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Powers of Pen

Political Cartoonist Kevin "KAL" Kallaugher Pushes His 19th Century Medium Into the 21st

Tom Chalkley

By John Barry | Posted 6/28/2006

Mightier Than the Sword: The Satirical Pen of KAL

Through Sept. 3 at the Walters Art Museum

For someone who’s just lost his day job, editorial cartoonist Kevin Kallaugher—better known simply as KAL—isn’t doing at all badly. Snappily dressed in a cherry-red vest, the avuncular ex-Sun cartoonist is cheerfully shepherding reporters and admirers through a preview of Mightier Than the Sword: The Satirical Pen of KAL, his lifetime retrospective at the Walters Art Museum. Youthful at 51, white-haired, and with a thick mustache, he flourishes in the spotlight. He also has the sparkle in his eyes of someone who might be sizing you up—or at least deciding how big your ears are—while shaking your hand. And after his 17 years as a prize-winning cartoonist at The Sun, he’s got a lot of admirers.

Of course, he’s done all this before. Kallaugher’s last exhibition at the Walters was in 1995, and he’s had exhibits in London, New York, and Washington. This one is a little different, though. Not only is this perhaps the largest museum exhibit ever devoted to a single cartoonist in the United States, but it’s also the unveiling of his latest efforts at digitally animated cartoons. The Walters’ co-curator of this exhibition, William Noel, mentions parenthetically that the museum typically showcases dead artists. “But I’m a living artist,” Kallaugher deadpans. “So you can take full advantage of me.”

So why, after 17 years, did The Sun stop taking advantage of this internationally recognized, award-winning editorial cartoonist? The question hangs over the exhibit, but Kallaugher cheerfully lets it twist in the wind, as he guides the audience through the carefully mapped-out collection of his work. The arranged exhibit of more than 200 cartoons begins with his first Sun cartoon, published on Dec. 7, 1988, and ends with his farewell cartoon, printed Jan. 15, 2006.

That last cartoon is titled “Why do you think these politicians are cheering?” Kallaugher himself is shown walking off the stage carrying his easel and a handful of pens. Wildly cheering his departure is a pantheon of politicians whom he has tormented over the last two decades: the bulbous-nosed Bill Clinton, squinty-eyed Kurt Schmoke, perma-bad hair day Robert Ehrlich, the potato-headed William Donald Schaefer, and beady-eyed George W. Bush, among many others. They’re all dressed in cheerleader skirts and waving pompoms.

In part, they have Dennis FitzSimons, CEO of the Tribune Co. to thank. Chicago-based Tribune, which owns 26 television stations and 11 newspapers, including The Sun, has cut about 1,500 positions—about 6.5 percent of its work force—in an attempt to reduce operating costs as part of its media consolidation strategy. Much of the burden falls on papers like The Sun, where the Tribune has been offering buyouts to many longtime staffers since buying the paper in 2000. Kallaugher received his buyout offer last November. A brief look around at the other Tribune publications convinced him that his offer was not just a formality. The paper’s respected cartoonist was being shown the door.

“On the same day that I got the buyout offer, the Tribune Co. fired [Los Angeles Times] editorial cartoonist [Michael Ramirez], and the Chicago Tribune had not rehired a cartoonist since the death of Jeff MacNelly back in 2000,” Kallaugher says a few days after the opening over the phone. “So I knew that it wasn’t the type of organization that really appreciates the value that a cartoonist brings to a paper.”

But Kallaugher didn’t bring 400 people to the Walters just to fume at his former employers. If anything, he appears determined to leave the ailing newspaper industry to face its own problems. Print media has plenty of them in the internet age. That explains the two-part nature of the exhibit. The first half shows what Kallaugher has brought to The Sun, The Economist magazine, and other publications over the last 28 years. It takes viewers from his first cartoon, scribbled in first grade, through his first hesitant characterizations of Clinton. There’s a gallery devoted to his treatment of Sept. 11, Maryland politics, presidential elections, terrorism, and Iraq. But the exhibition’s second half makes the essential point that in the 21st century editorial cartoonists are going to have to find new ways to get their message across. And Kallaugher thinks he may have found the answer.

The Sun, meanwhile, has a large, empty space to fill on its editorial page. Since letting Kallaugher go, The Sun has used editorial cartoonists from other newspapers, including the Financial Times and the Palm Beach Post. But Kallaugher insists that there are no hard feelings between him and his old newspaper. For 17 years, The Sun let him work his magic on a loose leash, and he’s grateful for that.

“I really have no bones to pick with The Sun,” he says. The cartoonist recognizes that the paper’s management is “being placed in an impossible position. They’re expected to come out with larger than ordinary profits, and to do that they have to cut the product. That diminishes the product, and it diminishes the opportunity to get more buyers in the future. It’s shortsighted and short-term.”

Some of the Tribune Co.’s major investors agree with him there. The company’s stock has fallen 38 percent in the past two years. And in a Reuters article that appeared the day after this interview, the Chandler family—the second-largest shareholders in the Tribune Co.—expressed doubts about the Tribune’s media strategy, calling it a “failure.”

“It’s really a bean-cutting mentality,” Kallaugher says. “I don’t think it’s political or anything. I may be wrong. But they weren’t saving a lot of money by letting me go. I shared cartoonist duties for years with Mike Lane, and when he took a buyout in 2004 they didn’t give me a raise.”

That doesn’t mean he’s thumbing through want ads. Since 1978, Kallaugher has also been an editorial cartoonist for The Economist, where he got his first job shortly after graduating from Harvard in 1977. He still contributes to the weekly British financial magazine, and he’s frequently published in more than 100 papers worldwide. Now he is finishing up a year as artist in residence at University of Maryland, Baltimore County, where he’s been working on his interactive technology cartoon figures along with the UMBC Imaging Research Center.

But he is going to miss skewering local politicians. Kallaugher says he arrived in Baltimore almost by chance. After working for almost a decade at The Economist in London, at a 1986 cocktail party during a visit to the U.S., he heard that a position was opening at The Sun. He jumped at this “once in a decade” opportunity. In a profession where crazy politicians are a valuable asset, Baltimore has been a cartooner’s paradise for Kallaugher.

“When I arrived in 1989, I realized that there was this crazy governor [William Donald Schaefer] who actually looked like a cartoon figure to begin with,” Kallaugher says. “The first photo I saw of him was in this silly 1920s bathing suit with a straw hat and a rubber ducky.”

A complex relationship was born. As a tribute to the what the cartoonist calls the “looniest governor you could ever imagine,” Kallaugher immortalized Schaefer—complete with rubber ducky—in a large clay statue that sits in the Walters exhibit. Schaefer wasn’t at its unveiling, but he has, over the years, made his feelings about Kallaugher known. The exhibit proudly quotes Schaefer on the subject of his tormentor: “He is just a morbid, nasty man. He’s a zero. I don’t know what else I can say about him. I don’t want to see him. I don’t like him, if you get the idea.”

Kallaugher is looking forward to putting his brain and pen to work on the next governor, whoever that may be. “It’s the best political year I’ve seen in 17 years, from a material standpoint,” he says. “We’ve got the governor’s race, [and] this craziness with BGE. We’ve got the Senate race, and all the people lining up to fill in behind all the people who are moving on.”

But as newspapers move toward a smaller group of nationally syndicated editorial cartoonists, the O’Malleys and the Ehrlichs of state and local politics get let off the hook. Kallaugher considers that a major loss. “Without local editorial cartoonists, you lose a powerful local voice,” he says. “There’s not much in the way of satire now on the community level. Cartoonists are the beacons, they see through the spin doctors. They have the ability to entertain and inflict at the same time. You have a medium that’s accessible to children as well as to professors at the university. It’s something people are going to turn to. It helps define a paper.”

Kallaugher admits that the problems cartoonists face now go far beyond the Tribune Co. In the internet age, single-panel cartoons don’t grab people’s attention like they used to. “As I see it, editorial cartoonists in newspapers are soon going to seem like an artifact,” he says. “It takes a day to come up with a cartoon. But now you can’t be quick enough to comment, because by the time you finish it, it’s gone.”

He thinks he has an answer to that problem, and that is what his exhibit’s opening is really about. After four months in residence at UMBC with a small cadre of computer techies, Kallaugher is offering his version of cartoon art for the 21st century: the unveiling of an epic, interactive, digitally animated cartoon of the U.S. president. After leading journalists through the galleries, he invites the mass of several hundred guests into the Walters auditorium for the unveiling of his digital cartoon concept.

He strides up to the podium. The audience, which has been heavily plied with bottles of white wine—with labels designed by Kallaugher—falls silent. The opening message is solemn. “The world of editorial cartoonists is in a state of flux,” Kallaugher announces. “The future of newspapers has a question mark over it. As a cartoonist myself, I’ve realized that I’ve got to get to where the eyeballs are. People respond now to the immediacy of art. So I wondered: Can I create a cartoon figure that talks back to you?

Ên the lower left-hand portion of the stage, a human Bush impersonator comes up to the podium, complete with the Texas/Kennebunkport swagger and the self-satisfied smirk. This Bush pauses auspiciously.

“I’d like to start by beginning—We live in dangerous times,” impersonator Bush says, nervously grabbing his podium, waiting for the next cue. “Dangerous times. More and more of our imports are coming from overseas.”

Then, a huge digital image of Bush appears on a screen behind impersonator Bush. It’s an enormous 3D vision of the commander in chief’s head. Kallaugher, who has suddenly disappeared behind a curtain set up stage right, busily manipulates the puppet from his laptop, controlling the president’s facial ticks with joysticks. At first glance, it’s a virtual marionette, a digitally crafted, sophisticated version of the cardboard figure that Jay Leno sometimes converses with on The Tonight Show. On the screen, the gigantic head of George Bush offers his tight-lipped smile, and then looks down from the screen at the impersonator before him. He doesn’t much like sharing the stage. Then he begins to talk. It’s a Frankenstein moment.

“So where is Walter?” he asks. “I thought this was supposed to be the Walters.”

The press conference continues from there. Members of the audience ask for the gigantic head’s opinion on WMDs, Poppy’s friendship with Bill Clinton, and other topics of the day. Bush stumbles through the answers in his high style, assisted by Kallaugher, who controls the animation’s facial quirks and delivers answers through a microphone. The 20-minute presentation is, by any standard, a success. Kallaugher and his team of UMBC engineers take a bow. Then everyone returns to the party, which has swelled to about 400 of Kallaugher’s friends and fans.

A few days later Kallaugher admits that the project is in its infancy, but at the moment he has several possible plans for it. He could sell it to television shows as a more sophisticated version of the current puppet figures of Bush. Or he might find a spot on the internet for it, where web sites could offer impromptu news conferences or show the president commenting on items in the media cycle.

“I don’t know exactly where this is going to go,” he says. “But I feel if you make a caricature come alive, with quality, there’ll be a home for it. It should be exciting.”

He remains guardedly optimistic about its prospects, and at the moment he feels confident that with a little work, editorial cartoonists can find a place in the online world. Right now, though, he’s still got a deadline to beat, and a cartoon to finish by sundown. The Sun may not have a place for Kallaugher, but across the Atlantic, The Economist is waiting impatiently for his next weekly insert.

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