History of NCS Awards (Some of Them)

Posted by on June 4th, 2010 at 10:25 AM

The National Cartoonists Society was conjured up in 1946 by a bunch of cartoonists living in or near New York who had made occasional forays during World War II to military hospitals in the area where they entertained the convalescing wounded by drawing funny pictures. On these expeditions, the cartooners surprised themselves by enjoying each other’s company, and to perpetuate the feeling after the War, they started this club of inkslingers.

Probably, the club would never have coagulated itself into being without the reluctant sponsorship of Rube Goldberg, who, in addition to giving his name to an entry in the dictionary, was the master of ceremonies for the performances in hospitals and, as such, the unofficial but nonetheless anointed leader of the band.

Rube disparaged the idea of an organization of cartoonists because he disliked organizations, and he also felt cartoonists were inherently, by genetic default, disorganized and mutinous. But he also had a good time imbibing and wise-cracking with his professional cohorts whenever they convened for their humanitarian purposes, so he finally agreed to support the idea of a cartoonists club and was soon elected the first president of what became, almost at once, the National Cartoonists Society.

Prompted by the ghosts of organizations past, some of the group formulated a “constitution” for NCS, which document also laid claim to the club’s having a “purpose.” Over the years, NCS has acquired, in the manner of any vessel afloat, a certain quantity of barnacles, all of which profess a gamut of purposes, all sounding somewhat grand. To the original idea—to promote and foster good fellowship and solidarity among cartoonists—organization-minded members added public relations when they resolved to publicize the achievements of cartoonists in order to give the profession social and artistic status. And those purposes acquired numerous ancillary purposes of a mostly charitable if diffuse nature until the club drifted, on paper, further and further away from the purpose that had most appealed to Rube Goldberg.

In actuality, NCS remains today what it had been at the beginning—a drinking club. But on paper, it still has other, more high-fallutin’ ambitions. The club should have paid more attention to Rube. As he realized instinctively, cartoonists are not good organization people. They’re not only genetically disorganized: they embody anti-establishmentarianism. Confused and mutinous, you might say. And nowhere are cartoonists’ slipshod attempts at organizational thinking more conspicuously on display than in NCS’s efforts to recognize achievement in the profession by conferring awards.

It started in 1947 with the presentation of a trophy to the “best cartoonist of the year.” “Best” is a debatable proposition under any circumstance; later, the designation was changed to “outstanding cartoonist of the year,” which admits of nuances of interpretation not necessarily evocative of professional skill alone.

By the mid-1950s, the club had decided one award was not enough, and in an effort to widen its embrace of its ostensible constituency, NCS began presenting a flurry of awards to cartoonists for outstanding performances in advertising, animation, sports cartoons, comic books, comic strips, editorial cartoons and single-panel newspaper cartoons and single-panel magazine cartoons.

In 1960, storytelling strips were siphoned off for a category of their own, leaving “humor” strips in their own category; then in 1989, perceiving that the number of candidates for “story strips” was steadily shrinking, the two categories were recombined into one.

By that time, Gasoline Alley (under Dick Moores first then Jim Scancarelli) and Prince Valiant (John Cullen Murphy) had dominated the “story strip” division for most of the preceding decade. Just as Willard Mullin and Bill Gallo dominated the “sports cartoon” category (probably because sports cartoons were dying off).

Through the next decades, the categories multiplied like gophers—magazine and book illustration, then newspaper illustration, and “new media” (probably the Web). But confusion reigned throughout (although I concede that one person’s “confusion” can be someone else’s “unending valiant quest to adapt to changing times”).

“Illustration” was originally part of the “advertising” category; then it was divorced in 1976 as simply Illustration, recombined with Advertising 1982-1985, set apart as Magazine and Book Illustration in 1989 (the year Sergio Aragones won it—magazine and book illustration? Sergio?), and finally, in 1999, it was divided into two categories, Magazine Illustration and Book Illustration.

Despite the lesson that might have been derived from the multiplicity of “illustration” categories, Comic Book remained mostly a redoubt of its own from its first year in 1956 until this very year, when Graphic Novel was spun off as an artistic enterprise different from making comic books.

Not that there wasn’t some confusion over the years: the category was divided into Humor and Story from 1970 through 1981, and then in 1989 and 1990, the Comic Book category disappeared, merging briefly with Magazine and Book Illustration (hence Sergio’s unlikely triumph in this cobbled-up category in 1989).

NCS has never been entirely comfortable with comic books—probably because comic books are produced by creative teams rather than single individuals. The organization has always harbored a bias in favor of the syndicated comic strip as the exemplar of cartooning: comic strips have traditionally been produced by individual cartoonists, whose accomplishments, as cartoonists, are therefore indisputable.

The bias was debatable from the start: most bylined syndicated comic strip artists were supported by industrious assistants (Al Capp, who won the second “cartoonist of the year” designation, had a staff of at least two who drew virtually everything in Li’l Abner), and in the last decade or so of the Common Era, more and more comic strips carry double bylines, making the bias inexplicable to the point of absurdity.

Still, the favoritism persisted, and so when NCS approached the comic book as a manifestation of cartooning artistry, it was lost. Initially, NCS made some sound choices about comic books, conferring the category award on Jerry Robinson the first year, then Wally Wood—considering, probably, only the actual drawing of the comic books they were associated with; then Carmine Infantino, who shared, that year, with Steve Douglas (most remembered, if at all, for his production of Famous Funnies, which he edited and for which he usually drew on the cover the comic character of one of the strips reprinted within).

After that, NCS seemed to abandon discernment on the topic, handing out the award repeatedly to Will Eisner (who won it a third of the time between 1959 and 1988, his three 1950s wins presumably for the “instructional comic books” he was then producing, his only comic book endeavor of the period) or Bob Oksner or Bob Gustafson.

It wasn’t until the 1990s that NCS brought itself to recognize the work of the current generation of comic book cartoonists—starting with Frank Miller, then Todd McFarlane and including, eventually, Jeff Smith, Alex Ross, Frank Cho, Chris Ware, Stan Saki, and Terry Moore.

Glancing back over that list, we can see the emergence of the graphic novel among the titles credited to nominees. The recent winners in the Comic Book category were not producing comic books: they were doing graphic novels, but NCS was apparently unable to see the difference until this year. This year (that is, for work produced in 2009), the club created an award category for Graphic Novel that is distinct from the Comic Book category.

But in conferring its main award, the “cartoonist of the year” award—symbolized by a statuette of anonymous cartoon figures arranged in a pyramid and called the Reuben after its designer, the afore-mentioned Goldberg (who thought, when he sculpted the pyramid, he was making a lampstand)—NCS continues to manifest the kind of errant confusion that is common to saloon arguments but unwelcome in structured organizations.

For the first twenty years, NCS gave the Reuben to genuine giants in cartooning, persons whose accomplishments in wielding the tools of their craft were indisputable: Milton Caniff (who won again 25 years later), Al Capp, Chic Young, Alex Raymond, Roy Crane, Walt Kelly, Hank Ketcham, Mort Walker, Willard Mullin, Charles Schulz (who won a second time ten years later), Herbert Block (the first editorial cartoonist to win), Hal Foster, Frank King, Chester Gould, Ronald Searle, Bill Mauldin, Dik Browne, Fred Lasswell, Leonard Starr.

In this roster of the first 19 Reuben winners, only one cartooned outside of newspaper pages. Ronald Searle. All the rest were syndicated newspaper cartoonists. And all but three made their marks with comic strips. NCS’s bias in favor of syndicated comic strip cartoonists was blatant from the beginning, and it has persisted through the club’s 54 years. But in the mid-1960s, another, subsidiary, bias surfaced.

In 1966, Otto Soglow got the Reuben. Soglow’s achievement with The Little King, a weekly pantomime strip, was considerable, but by 1966, he was pretty much going through the motions. He’s passed his prime, I’d say, however honorable a laborer in the vineyard of cartooning he may have been. Ditto, I’d say, for Frank King and Chester Gould, who won in the late 1950s. Soglow got the Reuben less for cartooning than for his continued participation in the machinations of NCS; King and Gould, for lifetime achievement rather than anything they’d done in the years they won. So the meaning of “outstanding cartoonist of the year” began to blur somewhat.

In 1967, the Reuben went to Goldberg, ostensibly for “humor in sculpture,” which he’d taken up in his declining years, but probably because he was the club’s Grand Old Man and hadn’t won the Reuben yet. Similarly, Walter Berndt got the nod in 1969. But it was the next winner, Alfred Andriola, that finally destroyed the meaning of the Reuben.

With Andriola’s win in 1970, NCS named as the “outstanding cartoonist of the year” a person who neither drew nor wrote the comic strip, Kerry Drake, for which he presumably won the award. Probably, he got the award because he edited the NCS newsletter for quite a spell, and he was, I suppose, a “clubbable” man, convivial company in the watering holes in NCS leadership frequented.

Other distinguished cartoonists won the Reuben after that, but there were a quantity of “institutional” awards akin to the Soglow and Andriola awards. Meanwhile, some of the profession’s stellar talents were not being recognized at all.

Jack Kirby never won a Reuben; never won in a category award either. Ditto Harvey Kurtzman, Joe Shuster, Jerry Siegel, Jack Cole, Peter Arno, Helen Hokinson, Charles Addams, George Price, the Berenstains (Stan and Janice), Robert Osborn, David Levine, Gluyas Williams, Rea Ivin, Gardner Rea, Edward Gorey, Virgil Partch (Vip). To name a few, too few.

And NCS narrowly avoided missing the opportunity to recognize Al Hirschfeld’s pace-setting work in theatrical caricature, conferring on him the newly minted Milton Caniff Lifetime Achievement Award in 1995, just 8 years before he died after a stunning, genre-defining performance for well over half-a-century; on the basis of his work, he should have won the Reuben in the 1950s. (Hirschfeld may have contributed to his own neglect by NCS: he refused to call himself a “cartoonist,” preferring, instead, the term “caricaturist.”)

In the last few years, NCS has conferred the Reuben on a few non-syndicated cartoonists. The club was earnestly trying, but old habits die hard: the majority of winners continue to be found almost exclusively in the pages of daily newspapers to which their syndicates distribute them.

I don’t mean to suggest that any of the three Reuben nominees this year is unworthy. Far from it. They’re all comedic geniuses of a unique sort. All worthy of recognition. That’s not the issue. The issue is: there are other cartoonists equally deserving who happen to labor in the other vineyards of cartooning. And they’re usually overlooked. For a trial listing of these deserving souls, return to our posting for March 8.

I should mention, before we wander back into the real world, that I am an associate member of NCS, and I am usually castigated by certain of the organization’s inner clique whenever I criticize the club in public. To speak of the Society’s shortcomings in public is, they loudly allege, a violation of its credo—to foster fellowship and solidarity among cartoonists. I’m violating the fellowship and breaking apart the solidarity.

That view is an entirely credible one.

But I feel that fellowship and solidarity among cartoonists would be better nurtured by an award that extended honorific recognition to all of the genre in which cartoonists labor, not just in newspaper syndication. And this view, no matter how often expressed in the corridors of the Society’s clubhouse, seems to have impinged not much at all upon the prevailing custom. That’s how it is in drinking clubs: custom overrules change.

Not that blurting all this out in public will effect any change either. But here, I write as a chronicling critic of the medium, not as a member of the club. And the club, by reason of its conspicuousness, is fair game for the critic.

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One Response to “History of NCS Awards (Some of Them)”

  1. […] historian R.C. Harvey writes about the history of the National Cartoonists Society. Probably, the club would never have coagulated itself into being without the reluctant sponsorship […]