The Sledgehammer is Gone: Paul Conrad, 1924-2010

Posted by on September 13th, 2010 at 12:01 AM

 

 

Editorial cartoonist Paul Conrad, one of the most ferocious, powerful, controversial and honored visual provocateurs of the last 50 years, died at his home in Rancho Palos Verdes in California on Saturday, Sept. 4, of natural causes. He was 86. And he was probably angry: anger was his professional stance, and he was a consummate professional, up to the very end, I have no doubt. He won three Pulitzer Prizes for his anger. Only four other cartoonists have equaled this feat in the 89 years the Pulitzer has been awarded for editorial cartooning — Rollin Kirby, Edmund Duffy, Herbert Block (Herblock), and Jeff MacNelly.

I last saw Conrad in the flesh at a symposium on the current state of editorial cartooning held at the University of Iowa in the fall of 1999. Conrad began his address for the opening general session with a typically impolite observation: “I haven’t seen a truly powerful editorial cartoon in years,” he said.

Conrad was the guest of honor at the gathering: a graduate of the University of Iowa (with a degree in art, not political science or journalism), he was on the cusp of his 50th year as an editorial cartoonist. Standing at the podium, characteristically stoop-shouldered, his huge head looming like the bust of an Old Testament prophet, hair thin on top but shoulder-length at the back, Conrad recalled meeting when a youth with his idol, Jay “Ding” Darling, the legendary editorial cartoonist at the Des Moines Register:

“I grew up with Ding’s work,” he said; “it appeared on the roof of my house or in the bushes every morning during my childhood and high-school years in Cedar Rapids, and when I got into cartooning, I took some samples down to him and asked him what he thought. He said, ‘Con, I don’t see a thing here. You’d better get into something else.'”

But Con didn’t go into something else.

His first cartooning job after graduating from college was at the Denver Post, where he started as a retouch artist for six months, after which he graduated to the editorial page. Conrad credited one of his editors there, Bob Lucas, with setting his feet on the right path for any editorial cartoonist: “He said, ‘Con, any cartoon you can defend, we’ll print.’ And that’s when I started reading, reading, reading, and reading, researching everything. I’ve never forgotten that.”

Reading, Conrad proclaimed, is what gives an editorial cartoonist the knowledge out of which ideas and opinions are formed. And an editorial cartoon must perforce make a statement of opinion. In Conrad’s case, reading also fuels the ire essential to the passion of his work.

“I wake up angry every morning,” he said, “and start reading. Then I’m furious.”

Conrad left the Post in 1964 and went to the Los Angeles Times, where he’s plied his pen and brush ever since, the sledge hammer of the West. There are no grays in Conrad’s cartoons. Once arriving at an opinion, he brooks no alternative view. Nor does he shrink or hesitate: he drives his point home with stark imagery, visual metaphors often of stunning inventiveness.

“At his drawing board, Conrad wields a pen like a stiletto dipped in vitriol,” wrote Hosokawa.

“Subtlety was not one of his strengths — and that’s actually a compliment,” said Mike Keefe, the current editorial cartoonist at the Post. “He would hit really hard, and there was no doubt where he stood on an issue.”

There is nothing tentative about a Conrad cartoon. He often breaks bones while drawing blood. And he had no doubts at that Iowa symposium in October 1999 about what was wrong with editorial cartooning in the closing decades of the century. And when he uttered his opinions, he boomed: Conrad’s voice originated down deep in his tall six-foot-two body, a cavernous rumble.

The younger generation, he said, is “all sensibility and no sense.”

After declaiming one of these sentiments, Conrad would pause, his mouth hanging open. With his massive visage and gaping jaw, he reminded me of a lion, surveying the landscape for prey — the king of beasts, killer eyes gazing into a distance none of us can see as clearly.

“You can’t teach cartooning,” he announced. You can teach drawing, but not cartooning.

Too many of today’s young editorial cartoonists lack “fire in the belly,” he bellowed. “They’re going for gags, just funny one-liners.”

And they don’t read. Funny cartoons are easy to do; they require no research, only a flimsy grasp of current events, the day’s headlines. Conrad, in contrast, was “all about facts.”

 

 

Conrad’s autobiography, published in 2006, is entitled I, Con: The Autobiography of Paul Conrad, Editorial Cartoonist. “Conrad did have a giant ego,” said Clay Bennett, one of today’s most deft practitioners of the craft, “— but as one of the few true titans of editorial cartooning, perhaps justifiably so.” Ed Stein, who drew political cartoons at the Post‘s rival newspaper, the Rocky Mountain News, for over three decades, said: “As a young cartoonist learning the craft, I studied Conrad’s work endlessly. I admired both his drawings — which were bold, spare and beautifully rendered, and like the work of all true artists, distinctively original — and his voice, direct, uncompromising and savagely critical. More than that, his work stood for something. A devout Catholic, he believed in and spoke for social justice, an ethical society and honest politics, and he was a fearless supporter of those causes and devastating critic of any who stood in the way. Like all great cartoonists, he had an unerring nose for the scoundrel, the cheat, the liar, the grandstander and the crook, and he was never shy about pointing out that the emperor had no clothes. Although politically liberal, he never hesitated to lampoon Lyndon Johnson, Ted Kennedy, Jimmy Carter and other Democrats when they offended his sensibilities. In short, he was everything that a political cartoonist should be, and in his prime, no cartoonist in America was better at his craft.”

Some evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, I suspect that “icon” in the autobiography’s title does not signal egotism: Instead, it shouts a kind of delight. In another Conrad collection, Paul Conrad: Drawing the Line (1999), the late fellow editooner Doug Marlette writes about the time he and some other cartoonists were dinner guests at Conrad’s:

“As we stared at Conrad’s Pulitzer Prizes [three] on the wall and the Time Magazine covers he had drawn, our host returned with our beverages, interrupting our oohs and aahs with his booming circus-ringmaster voice: ‘Yeah,’ he said, agreeing with our assessment, ‘Isn’t that great?’ No false modesty. No ‘Aw, shucks.’ Simple, uninhibited delight in what he had wrought. I remember telling a colleague afterwards, ‘That is the key to Conrad’s genius, and that is the key to greatness — authentic, unapologetic delight in oneself and one’s art.’ Conrad was showing us the secret of Picasso and Matisse, of Rilke and Joyce, of Dickens and Twain, the secret of every great artist — to be filled with awe and delight and wonder at the thoughts and images that flow from the darkest recesses and deepest cellars of your own soul.”

My own acquaintance with Conrad, brief though it was, confirms Marlette’s judgement. Conrad delighted in his work — and he was thoroughly unabashed about it, and about what makes good editorial cartooning.

A couple pages after Marlette’s remarks, Conrad lays in, denigrating the “illustrative” character of some political cartooning: “Illustrating in an editorial cartoon means to me that the person really doesn’t know, doesn’t have the background to say what he is saying. He or she only illustrates but doesn’t take a position… doesn’t say, ‘This is a crock,’ or ‘This is right on.’ You have to take a position. That’s what the whole thing is about,” he exclaimed.

Then he continued: “There was a six-paneled cartoon in the Los Angeles Times recently. I have no idea what it was about, but I did start counting the words. There were 235. Can you imagine that? I mean, why doesn’t the man get into editorial writing? The thing was only 14 words shorter than Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. And I know what Lincoln was talking about!”

About his autobiography, which reads like the transcription of an audio tape, Con said: “I guess there are what some other people might call ‘insights’ in here. I call ’em facts. I’m all about facts and I’m all about taking a stand once you know the facts. That’s what I’ve been doing for the last fifty-plus years.”

“Conrad loved making trouble,” wrote James Rainey in his Los Angeles Times obit for the cartoonist. “His righteous indignation was guided by a modest Midwestern upbringing, an abiding Catholic faith and what one chronicler called a ‘fanatic heart.'”

Rainey goes on to quote “another elder statesman of the cartooning trade, Pat Oliphant,” who once said Conrad exhibited “the grandest example of consistently A-grade, blue-ribbon, USDA-prime righteous anger that I can ever remember seeing in a cartoonist’s work in the 50-plus years that I have been doing this sort of thing.”

 

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One Response to “The Sledgehammer is Gone: Paul Conrad, 1924-2010”

  1. patford says:

    The fact that Jeff MacNelly won one Pulitzer, let alone three, kind of deflates the honor.
    Maybe those were the years they were awarding the prize for drawing lopsided tractors?
    The passing of a giant. I loved Conrad so much that for 20 years my mom (thanks mom) cut and mailed every Conrad cartoon to me.
    If only there is a place called heaven where Conrad can clasp hands with Art Young.