If you're wondering why my blog posting times have been a bit off kilter and some of the topics a little evergreen, it's because I'm currently on one of my semi-annual trips to Denver to meet and mentor the young writers I work with out there.
And if you happen to know Pulitzer Prize winning editorial cartoonist Mike Keefe, you may already realize that is a photo of him above (taken in an auditorium with camera-unfriendly lighting), speaking to a small group of 11- and 12-year-olds.
I firmly believe in mixing business with pleasure, so when I had to arrange reporting experiences for 50 youngsters between the ages of 9 and 13, I set up tours of the art museum and history museum, two interviews with authors and an appearance by Mike Keefe.
And assigned myself to be the adult handler for that last one. Not an entirely random decision.
These kids are all wild cards. Today, I'm meeting with the young reporters I work with throughout the year, only about a quarter of whom are new to the project, and it's an equally large group, but somewhat like a staff workshop, dealing with the actual nuts-and-bolts of journalism rather than a broad overview.
By contrast, "Youth Journalism Day" is an open one-day program where parents pay 50 bucks and the kids get a meal, a t-shirt and a look behind the curtain, starting with some general how-it-works from me and how-I-do-it from a Denver Post reporter and a photographer.
Then, after lunch and a rooftop photo op at the Post building, they have what teachers call the "culminating experience," in which they get to act as reporters and must gather information and -- on a pretty realistic 45 minute deadline -- write a story.
This year's YJD crop was quite good and I didn't detect any "my mom made me sign up for this" in the crowd, but they're still kids of a certain age group, which means some 9-year-olds who ask questions about whatever flies through their mind at the moment and a lot of older pre-teens who would rather have a tooth extracted than raise a hand.
Mike was facing mostly the latter, but he broke through by handing out cartoons for them to peruse.
I don't think any of them thought of this as "holding in my hand original work by a Pulitzer Prize-winning artist" so much as "check out these drawings," but I do think it put Mike on the level of being a guy who draws stuff, and his loose style may also have had a sort of relaxing effect in not being intimidatingly hi-brow and grown-up.
And then he proved it by drawing stuff, and showing them the notebook he had begun filling with what he calls "cartoon cliches" when he first became interested in the form.
I wouldn't have used the term "cliche," opting instead for something more like "traditional symbols" or "familiar icons," but as he began drawing and explaining what he does, I realized the term "cliche" is perfectly appropriate.
As he explained the task, he drew a few of these images, including the desert island, the Statue of Liberty and the big-fish-eating-medium-fish-eating-small-fish, and then showed how a political cartoonist transforms them from cliches to commentary.
He kept it simple and appropriate for the age group, starting, for instance, with a dove and asking them what concept the dove is associated with.
Now, that's not the level of work that wins the Pulitzer, but, on the other hand, I realized, it kind of is.
That is, you'd need to do more than this quick sketch. To begin with, you'd need to find a way to specify where the dove is and whose gunsights are on it, particularly this week, when you could choose Ukraine, Gaza or a few other places, and then from a large selection of people holding guns.
Even then, while it's an excellent example for explaining the art form to kids, if it were your actual work, you'd have to transform it more than that to raise it above the level of a cliche.
Because, whether or not it actually appears in a format with which you can later wrap a fish, a political cartoon is here today and gone tomorrow, and, even while it's here, you can't expect people to dwell on it for very long.
You need to hit fast and make your point before the reader moves on.
The message in a good political cartoon is important, but sometimes it's simply, "You need to be paying attention to this," and the response evoked may just be, "He's right."
I think the Pulitzer comes -- at least, it should -- when the response is "I hadn't thought of it that way," or "Wow, that politician really is being inconsistent," or "Are you kidding me?"
Which means that, while it is a waste of ink and effort to be "fair" in the namby-pamby sense of not taking sides, it's "unfair" to base your commentary on partisan talking points and misinformation.
But, whatever you say, you can't expect people to ponder your work for 15 minutes picking out the symbols and parsing the message. Hence, simple, iconic images that you do your best to transform from cliches into something fresh and striking.
Which fits into the topic of plagiarism featured here the other day, in the source for which Tjeerd Royaards had written, "(I)t's happened more than once that my cartoon closely resembled the work of a colleague cartoonist. That's not really all that surprising, given we all tend to focus on the same events, and we all tend to use the same visual toolbox," while, in the comments, Garrincha spoke of the issue of drawing for an international and culturally diverse audience, so that you do see "repetitions that are not exactly copycat in the sense of imitation or stealing."
Now, if the top story of the day is a fresh outbreak of violence and your first idea is gunsights over a dove, you should recognize that at least two dozen other editorial cartoonists are sitting over their morning coffee having the same thought.
Of those 24, all but six are going to then think, "Geez, everybody's gonna do that one" and try to come up with a more unique take. Still, even among those, some will finally conclude, "Yeah, it's obvious, but it's also the right statement for the moment."
Which can be a perfectly valid conclusion, as long as you accept that you're going to have to do the best damn "dove in the gunsights" cartoon among that crowd. That's not an impossible task, though it's a helluva challenge.
And when more than 30 cartoonists spew out a weeping Statue of Libery, it's nice that other transformers of cliches can truly come up with transformative work.
Oh, and how did Mike do with the kids?
My favorite of the eight stories that emerged began ...
Politics can be boring. Very boring. Almost everyone feels the same way. Yet the public has a right to know all about what is happening in their world. But no one likes boring; so that’s why there’s editorial cartoonists.
... and then, after describing Mike's approach to the medium, concluded:
Well, it seems that politics isn’t so boring after all…
Where I come from, that's kind of a mini-Pulitzer.