Inside Ralph Steadman’s Gonzo World of "Nextinct" Birds

The counterculture hero's latest book of illustrations puts endangered birds in a new context.

When the artist Ralph Steadman talks about birds, the word “vicious” comes up repeatedly. Crows are vicious. Peacocks, too. Birds generally, really. “There’s nothing sentimental about them,” Steadman said when he spoke with me on Skype last month from his studio in Kent, England. And their human admirers aren’t the gentlest of creatures, either, for that matter. “Bird lovers are really an unpleasant people,” he observed brightly. “They have to get rid of their inner turmoil and frustration.”

Before taking offense, there are a few things to consider in Steadman’s defense. The first is that, well, he’s Ralph Steadman—pioneer of "gonzo" journalism, whose work with longtime collaborator Hunter S. Thompson fused Thompson’s drug-soaked storytelling with Steadman’s feverish, comically sinister illustrations to expose the disingenuousness of politicians and the hypocrisy of American moralism. In other words, viciousness, turmoil, and frustration are Steadman’s bread and butter. And the second is the fact that “bird lovers” is a category into which Steadman himself firmly falls, whether or not he cares to admit it—so much so that he’s done not one but two books of bird illustrations, the second of which, Nextinction, will be released in the U.S. next week by Bloomsbury.

Nextinction is a collaboration with filmmaker and conservationist Ceri Levy and it’s a sequel of sorts to their first book together, 2012’s Extinct Boids, a book of illustrations of extinct species both real and fantastical (those would be the “boids”). For Nextinction, the pair took on species that are in danger of going the same route. 

Like Extinct Boids, Nextinction has the feel of a Victorian ornithological encyclopedia that’s been shoved through the looking glass (or some hallucinogen-saturated Instagram filter). Each of Steadman’s 150-or-so illustrations of endangered and critically endangered birds are accompanied by a write-up from Levy explaining how the species found itself on the list. But then there’s also a running plot: The books take place on the mythical Toadstool Island, where birds are stalked by a sinister hunter and his band of henchmen, “the blue-panted bird-killers.” The world of Nextinction is also populated by an amalgam of real and imagined species, which have been given interconnecting backstories by Levy: The Spoon-billed Sandpiper and the Waved Albatross coexist with the Unsociable Leftwing and the Blue-Beaked Waddle, as well as the never-seen but often-mentioned Brrrddd (a Scot), who supplies the island's boids with moonshine. (“I made some up because they're so easily make-upable," Steadman said. "It’s a funny thing—you can put a beak on anything and it does look like a bird.”)

For all his talk of viciousness, Steadman, who’s 79, is warm and charmingly daffy in a way that only the British grandfathers of my imagination can be, except that instead of telling stories about the war, Steadman’s stories are about the time he and Hunter S. Thompson traveled to Zaire to cover the Ali-Foreman Rumble in the Jungle for Rolling Stone. (Thompson sold their tickets to the fight, bought a pair of elephant tusks, and then set off a customs chase when he tried to smuggle them back into the U.S.)

Four decades later, you could say Steadman is having something of a moment, with the boids books, the release last year of a documentary about him called For No Good Reason, and the publication of Proud to Be Weirrd, a massive monograph of his work. But he’s never stopped working: His unmistakable illustrations have appeared everywhere from book covers to postage stamps to beer bottles (he does the labels for Flying Dog Brewery), and a few years ago he started doing political caricatures again after taking a hiatus in the late '90s, when he grew so sick of British politicians that he decided from then on he’d only draw their legs.  (Which isn’t to suggest that he’s any more impressed by the new crop—“all these awful Eton bubble faces.”)

But Steadman first dipped into the bird world thanks to Levy, a documentarian who years ago decided to make a film about the weird obsessiveness of birdwatchers, only to realize that he himself had become one of the afflicted. (He’s currently finishing up a documentary about the effect birds have on people.) In 2010, Levy, by then firmly ensconced in the conservation realm, approached Steadman about doing an illustration of an extinct bird for a fundraising exhibit. Steadman responded that he didn’t think he’d ever drawn a bird before, then went back through his archives and discovered that he had in fact drawn dozens of them, whether as a motif in a political cartoon, say, or simply as a little blot with wings, knocked off and quickly forgotten. “You can be interested in lots of things without realizing that interest,” said Steadman, who these days keeps tabs on his local blackbirds and bullfinches from a picture window in his kitchen and calls himself “the guano collector” thanks to the abundance of their gifts.

From that initial meeting, the first book was born, and Steadman and Levy became, as they say, “gonzovationists.” Levy views the collaboration as an opportunity to infuse the conservation world with some much-needed fresh air. “What I see conservation really struggling with at the moment is having alternative voices, away from the conservation world, coming and speaking up on behalf on wildlife,” said Levy, 54, who joined us on Skype and did an admirable job of wrangling Steadman when he wandered too far from the matter at hand. (The same dynamic plays out in a sidebar running throughout Nextinction that includes transcripts of phone and email exchanges between Levy and Steadman during the creation of the book.)

Steadman sees the challenge in simpler terms: If you want to hold the public’s interest, he said, “You’ve got to make people laugh.”

It took a year and a half to make Nextinction. Levy would send Steadman lists of endangered birds in batches, to avoid overwhelming him, and Steadman would then look at pictures online for reference. But when Steadman illustrates a bird, the point isn’t visual facsimile. “Often you see pictures of birds where there’s no character, no personality,” said Levy. “What Ralph has done is he’s injected personality into the bird, and that creates a real bond” between bird and viewer. Take, for example, Steadman’s Red-headed Vulture, a meaty thud of a bird standing defiantly on top of an eviscerated something-or-other. “Why me???” thinks the carrion, via thought bubble. “Just clearing up the mess!!—Nothin’ personal!!” the vulture replies.

It’s true that Steadman’s birds aren't exactly the ethereal creatures of poetry, stylistically speaking (even his graceful cranes come off as a touch deranged). Even so, for someone who made his name with illustrations that radiated anger and contempt, Steadman's current choice of subject matter may lead some to worry he's gone mushy in his older years, or maybe just that he's finally without a clear target for his brush. But you don’t have to dig too deep to find a through-line between the venality Steadman excoriated in the 1970s and the casual knocking off of an entire species to make room for another Ford dealership or Cheesecake Factory. “I think that’s why you enjoy doing the birds,” Levy said to Steadman. “It’s still raging against everything that’s wrong.”