THIRTY-FIVE YEARS AGO, Kevin Kallaugher was such a relatively raw talent, he’s not so sure — looking back today — that he even would have hired himself.
At the time, Kallaugher had just honed his cartooning at the Harvard Crimson (where he was brought on staff by future TV investment guru Jim Cramer), but he was still green. His wit was dry, but behind the ears he was still wet when he showed up for his 1978 pro audition to freelance for a then-marginalized British publication.
Fortunately, seeing potential, an editor at the Economist gave the 22-year-old Yankee illustrator a shot.
To this day, that hire is still paying great dividends.
In April, the political cartoonist — who goes by the nom-de-toon “Kal” — marked his 35th anniversary with the Economist. And now Kal — who has long also drawn for the Baltimore Sun — celebrates that benchmark with a new, Kickstarter-funded retrospective book, “Daggers Drawn: 35 Years of Kal Cartoons in the Economist.”
“You see your journey,” Kal tells Comic Riffs of curating this book, for which he culled some 4,000 illustrations down to several hundred cartoons and about 140 covers. “You see an arc of your development as an artist.
“You’re [also] seeing an arc of history,” continues Kal, who in February raised more than $100,000 — five times his Kickstarter goal — to fund this beautiful, lushly colored book (also available as an iPad/iPhone app).
Ahead of his appearance tonight at the National Press Club in Washington — for the 36th annual Book Fair and Authors’ Night (Rep. John Lewis will be there, too, with “March” [another Comic Riffs “Best Book of 2013” pick]) — I caught up with the Baltimore-based Kal to talk about being hired by the Economist, being fired by Rupert Murdoch — and why President Reagan remains his favorite caricature.
MICHAEL CAVNA: Congratulations on the publication of the book, Kal. It’s really quite a career retrospective. How’s it feel to have it out there?
KAL: It is incredibly rewarding. Having a book of any sort — there’s some mystical quality and a degree of permanence. Your place on the planet is secured. A book ... catalogs a major part of your life.
MC: Could you speak to the book’s extensive curation?
K: It’s quite a process — the [sorting] through 35 years and 4,000 cartoons. I’d even forgotten some of these cartoons. It’s a satisfying and educational experience. You see your journey. You see an arc of your development as an artist. You’re [also] seeing an arc of history. You’re witness to all these important events around the world and major players you record, and are engaged in.
MC: What’s it like to relive a big part of your career, cartoon by cartoon?
K: I’ll preface this by saying, the Economist has been a major part of my life — particularly a formative part when I was first starting. I’ve always freelanced with them — one to two days a week, even while with the Baltimore Sun and doing other things. Considering that relatively small portion of time allocated [for the Economist], it’s been a major contribution to my life and my vision. So it’s been other work that informed my ability to be successful with the Economist, and the Economist has informed the rest of my life.
MC: So you and the Economist have grown together.
K: It was a marginal player in circulation [when I started], but ... over the course of time, it became a major international brand — over half their circulation is in the U.S. The style is [now] more approachable. ...
People are hungry for the wisdom the Economist can offer – a detached view of America in an era of loud partisanship. The Economist’s sober voice has been very welcome.
MC: And now you’re so identified with the Economist.
K: I’ve been married to the Economist for 35 years. Like a good marriage, we’ve started to grow alike. You start to hear them in your head. We differ in some positions, but I’ve grown to be more like them.
MC: So what has changed in its visual philosophy over time?
K: When I joined the Economist, they had only started using photographs. … There was huge resistance to having an artist. It was a very conservative group in a small sea. Change was slow to come by. Now that my cartoons are part of the look and personality of the Economist, they’ve learned a little bit [graphically] from me. ...
[But at the beginning] art director Pip Piper was agitating for a more visual look. When I started, I was lousy. I don’t know whether I would have hired me. I wasn’t considerably good. It was some reflection of the Economist’s stature — others cartoonists didn’t think of going [to it to apply]. There was the New Statesman or the Guardian. And the Economist wasn’t paying very well. It was the sad second sister.
Pip was determined to change it all. He brought me on because he saw potential. Nowadays, [it seems as though] people need to deliver from Day One. But I’m eternally indebted to him. He covered my back. … I was just out of school. I graduated in 1977 and was hired in March 1978. It was crazy. I walk in the Economist [looking] like an American basketball player in a place full of Oxford types; I looked scraggly around the edges. Now they accept the scraggly look [since] I’ve been there longer than anyone else.
MC: You write in the book that you saw the Economist as “your last shot at being a cartoonist.” But you were only 22 — why did you think that already?
K: What happened was, I had left the U.S.; I studied animation at Harvard. … Even in those days, I knew a syndicated comic strip was a long shot. My heart was in animation. Before I left Boston, a small animation company offered me a job as an in-betweener — it was a job that would get my foot in the door. But, I had a passion for caricature, which is something that abides with me to this day. The Economist brought me on as a caricaturist. It was that way for about a decade.
MC: So how did you pivot to [add] political cartoons?
K: In 1984, I started thinking about how I would get to become a political cartoonist. I started to make my own syndicate. ... I signed the Boston Globe, the Philly Inquirer, the Washington Post [for a pack of two cartoons weekly]. … I was losing money on the deal, but it got me into the discipline of doing political cartoons. I worked for the UK Today, a middle-market tabloid, that then got bought by Murdoch — who [soon] fired me, of course.
So, I scheduled a trip to a cartoon convention in D.C. in the ‘80s. While I was there, at a cocktail party, I met [editor] Lee Salem of Universal Press Syndicate. He said there was a job opening in Baltimore. ...
So two things happened. First, a cartoonist friend [in England] told me: “While you were away, your boss offered me your job.” I was a little too reasonable for his [Murdoch’s] right-wing views. ...
Second, I was offered a job in Baltimore. My wife and I decided to give this a try and send cartoons [scanned oh-so-slowly by computer] across the Pond in 1988 — using this new thing called the Internet.
MC: One thing I notice, looking over 35 years [in one book], is that your style doesn’t look dated — it’s more timeless.
K: I’m really grateful for those words. You never know you’re perceived. Certainly a long time ago, I just stopped thinking about style. It’s like your handwriting. You keep on drawing what you’d like to draw, of course. I’m always trying to improve and trying to honor my viewers and my readers by providing them with something engaging, and justify being worthy of their time. So I invest a lot in the art, but … one hopes to keep getting better. I’m fresher now than I was five years ago. ...
[More deeply] it’s a combination of the academic art and this playful side that you want to keep tapping into. The classic motions of caricature and the playful side, like Dr. Seuss and Looney Tunes and MAD magazine — older influences and more contemporary influences…like Pixar. That marriage between those two things is a very compelling cocktail.
MC: I’m fascinated by your process with the covers — what you call a collaborative dance — because the concepts are so clear and organic and precise; the elements tie together so well. I know as an editor: that can’t be easy to achieve.
K: People outside have no idea how incredibly tricky and difficult it is, and how incredibly efficient as creators you have to be. Doing cartoons, you’re an army of one, [vs.] when you’re in a collaboration. The deadline is incredibly tight [for a cover], and it’s a high standard. It’s read by millions of people, who can be very judgmental. ...
The art director, Penny Garrett, arrived just after me. We’ve been dancing together for a long time [creatively]. … They trust me a lot. They will call: “Kal, we’re thinking of doing something like this — you might come up with something better.” I’ll do some quick sketches — and they’re going home.
They say: “It’s up to you; we look forward to seeing it tomorrow.” ...
And they have a cover designer, Graeme James. He and I are just like a tag team, speaking the same language. That has been a great experience.
MC: In the book, you spell “colour” with a “u.” Do your spellings vary depending on whether you’re in Brighton or Baltimore?
K: When doing a cartoon that appears in the Economist, it gets the English spelling; for the U.S. syndication, it has to go [with American].
MC: Can you quickly shift gears in how you think depending on which nation you’re in?
K: I think so — that I can think like a Brit [when I need to]. I have to tell you, one of my proudest achievements in my career is something you can’t quantify — there is no award for it. I spent the better part of a decade living in the UK while doing cartoons for a British audience. … You have to know that culture so well … to know turns of phrase, subtleties of observation. And people didn’t necessarily know I was a Yank. That’s one of my greatest triumphs. Now ... I’m [culturally] bilingual. I feel when I’m in England, with English friends, in English conversation, my brain shifts — humorously and linguistically.
MC: The conventional thinking used to be, decades ago, that Monty Python traveled west brilliantly, but that a [Johnny] Carson didn’t translate in England. What differences do you see, comedically?
K: It’s a generic statement, but British humor is more understated, and American humor is more overstated. They [the British] allow for language to be more subtle and more playful. You have to assume a lot of knowledge. Overstatement is more like a juvenile teenager, and America is a teenage country; England is a middle-aged, old fart.
MC: So after years, why did the Economist suddenly allow you to do political cartoons?
K: I did caricatures [for them] for two decades, until 1999. A political cartoonist speaks with one voice, and they weren’t ready for that individual voice. ... But I have been around for such a long time, I became a trusted figure. I’d been testing for 20 years. I had a good track record. ... After waiting 21 years, I now do it every week and have never missed a week.
MC: We know so many staff political cartoonists who’ve been let go or cut back. But you seem to have such a supportive home with the Economist.
K: I’m very lucky. I know how fragile all this is. But a little fear is not a bad thing to keep you motivated. And the Economist is definitely moving into the digital world. And my work looks great on the tablet. … There’s still a lot to be excited about.
MC: You have many world leaders on the [”Daggers Drawn”] cover. Who’s your favorite ever to caricature?
K: I’d probably pick Ronald Reagan. There are two elements: First, take his face. It being an actor’s face, it could take on all forms, all emotions, all personalities. While in contrast, his compatriot [Margaret] Thatcher had a singular face that had one expression – that was a bit of a challenge. ...
Now, Reagan, from the journalistic [side], when drawing him: The American perception was different from the European perception. … Americans saw him as a grandfatherly figure; opponents saw him as a dumb oaf, almost misguided. Europeans who were his enemies saw him as an evil character; they didn’t get this grandfather thing at all. There were nuclear weapons — he was going to start another war and they didn’t trust him.
So [European] cartoons and caricatures had him with squinty, mean eyes — his eyebrows pointing downward to the scowl — this mean guy resonates more comfortably with them. ... In America, his brows are pointing toward his hair. So I had to dance between the two of them [depending on which nation I was drawing for].
MC: Anything I didn’t ask that I should have?
K: I’m about to go on a three-week tour of Asia and Australia with the Economist — they’ll be CEO-level events about next year — Singapore, Hong Kong, Sydney and then Mumbai [where I’ll give a TEDx Gateway talk]. ... They bring me in because I’m now a large figure on the brand of the Economist. And I’m going to be drawing large — 12 foot by 4 foot — live cartoons. I’ll be a standup cartoonist, talking about what to expect in 2014. ... They allow me to go off the page and expand in new realms. I do these as part of my [still] wonderful marriage with the Economist. It’s just been thoroughly exciting.