A cartoonist’s sharp pen makes people laugh … and ponder

Cartoon of a donkey and an elephant facing each other holding signs of pointing human fingers (© Kevin Kallaugher)
Mascots of the two major U.S. parties, the donkey (Democrats) and the elephant (Republicans), engaging in the blame game. "There's a lot less talking and listening today and a lot more finger-pointing," says Kal. (© Kevin Kallaugher)

For political cartoonists, election time is their birthday and every other holiday rolled into one. It’s when their pens are sharpest and their audience most attuned to both their jokes and the serious points underlying them.

Kevin Kallaugher, whose pen name is Kal, has been plying his craft for four decades for The Economist and the Baltimore Sun and, through syndication, scores of other publications. His work has been exhibited in galleries and collected in books.

Some cartoons are timeless, like one from the 1990s decrying voter apathy. He still gets requests for reprints, and the cartoon has turned up in civics textbooks.

Cartoon of people saying votes don't make a difference and scales weighing nonvoters against voters (© Kevin Kallaugher)
(© Kevin Kallaugher)

He’s drawn 8,000-plus cartoons, many with Easter Island–size heads that mock the high and mighty. “Caricature is a very powerful tool at the hands of a satirist, a worthy weapon for puncturing the pomposity of the powerful,” he says. “Most politicians don’t like seeing their faces in a cartoon.”

Kallaugher weighs in on global issues — such as the war in Syria and the related refugee crisis — but also for the Baltimore newspaper on local ones, from City Hall shenanigans to sports. Safeguarding the environment is a frequent topic, including a cartoon forecasting desert conditions at a future Winter Olympics.

Cartoon of skiing man jumping into a truck filled with snow as commentary on global warming (© Kevin Kallaugher)
(© Kevin Kallaugher)

Getting in the middle of a conversation

He’s reveled in the contentious U.S. campaign for the White House, which has stretched over 18 months and will reach a climax on November 8.

With everyone focused on the election, “you can do less explaining and go right to the point. You feel you’re in the middle of a very important conversation about democracy and the direction of your country,” he said.

Political cartoons often come with heavy doses of irony, like one done at the height of the global downturn when some asked whether market-based capitalism was flawed.

Cartoon of people buying merchandise reading "Capitalism is dead" and a man on a phone saying, "I think I've found a growth market" (© Kevin Kallaugher)
(© Kevin Kallaugher)

The instinct “to market things is almost part of our DNA,” he says.

Feedback from social media

Like cartoonists of old, Kallaugher still draws most cartoons with pen and ink, sometimes “scratching away with 100-year-old pen nibs.” (He does finishing work on a computer.) The difference between a pen or brush and a computer, he says, is like music produced by a synthesizer versus a real violin.

But the 61-year-old, Harvard-educated cartoonist relishes the way the internet has expanded his audience, once limited to those with a newspaper or magazine in hand. He used to hear mostly from those angered by sharp-edged drawings, but with Facebook and social media, “you actually get people that ‘like’ you along with the trolls.”

“Cartoons are an amazing exercise in freedom of expression and freedom of speech. They’re a place where the normal citizen can take on the powerful and maybe take them down a notch,” Kallaugher says.