The Next Page: Funny business big in the 'Burgh

Seven local cartoonists are up for awards at next weekend's National Cartoonists Society convention in Pittsburgh. David Coulson says that's an unusual number of nominees -- and reflects the craft's importance here.

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Gone are the days when cities had multiple newspapers, which competed for comic strips and treated cartoonists like movie stars.

Cartooning remains a serious business, however, and the Internet has opened up new outlets for illustrators' talents. Pittsburgh is a hotbed for this creative energy -- a point that will be driven home when the National Cartoonists Society holds its annual convention and awards ceremony in Pittsburgh next weekend.

Seven Pittsburgh-area cartoonists have been nominated for Reuben awards, which are named for the society's longtime honorary president, Rube Goldberg. That's a big number for a small city. It would be a huge accomplishment for even one of the major coastal cities.

The local nominees and samples of their work appear on this page. One winner will be selected from the three or four nominees in each division. In one division -- online comics, long form -- local cartoonists Vince Dorse and Pat N. Lewis are competing against each other.

In all, 48 artists from across the nation have been nominated for awards in 15 divisions, ranging from newspaper illustration to television animation to advertising to greeting cards. Pittsburghers represent about 15 percent of all nominees.

The local nominees are but a small number of the cartoonists of all stripes who inhabit Pittsburgh. The community includes comic-book artists, humor illustrators, Web cartoonists, graphic novelists, performance and editorial cartoonists and mini-comics creators.

My colleagues and I have come up with a few theories on why Pittsburgh is such a draw, so to speak, for cartoonists. One contributing factor may be the relatively low cost of housing, an important consideration in a field that isn't as wildly lucrative as it used to be.

Then, of course, there's the ToonSeum, Downtown, one of only three major cartoon museums in the country and the site of some of this year's convention activities. The ToonSeum has done more to promote cartooning in Pittsburgh than anything else. Host to many a party, opening and cartoon event, the ToonSeum is a home away from home and unofficial clubhouse for Pittsburgh's cartoonist class.

Pittsburgh also is the home of many colleges and universities with good-to-stellar art departments, including the Art Institute of Pittsburgh. Ever since the storied 1970s tenure of its president, the brilliant caricaturist John Johns, the school has trained many successful humor illustrators and cartoonists.

On the fine-art side, Andy Warhol's alma mater, Carnegie Mellon, has produced many artists whose work is influenced by humor and cartoon sensibilities. Although CMU's illustration program was shuttered in the mid-1990s, the painters that CMU graduates these days include a goodly portion who, in our opinion, are like Warhol: illustrators and cartoonists masquerading as fine artists.

Also promoting the community is the Pittsburgh Society of Illustrators -- the largest illustration society in the country after New York City's -- whose membership includes many of the local Reuben nominees. And, lest we forget, Pittsburgh is home base of the National Cartoonists' Society Pennsylvania Chapter.

Thanks to benefactors such as Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick, there's a long tradition of excellent cultural institutions and activities that help nurture any creative endeavor here.

Finally, there's the refreshingly unpretentious humor that characterizes the Pittsburgh citizenry, so used to being characterized as landlocked, sooty, hell-with-the-lid-off proletariats that we only can laugh about it.

Joe Wos, the ToonSeum's executive director, says Pittsburgh is a "geeky city" and rightly speaks of a crossover among the city's robotics, scientific, filmmaking and cartoonist communities. Indeed, Mr. Wos believes that geekiness is helping to fuel the city's economy. That's something to smile about.


David Coulson ( is chairman of the Pennsylvania Chapter of the National Cartoonists Society. Among other publications, his work has appeared in Consumer Reports, Fortune, Highlights and The Wall Street Journal. He lives in Squirrel Hill.


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