interested in tessellations of the plane, tilings, and Escher’s art. I started with a line defining the underside of the elephant, paying attention to the negative space that was created, and just kept adjusting and working around the figure.


Did any other cartoons in your Pulitzer Prize-winning portfolio garner a strong reaction from readers?

The Iwo Jima image where I have an onlooker saying, “Statistically speaking, there’s an even chance one of those heroes was gay.” Lots of people challenged the math. I ended up writing an informal mathematical proof that demonstrated the logic. I even included the proof in my Pulitzer portfolio. Now with the cartoon easily viewable online again, I’m having to email out copies of the proof to another batch of angry readers.


As someone who has seen a lot of changes in the newsroom over a 35+ year career, what do you see as the future role of the editorial cartoonist?

I think there will always be a place for strong, graphic humor and commentary. The delivery system will certainly change, but I think the market for good cartoons will always exist.


Rob Tornoe is a cartoonist and columnist for Editor & Publisher magazine and edits the satirical humor magazine Delaware Punchline. He can be reached at

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