Caricatures for the Digital Era

Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist animates his work for new breed of commentary.

July 10, 2007 — -- Known for his quick wit and even sharper pen, nationally syndicated editorial cartoonist Walt Handelsman took home his second Pulitzer Prize in a decade this spring, but the win is not notable for its frequency, but for the technology used to produce his winning submissions.

In late 2005, when faced with gloomy forecasts for the future of his craft, the Newsday editorial columnist and several of his cartoonist colleagues, such as Ann Telnaes, a freelancer for Cartoonists and Writers Syndicate/New York Times, and Mark Fiore, an independent artist, decided to try their hand at something a little different.

Handelsman began experimenting with new material and a new medium, locking himself in his home office for hours on end, giving up golf for a year, and exchanging his pen for a mouse.

Thus began Handelsman's foray into the unknown world of animated editorial cartoons. Over the past year and a half, Handelsman has honed his animation and computer skills, creating 24 animated cartoons which have appeared on Newsday's Web site (often topping the site's "most e-mailed" list).

"Animated editorial cartoons are completely different from static editorial cartoons," Handelsman said in an interview with ABC News. "With a standard editorial cartoon, you're taking tons of information and synthesizing it down to a single bite -- a single moment in time. With animated editorial cartoons, it's more storytelling."

His shorts, which typically run under a minute, do not stray far from his traditional political cartoon fare, but, because of their format, they force him to focus on broader topics, such as NSA wiretapping and Sen. Hillary Clinton's, D-N.Y., 2008 election campaign, rather than take aim at specific issues. Handelsman also points out that animated editorial cartoons differ from traditional cartoons in that they do not rely on a single, witty, well-placed punch line.

"There are multiple punch lines," he said. "[And] lots of different characters. It involves imitations, voices that I do." In fact, Handelsman voices all of his characters, ranging from a southern-accented President Bush and a gruff Vice President Dick Cheney to his high-pitched renditions of Clinton and Ann Coulter.

Singing His Way to a Pulitzer

Interestingly, Handelsman's favorite animated spoof about NSA wiretapping, for which he won a Pulitzer this April, features not the typical political suspects, but a troupe of NSA drones, singing the line "Each time you dial, we start a file, the private things that you discuss, we then compile," cleverly set to the tune of Stevie Wonder's "I Just Called to Say I Love You."

While his recent success may suggest otherwise, Handelsman states that the transition from print to screen was not an easy one. "I spent a whole year doing these animations, teaching myself, trying to change my brain," he said.

Aside from the obvious technical differences, Handelsman's animated editorial cartoons are extremely time consuming. Whereas his print cartoons took an average of three hours to complete once he decided on a concept, their animated siblings tend to take him anywhere from 40 to 70 hours.

Despite the long hours, Handelsman believes in this new kind of editorial cartoon. While he is still deeply attached to the print version, he sees his and other cartoonists' transitions to the online medium as a sign of where this field is headed.

"I still do the standard editorial cartoon, that is my bread and butter, I absolutely love doing that," he said. "But I see this as a natural extension because the Web is such a big part of our lives now, and there's so much access to video on the Web. And younger people love the Web, so this is a place I wanted to go."

While Handelsman agrees that major changes are afoot in newsrooms across the nation, he does not believe that they spell the end of the editorial cartoon. For now at least, he holds out hope that as long as there are newspapers, there will be cartoonists lampooning the news they print.

"People really love editorial cartoons and I think publishers understand that," Handelsman said. "[Cartoonists] will certainly keep drawing, and the politicians will continue to give us great material. So, for as long as I can see, there will be editorial cartooning, as well as, hopefully, animated editorial cartoons."