Cartoonists’ Confab: Some Prize Advice

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By: Dave Astor

Editorial cartoonists who want to win awards got some tips Thursday from the experts — people who have served as judges for the Pulitzer Prize and various other contests.

Still, several attendees at the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists convention session wondered if some factors — such as working for a smaller paper, or being very liberal or very conservative — make it almost impossible to win major awards no matter what they do.

One piece of advice? Follow the rules. The AAEC panelists said that if judges are looking at a group of entries that are almost equally good, they might eliminate some of them for relatively minor reasons — such as the package being sloppy, being too large, or containing the wrong number of cartoons.

But panelists also encouraged cartoonists to think outside the box a little to differentiate their entries from other contestants. Lucy Shelton Caswell, for instance, said “cliche cartoons” should be avoided. “Judges use those to eliminate people,” said the curator of Ohio State University’s Cartoon Research Library.

Another way to be different is to include local cartoons in the entry mix for national contests — with a brief explanation, if necessary, of the issues the cartoons are commenting on. Audience member David Horsey of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and Tribune Media Services said local cartoons might have “put me over the edge” to win his first Pulitzer.

But is being different politically — very liberal or very conservative — a hindrance to winning? “Tom Tomorrow doesn’t enter the Pulitzers any more,” said audience member Ted Rall of Universal Press Syndicate. “He feels a lefty like him could never win. Is a left-wing or right-wing cartoonist considered?”

Keefe replied: “Anyone can win on either end of the spectrum.” But while a number of liberals and the occasional conservative have indeed received a cartooning Pulitzer, creators who are very left or very right have rarely been honored.

Audience member Steve Greenberg of the Ventura County Star in California asked: “Does the size of a publication factor in? The Washington Post has to carry a little weight.” A couple of panelists said size doesn’t matter. But people on larger dailies have won a disproportionate share of Pulitzers.

Cartoonists on smaller papers also often have to pay their own entry fees for various contests, which can get expensive.

Then there’s the problem of judges knowing little about editorial cartooning. In those scenarios, there’s “more resemblance to a lottery than a competition,” said panelist Joel Pett of the Lexington, Ky., Herald-Leader and Cartoonists & Writers Syndicate, which is marketed by the New York Times Syndicate.

Panelist Mike Keefe of the Denver Post said Pulitzer cartooning juries, in the past, rarely had many judges familiar with that field. This, he added, has improved in recent years. Keefe, Pett, and Caswell have all served on Pulitzer juries since the latter part of the 1990s.

Judges unfamiliar with cartooning might not know what makes a good cartoon, and also might not be aware that some contest entrants are capable of doing only a few good cartoons a year while the rest of their work is mediocre. But a couple of panelists noted that judges are asked to just consider submissions, not a creator’s work that isn’t entered in a contest.

Audience member Bob Englehart of The Hartford (Conn.) Courant said cartoonists shouldn’t put too much emphasis on prizes. He recalled being devastated a quarter century ago when a more famous cartoonist won the Pulitzer in a year that Englehart felt he did better work. Englehart finally got over the disappointment when he realized that the most important thing was what readers thought of his cartoons.

The session was moderated by Kevin “KAL” Kallaugher of The Sun in Baltimore and the Cartoonists & Writers Syndicate/New York Times Syndicate.

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