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Where the Eyeballs Are

January-February 2007

“These are trying times for political cartoonists,” observes Kevin P. Kallaugher ’77. “I’m trying something new.” He’s taking his satire digital.

Kallaugher, known to friends and victims alike by his signature “KAL,” lost his job as political cartoonist of the Baltimore Sun a year ago, after 17 years of skewering politicians and others for that audience. The Sun is one of 11 papers owned by the Chicago-based Tribune Co., which cut 6.5 percent of its work force to save money. KAL’s last cartoon for the Sun showed a host of local and national pols, dressed as cheerleaders, rejoicing as the artist departed, carrying his sketchpad and pens.

He remains a weekly contributor to the London-based newsmagazine the Economist, his longest-running gig. The issue of November 11-17 had KAL’s work on the cover—a drawing of the head of a beady-eyed George W. Bush emerging from the top of star-spangled cowboy boots, under the words “The incredible shrinking presidency.”

Courtesy of Kevin P. Kallaugher
George W. Bush, M.B.A. ’75, drawn for this magazine by Kevin P. Kallaugher ’77

Kallaugher went to England for a bicycle tour after college, took a job as a point guard on a semipro basketball team, coached that sport at Sussex University, worked as a pound-an-hour maintenance man, and performed as a street-artist puppeteer until two weeks before his work permit expired, when the Economist hired him in 1978 as the first staff cartoonist in its then 135-year history.

His work has appeared in scores of other newspapers and magazines worldwide. He is now a master among professional editorial cartoonists, a band that numbers, he estimates, only about a hundred in the United States, their ranks crumbling as newspapers lose readers. Tough times. “I’ve realized,” he says, “that I have to get to where the eyeballs are”—to television and the Internet. At the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore last summer, he demonstrated how he proposes to do that.

KAL covers his styrofoam bust of George W. Bush with clay. A technician at the Imaging Research Center of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, scans the bust to bring it into the digital world. KAL learns how to make the puppet in the computer move by manipulating joysticks and foot pedals. A rich variety of expressions is possible as the president answers questions.
Images courtesy of Kevin P. Kallaugher

KAL has made about 5,000 editorial cartoons for print media. The Walters mounted a retrospective of more than 200 of them in Mightier than the Sword: The Satirical Pen of KAL, perhaps the largest exhibition in the United States ever devoted to a single cartoonist. (Coincidentally, he published his fifth collection of drawings, KAL Draws Criticism, available from www.kaltoons.com, which shows him in complete control of the old-fashioned scratchy line.) In a museum auditorium, Kallaugher unveiled his hope for new eyeballs, his “Digital Dubya.”

DD is a three-dimensional bust of Bush, sculpted by KAL from styrofoam and clay and based on his editorial drawings. He is an artist-in-residence at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, where the staff of its Imaging Research Center first scanned the bust so that an image of it could live in a computer and then animated the scan so that the bust had moving parts. KAL (or another puppeteer) can manipulate two joysticks and foot pedals to turn Dubya’s head, make his lips curl as he speaks from the side of his mouth, make his ears honk, and wiggle his left or right eyebrow. Kallaugher does a remarkably good impersonation as he puts words into the president’s mouth. George W. Bush has been brought to life. He can speak in real time and answer questions: an interactive political cartoon.

“I have been introducing my new partner to interested players on television, cable, and the Internet,” says KAL. “It is my hope that we will be on TV and computer screens in the near future.”

~Christopher Reed