Life in Caricature
KAL has been drawing—and occasionally influencing—history for 35 years
Published: November 27, 2013
Then, Schmoke wrote, “Enter the cartoon.” He went on to explain how KAL’s depiction of him blowing up a strip club only to have “several tiny blocks falling down all around me” changed his mind.
That’s neither the first nor the last time that KAL—who recently published Daggers Drawn: 35 years of KAL cartoons in The Economist—would get into the mind of a politician. But it is perhaps the only time a politician has actually acknowledged having his mind changed by a cartoonist.
As KAL sees it, being a political cartoonist means “You’re a journalist, you’re a columnist, you’re a satirist, and you’re an artist,” he says. “So the artist is the last thing you do. Some people would think that’s the first thing you do, you’re all about drawing and happen to do other stuff. But, really, it’s about the other stuff.”
KAL says that when he was in college during the Watergate crisis, he knew something important was going on, but when he read the newspaper articles in The Boston Globe, he couldn’t keep track of what was happening. It was only when he saw the cartoons, which boiled the complex situation down into a visual image, that he got it. When he graduated from Harvard, he immediately moved to the U.K., where he worked as a caricaturist on the street.
“When you do caricature in the streets, there are these formulas that you fall into,” KAL says over lunch in a Station North eatery. “They’re close approximations. But the really good approximations are the ones that can just get that additional 10 percent that hones in specifically to you.”
With decades of practice, KAL is not only a skilled artist, but a master of perception. “Imagine our brain is a hard drive and our eyes are scanners and we’re evaluating faces all the time,” he says with a flutter of his hands. “When I want to draw someone, I’m now scanning in high resolution. To do a caricature is basically trying to slow down that process of recognition that your eyes have when they first see somebody. It’s to rewind it a little bit and to evaluate it a bit, how your eyes are looking at it.”
When he first started doing caricatures for The Economist, he didn’t know much about the people he was drawing. He was a young American with little knowledge of British politics. (He spent the night before his first interview with the magazine watching the news and trying to sketch characters—and got lucky when he was asked to sketch one of the obscure figures he had practiced on.) But ultimately, he found this outsider-ness freeing.
“When I entered the political cartooning fray in the U.K., I was somehow allowed to blossom there, because I wasn’t British,” he says. “The left and the right there are very different, and the cultural differences between the working class and the moneyed are very different—at least up until the Thatcher era. So if you were to criticize someone from your own team, you’d be betraying your tribe, it would be a blasphemy. We couldn’t possibly do that. But I was able to do it without feeling bad about it.”
Eventually, he was able to benefit once again from this outsider status when, after years abroad, during which time he had married an English woman and had English children, he returned to the States to work for The Baltimore Sun.
At first he didn’t think he’d come back at all and only took the interview so that he could visit his parents. After a few days in town, the paper asked KAL what he thought and he said he couldn’t make such a big decision without his wife, so they flew her over too. Finally, he decided to take the job on a two-year trial when a young art director at The Economist told him that there may be a way he could continue to work for the magazine—even from America. “You know what, there’s this new thing, you might have heard of it, called the internet,” KAL recalls the art director saying. “And maybe there’s a way you could work in Baltimore and send your cartoons to London to The Economist.” At the time, it sometimes took three hours to send a black-and-white drawing online.
One day after his first couple cartoons for The Sun, the phone rang and KAL found Governor Schaefer on the line. Schaefer asked for a cartoon that he had liked. “My practice has always been if a politician wants a cartoon, you don’t give it to them, but you ask him to make a donation to charity,” KAL explains. “When I told him that, he was furious. He hung up the phone as fast as he called. He was used to getting what he wanted. For the ensuing eight years, I was in the top 10 of public enemies. He would chastise me in public, on the radio.”
Once Schaefer was out of office and KAL began to lampoon Parris Glendening, Schaefer’s successor, the former governor “thought I was the best cartoonist in the country,” KAL says.
During his years at The Sun, KAL was offered several buyouts, but he never felt like he needed to take one until 2006, when it seemed possible he would be fired if he didn’t take one. He had always advised young cartoonists to get into animation and recommended that they study at UMBC. “So I said I’m going to follow my own advice and go and take a couple classes there.” KAL wrote an email to the Imaging Resource Center, who responded, not by allowing him to take classes, but instead by asking him to come on board and work with them. (Disclosure: This reporter’s wife is a professor at UMBC who works with the IRC.)
That was the beginning of KAL’s animation, which he does in both two- and three-dimensional forms. It has become a major new facet of his work. “It is writing and directing and sculpting and drawing,” he says of his new medium.
And then, to make things even busier, about a year and a half ago, The Sun asked KAL how they could get him back, and he began doing cartoons for the paper again.
KAL relishes his life in caricatures. But when asked if he ever hopes for bad things to happen because they might be fun to draw, he shakes his head. “There’s always bad things,” he says with a wry laugh.
Want to see more of KAL's work? A Gallery Of KAL: A Life In Caricature
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