Conrad died on September 4, 2010, at 86. For me it felt like
the end of an era in daily American newspaper editorial cartooning,
and possibly the conclusion to a noble lineage that extended back
to Thomas Nast.
Elephants and donkeys in political cartoons by
Thomas Nast in 1874 (left) and Paul Conrad in
I knew Paul
Conrad when we both worked at the Los Angeles Times, his
base of operation for 30 years. We'd first run into each other in
the afternoons, in the paper's engraving department area, where he
would hand-deliver his artwork for the next day's edition. After
that, it was in his editorial department office. And later, when
engravers were out and scanning machines were in, at his Rancho
Palos Verdes home.
Paul Conrad spun this
cartoon of Richard Nixon in 1972.
Like countless other admirers, I'd considered Paul a giant in
more than just physical stature. Still do. Yes, he was a three-time
Pulitzer Prize recipient. But by the time we met he'd earned an
even greater honor, unique to his profession: a spot on Nixon's
I was a long-standing fan of the art of graphic critique from my
youngest days. I'd first come across Bill Mauldin's one-panel portraits of
Willie and Joe in my teen years. These WWII G.I.s were foot
soldiers for democracy, serving and surviving in the trenches and
roughly rendered in charcoal and ink. And they revealed to me how
powerfully political perspectives can be expressed with tremendous
warmth and humanity. From there it was an easy leap further back to
the radical Masses
magazine of the 1910s, with legends such as Robert Minor, who
expressed even grittier perspectives on war and life.
(From left) Bill Mauldin, Time
cover, 1945; Robert Minor, The
Masses cover, 1915; Robert Minor, The
Masses cartoon, 1916.
And eventually, and inevitably, my journey took me to the latter
half of the 19th century. Thomas Nast was the
great Republican granddad of political cartooning. He's best
remembered for his Harper's Weekly attacks, relentless and
merciless—very much like Paul Conrad's—on the evils of New York
Tammany Hall Democrat “Boss” Tweed, the Rod Blagojevich of his day.
But Nast also deserves a great deal of respect for those other
Weekly illustrations, Mauldin–like in their compassion, that
played a pivotal role in a Civil War victory for the North, and for
the reelection of President Lincoln.
“Compromise with the
South,” an 1864 political cartoon by Thomas Nast in Harper's
Mauldin stopped cartooning in 1991. He departed this world in
2003. Five years later Fantagraphics gave Willie and Joe
a deluxe, two-volume book treatment. And just a few months ago
he and his infantrymen found their way onto a first-class
U.S. postage stamp.
In 1993, as the Times went about divesting itself of
progressive values, Conrad departed. Yet he remained fearless in
syndication well into his final years, targeting Clinton, Bush and
Palin with the same fervor he'd shown the likes of Johnson, Nixon
Conrad cartoons of Sarah Palin
in 2008 (left) and George
W. Bush in 2004.
Among Mauldin and Conrad's contemporaries, very few have come
close to matching their creative heights, much less their legacies.
As I cautioned readers in the forward to The Education of a Comics Artist, “our daily illustrated
elephant and donkey show needs to choose between full reinvention
I continue to keep a watchful eye on all aspects of the field
I've loved for a lifetime. And so, when Daryl Cagle posted a link on Facebook to
what he considered a “funny conservative cartoon,” I clicked, with
the hope of enjoying a laugh along with the right wing. Instead I
was confronted with
a six-panel sequence that simply consisted of a donkey chastising
“Americans” for rejecting Democrats and their supposed values.
The punchline? “I just don't know why Americans are opposed to
In the brief moment it took me to absorb the content, several
thoughts crossed my mind:
But I know you're still out there, political cartooning: I can
hear people complaining. It's just what's not being
complained about that so often disturbs me.
Of course, there were
Jylland-Posten's 2005 Muhammed cartoons. Naturally, and rightly
so, everyone's primary focus was on the tragic consequences: death
threats and actual deaths. But very little consideration was paid
to the cause: a newspaper that would decide to commission
cartoonists to set themselves up as moving targets in a real-life
Barry Blitt's fist-bumping Obamas for
The New Yorker, 2008 (left);
August 29 cartoon of a bullet-ridden Mexican flag by Daryl
And then there was the New Yorker's 2008
“Politics of Fear” cover. Most of the discussion revolved
around whether or not the magazine should have portrayed the Obamas
as “anti-American”—yes, there's that sentiment
again—revolutionaries. Mostly overlooked was any sort of serious
design criticism. Barry Blitt's pretty, flowery wash rendering
would have worked very well as an inside illustration that
accompanied a feature on election-year smear tactics. I know,
Eustace Tilley doesn't swing that way, but still… As standalone
visual commentary on such street-level gutter sniping, a Gary
Panter–ish ratty-line graffiti scrawl approach would have
worked much, much better.
And just a few weeks ago, Daryl Cagle himself caused an
international incident, angering many for having “desecrated”
the Mexican flag with bullet holes. I was personally offended,
as well... but only because his cartoon was just so lame. Rather
than express a substantive opinion, it merely sought to state,
“Hey, aren't these drug-war deaths just terrible for that country?”
Uh, I guess.
Recent cartoons by Mr. Fish portray General
Petraeus (left) and oil-covered
Still, I haven't fully despaired that my beloved and noble
profession will follow the daily newspaper into oblivion. For many
years, a cat by the name of Mr. Fish has been doing his part
to reinvigorate the medium. More than once a week he utilizes a
wide array of creative graphic approaches to deliver thoughtful,
witty, take-no-prisoners commentary. And he can currently be found
plying his trade at truthdig.com and Harper's.
You remember Harper's. It used to publish that Nast
fella, once upon a time.
Comics have always been an unruly medium. Dooley reins in Paul Buhle, editor and author of some of the genre’s most radical.
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