The Oscar of Cartooning

Posted by on March 8th, 2010 at 9:56 AM

Last night at the Oscars, a glass ceiling shattered when Kathryn Bigelow won Best Director. That was nice. And just to assert directorial equality with ringing irony, she won it for directing a roaringly macho movie, “The Hurt Locker.” That was nice, too.

As usual, the night was festooned with the names of Tinseltown giants. Meryl Streep, Helen Mirren, Christopher Plummer, George Clooney, Morgan Freeman, Jeff Bridges, James Cameron, Quentin Tarantino. And I cheered when Sandra Bullock won Best Actress.

For a few of the nominees, by reason of the brevity of their lists of accomplishments—Gabourey Sidibe, say, or Carey Mulligan—the honor seemed premature. Had they done enough to earn it? But mostly, the night echoed with greatnesses deserving of recognition.

In the realm of cartooning, the equivalent of the Oscar is the Reuben, a trophy that looks like a heap of anonymous cartoon characters scrambling to make a pyramid of themselves. The award is named after the cartoonist who sculpted it, Rube Goldberg, who thought, at the time he made it, that he was making a lamp. It is conferred annually by the National Cartoonists Society upon the member of the profession deemed “cartoonist of the year.”

NCS took only 39 years to break the glass ceiling, awarding the Reuben to Lynn Johnston in 1985; since then, only one other woman cartoonist has been named “cartoonist of the year”—Cathy Guisewite in 1992.

But the list of Reuben winners is a list of distinguished practitioners of the arts and crafts of cartooning. Milton Caniff, Al Capp, Chic Young, Alex Raymond, Roy Crane, Walt Kelly, Hank Ketcham, Mort Walker, Willard Mullin, Charles M. Schulz, Herbert Block, Hal Foster, Frank King, Chester Gould, Ronald Searle, Bill Mauldin.

In this roster of the first 16 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.

You will look in vain for Jack Kirby’s name in the lists of NCS awards; 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.

The dubious tradition continues this year. As determined by a vote of the membership, this year’s finalists for the 2009 Reuben are: Dan Piraro for his panel cartoon Bizarro; Stephen Pastis for his strip Pearls Before Swine; and Richard Thompson for his strip Cul de Sac. All three are syndicated newspaper cartoonists.

All three do credible commercial work—they produce funny features of unconventional comedy—although Piraro and Thompson are more admirable than Pastis, whose toothpicked-olive draftsmanship bespeaks of convenience rather than ineptitude and is therefore an insult to cartooning.

Thompson’s quirky stylistic mannerism is a good part of his strip’s charm, which is considerable. I like his work, both art and comedy, a great deal; some say his strip is the new Calvin and Hobbes, and while it embodies an active imagination as a vital part of childhood, I wouldn’t go so far as to say Thompson is the new Watterson. Thompson’s comedy is different; ditto his take on childhood.

Quite apart from issues of artistry is the matter of visibility. Both Thompson and Pastis are relative newcomers: they haven’t been around long enough with their features to be in the public eye. While fame alone is scarcely the criteria for awarding the Reuben, it ought to count as one of the laurels in naming “cartoonist of the year.”

In contrast, Piraro has been doing Bizarro for over 24 years. And he’s been active in membership roles for NCS, too—evoking, should it be necessary, the “institutional service” aspect of the club’s criteria.

Through visibility, proven commercial and professional stamina, service to the organization and sheer cartooning talent, Piraro deserves the Reuben. But he’s still just another of the syndicated cartoonists whose names litter the roster of Reuben winners.

In naming this year’s finalists, drawn from the syndicated ranks, NCS once again slights a vast acreage of cartooning endeavor, arenas of cartooning in which superior efforts have been made by highly skilled professionals typically ignored by NCS. Even a cursory perusal of the medium’s history turns up names of still living still producing cartoonists whose work is more deserving of Reuben recognition than, for instance, this year’s two newcomers, however worthy their efforts. Here are some of those neglected acres and the thus-far Reuben bypassed cartoonists who’ve distinguished themselves plowing through them:


Charles Barsotti* (see end of blog for footnit)

Mort Gerberg*

Gahan Wilson*

George Booth*

Sam Gross*

(I know: these two aren’t the same, and this year, for the first time, NCS has a graphic novel division award distinct from comic books—a long-deferred step into the 20th century; next, the 21st?—but for the sake of the argument I’m making, here we go:)

Joe Kubert* (who also did newspaper strips)

Dan Spiegle* (who also did newspaper strips)

Bob Lubbers* (who also did newspaper strips)

Terry Moore

Rick Geary

Alison Bechdel

Irwin Hasen* (also did newspaper strip)


Daryl Cagle (who has formed a syndicate based in his pioneering website for editorial cartoons)

Mark Fiore, pioneering in animation

Ann Telnaes, pioneering in animation

Pat Bagley

Clay Bennett

Nick Anderson

Kevin Kallaugher (Kal)

Michael Ramirez

John Sherffius


Sam Norkin* (caricature)

Roy Doty* (advertising, illustration, and the whole ball of waxiness)


(Even if, in its everlasting myopia, NCS is resolved to stick to syndicated newspaper comic strips as the only genre that is worthy of rewarding, there are numerous strips have been around much longer than Pearls before Swine and Cul De Sac and are at least as good if not better and some are every bit as inventive and unconventional as these two nominees; to wit:)

Bill Holbrook, On the Fastrack, Safe Havens, Kevin and Kell (not one, but three daily strips! all skillfully drawn—the last-named, a pioneering online strip)

Brooke McEldowney, 9 Chickweed Lane

Jimmy Johnson, Arlo and Janis

Tom Batiuk, Funky Winkerbean and Crankshaft

Bud Grace, Piranha Club

Russell Myers, Broomhilda

Brian Crane, Pickles

And two guys whose contributions to the profession and the artform are monumental:

Jules Feiffer

Jerry Robinson

Both have received the Milton Caniff Lifetime Achievement Award (and they deserve it), but the Reuben statuette is something else, so why shouldn’t they be treated as Jack Davis was when NCS awarded him the Reuben even after he’d won the Caniff Award? Their stature is at least that of Davis’—more, I’d say.

As a member of NCS, I can’t say I’m delighted with the club’s selection this year. But that, for me, is not unusual. Too often NCS betrays in its choices its essential insularity, and whenever it does, it proclaims its failure as a professional organization and invokes its Old Boys’ Club origins. Nothing wrong with that. But it puts the Reuben in perspective, and from that angle, the designation of “cartoonist of the year” lacks professional cache.

* These cartoonists are verging on extinction, and if NCS doesn’t see its way clear to giving some of them Reubens, they’ll join Jack Kirby and Harvey Kurtzman and Wally Wood and Jack Cole as criminally overlooked geniuses.


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2 Responses to “The Oscar of Cartooning”

  1. […] Harvey, writing over on The Comics Journal, raises a question about the bias of the National Cartoonist Society in awarding its top honor, the Reuben, to syndicated comic strip creators. In this roster of the first 16 Reuben winners, […]

  2. Pab Sungenis says:

    Or what about webcomics? I’ll put the writing of Randall Munroe or David Willis up against anyone currently on the daily comics page. Both are more deserving of the Reuben than Piraro or Thompson, and at least as deserving as Pastis.