It’s good to see innovation rewarded, and it’s refreshing to see the Pulitzer Prize Board take a bold step away from tradition. Especially for an old coffee buddy.

Mark Fiore has become the first cartoonist to win the Pulitzer without his submitted work appearing in print. His animated editorial cartoons only appear online, with “home base” being the San Francisco Chronicle’s SFgate.com, along with MotherJones.com, Slate.com, CBSNews.com and NPR’s web site.

He wasn’t the first editorial cartoonist to leave print and go online with animations; Bill Mitchell preceded him with his GIF-based animations (simple movements or rollovers with no sound). But Fiore jumped into the use of Flash early on, and has learned to create weekly animations with sound, music, special effects… and biting political commentary.

And I can say I knew him when. We met at the annual convention of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists, held in New Orleans in 1994. During some free time between events, I wandered around “N’Awleans” and happened to see a slightly familiar face: a new guy at the convention whom I’d first seen the day before. He was Mark Fiore and listed himself as from Colorado, where he’d attended college, and recognized me from the convention. We wandered around together and had lunch somewhere around the French Quarter. I was working in Seattle at the time, and didn’t know that he, like me, was really a California boy. He has said on occasion that I was “the first pro” who acknowledged him at that convention.

A couple years later, Fiore had settled into the San Francisco area and was self-syndicating editorial cartoons on California topics around the state, making a modest income. I remember thinking that his cartoons were kind of lacking in detail and shading, with simple line work trying to carry the cartoons; I didn’t know then that this style would lend itself so well to color and animation.

I was in Seattle vastly longer than I’d ever planned on “” it was originally to be for just one year “” and, despite it being a wonderful area, I really wanted to return to my native California. I did a four-month leave-of-absence there in mid-1999, working for the San Francisco Examiner to bring in some income.

While there, I began to have periodic get-togethers with other local cartoonists, such as caricaturist Zach Trenholm, gag cartoonist John Grimes, sometimes-editorial-cartoonist Tom Borromeo and a couple others, usually for coffee somewhere. We had no real group name, but Grimes sometimes referred to us as the “Cartoonistas” in emails setting up the meetings.

I returned to Seattle after my leave-of-absence ended, knew it was a mistake to be back there, and left Seattle permanently in Feb. 2000. Back in San Francisco (where I was now working for the Chronicle), I discovered the “Cartoonistas” had added another coffee-meeting guy in my absence: Fiore.

During a gathering at Grimes’ house one evening, Fiore showed off something new he was dabbling in. It was a color cartoon in Flash, partly an animation and partly a computer game: the trick was to stop falling nuclear missiles by clicking on them (his Flash action-script made an explosion when you clicked properly), but since it was also an editorial cartoon, it led up to make a point about the futility of it all, with the whole cartoon wiped out in a mega-explosion. We all went “Ooooh!!” at the innovation, but I assumed it was just a minor amusement for him between his state cartooning and the web-design work he did for extra income.

By 2001, when I was now working for the Marin Independent Journal, Fiore was producing animated editorial cartoons (with sound) on a fairly regular basis, and had gotten the Chron’s site, SFgate.com, to run them and pay for them. And then, a prize job opened up: the staff editorial cartoonist slot on the prestigious San Jose Mercury News.

That was a job I’d long coveted. The Merc was a big, growing paper that leaned liberal and was considered among the Top 10 papers in the country in some surveys.

I applied hard for it, mailing and speaking with the editor about my interest. He later told me I was “a tempting choice,” but that he’d made his selection: Mark Fiore. Damn! My own coffee buddy! And damn, he was too nice a guy to hate over it, either. The thing that pushed that editor to pick Fiore over me was Fiore’s animations, which they wanted partly to enhance their own web site and partly to screw their competitor, the Chronicle.

But Mark only lasted six months there, ousted and/or quitting just before he’d cleared his probationary period. During that time their popular publisher quit, rather than make personnel and ideological changes, and was replaced by a more conservative, pro-Bush guy who liked neither Fiore’s artwork nor his politics. Said Fiore at the time, “They wanted me to change the way it looked and what it said… kind of takes the ‘editorial’ and ‘cartooning’ out of ‘editorial cartooning’.”

Fiore had never even moved from San Francisco, commuting the 50 miles daily to San Jose by train and bike, and decided he hated the “windowless cubicle hell” of the Merc, so the parting was at least somewhat mutual.

Had I been in that job, I probably would’ve fought hard to stay, no matter what. And it would’ve been a tough road. The “dot-com bubble” had burst, devastating the Silicon Valley economy and especially the Merc. Its highly respected parent company, Knight Ridder, was forced by idiotic and impatient shareholders to liquidate its newspapers, selling them to the equally respected McClatchy chain, which then quickly spun off many properties “” including the Merc “” to the vastly less-respected Media News chain run by William Dean Singleton, famed for his cost-cutting.

Many waves of layoffs and dramatic circulation losses later, the thinner San Jose Mercury News is a place I’d feel quite nervous working at… although if I’d been there I almost certainly would’ve been laid off at some point, if I hadn’t left earlier over political clashes. Life has its twists and turns and mysterious ways of working out, I guess.

Fiore quickly resumed his relationship with SFgate.com, and gradually grew his client list, becoming probably the only editorial cartoonist in the online, animated world to actually make a living from it.

And the quality grew. Voice-overs became more elaborate, music was added, and he continued to accumulate attention, praise and awards. Oh, and a cute girlfriend who became his wife.

And now the Pulitzer.

Way to go, fellow “Cartoonista”! I’ll toast you with a cup of San Francisco coffee.