Before I get thoroughly started this evening I’d like if I may to take a short moment to remember a legendary cartoonist. This is an event generously bestowed upon us by a late, great cartoonist, to honor the field of political cartooning - and a few short weeks ago we lost another one of the great ones. Dwane Powell was the longtime cartoonist for the Raleigh News and Observer in North Carolina. He was a ragingly progressive voice, sharp, precise thorn in the side of Carolina politicians, brilliant artist, a quit wit, superb guitar picker, warm hearted friend-to-all. And to top it off; very handsome. Tradition would call for a short moment of silence to honor Dwane here upon this salubrious day on the cartooning calendar, but I think a slightly more appropriate mark of appreciation would be if we could (us, here, now) just indulge in a celebratory moment of noise (…)
Rest in Peace old friend. We love you, Dwane.
When I stood here back in the Spring of 2004, 15 years ago, in this beautiful place, in front of this magnificent audience, I recall breathing it in, thinking, wow – THIS is a once a lifetime experience.
So. How have you been? Anything happened since I’ve been gone? J
They told me I have to give a speech…And I thought “seriously. ANOTHER one?!!” These bloody things are hard work to write.
When confronted with a large, sparkling and unexpected honor or award, it is customary in our culture for recipients to exclaim that they are humbled by the experience, but I’ll be honest…This is not humbling…is it.
Humbling would be - I dunno - losing your job?
(more on that later)
In all seriousness – It’s awe inspiring to gaze back at the list of amazing men - and women - who went on to receive this prize or attain finalist status after me, cementing over the years its reputation as a truly prestigious and pre-eminent cartooning award. I know for certain Herblock would be pleased. It makes the reward for my standing here now feel that much more personally gratifying – and of course, surprising.
Clay Jones. My longtime friend. Our finalist, my co-winner tonight. Thank you Clay for your tirelessness, and your blistering, funny, take-no-prisoners cartoons. You are what is needed right now. Clay has a work ethic like no other cartoonist. When I wake up in the morning, he has already posted a cartoon, or two, drawn in a fit of 2AM outrage. We salute you.
I’d like to thank Mister Block for generously placing in his considerable will, a foundation to assist deserving, underprivileged, Inner city students - the same people he gave voice to throughout his life, and for also including a directive to promote the art of political cartooning, an initiative that has thankfully brought us all here tonight. And I’d like to thank Marci Brane and Sarah Alex for enthusiastically leading the foundation’s role in these noble endeavors (taking over from dear friend, Frank Swoboda.) You’re doing such great work.
Thank you to this year’s judges: Brilliant cartoonists Ann Telnaes and Ward Sutton and Sarah Duke from the Library of Congress. You have a special place in my heart.
My wife and friend, Lucy. She has graciously suffered through both my irrational insecurities, and my irrational over-confidences, with grace and patience. While trying to polish up this speech on the Amtrak - this morning - she unflinchingly moved seats with me several times in order to carefully remove me away from the person behind who insisted on conducting loud, mind-numbingly distracting DC real-estate-transaction small-talk on the phone. Not only is she the educated, good humored, measured person I turn to for everything in the world that matters, she is literally responsible for my having this speech finished instead of being detained by Amtrak’s finest.
And if it wasn’t for her, there’d probably be no publishable CARTOONS from me either.
Thank you, Lucy (and everyone here thanks you too)
In my speech here in 2004 if you watch the video – I jokingly complained about people bringing babies to things like this, as my 10 month old daughter Larkyn squawked loudly and impressively during my speech. Larkyn is a sophomore in HS now
She has an older sister, Severn who is turning 19 next month and a younger brother, Keiland (This is Kei’s first Herblock). If you ask them, they’d probably say I’m more like their big sibling. Our house is rich with noise and life – and these 3 delightful people provide a foundation for my focus on leaving the world a better place for them and their children. Kids I want you to look at my work one day in the future and know your old man was having none of this ridiculous nonsense in 2019. Thank you, you 3 for your constant inspiration.
My Mum and Dad – Frankie and Malcolm – who moved my sister, Tally, our Jack Russell, (and me) to the US in 1983, when I was turning 17. Thank you for your adventurousness and for - not at any time - insisting I get a real job. You always believed in my ability to succeed in whatever I tried. Thank you. And my dear little sister, Tally,– who taught me the efficacy of arguing my point loudly and clearly from a very very early age. She is now a lawyer in LA . - Thank you!
And speaking of parents – I’d like to thank my mother-in-law, who is also called Lucy. She and I have been good friends since 1985 and I thank her for also believing in me - and not insisting I get a real job!
I’d also like to thank my friend Nick Offerman, whose generosity in introducing my work to his enthusiastic fan base – has been an unexpected and warm highlight of these past few years. He has been ever-so-gently weaning the world from the fact that he is not really the libertarian hero, Ron Swanson, and he has employed the sharing of my cartoons to effect that strategy.
There are also a diverse crew of friends and acquaintances who have come a long way to be here tonight. I feel lucky to be able to say you are too numerous to mention by name, but I know in my heart you would be here even if there was no open bar and heavy horsdheuvres afterward. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.
So I do have a couple more thank yous - but I’ll weave those in a little later. Suspenseful, huh?!
When people ask me what I do for a living - I wince a little. (I think every political cartoonist feels the same) When I tell them, Inevitably the response is: “You must be having an absolute FIELD DAY with Trump”.
And I get it…But truthfully – it’s complicated. Do me and my fellow cartoonists a favor please - if you bump into us - hold off on saying the field day thing. While I may be relishing the heaving cornucopia of cartoonist’s material, I am also - as a human being –horrified.
Truth is, every morning as I gaze upon the unmarked, fresh white pages of my sketchbook, I recite a plaintiff little incantation: “Avoid drawing Trump, avoid drawing Trump, avoid drawing Trump” PLEASE don’t make me have to draw Trump. I dunno about you, but I still – after two-plus interminable years - experience a startle reflex every time I hear the two words “President” and “Trump” improbably grafted together.
But the news cycle, once a thing that lingered over stories and their resulting minutae for days, sometimes even weeks! Has now been reduced to hours, sometimes minutes. And even the most optimistic cartooning day inevitably yields to the darkly depressing Trump Twitter feed.
At first it was definitely fun – crafting a visual avatar for such a preposterous, seething and damaged man. The exaggerated pout, the absurd follicular project sweeping across his henna-ed brow. The Rapunzel-like tie shrouded clumsily by billowing dark suits. The microscopic hands. But then…there’s the sinister disregard for intellectual rigor, & basic human decency; the dispensing of demonstrable facts and scapegoating of religious, ethnic and immigrant minorities (even the legal ones) , which rapidly took the fun out of things, especially when you realize that for some of your fellow citizens, those attributes are perplexingly regarded as “refreshing.”
It’s gradually dawning on me while my previous Herblock Prize was partially for cartoons criticizing a President for starting a war in Iraq: This time my cartoons are criticizing a President for what feels like starting a war right here in the US.
So as you know - I did already give a speech back in 04 (Or as I call it Speech 1.0)…
To avoid a bit of work I thought it might be fun to critique what I said….Sort of a “where are they now?” regarding my statements - See how well they aged!
Firstly: I realized in the speech I inadvertently started a tradition of prize recipients sharing a touching or amusing personal anecdote about meeting and interacting with Mr. Block, but I only had one solid story – and I used it up in the first speech. SO that’s a shame.
Although I can say I did read Herblock’s book – A Cartoonists Life – and very much enjoyed picking out his and my similarities. Not so much the Georgetown brownstone and large personal fortune, but in the deep conviction that you should fight for the underdog, use the privilege of the newspaper cartoonist’s perch to seek social justice, instead of wasting it comforting the already comfy. He also said that no matter how quickly in the day he got an idea, he would be drawing right up to the deadline, which I took to mean he procrastinated – which I ALSO DO! Uncanny…
In speech 1.0 I read to the by now rapt audience some highlights from a fairly typical letter that was filled with vicious name calling. It was a response to my frequent cartoons in vociferous opposition to our country’s decision to start the aforementioned war with Iraq. The gentleman who wrote the letter subsequently died, and his son took over writing letters to me - also filled with vicious name calling. Not much has changed – I still get lots of hateful messages, which I still don’t like. It is a funny feeling: to me, I am engaging in a creative process. I pour every ounce of my thought, soul, energy and wit into what I hope is a successful, finely crafted delivery of my generally quite well-researched opinion. To think that I will – with this act – simply piss someone off is a little incongruous, but then I remember, that is EXACTLY what I am supposed to be doing.
Plus I have learned that merely making any sort of mark on a piece of paper will enrage someone, somewhere.
But what HAS changed in this extremely strange new political era is that a surprisingly large slice – I would say a majority - of my audience response is now people saying “thank you”. “You are keeping me sane.”
I imagine it being like a super power. Like worthy of being a member of the Avengers. Tony Stark peering over his pink sunglasses: What is your name, masked person?: My name is Pen&inkman! What can you do? I stop people from completely losing their minds! Okay, you’re in.
It’s true. A majority tell me that.
Now: Mark Twain was quoted as saying “whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to reform, or at least pause and reflect” But I think Twain would probably come up with a new quote if confronted with the reality of our time.
- In speech 1.0 I said “what passes for WH policy seems lifted from right wing talk radio.” Limbaugh is still alive, & He & Trump were golfing at a Trump property the other day. So no change there. I get an A on that one.
- In speech 1.0, I lauded my old publisher citing his statement that he “hired me to be provocative” and I then proceeded to lament the lack of OTHER publishers who understood the wisdom of his philosophy and his courageous principles.
Hm. Time has not been kind on that one:
So back then, during that speech I had this in my pocket (hold up old phone..) as did you. Looks kind of cool, retro, doesn’t it? It was a new fangled phone and camera and you could send a thing called a text message on it – if you had a large chunk of spare time to try to write one. Now we all have these. (Hold up iphone) Silly really…Doesn’t look TOO different….no big deal. But they represent the disruption and carnage of everything I/we took for granted – and certainly makes my dream of all newspaper publishers hearing my speech and running out and hiring cartoonists seem a bit quaint.
I remember watching what is in retrospect a mind blowing interview with the late David Bowie in 1999 - 30 years ago!) during which he said the internet would absolutely shatter the walls between creator and audience. He said the internet was going to fundamentally, radically change the world in ways we couldn’t yet imagine – in both very good and also: very bad ways.
I remember – conversely – being more skeptical, thinking the internet was an annoying fad, like a digital version of CB radio and that Bowie was just being flamboyant and contrarian. (You know David!)
So right after I won the first Herblock - and that same year’s Pulitzer - I returned to my newspaper office triumphant. I was young-ish, had affixed my flag pole into the mountaintop, rung the bell, grated the cheese, single-sweep parallel parked (pick your dopey cartoonist metaphor J) One of my newsroom editors said I had just achieved the holy grail of journalistic job security. (He didn’t see the Bowie interview, I’m guessing…)
Not too long after, we found ourselves sitting in a large room with a new publisher gravely brandishing what is a now-familiar-chart, which showed a not-very-jagged-line, going in what is scientifically known as the downward direction. We had chosen to give away our material online and, well, damn, it wasn’t working.
Unfortunately I was working for a newspaper company that decided to strategically self-immolate its way to profitability, which it turns out, also doesn’t work. Strangely, the readers of newspapers actually noticed when the things they specifically bought the paper to read - weren’t in it anymore.
A few years later, on a rainy Monday morning in November - about six years after standing here giving my Herblock speech 1.0 and winning a Pulitzer Prize - I was called into that same editor’s office and handed the customary large yellow envelope denoting services no longer required. It wasn’t his choice. He had tears in his eyes. As did I.
Now I may be just a cartoonist, but I understand the dull pressures of the accountant’s ledger: You have to have more coming in than, y’know, going out. But what was puzzling at was at the time I left, the CEO of the company (which shall remain nameless – but it’s large and rhymes with planet) also left that year. Except he exited with over $44 million. Which ultimately just made me sad - I just remember thinking how disgraceful it was that so many reporters could have remained employed, digging for dirt on corrupt local politicians, writing about the communities they lived in, defending democracy as we know it. But they were sacrificed so that one astoundingly unremarkable corporate stiff could receive his grubby lotto payout. I have learned the most dangerous force on the planet is a man in a suit (present company excluded – maybe)
So, as brilliantly predicted in Dr Suess’s “Oh The Places You’ll Go” (the book you get handed along with your payment booklet at graduation – I did that cartoon “Oh the places you’ll go: with a college grad standing outside a loan office, debt counselor’s office, bankruptcy lawyer’s office – but I digress…)
I, like so many other newspaper people - embarked on an unplanned foray into the world of freelance employment. I learned that freelancers don’t sleep much. You either are working, or worrying about not working. When you have a young family to support at home it is not for the feint of heart - but you know what, I did ok…Assembled a little empire of publishing avenues for my editorial cartoon work, in addition to my syndication and embarked on a reasonably lucrative side-hustle writing and illustrating children’s books for a major publisher. Turns out writing childrens’ books is a lot like drawing editorial cartoons, just for different types of readers. One is for immature audiences with short attention spans, and the other for children. My first book was about a boy who had his prize possession – a shiny new BMX bike – stolen from him by the neighborhood thug, Adrian Underbite. Seems pretty obvious in retrospect that I was channeling my feelings about having my cherished role as newspaper cartoonist taken away from me. But I am an idealist, not a holder of grudges.
The book ends with the bully redeeming himself.
About three and a half years into my bracing and character-building adventures in complete self-sufficiency, I received a phone call from of all places,
A big newspaper.
Newsday, which is the paper of record for Long Island, NY, had installed an ambitious new publisher, the late Gordon MacLeod and he in turn had asked the editorial page editor, Rita Ciolli (Hi Rita) what her department needed.
Without missing a beat she said “I want my editorial cartoonist”.
(I think you’ll agree that with that statement, Rita might also qualify to be an Avenger.)
Walt Handelsman, my predecessor, had left Newsday for a staff cartooning job in New Orleans and the position had been open for a while. As has happened at so many newspapers the position could have simply gone to dust. But Rita knew that Newsday’s long tradition of having a staff cartoonist was important to both its character and its loyal readership. So in the summer of 2014, I climbed back aboard the magnificent beast of daily newspapering.
To say that I’m happy would be to grievously undersell my feelings. I’m now on an editorial board with a collegial and remarkable group of thinkers. Our daily interactions, policy arguments and laughter have educated me. I take not one second of it for granted, and I work hard to continue to earn my seat at their table. And in the fleeting moments I deliver less than my best, Rita will push me, as if she knows I have more in reserve. Rita is smart….You should see her effortlessly tie visiting politicians in knots. I never EVER thought I would say this, but my editor has made me a sharper and better cartoonist, and It’s fair to say that my standing up here today is to a large degree her fault. So thank you, Rita.
And sitting with Rita is Newsday’s publisher, Debby Krenek, and Newsday’s owner Pat Dolan. Thanks to them Newsday has nurtured a culture that values journalism and community over all else. It’s a place that journalists and their work feel valued. Evidence shows that when a newspaper is weak, corruption’s roots grow gnarled and strong. On LI the corrupt are the weak ones, and their local newspaper is the one that is strong. Thank you Debby and Pat for that – and also for letting this badly behaved cartoonist be a part of that culture.
It feels quaint to look back at a mere 15 years of my own career - Realizing after looking at Herblock’s massive body of work over the best part of the previous, not exactly quiet century – this is an eternal human struggle, a battle against the forces of avarice and selfishness. Cartoonists - no matter upon which platform they vie – will always be necessary to keep a watchful eye. So do me a favor and support your friendly neighborhood cartoonist. If you like their work, and they are lucky enough to be working at a newspaper subscribe to that paper. If they are saving your sanity on a freelance basis, Retweet their cartoons, Chip in to their patreon accounts, support their projects.
Our democracy might depend on it.
So I’ve had the floor for long enough. I now you’re anxious to hear Jake. What do you say – um - meet you back here in fifteen or so years? (if you’ll have me that is.)