Arts Desk

Meet a Local Cartoonist: A Chat with Politico‘s Matt Wuerker

mapMatt Wuerker is this year’s winner of the Herblock Prize for political cartooning. Wuerker was a finalist for last year’s Pulitzer Prize, and the award committee said his work is an "engaging mix of art and ideas, resulting in cleverly conceived cartoons that persuade rather than rant and that sometimes use animation to widen their impact." Since 2007, Wuerker has been the staff cartoonist for Politico, and his drawings appear everywhere in the publication, often on the front page. He was hired after applying for what he thought was a typical freelance job and, surprisingly, it's his first salaried job. He used to freelance, beginning at Willamette Week in 1979, and self-syndicate his cartoons. Matt also creates fun computer animations for Politico's Web site, like his "Map of the Blogosphere." He'll receive the Herblock Prize April 15 at the Library of Congress

Washington City Paper: What type of comic work or cartooning do you do?

Matt Wuerker: I draw political cartoons.  Some say crosshatching pen-and-inkers like me are musty anachronisms, but I prefer to see myself as a daring neoclassicist.

WCP: When (within a decade is fine) and where were you born?

MW: Let's say I'm an Eisenhower baby, born in California.

WCP: Why are you in Washington now? What neighborhood or area do you live in?

MW: Gamblers are drawn to Vegas, mustard lovers have to go to Dijon, politicos are drawn to D.C.  My wife Sarah and I live in Woodley Park, right by the zoo.

WCP: What is your training and/or education in cartooning?

MW: I'm self-taught.  In college I got a degree in International Affairs... but I doodled all the way through school, starting maybe in the first or second grade. Don't tell my parents.

WCP: Who are your influences?

MW: I was lucky as a kid to get to meet Paul Conrad who lived in my hometown. He is a giant in editorial cartooning, winner of three Pulitzers and even more impressively he won a place on Nixon's enemies list. He was a huge influence.

Starting out I also spent a lot of time looking at Ron Cobb, an insane crosshatcher who drew for the alternative press in the '60's, as well as David Levine, Ed Sorel, and R. Crumb. I also love Steinberg's visual elegance and innately whimsical voice. Red Grooms is another guy who took cartooning wonderful places.

There are also a number of 19th-century cartoonists whose mad drawing skills and ability to create rich visual worlds always impressed me. A.B. Frost, T.S. Sullivant, Joseph Keppler are often overshadowed by Nast, but in many ways they were more adventurous graphically. Geez, maybe I am an anachronism.

I also want to throw in here how great it is to work in D.C.  There's a great circle of cartoonists here and being in their orbit is a daily inspiration. Opening the Post to Toles and Richard Thompson (Richard's Poor Almanac is the best and most original cartoon in the country and sadly known mostly only to those lucky enough to be in range of the Post;, Cul de Sac is pretty good too).  And then there's Ann Telnaes' animations that appear in the Post online—truly inspired and the wave of the future, as well as Beeler, Galifianakis, Bill Brown, and others.  It raises one's game to be around all these folks.

WCP: What work are you most proud of?

MW: I think it's the cartoons I was doing during the Bush years. The thing I like most about political cartooning is the relevance of the work to the real world. And if you do this long enough you get to look back and see yourself in historical context, sometimes on the right side and sometimes on the wrong (there's a box of ‘Nader for President’ cartoons I'd like to bury in the back of the basement someplace). But I'm proud of the work I was doing in the runup that bamboozled us into the Iraq War and that horrible chapter where Cheney and Bush drove the country into the ditch, the one we're still in.

WCP: What would you like to do or work on in the future?

MW: What I'm doing now. I know it sounds goofy but I've got my dream job right now. Politico is such a great place to work—they give me so much creative freedom. I get to do cartoons in color for print and the Web, caricature, illustrations, and animations when I want.  I'm doing exactly what I've always wanted to do on a stage that has a great audience for the cartoons.

WCP: What do you do when you're in a rut or have writer's block?

MW: Drink more coffee, or I also find walking up the Metro escalators good at dislodging ideas that have gotten gummed up in the creative plumbing.

WCP: What do you think will be the future of your field?

MW: There's too much pessimism about the future for political cartooning.  I think the future's very bright. You see more and more sites like Politico that aggressively deploy cartoons on the homepage. I think the media is becoming increasingly visual... and increasingly made to match our shrinking attention spans. The business model for cartooning is going through a rough transition now, but in the long run the thing we cartoonists do—deliver simple-minded political messages in short easily digestible bites—is the direction the media in general is heading.

We're living in a media landscape that seems to get more infantile and politically simple-minded all the time—look at the huge popularity of Glenn Beck...and I saw someplace recently that Jon Stewart is now the most trusted man in America.  The clowns seem to be taking over the circus. This may be bad for governance, but it can only be good news for cartoonists. The interesting part will be what the platforms are going to be, cell phones, iPads, the iChip in my forehead, whatever it is, I'm sure the combination of visual metaphor and incisive humor you find in good cartoons will adapt and evolve and really thrive in the future.

WCP: What's your favorite thing about D.C.?

MW: The place is one big cartoon. It's a great place to work as a cartoonist; the monumental buildings, the monumental egos, all the politics wafting around in the air. It's where the bonfire of the vanities meets the Peter the cartoons just write themselves.

WCP: Least favorite?

MW: The D.C. DMV maybe.

WCP: What monument or museum do you take most out-of-town guests to?

MW: The FDR Memorial, Jefferson Memorial, Tidal Basin area is a wonderful place to walk around and has probably the best karma you can find inside the Beltway. I also love getting to take people to the National Portrait Gallery/Smithsonian Museum of American Art. There you find cartoons hung among the canvases. Where else do you find cartoons treated like fine art?

WCP: Do you have a Web site or blog?

MW: No blog, but a nice corner of Politico for my stuff. There's also "The Cartoon Playground" hosted by my pals at Funny Times (the best little cartoon monthly out there). I created the elements and you make your own cartoon, sort of like the old Colorforms, but done with Flash. Very Webby... and interactive!

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