WASHINGTON, D.C. — This sweltering and overpowering world capital has been matchless in providing material for generations of editorial cartoonists. The cartoonists returned the favor in a small way last week, holding their annual convention in the city.

It was fitting to return to D.C. for what was billed as the 50th anniversary of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists, though the first AAEC convention was held 51 years and a couple of months ago. (Hey, nobody requires a cartoonist to pass a math test.)

The group’s “founding fathers,” all of them white men, numbered 84. Last week we were told the membership was a record 392, with 34 new members since last June. The convention attendees included a number of African-American cartoonists and several young Hispanics. (The crowd had very few women members, though.)

There was lively discussion and a lot of positive comments during the sessions, and afterward late into the night. (Well, some of our membership find it impossible to be positive even in the best of times, but we try to discount their sarcasm whenever it bubbles up.)

All this led retired cartoonist Jim Ivey, a founding member 51 years ago, to tell the group at the closing banquet, “The profession of editorial cartooning is in great shape!”

The number of full-time cartoonists has not grown, and forced layoffs are possible even for established talents. New members are likely to be doubling up as art directors at their newspaper, or free-lancers who spend hours every week trying to get published. Still, the AAEC continues and grows.

“This tar pit is now crowded with people,” said Clay Bennett of the Christian Science Monitor and the group’s new membership director. “It’s good to know, misery loves company.”

Bennett was one of at least 13 Pulitzer Prize winners in editorial cartooning to attend. The 2007 winner, Walt Handelsman of Long Island’s Newsday, was hanging out on closing night with computer-animation pioneer Mark Fiore.

Animation was the “next big thing” to capture the attention of the attendees. New software has allowed folks without the resources of Disney Studios to turn their pen-and-ink cartoons into moving, singing, throbbing animated shorts — if the cartoonist has the time to draw hundreds of pieces and meld together soundtracks and images.

Fiore, from San Francisco, has done just that masterfully for years. About a dozen more recent converts were showing off their creations on laptop computers in D.C.

Handelsman mentioned the website JibJab.com, known for its cartoon song parodies making fun of politicians and America’s consumer society. “Look at the JibJab guys,” Handelsman said at one point. “One was a business major; the other was a graphic artist. Now they’re multi-millionaires.”

They are also the exception. Not many creative people are making money on the World Wide Web.

Other conventioneers were saying that they didn’t have time to draw for their daily papers and also put in all the effort to animate. They also made the relevant point that what makes for an incisive and hard-hitting newspaper cartoon does not always translate into a song-and-dance on a computer screen.

Some “big papers” have instructed their cartoonists to start “blogs,” or daily computer chats, with their readers. Most cartoonists to whom I talked said that they would blog “if the newspaper made me,” but they’d rather be using their time to draw.

Tom Toles of The Washington Post said he’d advocate taking up needlepoint rather than blog, “because then you have something nice to hang on your wall when you’re done.”

Longtime AAEC members are often the most vocal about keeping true to the profession. Since it makes its point with (usually) jokes or funny drawings, editorial cartooning is looked upon by many as a throwaway art, probably scribbled out by irresponsible comedians. That generalization is untrue (at least, mostly).

Ben Sargent of the Austin (Tex.) American-Statesman rallied his colleagues. The tall, distinguished-looking Texan with a white goatee and trademark bow tie said that cartoonists should offer their readers “journalism ... some trustworthiness, some weight.”

Those were bracing, memorable words that echoed with this AAEC member throughout the rest of the convention, and I hope for years to come.

Next week: A Danish editor talks about his decision to print cartoon contest entries showing the face of the Prophet Muhammad.

Tom Bone is a Daily Telegraph sports writer and member of the cartoonists’ association since 1999.

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