The Daily Heller: Ward Sutton Wins Political Cartooning Honor

Posted inThe Daily Heller

Political or editorial cartoons were once the primary source for visual political satire, humor and commentary. There are fewer outlets for the traditional form, like Herblock, Pat Oliphant and Tony Auth, but life still breathes in many venues—like The Boston Globe, where award winner Ward Sutton publishes biting cartoons on a regular basis. On this day after the election deluge, he has a lot to make funny. Sutton has also just received the Berryman Cartoonist Award for 2022—and here, he takes a victory lap.

How long have you been drawing political cartoons? And why did you start?
I have been drawing editorial cartoons since grade school, when I was already an obsessive drawer and had begun creating my own comic books (which my teacher allowed me to do instead of regular classwork). One day I drew a caricature of then–President Jimmy Carter. The teacher liked it and put it up in the display case. I got lots of positive feedback from other students. I thought, I like this!

Then, the parent of a fellow student, who did work with the community newspaper, suggested I try creating editorial cartoons. I made a bunch—mostly about school/kid issues at that point, and she wrote an article about me and got my work in the community paper. I then began creating editorial cartoons for that paper—mainly about city issues. 

I later became the cartoonist for my high school paper. I realized I could make fun of the administration and the school’s shortcomings in my cartoons. It was an epiphany of a kind of creative power. At this point I was inspired as much by editorial cartoons as I was by Bloom County and David Letterman. I was no jock, and my puberty hit rather late, so I still looked pretty young in high school; the positive reaction I got to my work had a big impact on me.

How long have you been at The Boston Globe? And what makes this the right place for you to be?
I’m a freelancer, and I’ve been creating editorial cartoons with The Boston Globe since 2008. The Globe is an excellent paper, and I’ve been working with the same wonderful editor, Marjorie Pritchard, the whole time. Having the right rapport with an editor is key for what I do. I respect Marjorie, and she gets my sensibility and allows me a lot of freedom without micromanaging my concepts or artwork.

You are the recipient of the Berryman cartoon award this year. This is very prestigious. Why do you feel you are getting it?
I had actually not known of the competition before this year, and so this is the first time I’ve entered. The award is overseen by the National Press Foundation, and when the director shared the good news with me that I had won, she said most of the judges were previously unaware of my work and really excited by it. I’m incredibly honored.

Anyone with a political opinion is under harsh scrutiny these days. Have you been stuck in the mire of any controversy?
I was talking with a fellow cartoonist recently—someone who, like me, came up through the alt-weekly newspapers in the 1990s. We were reflecting on how, back then, you’d create a cartoon and it would just go out into print and unless there was a letter to the editor here or there, you didn’t even know if anyone had even read the cartoon or not. Social media has a lot of pros and cons, but it has changed the experience of being a cartoonist. Now cartoons get exposure well beyond the printed paper people may or may not pick up. And cartoonists get far more feedback and engagement with readers. So as to your question, during these past years I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback and support—some retweets from well-known figures, etc.—as well as negative reaction from people who are angry, or are trolls or bots. In 2022, it’s hard to know what even constitutes a “controversy” anymore! 

The biggest recent controversy of sorts that I can recall turned out to be phony. I created a cartoon about the GOP tax cut plan in late 2017. [I don’t] mind when people get angry over the content of my cartoons, but in this case, I was alarmed, fearing my cartoon communicated something I did not intend. In the end, it became clear that this was an organized response by a would-be Boston Republican who happened to be Jewish. I realized the tweets coming at me were from his account, secondary accounts he set up to troll me, and a few of his supporters.

My biggest concern for the future of cartooning has to do with the business environment. On the one hand, I believe people love cartoons—there’s an audience out there. And there’s a hunger for more diversity—just look at the rise in popularity of graphic novels.

The Nib is a good online place featuring a younger and more diverse lineup of cartoonists, although a good amount of what they publish is often reportage or other forms of cartooning, as opposed to editorial cartooning.

There are a lot of challenges being faced by editorial cartoonists. Staff positions have dried up, pay rates for cartoons have shrunk. The Pulitzers eliminated the Editorial Cartoon category last year, after giving no award in the category the year before. The New York Times declared a few years back they would not run editorial cartoons. And at the American Association of Editorial Cartoonists (AAEC) convention I attended a few weeks ago in Columbus, the vast number of attendees were older white men. It’s concerning to wonder where the next generation will come from.

How does the process work? Can you submit whatever strikes you, or is there a topical directive from the EiC or editorial dept.?
One of the things I love about my work is that I write and draw what inspires me and pitch it. In this harrowing time, I’m allowed to speak out, and that is a great gift. The frustration comes when I have to wait to hear back from editors, sometimes pitch the idea multiple times before it finds a home, or sometimes never find a home for an idea I really like. I’m grateful for the venues I have been able to work with, and am always looking for more because nothing is ever for certain or forever as a freelancer. Once a pitched idea has been accepted, then I create the final artwork. If I’m pitching a multi-panel piece, I pitch a script for the piece—like a script for theater or television. If I’m pitching a single-panel cartoon, I tend to sketch it.

Is there any truth to the old canard that a news cartoonist is simply a visual voice for the paper he or she works at?
I think that would ring true for a staff cartoonist. Steve Sack, a friend of mine and the longtime cartoonist of the Minneapolis Star Tribune (my hometown paper growing up), recently retired. They gave him a grand send-off at the Twins baseball stadium, with the governor congratulating him. In that case, Steve’s work was indeed a visual voice for the paper. I think he was beloved by readers, even if they didn’t always agree with him.

It used to be every city had at least one paper, and every paper had a cartoonist. Now papers are disappearing and many that still exist simply run syndicated cartoons. It’s cheaper for sure, but the papers no longer have that visual voice you speak of. 

People associate my work with certain papers I’ve worked for—The Boston Globe and The Village Voice, especially. But since I’m freelance and I don’t appear in them on a regular basis at this point, I don’t know if I’m seen as their visual voice.

Has your sense of political humor changed since the 2016 election?
I think it’s gotten tighter, sharper, better. The Obama era was not as easy as a satirist, although I’d gladly go back to that time in a heartbeat. The Tea Party was infuriating, but the level of discourse in the country post-Trump is so discouraging.

The world has gotten so crazy that when news breaks, people often have to qualify that a certain headline is NOT from The Onion. It’s like that for cartoonists, too: Reality has gone beyond parody.

So on one hand, I’ve got more material than I can handle on a daily basis. But on the other, I have to look for ways to comment on what is already, to any thinking person, absurd. It’s also more difficult to find the humor in some of the developments in the country and the world. I get more feedback from people saying my cartoons are right on target, but that they also leave them feeling a little depressed. I try to make my cartoons such that they can help alleviate the depressing aspect of life right now. I know creating them is cathartic for me.

If you’re asking if my career has suffered because of political stances I take, I don’t think so. In general, I’d never want to work with someone who has a Trumpian mentality anyway, so if I’ve missed any gigs I’m not aware of, I don’t mind. Cartooning is my passion—I feel a calling to use my talents to speak out about what I believe, so I don’t have any regrets in that regard.

If you’re asking me if my attempts at trying to make a cartoon with a certain statement have ever been thwarted, yes, that happens. For example, I pitched a cartoon this week that was deemed to be too partisan to run just before the election. (I ended up reworking it and pitching it elsewhere and found a venue for it.)

Cartoon ideas get rejected fairly often, although I don’t think it’s usually because of the political stance. It’s more often about space limitations or that the idea, not the stance, doesn’t quite work. Some of my ideas I believe in so strongly that I just keep pitching until I find a home for the idea. Most often I’m gratified to see that the cartoon one editor dismissed was embraced by another and ultimately very successful with readers.

If I can’t find a venue for a cartoon idea, sometimes I think, Well, maybe that idea doesn’t really work. Other times I’m very disappointed. I had an idea right after the 2020 election that I loved but couldn’t sell. It’s still relevant today and I’m still thinking all the time about how I might utilize the core of the idea and pitch it again.