At 71, William Anthony Auth Jr. is trim and white-bearded, with blue eyes to die for—sort of a fit Santa Claus. He doesn’t sound at all like his work, which is bold and opinionated and, well, cranky. His voice, instead, is soft and gentle, as you can hear on the video cartoons he makes for WHYY. “Tony turned out to have such a wonderful radio voice,” says Chris Satullo, the station’s vice president of news and civic dialogue. The two used to work together at the Inquirer; after management there killed two Auth cartoons late in 2011—not, as Gene Roberts had, for good reason, but merely “as excuses to make me uncomfortable,” Auth says—the cartoonist took a buyout, and the pair soon found themselves working together again.
“I thought there was a real possibility for using animation and cartoons in digital space to experiment, to draw readers and create motion,” Satullo explains. So while Auth continues to draw cartoons for Behind the Lines, his NewsWorks blog, they now come with a line or two—or more—of commentary on what he’s drawn. And he uses an app, Brushes, to record his process of creation, which he can then play back as video on the site. One recent example, prompted by this summer’s Johnny Depp movie, relates his childhood love affair with the Lone Ranger. Right there on your screen, you see his scant black outline of the masked avenger, then watch as, magically, colors fill in and detail deepens, right down to the trim on the cowboy boots. Auth also illustrates WHYY news stories—he especially enjoys accompanying Faye Flam’s science pieces—and has served as “the other reporter” on assignments at Citizens Bank Park and Rittenhouse Square, jotting visual addenda and taking photos to later be used in watercolors. His sketches are wry and sophisticated even when their subjects aren’t; he makes fun of Philadelphia in a way we only allow fellow Philadelphians to.
Auth’s Lone Ranger piece refers to a crucial segment of his Ohio childhood. At age five, he was seriously ill, bedridden with rheumatic fever for a year and a half. TV hadn’t become mainstream yet, so he listened to the radio. “It was fantasy land,” he says. His mother decided he should learn to draw, and brought him pencils and crayons and paper. He started sketching the characters from his beloved radio shows and comic books. “I realized how very different all these worlds looked—Superman, the Red Raider, Terry and the Pirates,” he says. He would study and copy one world—how the artist drew buildings and figures, used light and color and shadow—then move on to the next.
Later, at Catholic school—his household, he says, was religious and “very conservative”—he was always the best artist in class. He recalls a second-grade assignment to create a winter scene for which he drew a cabin in the woods, with smoke from the chimney rising at an angle. “The nun looked at it and said the smoke should go straight up. I said, ‘Sister, there’s a breeze.’” She said unless the smoke rose straight up, he’d fail the assignment. Auth refused to bow: “She could not decide how my smoke should go.”
That childhood defiance never deserted him. His family—his father was a Firestone exec, and he had one younger brother—moved to California when he was nine. He went to UCLA after high school, and got a job doing medical illustrations when he graduated. But it was the era of the Vietnam War: “Such a time!” he says. “The new feminist movement, gay rights, civil rights—everybody I knew read all the time, engaged all the time.” While at UCLA, he’d done some cartoons for the student newspaper, the Daily Bruin. Now he branched out, drawing for an alt-weekly. “I fell in love with it,” he says.
He showed his work to Paul Conrad, then the cartoonist at the L.A. Times, who advised him to increase his output and to keep it simple. For the next year, even though he’d graduated, he did three cartoons a week, for free, for the Daily Bruin. After a long series of fits and starts—there were only 200 full-time editorial cartoonists in the country in those days (today there are 85)—he heard about an opening at the Inquirer, and “essentially invited myself for a week-long job interview.” They put him on a plane home at the end of the week, but he’d no sooner arrived than then-executive editor Creed Black called to say, “We miss you.” He was in. Weeks later, he was syndicated. Within five years, he’d won the Pulitzer Prize.