Over his career as a political cartoonist spanning three decades, 57-year-old Kevin Kallaugher (known fondly to newspaper readers the world over as KAL) has caricatured everyone of consequence-both fictional and alive. “The only thing worse than being drawn by KAL,” one US Senator would write in exasperation “is to not be drawn by KAL at [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

‘I’ve got people to think with my ink’

The Economist cartoonist, Kevin Kallaugher, who was in Sri Lanka last week tells Duvindi Illankoon how he went from being a comic strip artist to mastering the art of political satire and caricature

Over his career as a political cartoonist spanning three decades, 57-year-old Kevin Kallaugher (known fondly to newspaper readers the world over as KAL) has caricatured everyone of consequence-both fictional and alive.

Kevin: It’s not all about making people laugh. Pic by Athula Devapriya

“The only thing worse than being drawn by KAL,” one US Senator would write in exasperation “is to not be drawn by KAL at all!” The editorial cartoonist for the London-based magazine The Economist and contributor to the Baltimore Sun in his homeland of the USA, Mr. Kallaugher was in Sri Lanka last week on behalf of the US embassy as part of their speakers programme.

“Let me tell you a secret,” he says conspiratorially in an interview with the Sunday Times. “I had never read The Economist before I started working there!”

Falling into his job at the prestigious magazine just as easily as he took to drawing, Kallaugher knew he had undeniable talent as an artist, but only considered political cartoons when he applied for The Economist. “I had always fancied myself drawing comic strips,” he says, reminiscing about drawing as a child in Connecticut, USA and eventually meeting cartoonist Dick Brown, who inspired him to take up the hobby as a serious career option.

Mr. Kallaugher would go on to study Visual and Environmental Studies at Harvard University, producing for his thesis a 13-minute long animated comic strip. His brush with satire came with his weekly contributions titled ‘Days of Disgustus’ for the Harvard Crimson. Graduating with honours in 1977, he embarked on-of all things-a bicycle tour of England. Moving from one unlikely career choice to another, he played semi-professional basketball for three years.

Eventually though, reason surfaced and he began taking his drawing quite seriously, doing tourist caricatures in London’s Trafalgar Square and carting his portfolio around Fleet Street; home to England’s media powerhouses. “Eventually, I walked into The Economist as well,” he remembers.

“I hadn’t had the chance to read the publication before. So there I was, leafing through it and it dawned on me that nothing in my portfolio would fit in. I finally singled out a set of caricatures I had done of my professors at Harvard and lucky me, they actually recognised some of the faces I had drawn! I was put on trial the next week, becoming the first cartoonist in the publication’s 170 year-old history.”

“When I started out, I wasn’t really very good to be honest,” he grins. “But I had a wonderful Art Director called Pip Piper who took me under his wing and allowed me to learn from experience.” Political satire, to his surprise, turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Over the next few years his career would soar, with his cartoons-often hilarious, occasionally scandalous and always thought provoking-gaining a name for their uncanny ability to hit home.

It’s easy to get carried away, he says, especially with the decision-making public figures providing endless opportunity for mocking strips. But the cartoonist keeps his feet planted firmly on the ground. “I look at myself as a journalist and commentator first,” he says. “The drawing comes after that. A cartoonist’s job is always risky and very difficult. You’ve got to be constantly in touch with current affairs and you try very, very hard not to let personal preferences manifest in your work.”

“I find it amazing that a cartoon can affect people and events so much,” he goes on to add. “It’s a very powerful way of getting through to people. Just a few words and sketches and you’ve conveyed a message.”

In 1992, Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke abruptly withdrew his proposal to demolish a historic building. It would later come to light that KAL’s strip on the subject in the Baltimore Sun influenced him to change his stance on the building’s status as a hotspot for local delinquents.

Over the years, Mr. Kallaugher contributed to The Oxford Sunday Journal, the Observer, Today and the Sunday Telegraph in London. In 1988 he returned to the USA and began contributing to the Baltimore Sun, while continuing to be a major contributor to The Economist as well. He has numerous international awards for his work. In 1999, The World Encyclopaedia of Cartoons said of him: “Commanding a masterful style, Kallaugher stands among the premier caricaturists of the (twentieth) century.”

In his 35 years of satirical cartoon, Mr. Kallaugher has seen many events grip the world in horror or fascination. As with every other journalist, the 2001 terrorist attack on New York’s Twin Towers was a challenging time for him as a cartoonist. “People often make the mistake of thinking political cartoons are only meant to be funny,” he remembers. “That time tested my strength as a political commentator and cartoonist.” Inspiration, as a cartoonist, is something he has accepted will come and go. “It used to be such a great weight on my shoulders; that pressure to come up with something original and thought provoking,” he says. “But with maturity I realised that your skill comes with practice, and I’ve been fortunate so far to have not run out of ideas for my cartoons.”

The current US Presidential Election is certainly keeping him on his toes. “My favourite subject to draw, at any point of time, is whoever is President at that time. I draw them so many times over the 4-year term that my wife jokes I know their faces even better than my own!” Politicians, he adds in a cheeky aside, are always flattered to be drawn-even if they don’t like the cartoon itself.

Mr. Kallaugher is past President of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists and Cartoonists Rights Network International, an international human rights organisation dedicated to the plight of cartoonists at risk. Not surprisingly he’s been checking out the local competition during his stay.

“The local style of cartoon is very different from what I’m used to,” he comments, adding that their free-style nature could possibly be put down to stricter deadlines and perhaps even a slight apprehension about drawing something that could be politically controversial. “I hope they grow out of that,” he says. “Your cartoonists have undeniable talent and it would be a shame to hold that back.”

For Kevin Kallaugher drawing, and more importantly making people think with his ink, will always be his first love. As he once said in an interview, “People often think you’re in the business of making people laugh. But you’re really in the business of making people think.”

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