Conrad, Mauldin and Nast: A Personal Perspective on Editorial Cartoons, Past and Present

Paul 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.

Political cartoons by Thomas Nast in 1874 (left) and Paul Conrad in 1993 (right).

Elephants and donkeys in political cartoons by Thomas Nast in 1874 (left) and Paul Conrad in 1999.

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 cartoon from 1972.

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 1973 “enemies” list.

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 back cover, 1915.

(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.

1864 political cartoon by Thomas Nast in Harper's Weekly

Compromise with the South,” an 1864 political cartoon by Thomas Nast in Harper's Weekly.

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 and Reagan.

Sarah Palin and George W. Bush as lampooned by Paul Conrad

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 or extinction.”

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 us.”

In the brief moment it took me to absorb the content, several thoughts crossed my mind:

  1. I'd already chuckled at Lenny Bruce's version of the joke. He delivered it about a half-century ago, and from an “insider” perspective: “The liberals can understand everything but people who don't understand them.” Now that's funny, genuine and to the point. Even today.
  2. The implication here was that Democrats are something other than Americans. Name calling, anyone?
  3. It also employed Palin–esque fear-mongering rather than facts: “Americans oppose Socialism because...”? Pff! How about “Americans oppose 'death panels' because...”?
  4. Overall, the kindest words I could muster were “Incredibly Lazy Effort.” Hey, when a half-dozen talking-animal drawings are practically superfluous and can be easily replaced with “Liberal jackasses say that Americans…,” then I believe the creator doesn't even deserve to call himself a cartoonist. Fooey! 
  5. And then there is the creator, Michael Ramirez, Conrad's 1993 “replacement” at the Times. And, as this piece amply demonstrates, a man not worthy to have cleaned Paul's brushes. To add injury to insult, the strip appeared on September 6, only two days after Paul's passing. Sigh.

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 shooting gallery.

Barry Blitt's fist-bump cover for The New Yorker and Daryl Cagle's Mexican flag cartoon.

Barry Blitt's fist-bumping Obamas for The New Yorker, 2008 (left); August 29 cartoon of a bullet-ridden Mexican flag by Daryl Cagle,

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.

Mr. Fish cartoons

Recent cartoons by Mr. Fish portray General Petraeus (left) and oil-covered pelicans.

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 and Harper's.

You remember Harper's. It used to publish that Nast fella, once upon a time.

About the Author: In addition to co-editing The Education Of A Comics Artist with Steven Heller, Michael Dooley often chuckles quietly to himself while at work as a Los Angeles-based creative director and writer.