”It’s been a great ride,” Auth says of his four-decade Inquirer career of accolades, fan letters and hate mail --the stuff of an effective political cartoonist. (courtesy of TONY AUTH / Philadelphia Inquirer )

TONY AUTH wants to be clear about one thing:

He is not being forced out of the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Auth, the Pulitzer-winning political cartoonist who has been at the Inquirer since 1971, tells Comic Riffs today that he is stepping down from his four-decade perch to pursue new and invigorating forms of cartooning. Auth — also a Pulitzer finalist in 2010 — feels it’s the right time to take the buyout offer from the paper, which reportedly is looking to cut about three-dozen jobs.

“It’s been a great ride — 40 years,” Auth tells Comic Riffs, whose last day at the paper will be March 30. “But a lot of things came together at the same time. And I’m going to continue to do two to three political cartoons a week [for] the radio and TV station WHYY [NewsWorks]”

Auth says he’s eager to try new paths on his personal artistic journey. “I’ve been fooling around with the Brushes app on the iPad [for several months]. ... That’s been a joy!” he tells us, his voice brimming with a certain passion. “Just using the medium, I’m trying to build time and motion into it!”

[SEE: You can view some of Auth’s great iPad-born artwork here and here.]

Auth was moving into new approaches several years ago, too, when he teamed with Inquirer writer John Timpane for an illustration-and-essay package about the walk-up to a Philadelphia Orchestra performance; Auth created several more than 50 drawings for the project. “I discovered in going through that, I want to make more room in my life to do more of that work. ... I also realized, I’m tired of having to produce one cartoon a day, five a week, for 40 years.”

So when the Inquirer’s buyout offer came along, Auth was ready to bite.

“It was pretty clear: I had come to the conclusin that I wanted to move on and, hopefully, grow as an artist,” Auth tells Comic Riffs. “I saw a path I wanted to follow, this buyout came and it seemed like the right time. This has more to do with what I want to do than [the Inquirer]. ...”


Auth’s cartoon as the 2000 presidential vote -- “hanging chads” and all -- remained knotted. (courtesy of TONY AUTH / Philadelphia Inquirer )

“For the vast span of 40 years, I’ve been in­cred­ibly appreciated — with the possible exception of Herblock’s, there cannot have been a better environment for me to function in,” says Auth, with a nod of appreciation himself to such editors as Creed Black, Ed Guthman, Gene Roberts and Chris Satullo (who is now at NewsWorks).

The Inquirer, Philadelphia Daily News and philly.com reportedly are amid joining their newsrooms — which raises the question of whether the Inquirer will fill Auth’s position, as well as how this affects the role of Signe Wilkinson, the Daily News’ Pulitzer-winning political cartoonist.

“I have not yet heard what they have in mind” with their cartooning positions, Auth tells us. “If they’re smart, they’ll just put [Wilkinson] in both papers. [But] they insist they want to try to maintain separate editorial boards.”

Auth, who was a cartoonist at UCLA in the ‘60s before landing in Philadelphia, feels nostalgic for a different era of editorial cartooning.

“It’s just sad to see such a historically wonderful genre kind of disappear,” Auth tells Comic Riffs. “I think newspapers are to some extent responsible because they’ve always [divided] our profession over seriousness versus laughs. ... For as long as I’ve been doing this, there are two divided camps.”

Auth cites such editorial packaging as the New York Times’ old “Laugh Lines,” which he says never picked the best editorial cartoons. ”They printed me once in a while, but never the good ones,” he says. “They’d run four cartoons with a Leno line and call it ‘Laugh Lines.’ ... It was denigrating.

“There’s nothing wrong with humor for humor’s sake, but editorial cartooning is capable of so many reactions from people: tears, laughter, sadness — it’s just so rich, but then [only ‘funny’ ones run] and readers say: These cartoons aren’t good — whose responsible for this.”

Auth’s cartoon immediately after Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential victory. (courtesy of TONY AUTH / Philadelphia Inquirer )

Auth says he doesn’t regret a single professional moment of the past 40 years — though he does regret a cartoon or two. Once decades ago, when the Redskins were in the Super Bowl, he drew a cartoon imploring the Washington team to change its “offensive” mascot. His editor refused to run the cartoon, even later asking Auth: “Were you trying to [tick] off every reader on the same day?”

“Opening the paper the next day,” Auth says, “I heaved a sigh of relief.”

(Last November, two of Auth’s cartoons were killed; one of which assailed Rush Limbaugh. Says the artist now: “I don’t know what that was about — there was nothing wrong with those cartoons.”)

Come April, Auth plans to draw his cartoons for WHYY and further explore his iPad-sprung art. And in June, a retrospective of his work, “To Stir, Inform and Inflame: The Art of Tony Auth,” will go up at Pennsylvania’s James A. Michener Art Museum. Buyout in hand, he sounds upbeat and lucky about where his art will lead him next:

“Here I am, able to change direction and create another way to live my life, while continuing to do what I love.”