WARD SUTTON’S HERBLOCK AWARD SPEECH
Prepared Remarks delivered May 9, 2018
at the Library of Congress, Washington DC
Ladies and Gentlemen …
Haters and Losers …
Isn't that the decorum now in the new Washington?
I feel so fortunate to be able to make a living doing something I love. Receiving this award on top of that - this beautiful trophy and this generous prize - just blows me away.
As the Foundation’s website states, Herblock was committed to a “life long fight against abuses by the powerful.” I share that passion, and I don’t think any mission could be more relevant and crucial in the era we find ourselves in now.
I so admire the work of previous Herblock Prize winners and finalists that to now be counted among them is a huge honor for me.
And on a personal note, so many people important to me have traveled to be here today.
My brother and his family; my Godmother Pat who held me as a baby; cousins, nieces and nephews from all sides of my family who've never even met each other before. Dear friends from my time in college, Minneapolis, Seattle, New York, Costa Rica and Colorado. My college professor, art directors and editors, and fellow cartoonists and artists. Thank you all for being here, I’m very touched.
I want to say congratulations to my friend, the very talented Steve Brodner - this year’s Herblock finalist. I’m so happy to share this night with you.
In 2005, Steve and I were both at the MoCCA Comics Fest in New York. Steve had just come out with this incredible retrospective book, “Freedom Fries.” I asked him, “When did you know you had hit that point where you’d “made it” professionally and could relax?”
Steve looked at me and he said, “I’ll tell you something. Doing what we do as freelancers, there is no reaching a point where we’ve “made it.””
I’ve never forgotten those words, and as a result I approach every cartoon as my next opportunity to try and prove myself. I believe having that mindset is part of what got me here today. Thank you, Steve, and congrats again.
Being a news junkie, such as I am, has changed a lot in the current era. The old, quaint notion of a news cycle has morphed into a never-ending barrage, like a fire hose. More than ever, we need voices of reason to help digest and make sense of what’s going on. One of my go-to sources for this just happens to be Weekend Edition Saturday and I’m thrilled to meet and share the stage with Scott Simon tonight.
After nearly two decades in New York City, my family recently moved to the middle of the country - Fort Collins, Colorado. I don’t own a printer, so to enter the Herblock Awards I emailed my cartoon files to the local Office Max to be printed. Within minutes I got a phone call. The guy at Office Max wanted to know: was I part of some group with some kind of agenda? He said he was pretty sure company policy wouldn’t allow him to print my cartoons.
Still new to the area, I was shocked. To get a phone call so quickly from a printer - you never get that kind of service in New York!
I told the guy I was a professional cartoonist entering a prestigious competition and drove over there. When I arrived he told me, “I talked to my manager and he said it’s okay. Free speech.”
It’s heartening to know, isn’t it? that in these challenging times, Office Max stands as a bulwark to all we hold dear in our democracy.
So I’ve won this award for all the cartoons I did in 2017.
Anyone remember 2017?
Woo-hoo! Let’s hear it for 2017!
A big, beautiful year with
big, beautiful pieces of chocolate cake
and big, beautiful clean coal.
Let me remind you about one of the most amazing aspects of 2017.
Prior to 2017, the United States of America had simply ceased winning.
No winning - nada!
The jumbotron scoreboard on the side of the Washington Monument said WINS - ZERO.
There may have been a little sad face emoji, I don’t know.
But then, was born unto us - and delivered via a gleaming, gilded fools-gold escalator from above - a savior.
And beginning on January 20, 2017, like magic - boom! America started winning again.
It’s been amazing.
Now every day we can all wake up and look at our push notifications on our phones, look at the front page of our newspapers, listen to NPR and start each day thinking, “Wow, so much winning!”
The only downside to 2017 was that it didn’t give me any material to work with.
The inspiration well was just bone dry.
Okay, that’s not true. Honestly, my biggest regret about 2017 was that I couldn’t draw faster.
If I had the powers of the Flash, I could have been creating cartoons every hour on the hour.
Taken as a whole, perhaps the biggest news of 2017 was “fake news.” But I think it’s time we delineate between the two different meanings of “fake news.”
The original fake news is any kind of misinformation that benefits Donald Trump, his enablers and their agenda. Like the story of Hillary Clinton teaming up with the Queen of England to create an underground pedophile ring that supposedly took place in the basement of a pizzeria that doesn’t actually have a basement. I know someone who believed that and because of it voted for Trump.
The second meaning of fake news is simply any actual news that is not flattering to Donald Trump and so Donald Trump calls it fake.
The problem we find ourselves in is that our country is so divided that we can’t agree which fake news is really fake.
As a citizen, I find this calamitous. As a cartoonist, sometimes I don’t even know where to begin!
It’s not lost on me that it took our national leadership devolving into a giant dumpster fire for me to win a prestigious cartooning award. And I’m honestly not sure how to feel about that.
But I do know I’m extremely grateful to Marjorie Pritchard, my editor I’ve had the pleasure of working with at the Boston Globe for over a decade, and who traveled from Boston to be here tonight. I am very lucky to have a great working relationship with someone who understands the language of cartoons and who strikes a perfect balance of giving me artistic freedom, sharing honest feedback and knowing just when to step in and make edits. And I’m thrilled my work has a home in the venerable Boston Globe. Thank you, Marjorie, for giving me every next opportunity to prove myself.
I’m also feeling thankful for all the people THROUGHOUT my career who gave me a chance.
In particular, I think of a fateful, clandestine meeting I had with Ted Keller in the alley behind the Village Voice building when I was feeling down because I could not get my cartoons in the paper. Ted, then the ASSISTANT art director took me aside and explained that the head art director just didn’t like cartoons but that I should hold on because a staff change could be imminent. Sure enough, Ted became the head art director and picked up my weekly strip for the Voice 20 years ago this spring, where it ran until I retired it in 2007. Thank you, Ted!
Before that, I had a strip that ran in the Twin Cities Reader for seven years, which drew angry letters from a diverse group of readers that included cops, rock stars, hunters and strippers.
And I guess as I look back I should really thank the late Kay Brown. Kay, a mother of a classmate of mine in fifth grade, was always looking for ways to involve kids in extracurricular projects.
Kay had some connection to our community paper, The Edina Sun, and, having seen that I was always drawing, suggested I try making editorial cartoons and she would see if she could get the paper to publish them.
So I did, and my first published editorial cartoon pulled no punches on the hard-hitting topic of … students leaning back in their chairs in class. Because, if you did that you might, you know, tip over. Hey, I had to start somewhere!
In preparing to accept this award, I did a little soul searching and asked myself a question: why do I do what I do? Why do I create editorial cartoons?
Well, I’d like to share a personal story with you.
In the summer of 1974, I was seven years old.
There was a kid living in my neighborhood. He was kinda mean. He had this strange feathered haircut. And he rode a tricked-out bicycle with big handlebars and a giant banana seat and a gear shift that might have looked impressive at first glance … but the whole thing was a little more flash than substance.
In short, he was a bully with weird hair and garish accessories. SOUND LIKE ANYONE WE KNOW?
For some reason this kid had built up animosity towards a family down the block. He started telling my friend Steve and me that this family had done all sorts of bad things, like hiding razor blades in the apples they gave out to trick-or-treaters at Halloween.
Fake news for seven year olds.
This kid kept lambasting these neighbors as terrible people. He was bent on causing trouble.
Steve became convinced of the conspiracy theory and fell in line, and then the two of them told me they were starting a club and I couldn’t join unless I went along with them.
Unfortunately, I succumbed to the peer pressure.
We snuck behind the family’s house in the woods out back. We threw some rocks at the house and when there was no response we realized the family was not home. Then we escalated things, finding bricks, smashing windows, breaking in and vandalizing the home.
I was a shy, introverted kid who never would have ever done anything like this on my own. But once I was swayed to join in, it was like a switch had been flipped and any sense of right or wrong was thrown by the wayside. Suddenly the unthinkable was okay.
This kid, with his bravado, had whipped us up into a frenzy and had us single out and target people who, in reality, had done absolutely nothing wrong.
Then the family came home. We ran. Police arrived. Steve was caught. I lied. To my parents. To everyone. Said I didn’t know anything about it. Steve confessed, and eventually I did, too. As terrible as it all was, the worst of it was the fact that I had lied. My mother wouldn’t speak to me for what felt like an eternity.
In the middle of all this, I see President Richard Nixon on TV. Remember, this was 1974: he was making his farewell remarks at the White House.
He had done something wrong, lied about it, and was crying. So was I.
Days later came one of the most difficult things I ever had to do: My father brought me back to the house to apologize to the family face-to-face. I begged him not to make me do it. It was agonizing … but the right thing to do.
I expected them to be angry with me, but they weren’t. They were gracious, and mostly puzzled at what could have possibly possessed me to do something like this.
Looking at the damage, I was puzzled, too. Like it had all been an out-of-body experience. I couldn’t even explain why I had done it.
As you might imagine, this episode was hugely formative for me. I know now I am a better person for having gone through it. It taught me not to follow blindly. It taught me to tell the truth. And it taught me to own up to things that I’ve done.
I had already been drawing from a young age, but this episode awakened my moral compass and informed what I would create going forward.
But it filled me with so much shame that I never talked about it until well into my adulthood, and then only very rarely. I’ve certainly never spoken of it publicly until today. For the longest time, I wished I could live that day all over again, and that someone could have talked some sense into me: “Stop and think about what you’re doing.”
Today, we’re living with a president who recklessly manipulates people and stokes mob mentality. He lies habitually. He refuses to take responsibility or apologize for his words or actions. He would have us all believe that his never admitting fault is some kind of strength.
I feel driven to create political cartoons because by using PROVOCATIVE humor and drawings I want to be a voice that says, “Stop and think about what you’re doing.”
For those inclined to agree with my opinions, hopefully my cartoons serve as a kind of validation.
For those inclined to disagree, there will be angry responses for sure but I hope some will be challenged to think about the issues I address.
I want to believe the spells people fall under can be broken. Maybe that starts with laughing.
There are two people I so wish could be here today: my parents.
Alzheimer’s, a cruel and dehumanizing disease, killed my father and it’s killing my mother right now.
But from the day they didn’t blink when I dropped my math major in college, to the times I needed help paying the rent, to all the milestones of my career that they helped me celebrate, they were unwavering in their love and support.
I want to thank my true love, my soul mate and my business partner - Sue. She’s by my side on everything from deciphering contract details to letting me interrupt her work to ask, “Do you think this drawing of Mitch McConnell has enough chins?”
Hey, that dude is heinous, but he is fun to draw.
I’m so thankful my daughter Yineth and son Tavio are here today. Thanks for understanding whenever I’m in a deadline crunch. Part of why I do all this is my hope that in some small way I might contribute to making the world better for you two.
How much impact can cartoons have? I don’t know how to gauge that, but receiving this award I feel a sense that I must be doing something right. Thank you, Herblock Foundation and this year’s judges. Thank you, Herblock, for blazing the trail, and creating not only an incredible legacy with your work, but leaving an amazing gift to future generations with the Herblock Foundation and it’s support for cartoonists going forward.
Freedom of expression is a wonderful thing that we can’t take for granted.
I have a friend here tonight who is a federal employee who told me that the government has now blocked federal employees from seeing my website. She said it wasn’t that way under Obama, but it is now.
I’m just going to leave that there.