A self portrait of the artist

Pulitzer Prize-winning political cartoonist Signe Wilkinson is retiring from the Philadelphia Inquirer at the end of the year, where she spent three decades chronicling the city’s woes, lambasting its leaders, and celebrating its victories.

The Inquirer made the announcement last week with a generation-spanning roundup of Wilkinson’s cartoons, from the 1980s to present.

Wilkinson is known for her distinctive penmanship — a sans serif font she describes as “advanced kindergarten” — as well as her relentless focus on Philly’s gun violence epidemic, income inequality and school funding crisis.

A Texas native who migrated to Philly, Wilkinson landed her first job as a reporter in the suburbs, where she began drawing township meetings, and found an immediate calling.

“It combines my interests in art and politics,” Wilkinson said, “and my lack of interest in spelling.”

While attending PAFA, she freelanced for the Philadelphia Daily News until she was hired in 1985. Seven years later, Wilkinson became the first woman to win a Pulitzer in her male-dominated field, an achievement she attributes to more women on the 1992 nominating panel.

Much has changed in the world of political cartooning since then. When Wilkinson got her start, she would trek to the second floor of the Free Library to look up reference photos — an ancient tradition better known today as “Googling.”

After 35 years of editorializing the local news cycle, she’s drawn the Philly region through the good and bad — and reached a huge audience.

YouTube video

Learning what gets Philly riled up

Rich Aregood, the former Daily News editor who hired Wilkinson in the 80s, remembered her as an eager kid bicycling around town with a tube of cartoons on her back. He thought her work was brilliant, and her perspective as a woman invaluable for the paper at the time.

To his mind, Wilkinson was never the kind of cartoonist who went looking for a sucker punch.

“Her dagger was subtle,” Aregood said. “She didn’t bludgeon people.”

Wilkinson’s witty on-the-spot drawings have drawn both accolades and ire. Going back to the ’90s, elected officials would pull her aside to complain about or praise her latest caricatures.

She fondly remembers a panel that involved former Mayor Wilson Goode and all of City Council trying to row a boat down the Schuylkill River, but none of them are working the oars in unison.

In recent years, she’s enjoyed doing various depictions of “unemotive” Mayor Jim Kenney.

“I don’t have to capture very many expressions,” Wilkinson said. “He always looks like he’s having the worst day of his life, and I feel bad for him. He has a great job.”

When she won the Pulitzer, Wilkinson’s commentary was focused heavily on Anita Hill’s sexual harassment claims against newly appointed U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. The case had local ties, with then-Senator Arlen Specter playing a leading role in the congressional interrogations.

“I followed the Hill/Thomas hearings as I would any big, unfolding news story — from my own personal, biased, and absolutely correct point of view,” Wilkinson told the Washington Post in 2018.

For everyday readers, political commentary takes a back seat to religion, the cartoonist said. “People care about politics, but home base is how they see the world religiously.”

The 2005 Danish cartoon controversy changed the way editorial artists examined religion, she noted. Wilkinson recalled a torrent of complaints years ago after including a Star of David in a Philly sketch that riffed on a Jewish political controversy at the time.

A transforming profession

The collapse of the newspaper industry in the last decade has made Wilkinson’s job increasingly rare — making it even tougher for women to gain parity.

In the early 20th century, newspapers employed more than 2,000 full-time cartoonists. When Wilkinson got her start in the 80s, she estimates there were maybe 170 such gigs nationwide. She was only one of five women, she recalls. Now, while women are more represented in the field, she counts only about 25 full-time jobs overall.

The Inquirer still employs a cartoonist-reporter, Rob Tornoe, but there are no immediate plans to replace Wilkinson on staff.

“Suffice to say, it would be impossible to try to replace Signe,” said Inquirer Director of Special Projects Evan Benn. “In the short term, our Opinion team will be running cartoons from a number of sources, both local and national. We also see this as an opportunity to develop relationships with emerging artists and other local talent.”

For Wilkinson, there’s still plenty of drawing to do — just not explicitly for her hometown’s paper of record anymore.

She recently put together a collection of cartoons about women’s rights for the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment. She would like to work on similar projects for her other peeve issues: gun violence, schools and free speech.

The Inquirer, which merged with the Daily News years ago, noted that Wilkinson’s retirement doesn’t mean she’s gone from the papers forever.

She’ll pen syndicated cartoons every week for the Washington Post Writers Group, which are published by news outlets around the country — including, sometimes, Philadelphia’s.

“I’m just a sucker for this city,” Wilkinson said. “It’s just got so many great people … but we have such low expectations. We think small sometimes,” she added. “I wish we had a little bit more fun.”

Max Marin (he/him) was Billy Penn's investigative reporter from 2018 to 2021. A graduate of Temple University, he has produced award-winning journalism on local politics, criminal justice, immigration...