Possibly the biggest highlight of a weekend full of highlights at the National Cartoonists Society’s Reuben Awards last week in D.C. was the bestowing of the NCS Medal of Honor to the incomparable Mort Drucker. Mort was the very first recipient of what is sure to become one of the most prestigious lifetime achievement awards in all of cartooning. Here’s the story:
I just finished serving two terms (four years) as president of the NCS. Since I took office I have had multiple people come to me and ask why (insert name of legendary cartoonist) had not been honored with the NCS Milton Caniff Lifetime Achievement Award, our one and only award of that kind. Almost without fail, my answer was “They are not eligible because they have won the Reuben Award”. That earned me some puzzled looks, and in fact I was puzzled myself. The more I thought about it, this did not make sense.
The Milton Caniff Lifetime Achievement award was instituted in 1994. It is “given for a lifetime of outstanding and accomplished work to a cartoonist who has not previously won the Reuben”. The NCS by-laws strictly state it shall not be given to a member who has won the Reuben Award for “Outstanding Cartoonist of the Year”, our highest honor. The thinking behind this was simple, the Caniff is meant as an award for a highly accomplished cartoonist who for whatever reason never won the Reuben, and it is a way for the NCS to recognize and honor their work and careers in a significant manner. The only way to make that work is to exclude anyone who HAS won the Reuben from getting the Caniff. There is nothing wrong with honoring a deserving cartoonist with something like the Caniff, but the problem with this stems from the award being called a “Lifetime Achievement” award.
The Reuben is supposed to recognize the work of a cartoonist for the immediately preceding year. It’s not supposed to recognize a body of work, or a career, or to be awarded to make it up to someone who probably should have won one years ago but never did. The results don’t always reflect that concept, but that is how it is supposed to be. How, then, can you exclude anyone from being recognized for a lifetime of cartooning excellence because they once won the Reuben for one year’s worth of excellence sometime in the past? I understand the desire to recognize cartoonists who have never been honored with the Reuben, but some of the greatest cartoonists of all time have won the Reuben, and they are not eligible to be recognized for their careers as a whole? That really makes no sense. It looks odd when our pantheon of winners of the NCS’s only “Lifetime Achievement” award does not include some names that clearly belong there.
The NCS board discussed this issue. We saw two possible solutions to the problem. One would be to change the by-laws and allow anyone to be eligible to be awarded the Caniff, including any past Reuben winner. After much thought this was voted down. The spirit of the Caniff is not something we wanted to change. If a cartoonist never won a Reuben and is honored with a Caniff, that is something unique and special. We didn’t want to take that away.
The second solution was to create a new award. One that is different visually and physically, but is a sister award to the Caniff–an NCS Lifetime Achievement Award for past winners of the Reuben. The result was the NCS Medal of Honor. This is awarded by unanimous vote of the NCS board “in recognition of a long and distinguished career of continued excellence in cartooning that has set the highest of standards and inspiration”. In the pantheon of those awarded an NCS Lifetime Achievement Award, both the recipients of the Caniff and those of the Medal of Honor will be listed together. In the future, any cartoonist recognized by the board for a Lifetime Achievement award will be awarded the Caniff if they have never won a Reuben, and the Medal of Honor if they have won the Reuben. Recipients of the Caniff, having already been awarded a Lifetime Achievement award, cannot then get a Medal of Honor. Medal of Honor recipients cannot get a Caniff as they are past Reuben winners. You get one or the other.
Creating yet another award was not an easy decision (we seem to have a lot of them), but the board felt this was an issue that needed addressing. What was easy was the choice of our first Medal of Honor awardee. Mort Drucker is unarguably one of the most influential, beloved, and highly respected cartoonists of all time. In his 60 year career he has inspired generations of cartoonists and illustrators, and earned the admiration of his peers to an extent that only a handful of other cartoonists equal. He is a fitting first recipient of this tremendous honor.
It was a genuine privilege to be onstage to introduce longtime MAD editor Nick Meglin, who introduced and presented the NCS Medal of Honor to Mort. The medal itself is a beautiful piece, made by the same people who do the Pulitzer, The Caldecott, the Peabody and other famous medals.
What a moment for Mort, his family, and the profession of cartooning. He is one of the true legends of the art form, and no one present will ever forget honoring him that night. Congratulations Mort, thanks for being you.
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