Carping about NCS Awards (Again)

Posted by on June 2nd, 2010 at 10:14 AM

For all the gladsome dispatches from the Reubens Weekend, the annual awards-conferring cocktail-saturated lagniappe-soaked convention of the National Cartoonists Society, professional carpers like me are never, it seems, quite satisfied.

But first, the good news: it is a joy and a delight to witness a professional organization, whose members individually are usually in life-or-death commercial competition with each other, taking some time to recognize the superior work of some of its members. When NCS was founded, there were those who said it would never last because its premise was flawed. The cartoonists who started the club were mostly syndicated cartoonists and therefore competing for the same limited space in newspapers, and the expectation that this essentially antagonistic bunch would band together under friendly terms was, obviously, delusional. That was 54 years ago, and the club is still plugging giddily along.

Before I plunge into my usual round of mean-spirited remarks, let me make it clear that nothing I will say should be interpreted as disparaging the achievements of the cartoonists who were nominated for NCS awards. This year, as in most others, the list of nominees (see our last posting on May 30) includes highly accomplished practitioners of the arts of cartooning. Not a slouch, I would say, among them. Each of them deserves his/her nomination; and any of the nominees in any category would likewise deserve to win. They’re all that good.

But aren’t there any other cartoonists, equally accomplished, who could be recognized for, say, gag cartooning—someone other than Glenn McCoy? Glenn and his twin Gary have been on lists of nominees almost every year.

Glenn, who won in this category this year, has won this award four times since 1996; and in two of those years, he also won in the greeting card category, for which he was again nominated this year. In 1997, he won in the editorial cartoon category. And in 2004, he won the comic strip category. His brother Gary, in contrast, has won only in greeting cards and only once.

My complaint is not that Glenn McCoy is a lousy cartoonist; when you see his work, you know he’s not. But surely there must be other cartoonists of at least equal skill who labor in the genres for which Glenn is so frequently nominated.

Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman won again—for the third time—in the newspaper strip category. Zits is, without question or quibble, one of the shining achievements in comic strip artistry. Scott and Borgman repeatedly exploit the resources of the medium for maximum comedic effect; here are a few Zits releases that could not be funny in any other medium.


Borgman, who until a year or so ago was also a full-time editorial cartoonist, has won in that category four times (three in a row—1986, 1987, and 1988—wasn’t anyone else drawing editorial cartoons in those years? Oliphant? Well, yes; and he won the next three years, having won three previous times). And Borgman took home the Reuben in 1993 for editorial cartooning.

I have no quibble with his deserving these awards. Borgman is consistently brilliant, and I have admired his work for years.

But, as I say—weren’t there other deserving cartoonists in those categories?

Bill Watterson won the Reuben twice, in 1986 and 1988 (and he also won the strip category award in 1988). Watterson was undeniably a brilliant strip cartoonist. But wasn’t anyone else?

Lynn Johnston might have won the Reuben twice, too, but she had the good sense to decline the nomination after she’d won in once. (And soon after that, the Society decided that a cartoonist could win the Reuben only once in a career/lifetime.)

When you scan the lists of nominees year after year, many of the same names keep cropping up. Dan Piraro, who has won in the newspaper panel cartoon division three times, was nominated for the Reuben 7 or 8 times, he told Alan Gardner at Garry Trudeau apparently holds the record for being a bridesmaid and never a bride: he was nominated for the Reuben 13 times before he finally won in 1995 for the consistently brilliant Doonesbury.

Alas, we should expect nothing else. NCS is a social club, and its members are not referees or empaneled judges for Olympic performances. And while non-members win occasionally (Watterson is a conspicuous instance), the awards are fundamentally the laurels bestowed on others in the club.

I was delighted to see the nominees in the political cartooning category this year—Nick Anderson, Rob Rogers, and John Sherffius; all superior editoonists (and none of them listed in the most recent NCS membership directory I have at hand). And Sherffius’ winning is especially gratifying: he exploits the metaphorical nature of the genre with great skill, deploying recognizable cultural symbols regularly to make statements with powerful impact. Bravo.

I was glad to see Terry Moore nominated for his comic book Echo; he’s worked in the genre for a long time, consistently high caliber effort.

And the three nominees in the inaugural graphic novel category were superb choices as representatives of a new kind of long-form cartooning—Seth, David Small, and David Mazzucchelli, whose stunning departure from his usual style alone in Asterios Polyp justifies his winning.

Hilary Price’s win in newspaper panel cartoon is another welcome and laudable milestone: her quirky style and comedic sensibility combine in Rhymes with Orange for a unique achievement.

(Keith Knight, on the other hand—whose style and sense of humor are as uniquely his as hers are hers—will probably never win in the comic strip category: he crashed the Reubens festivities a few years ago, deeply offending the ruling inner clique. I, of course, applauded his chutzpah, but we all know how perverse I am.)

As I said at the onset, nothing I say here should be construed to be a disparagement of the accomplishments of those who were nominated—and those who, subsequently, won. All are deserving. And the organization itself is a worthy enterprise. But its award so-called system could use a little tinkering with.

Next time, I’ll survey the history of some of the Society’s awards. And then we’ll put it all to rest for another year.

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