It was the Friday before a Redskins Super Bowl in the early ’80s, and that flap about whether the name “Redskins” was racist was all over the news. Tony Auth, the Pulitzer-winning editorial cartoonist at the Inquirer, wanted to put in his two cents. So he drew the most politically incorrect cartoon imaginable, of an NFL populated by teams that all had outrageously insulting, stereotypical names. There were, for instance, the San Francisco Fags, their helmets proudly sporting a guy making a fey hand gesture. The Philly team was the Wops. The cartoon went to press. That’s when the trouble began.
“A lot of people saw it in the production process,” Auth recalls. “Turns out the guys in the pressroom were up in arms.” Their objection? “They wanted to be the Pollocks, not the Wops.” Auth started to have doubts about the appropriateness of his drawing. Luckily, when he opened the next day’s paper, it wasn’t there. That’s when his then-editor, the legendary Gene Roberts, came into his office. He’d killed the cartoon. “What are you trying to do, Auth?” he asked. “Piss off every single reader on the same day?”
That was pretty much Tony Auth’s goal from the moment in 1971 when he started at the Inquirer. Over the next four decades, he’d win nearly every accolade and honor a cartoonist could dream of, from that Pulitzer (he was a finalist twice more) to the Herblock Prize (named for the legendary Washington Post cartoonist). Five days a week, his left-wing takes on war, politics, social justice and the city stared at us from the editorial page. He framed our worldview, guided our consciences—and infuriated the paper’s more conservative readers.
Then, last year, abruptly, he was gone, the victim—though he’d hate that term—of upheaval in the newspaper industry even more profound than the changeover from hot type. This month, a retrospective exhibit of his work goes on display at his new home, WHYY. A radio cartoonist? Why not? “Artists don’t retire,” says Auth.