Kevin Kallaugher Talks Political Comics and their Global Importance

by Anna Meixler

On Tuesday afternoon, undergraduates convened in WLH to hear from Kevin Kallaugher as part of the YIRA speaker series. Kallaugher is a world-renowned political cartoonist, who, as the first full-time cartoonist at The Economist, has drawn over 140 covers and published more than 7,000 cartoons, depicting every major head of state throughout his 35-year career. His cartoons, which run mainly in The Economist, The Baltimore Sun, and The New York Times have been seen by millions around the world and both comment on and incite political controversy.

Kevin Kallaugher, political cartoonist, before a tableau of his caricatures.
Kevin Kallaugher, political cartoonist, before a tableau of his caricatures. (Meixler/TYG)

“Caricature is to portraits as jazz is to music,” said Kallaugher. With his work projected on the board, Kallaugher sketched out his cartooning career. He showed the audience a childhood drawing of Abraham Lincoln. “This picture inspired the Daniel Day-Lewis film,” he joked. “Maybe you’ve heard of it.” Quips aside, Kallaugher was, from a very young age, driven to capture people and stories, to “distill them to their essences, and make them come out in line drawings.” Kallaugher recounted drawing in the Harvard Square and on the streets of London, working to capture the thousands of faces he encountered and to celebrate them, not degrade them, through caricature.

At The Economist Kallaugher found that characters could be used as powerful weapons, that by manipulating their faces and bodies he could tell entire global narratives. “You know you’re doing a good caricature when it looks back at you from the page,” he said. “You know you’re doing a great caricature when they wink at you from the page.” Kallaugher cited Ronald Reagan as one of his favorite subjects. “I thought Reagan was going to start talking to me, he seemed so real.”

Living in England as an American, Kallaugher found he was held responsible by peers for US global actions, causing his interest in politics to grow. Though he draws with great political perspective, he often features Uncle Sam as the centerpiece of his cartoons. He showed the crowd a comic that depicts the global view of America, hungry for world control, and contrasts it with a picture of the “real America,” which is merely looking for a television remote control.

While many of his drawings are pure satire, Kallaugher draws serious, sensitive cartoons as well. He drew many images in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, including one of Lady Liberty and Uncle Sam looking out on the falling Twin Towers. A week later, he drew a cartoon about terrorism, embodied by a dragon both visible and invisible: impossible to slay, but necessary to confront.

“As long as there’s news, I’ll never run out of ideas,” Kallaugher said. “The thorny Middle East has supplied me with tons of cartoons.” Kallaugher shared some of his favorites from the region: cartoons about US involvement in Iraq, the growth of Israeli settlements, and the international community’s passivity in facing Assad in Syria. By commenting on contentious political issues, Kallaugher has spurred greater contention and even editorial pushback. Having opposed the war in Iraq, Kallaugher drew a negative cover for The Economist the same week that they were running a pro-war article. That cartoon was published in the next issue.

Kallaugher recounted when, in the 90’s, he drew a cartoon in which Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was a bulldog chasing after Yasser Arafat, drawn as a cat. The cartoon harped on Sharon for bulldozing the homes of family members of alleged terrorists, which received censure from the international community and Bush administration. To show Bush’s failure to influence Sharon, he drew Bush being pulled through the air while hanging onto Sharon’s leash.  By chance, the cartoon appeared in print on the same day that a terrorist blast killed 80 civilians on a bus in Tel Aviv. The public was outraged at Kallaugher for criticizing Sharon’s anti-terrorism efforts in light of the attacks, and formed a mob at a library in Baltimore at which Kallaugher was speaking. Using his cartoons as vehicles for democratic expression, Kallaugher spoke about controversial cartoons and allowed all attendees to speak freely about his cartoon. “It was amazingly cathartic,” he said. “An excellent display of democracy. I was all over the news for the wrong reasons, but after that talk, I knew it was for the right reason.”

Recently, Kallaugher published an extensive cartoon history of the Obama administration and the events that immediately preceded it. The series spans the Clinton presidency to the 2012 elections, embodying “frozen moments of history that, when weaved together, create something like a motion picture,” Kallaugher said. In his last images of Obama, he shows how worn the president is entering his second term.

Kallaugher stressed the importance and versatility of political cartoons, especially as a far-reaching mode of expression. He recounted drawing an Economist cover while on vacation which, two days later, appeared in every country worldwide. Kallaugher reminded students that satire as a form of free expression is a privilege not afforded to most, but is, as was ruled by the Supreme Court, an essential part of political discourse. Kallaugher finished his talk by drawing political figures for the audience and coaching them in making their own cartoons. He finished his lecture as he began it, with humor. “Al Gore didn’t lose the election because of Florida,” he said, “but rather because he has the eyes of death.” Kallaugher tacked a caricature of Gore on the wall; its droopy eyes winked back at the audience.

Anna Meixler is a freshman in Ezra Stiles College. Contact her at