The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Tonight’s Herblock Prize: How Baltimore’s KAL mans a front line of social justice

Kevin “KAL” Kallaugher. (courtesy of the Library of Congress/Herb Block Foundation)

KAL was not, of course, always such an absolute master.

Year by year, line by purposeful line, Kevin “Kal” Kallaugher, the longtime cartoonist at the Economist and the Baltimore Sun, has built a skill set of the visual satirist’s craft. He flexed his sense of hyperbole, he pumped up his gift for graphical symbolism, and he grew ever stronger at stripping away the noise of the news until what was rippling and resonating on the page was pure and clear and concise truth.

And these days, Kal, at 60, is at a new height of editorial ambition. He takes on big and complex events, local and global alike, with the deft ability to construct an extended metaphor, until the collective images gather a cumulative, sometimes devastating force.

These gifts were on exhibit last year, for instance, in a Sun cartoon about Edward Snowden and the NSA that a group of contest jurors called a “minor masterpiece” — one work in a portfolio for which he was just named a 2015 Pulitzer Prize finalist.

And these talents honed over four decades were deployed to maximum effect as recently as last weekend, when Kal commented on the unrest in Baltimore — in response to Freddie Gray’s tragic case — by drawing upon decades of firsthand knowledge as a keen social observer of his city.

It is for this level of brilliance that Kal will be saluted tonight, at the Library of Congress, as the recipient of the 2015 Herblock Prize. “I consider the Herblock Prize to be a special honor,” the “humbled” Kal said upon announcement of the news in March. “Its mission is to promote excellence in the craft of editorial cartooning, and to highlight the fight against injustice that was a hallmark of Herblock’s work.” (As part of the ceremony, Kal’s acceptance speech will be preceded by the Herblock Lecture, as delivered by Graham Holdings CEO and chairman Don Graham — who, as longtime Washington Post publisher, has a special appreciation for Herblock’s legacy.)

In taking up Herblock’s standard as social-justice satirist in an era of the NSA’s monitoring, and Charlie Hebdo’s massacre, and Baltimore’s brutality and riots, Kal values deeply his twin perches at the Sun and the Economist, where he has great editorial rein.

“Only 14 percent of people on the planet live somewhere where there is freedom of the press,” Kal tells The Post’s Comic Riffs. “And if you dial back to 100 years ago, those numbers would have been really small. So this recent [post-Hebdo] talk of freedom of expression takes place in a very small universe. We need to appreciate this.”

Kal’s appreciation extends both to the political cartoonists who sparked his passion for the art form, and to foreign cartoonists not in that fortunate 14 percent — those who face threats and mortal peril simply to share their opinions through s visual medium.

“Our craft is one where you don’t go to school to be a cartoonist, so you learn from those who came before,” Kal tells Comic Riffs. “So I want to thank them.

“And I’m inspired,” he continues, “by cartoonists who live in the 86 percent, whose [institutionally oppressed] lives are tricky. But they use this unique tool as a voice for change. And I am so inspired by them.”

Kal knows the full worth of his position as the Sun’s cartoonist, too, because it is a job that was once, and for years, taken from him.

“One thing I will talk about [tonight] is my relationship with the Baltimore Sun and the Economist,” Kal tells The Post. “In 2005, in a fit of budget mania that was spreading through the newspaper world, the Baltimore Sun decided that a cartoonist was a luxury, and we parted ways. It took them seven years to rehire me, when a new management team — Tim Ryan and Andy Green — came in. And they invited me back.”

“I hope this would be a lesson for other offending newspapers” who dropped their cartoonists, Kal continues. “Cartoonists should not be a luxury. We are a specific journalistic phenomenon, and newspaper phenomenon. We reduce the world down to a digestible nugget that is enjoyed by virtually everyone. And if you want the young demographic, use more cartoons, not less.” (And he only half-jokes when he says of the newspaper cartooning field: “Visually, we’re competing with the weather map on our own pages.”)

Kal does feel fortunate, though, that his editorial opportunities are in harmony with his career arc.

“One thing I have noticed about this craft is that it is unlike basketball, where your physical peak is [age ] 27, 28,” says Kal, who was an avid hoopster in his youth. “For the longevity of a cartoonist, you only have to look at Herblock,” adds Kal, citing how the Pulitzer-winning Post legend, who covered 13 presidential administrations, cartooned into his 90s, before dying in 2001.

“You should get better with every decade, because your breadth of knowledge is growing. You improve your drawing. And your pool of ideas, instead of getting shallower, gets broader and deeper,” says Kal, who in February also won Europe’s Grand Prix Award for press “cartoon of the year. “So I think I’m doing my best work right now.”

“It’s so much fun at this stage,” enthuses Kal, who a couple of years ago marked his 35th anniversary at the Economist with a Kickstarter-backed book, “Daggers Drawn.” “Now the drawing is fun. For decades, it was hard work and pressure and a lot of frustration. In the early days, having to do so much practice, it was boring and hard. Now I draw and like it so much, I don’t even know I’m drawing.”

In drawing for decades, Kal also cherishes the connection that a civic-oriented cartoonist especially establishes with his audience. “By doing daily political cartoons, you have a long-term conversation with your readers,” he says. “You establish a rapport, and every cartoon is another sentence in that conversation.”

And in Kal’s case, that applies to being bicontinental, as he has long fostered his largely separate audiences in the UK and the USA. “At the Economist, I deal with the very national stuff — European budgets and British elections. And then I come back to Baltimore and do the traffic-light stuff,” as well as larger stories like the Freddie Gray case. (And of Baltimore’s recent unrest specifically, Kal says: “We got a body-blow on this one. It’s like the city was mugged and it was a setback. It was sad.”)

It was the Economist that gave Kal his start — which, had the hiring process not worked out, might have been his cartoon career’s ending, as well.

The Norwalk, Conn., native had studied art and design at Harvard, even making a 13-minute thesis animation based on his comic strip, “In the Days of Disgustus,” that ran in the Harvard Crimson. Soon after graduation, he landed in London, playing basketball abroad and doing Fleet Street caricatures to pick up some cash. That encouraged him to try to kickstart a full art career; portfolio in hand, he was a Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s journalistic court. Fortunately, the kings that ran the Economist liked this American court jester’s illustration style. The relationship — which eventually grew to include political cartoons, as well — has been mutually fruitful for nearly four decades.

“My personal goal was to be able to do daily political cartoons for a British audience and not be automatically recognized as an interloper from across the sea,” says Kal, who lived in the UK for years. “What that requires is a depth of understanding of languages and idioms, let alone politics and the issues. I studied really hard — and had a really tolerant wife — and learned everything I could about the country and the society.”

In tracing this career history at tonight’s event, Kal plans to illustrate, too, how Herblock inspired him.

“His work was a combination of his compassion and his dogged pursuit of justice,” Kal says. “It was justice for the benefit of the small guy, and he was always there, always ‘on.’ … That is a main part of the real focus and power of cartooning. You have the opportunity to remind people over and over about

And when Kal stands on that Library of Congress stage tonight, he plans to summon the spirit of Herblock not only through words, but also with at least one image. He will honor Herblock by doing a live drawing — and will have the legend “talk” back to offer advice.

And part of this inspiration for that piece comes from the lone time he met Herb, several years before Mr. Block’s death.

“I was hosting the AAEC [Association of American Editorial Cartoonists] convention in Baltimore” in the mid-’90s, Kal recalls. “I was going to be AAEC president the next year, and was the ‘organizing genius’ — handling this herd of cats — so I invited Herb. He never spoke in public, but he came to this because he liked cartoonists.

“So he came early, we hung out and we had so much fun. It was like an elongated Q&A, and a bit of a ‘chalk talk.’ He just loved hanging around cartoonists.”

Tonight, two decades later, fans can love hanging around another special cartoonist. The one whose name will be newest on the Herblock Prize itself.

Recent Herblock recipients:

[2014: Jen Sorensen becomes first woman to win the Herblock Prize]

[2013: Dan Perkins (aka Tom Tomorrow) on the need to support your friendly alt-cartoonist]

[2012: Matt Bors on the changing state of political cartooning]

[2011: Matt Wuerker is moved by the moment]