Signe Wilkinson, Political Cartoonist and Creator of Family Tree

January 11, 2008

     Signe Wilkinson has already firmly carved her name in cartooning history as the first woman to win the esteemed Pulitizer Prize in editorial cartooning. Her biting, hilarious panels have jabbed at the politicos and higher-ups for twenty-two years, provoking thought, laughter and anger. On January 7, 2008, Signe took a step in a different direction, with the debut of Family Tree, a comic strip that combines family, the environment and current issues, into a daily chuckle.

     A baby boomer, Signe Wilkinson is a well-educated woman. First, she earned a BA in English, using that to propel her into a position as reporter with the West Chester Daily Local News. Later, her work took her in different directions - the Academy of Natural Science and across the world to the Greek island of Cyprus. Back in the groove of reporting in the USA, she found more satisfaction in sketching the news subject rather than writing about it. An opinionated, vocal cartoonist, without fear of reprisal, it seems, was created at that moment.

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     Signe dove into art education, taking courses at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine arts. She used her newly-acquired skills to create freelance work for publications in New York and Pennsylvania, and then moved to San Jose for a full-time position in 1982. According to her biography on The Washington Post Writers Group site, she made her living at the San Jose Mercury News for over three years.  She then moved north, taking an editorial cartooning job with the Philadelphia Daily News.

     The Philadelphia Daily News has become Signe's home base for her cartoons that are both satirical and puncturing to her victims.  Believing in human rights, women's rights, the environment, and in pointing out the idiocyncrasies and stupidities of life, Signe made herself known as an outspoken artist and advocate. And those strong beliefs, along with a delightful sense of humour and good drawing, earned her the high honour of the Pulitzer Prize in Editorial Cartooning in 1992, the first woman cartoonist to achieve such praise. (Since then, fellow editorial cartoonist Ann Telnaes has also earned the award.) Her other awards include the Overseas Press Club Award in 1997 and 2001, the Berryman Award in 1991 and the 2002 RFK Award. (The RFK Award is the Robert F. Kennedy Award for Excellence in Journalism: Cartooning, presented by the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial.)

     Not always thinking of societal jabs, Signe created a wide variety of cartoons for several publications: Organic Gardening Magazine, the Institute for Research on Higher Education, University Barge Club newsletter. Her syndicated editorial cartoons appear in prominent newspapers and sites across the United States.

     Signe created a line of endearing garden-related cartoons called Shrubbery (which also has a zing of political pokes to it) and developed comic strips in the past, such as "The Garden of Edith", which did not fly on attempted syndication. She also illustrated several books, including "Mike McGrath's Book of Compost", Sterling, 2006, and "Unspun: Finding Facts in a World of Disinformation" by Jackson and Hall-Jamieson, published by Random House, 2007. A collection of Signe's own political cartoons was published in 2005, entitled "One Nation, Under Surveillance," published by Cartoonist Group. "Cartoonists," said Signe in a recent interview with Steven Heller on AIGA," are here to say what others can't or won't." And she does, in grand form.

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     In 2006, Signe was approached by United Media to create a comic strip. She thought about the complications of creating a daily strip along with five or more political humour panels a week, and decided, according to Editor and Publisher, that it was workable since her kids were now grown. One reason she took the offer was job security - editorial cartoonists are fading from the market and jobs are scarce. Signe should meet with success - she is a pure professional with strengths in drawing and caricature, sense of humour, holding the reader's imagination, and all the while, provoking thought and consideration.

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    After months of developing ideas and creating characters, Family Tree has come to fruition. The Tree family of Maggie, Ames, Twig and Teddy live in today's world of living environmentally green mixed with growing teenager issues and family dilemmas. Acquisitions Editor Ted Rall commented that Family Tree is "written and drawn by an acute societal observer and seasoned artist." He also praised her skill as a "brilliant satirist who - like most moms - wields a unique blend of gentleness and (when needed) a razor-sharp tongue."

     Family Tree debuted under the United Media syndicate on January 7, 2008.  Along with the website, look for the new comic strip in print in the Detroit Free Press, Philadelphia Daily News and many other newspapers in the United States.

     Good luck with Family Tree, Signe Wilkinson!
     Read Family Tree at comics.com

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Family Tree samples courtesy United Media.

© Susanna McLeod 2008
TheCartoonists.ca