It was time for Tempe cartoonist Tom "Snake" Robertson's big moment at the Arizona Press Club's annual awards banquet. Robertson was sitting with others who worked for the late Southwest Sage, a gutty Flagstaff weekly newspaper that stirred things up for 16 weeks before the money ran out.
A few weeks before, the Sage's founder, John Dougherty--now a New Times staff writer--had telephoned Robertson with the good news: The Snake was a finalist for the Press Club's award for editorial cartooning for his notion of what the new Elvis stamp should have looked like.
Robertson knew he was in for some heavy competition for first place: One of the other finalists was a fellow named Steve Benson from the Arizona Republic. Fresh from winning a little award they call the Pulitzer Prize, Benson had to be considered the favorite. And there was Len Boro of the Phoenix Gazette, always a contender for top local honors.
The only unknown in the mix was Robertson, a 32-year-old who says he's "barely staying afloat" by doing artwork here and there. Robertson had shopped around his Elvis cartoon for months. He mailed one of his unsolicited submissions to New Times.
"Your art director sent it back to me with a form letter," Robertson says. "I know some papers really liked it; they said they copied it and stuck it on their walls at work. But no one would run it."
Then, in late December, Dougherty saw Robertson in a bar, wearing a tee shirt bearing his Elvis cartoon. Dougherty said he'd like to publish it in his 10,000-circulation Sage.
Robertson's Elvis isn't pretty: This Elvis is a corpulent, pimply butted, cross-eyed mess who has fallen off a toilet, spewing pills from his mouth.
Back at the Press Club banquet, the announcer noted the third-place winner: Len Boro, for a cartoon about Saddam Hussein.
Second-place? Steve Benson, for a cartoon titled "Arizona Joins the Union."
Before Robertson knew it, the announcer had called out his name as the first-place winner. The judge--veteran Los Angeles Times editorial cartoonist Paul Conrad--had written of the winning entry simply, "It's the truth about Elvis."
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
"I was kind of dumbfounded," Robertson recalls of the moment. "It wasn't a matter of, quote, beating Steve Benson, but I really admire the guy, even though we're kind of polarized politically. It felt really good to be in such company--at least for a day."
When it was over, Robertson scanned the hall at Rustler's Rooste for Benson, looking, he says, "to talk shop and just to get to know him a little." Benson, it turns out, had a prior commitment at a March of Dimes function.
"My hat goes off to him," Benson said in an interview a few days after the banquet. "It's just a tremendous accolade and it gives a fellow a big shot in the arm. Sometimes, people from small papers work in the shadow of other publications, and it's great to see someone from that little paper win it."
Benson said he'd never heard of the Southwest Sage before Robertson's surprise win. He still hasn't seen the Elvis cartoon, though he got a kick out of the idea when someone described it to him.
"I wish I'd thought of that," the Pulitzer winner said. "But I guess that's what a bridesmaid always says."
As for Robertson, he's hoping his recent success will open some previously closed doors for him.
"I have lots of ideas and I can get them down on paper," he says. "I know there's a job for me somewhere out there in the editorial cartooning field.