“IT’S BEEN a great ride.”
Those were Tony Auth’s words just two years ago, when the Pulitzer-winning cartoonist talked about his decision to end his remarkable four-decade run and reign at the Philadelphia Inquirer. At that time, Auth was brimming with joy and enthusiasm about the next phase of his career and life. At age 70, he had made a complete transition to drawing digitally, and he was eager to render iPad-sprung art for a new employer at an age when some people can’t wait to retire. For Auth, though, art seemed an ever-renewable resource.
“Here I am, able to change direction and create another way to live my life,” Auth told The Post’s Comic Riffs at the time, “while continuing to do what I love.”
More recently, though, Auth had to surrender what he loved, as his years-long battle with cancer recently took a turn for the worse, family members said. Sources told Comic Riffs last week that Auth had entered hospice care.
On Sunday, Mr. Auth died of brain cancer, relatives said. He was 72.
“I’m so profoundly saddened by the news of Tony Auth’s death, I find it difficult to put my feelings to words, but leave it to say that we have lost one of the true greats of American editorial cartooning,” Clay Bennett, the Pulitzer-winning Chattanooga Times Free Press cartoonist, tells The Post’s Comic Riffs.
“Every once in a while, an artist comes along with a singularly unique voice and a style that seems derivative of no one before him,” Bennett says of his friend. “Tony Auth was such an artist.”
Auth arrived at the Inquirer in 1971, and within five years created Pulitzer-winning work; he would twice again be a finalist for the prize before taking a buyout in 2012, to go to the station WHYY’s NewsWorks.org, where he was its first digital artist-in-residence.
“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,” Auth told Comic Riffs in March of 2012 upon his Inquirer retirement. He cited his particular appreciation of such Inquirer editors as Creed Black, Ed Guthman and Gene Roberts, as well as Chris Satullo, who also moved to NewsWorks.
“As fine a cartoonist as William Anthony Auth was for so many productive decades, he was an even better friend and colleague,” Satullo, now WHYY’s vice president for news and civic engagement, wrote in his appreciation.
“Tony relished cartooning. He loved the drawing, the politics and the phone calls afterwards,” Signe Wilkinson, his fellow Philadelphia political cartoonist, tells Comic Riffs on Sunday evening. “He also relished egging on other cartoonists, including young ones starting out, including me.”
“I walked into his office with a putrid portfolio,” says the Pulitzer-winning Wilkinson, “and he treated me like I was already one of the gang. It’s one of the many reasons he’s admired in the cartoon fraternity.”
Cartoonist after cartoonist — and sometimes even aspiring artists who moved on to other forms of journalism — cites Mr. Auth’s generosity of spirit and professional encouragement.
“His personal kindness, generosity and warmth existed side by side with a take-no-prisoners cartooning style,” CNN newsman Jake Tapper tells The Post’s Comic Riffs. “His editorial-page real estate — feared by pols — was my first stop every morning growing up in and living in Philly.”
“When I was first entering the field after graduating college, he was one of the cartoonists I wrote to asking for advice,” King Features political cartoonist Jimmy Margulies tells Comic Riffs. “I was thrilled to receive a letter of encouragement from him,” continues Margulies, who within a few years would host Mr. Auth on a National Cartoonists Society panel.
“Tony reached out to me when I was just starting out,” the Pulitzer-winning cartoonist Steve Breen of the U-T San Diego tells Comic Riffs. “He gave me some really encouraging compliments over lunch one day in the summer of 1998. He was very generous with his time as he showed me the newspaper and his office and taught me some Photoshop.”
Mr. Auth seemed to always remember what it was like for him as a young cartoonist coming out of UCLA, before heading East in the early ’70s, where we would befriend fellow greats like Jules Feiffer. “He not only was a tremendous friend,” the Pulitzer-winning Feiffer (who wrote the foreword to a 2012 book of Auth’s collected cartoons) tells Comic Riffs. “He also was the most sweet-natured man.”
“Tony was always kind, supportive and generous,” the Pulitzer-winning Newsday cartoonist Matt Davies tells Comic Riffs. “He once introduced me, an inexperienced pipsqueak, to Pat Oliphant and Garry Trudeau at the bar at an Association of American Editorial Cartoonists convention, and began a discussion with them about my work. I was speechless.
“I’ll never forget it. I’ll never forget him.”
Davies would later be a judge on the panel that selected Mr. Auth as the Herblock Prize winner in 2005. “Tony was a brilliant, original, free-spirited thinker, writer and artist,” says Davies, underscoring just how vital a journalistic voice Auth remained 35 years into his Inquirer career.
As an artist, Auth also proved that potent opinions could be delivered with a clean economy of line.
“Auth was the perfect cartoonist for the City of Brotherly Love,” Matt Wuerker, Politico’s Pulitzer-winning cartoonist, tells Comic Riffs. “He was a big-hearted guy who drew with a light line and had breezy style. But that light touch packed a wallop.
“Over his decades at the top of the game,” Wuerker continues, “Tony demonstrated that great political cartoons don’t need to be loaded with bile and invective to be powerful and memorable.” And when Auth was a Pulitzer finalist in 2010, the judges cited “his masterful simplicity in expressing consistently fearless positions on national and local issues.”
“Tony’s style flowed from his very loosely constructed roughs, which he tried to keep as close to the original drawing as possible through a light table,” the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists said in a statement. “The result was an inimitable look admired universally by his peers.”
What his cartooning colleagues knew so well was that Auth blended that clean design with a passion for his editorial point.
“Tony felt it! He had that fire in the belly that true journalists have and he trusted that fire, and his cartoons showed it,” Pulitzer-winning Dayton Daily News cartoonist Mike Peters tells Comic Riffs. “He went with ideas that most of us cartoonists would not have the courage to draw, and he did it with such a flair. A few brilliant lines that … came across pure. He always joked about doing a 20-second cartoon, but you see his ideas were pure and his drawings were pure. It was a deadly combination that made his cartoons so special and that no other cartoonist could do.
“We have lost a giant in the field of cartooning,” continues Peters, who — like Mr. Auth — was part of a rising new generation of editorial artists in the ’70s. “We have lost a great artist, a great journalist, and I have lost a true friend.”
Mr. Auth also illustrated nearly a dozen children’s books and drew a short-lived comic strip, “Norb,” for King Features.
In June of 2012, a retrospective of his political-cartooning work, titled “To Stir, Inform and Inflame: The Art of Tony Auth,” went on exhibit at Pennsylvania’s James A. Michener Art Museum, and David Leopold co-edited the companion book. Temple University has agreed to house Mr. Auth’s archives.
“Tony was one of the true sequoias of the field,” says Tom Toles, Pulitzer-winning cartoonist at The Washington Post. “He conveyed seriousness and intelligence, both in person and in his work. And still managed to be quirky, funny, but above all, tough.
“He was one of the greats, and is sorely missed.”
Tony Auth was born in Akron, Ohio, in 1942 and by age 5, was drawing while bedridden for a year and a half, according to his website.
Mr. Auth received a degree in biological illustration in 1965 and worked as a medical artist before the era’s social upheaval stirred him to shift his focus to the body politic, soon drawing for the UCLA student newspaper and alternative newspapers.
Many of his colleagues cited Mr. Auth’s devotion as a family man. He is survived by his wife, Eliza, and two adult daughters.
(And on a personal note, it was Mr. Auth who encouraged me to begin creating art digitally instead of by pen and paper; within weeks, I was testing out his favorite iPad art apps. This big-hearted man seemed to know with great wisdom what other artists needed to hear. It was his gift for truly listening — and truly caring.)
“It’s been a great ride — 40 years,” he said to Comic Riffs.
Thank you, Mr. Auth, for your every illustrative view and viewpoint along that remarkable ride.
A Tony Auth voice-over animation for WHYY’s NewsWorks: