Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist Matt Wuerker talks shop

Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist Matt Wuerker talks shop
Matt Wuerker (Courtesy Photo)

Interview by Derrick Perkins

Between an election cycle rife for lampooning and final say over what he puts to pen and ink, POLITICO’s editorial cartoonist Matt Wuerker admits he’s got it pretty good.

So good, in fact, the veteran artist won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning. Wuerker was lauded for “his consistently fresh, funny cartoons, especially memorable for lampooning the partisan conflict that engulfed Washington.”

He considers it an affirmation of a 30-plus-year career stretching back to the Carter administration.

A selection of Wuerker’s art graces the walls of Episcopal High School’s Angie Newman Johnson Gallery. The pieces touch on the presidential campaigns, which he hopes will get students thinking and talking.

Taking a break from working on the four cartoons he inks a week for Arlington-based POLITICO, Wuerker chatted with the Alexandria Times about his style, winning the Pulitzer and, of course, ruffling feathers.

Alexandria Times: What’s your process for drawing a cartoon? Do ideas just pop into your head?

Matt Wuerker: I’m really lucky. It’s whatever pops into my head and hopefully what popped into my head is a good cartoon idea. Sometimes they pop into your head as fully formed cartoons, and other times, it’s a half-baked beginning of a cartoon that you have to work out.

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I’ve got complete editorial freedom, and [with] many papers, there is kind of a conversation about what [editors] want to see on the editorial page and POLITICO doesn’t have a traditional editorial page. We have an opinion section of all outside opinion pieces … and to keep it from looking too boring, they throw in my cartoon. It’s whatever moves me.

How would you rate this election cycle, in terms of material for editorial cartoonists?

This one has been particularly good. The Republican primary was really wild and wooly. There were also just such great characters … from Newt Gingrich to Herman Cain. It doesn’t get any better [in terms of] people saying outlandish things and acting in crazy ways — it was a high water mark for political cartoonists. In some ways, the general election has been a bit of a comedown; the primary was so rich, so target rich.

Do you hear from people who disagree with you or take issue with your work?

That just comes with the territory. Political cartoonists, we’re just opinion columnists who draw. We are entitled to our political points of view, and they’re on complete display. Some people are pleased by them and some are irritated by them, and that’s OK. The Internet makes it much easier for people to register their dismay … Even the most negative [responses], it doesn’t bother me. I’m pleased that I struck a nerve; it’s kind of my job really.

How about high-ranking or powerful people?

The weird deal is the more high-ranking, the more powerful, the less ruffled their feathers get. … Maybe eight years or so ago, I did a cartoon I thought that was strong and really slammed Donald Rumsfeld on the Iraq War, and he had a colonel email [me] the following day and said that [Rumsfeld] would like the original, which filled me with such mixed emotions. On the one hand you sort of think, ‘Oh he’s paying attention.’ On the other hand, the sting of my pen was not exactly what I thought it was.

Drawing for POLITICO, a lot of our readers are on Capitol Hill, members of Congress and whatnot. Many times members, if they’re in a cartoon and even if portrayed really negatively, are happy to have been caricatured and be in the cartoon.

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What is the role of the editorial cartoonist? What do artists like you strive to accomplish?

We’re just journalists who happen to have drawing skills more than writing skills. We go back a couple of hundred of years in the media landscape. My answer to this sort of thing — I like to remind people we’re an enduring piece of journalism. We go back to Paul Revere and Ben Franklin. There is something enduring about political cartoons: It’s a way of communicating a political point that you can consume very easy and very quickly.

[Back then] they were used a lot because a lot of readers were semiliterate, certainly they could stop and glance at the cartoon and get the cartoon even if they didn’t get through much schooling.

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The irony is in the 21st century we’re getting back to that in some weird way. We have a super short attention span. … People are reading shorter and shorter [items], and the cartoon has been doing that for centuries. We were tweeting before there was Twitter, reducing 1,000 words to a single picture or maybe a 140-word caption.

There is no denying the fact that cartoonists are losing their positions at newspapers, but no more so than other journalists out there. … The Internet is a visual medium and cartoons work really, really well, and everybody should hire a cartoonist.

How has winning a Pulitzer changed your career, if at all?

People want to put more credence in my opinions. This is a Good Housekeeping seal of approval … Winning awards is great, you get to wear this big shiny medal on your chest. … It’s a nice affirmation. I’ve been drawing cartoons since the Carter administration. I never thought 30 years ago I might win the Pulitzer.
Current Events, an exhibition of Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist Matt Wuerker’s recent work, is on display at Episcopal High School’s Angie Newman Johnson Gallery in the Ainslie Arts Center through November 1.