The great -- I mean great -- and difficult Paul Conrad, editorial cartoonist par excellence, has left us. The Los Angeles Times reports that Conrad died on Saturday of natural causes, at age 86. Sad, sad news; I extend my condolences and sympathy to his family, friends, and colleagues.
Conrad may have been the greatest American political cartoonist of the past half century, and I'm sure he was one of the most hard-hitting and visually eloquent. To me, he was the idea of political cartooning personified.
I don't think of myself as an expert on Conrad, but I've read many hundreds of his cartoons over the years, often with my mouth agape. Sometimes he was funny, very often he was forceful, and on occasion he was lacerating. Iron-principled, tough-minded yet capable of great tenderness and feeling, and so damn skilled as a cartoonist and illustrator, Conrad had the ability to render anything he wanted to in line and shadow, and he practiced a cultivated graphic savagery that had sharper teeth than any other cartoonist. If any cartoonist could leave welts by dint of sheer ability and commitment, it was Conrad.
The Los Angeles Times, now much diminished, was, in a better time, Conrad's home paper. By sheer chance, it was the first metropolitan newspaper I ever read regularly. Being an itinerant Air Force kid, I didn't get to know, to really know, a city worth the name when I was growing up, but by the time I was twelve and starting to crawl toward an awareness of politics, my family lived in southern California and took the Times. We lived nowhere near L.A., but the paper's reach was long. When I first began reading the Times, Conrad shared its op-ed page with the late Frank Interlandi, whose work then, I recall, often consisted of brief strip cartoons offering comparatively light social commentary. Those strips leaned toward snippy conversation between drastically pared-down characters. Conrad, by contrast, favored eloquent single panels, with a breathtaking technique, selective use of illustrative detail, and sheer graphic severity that, I would later come to understand, harked back not only to Thomas Nast (granddaddy of the profession) but to the stringent, ideologically committed and visually powerful progressive cartooning of Art Young and Robert Minor. I didn't see Conrad this way thirty years ago, of course; I saw him as a bemusing and provoking troublemaker. How did he get away with such things?
Since then Conrad has been my model of what a political cartoonist should be (only Herblock comes close in my book). He wasn't provoking just for the sake of being provoking; he didn't have Oliphant's yen for insult. Nor was he content to let verbal zingers or marginal comments do the bulk of his political work; no, he was front and center, a bull charging you head on, but in a way that wasn't for hire and that you could depend on to be honest, forthright, and hardly ever cheap (cheapness being an occupational hazard for cartoonists). Sardonic humor -- which has its place, don't get me wrong -- wasn't his defining quality. He could do that, sure,
but I believe he was most himself when delivering a graphically focused righteous fury.
I didn't agree with Conrad about everything. For a long time he was, uniquely among prominent left-wing cartoonists I think, anti-abortion, and sometimes delivered bracing cartoons to that effect (unfortunately, I cannot find any examples online to demonstrate the point, though I can find cartoons that reveal Conrad's eventual change of heart about the issue). On the occasion that I disagreed strongly with what I thought to be the thrust of a Conrad cartoon, I got a sense of what it must have been like to be targeted by him. Ouch. But I found him honest and honorable and prodigiously skilled, a true cartoon artist.
Again, I'm no Conrad expert. I wouldn't learn anything about his life and career until well after I was no longer able to read his work in the paper regularly, and even now I know only the broad outlines (the Times obituary is quite detailed about everything except Conrad's graphic influences). Several times during my Connecticut years I found old books by Conrad, my favorite being The King and Us (1975),
a volume interleaving Conrad's cartoons about Nixon and Watergate with excerpts from the transcripts of Nixon's recorded White House conversations, which were submitted to Congress as part of the Watergate investigation. This one is boxed away at the moment (again, the Net fails to turn up a cover image), but it's a book I prize. No one else in the profession would have had the brass to do something like that!
Sigh. Conrad's passing is yet another signal that the heyday of editorial cartooning in print is past. I'll always be grateful for his work, which was, I now see, a critical part of my political education. I've got cartoons by Conrad imprinted on my brain.
Two realizations, or, Conrad is everywhere!
1. Huh. I've seen the sculpture below many times -- it stands next to a place in Santa Monica that I go to at least twice a year -- but never realized it was by Conrad until today:
It's called Chain Reaction. As is the fate of most municipal art, people seem to ignore it. I've always looked closely at it, though.
2. Serendipity: Googling for images to accompany this post brought me to the very community college where my son goes to school, College of the Canyons, where, huh, a Conrad exhibit is going on right now. It's about four miles from where I live! You can bet I'll be going to see that. It's called I, Con, The Brilliant Work of Paul Conrad. The exhibit website contains a nice gallery of Conrad's work.
Speaking of online resources, check out the (perhaps outdated) site www.conradprojects.com for more about the man and his work. Also, the site ProandConrad, launched to accompany the documentary film Paul Conrad: Drawing Fire (2006), is very good. Both have strong Conrad galleries.
Farewell, Mr. Conrad.