“Kal is coming. No one is safe.”
That’s the slogan on signs all over Baltimore greeting Kevin Kallaugher when he started his job as editorial cartoonist at the Sun.
And it pretty much works for Fresno, too, when he arrives this week to speak Wednesday at San Joaquin Valley Town Hall. He does his research. No matter what your politics, chances are you’ll feel the sting of the pen from the acerbic satiric artist known as “Kal.”
He might make you mad, and you’re not alone. But he’s all good with that after 40 years in the business. The internet, especially social media, has made it easy for people to fire off their snap judgments about his work. He has more than 12,000 Twitter followers. He has a worldwide platform as editorial cartoonist for the Baltimore Sun and the global magazine The Economist.
“You have to get a thick skin,” he says. “Even before social media, 85 percent of the feedback to my work was negative. That’s natural because more people who are angry take the time to write.”
Editorial cartooning by its nature is a negative art form. People don’t pay Kal to point out what’s right with the world. But there are also lots of upsides to his digital audience. He has never had such a large audience for his work. And he gets an opportunity to get lots of “likes.” He digs it.
His points are simple to understand. The complex colors of the world are distilled into black lines on white paper. There are few words, sometimes no words. Just one powerful image.
“People look at my cartoon and take a full five seconds to react,” he says, and the people who are squealing often aren’t quiet or happy about it. Especially when he draws blood. Imagine if he is embarrassing you, then distributes copies by the millions to set you up for ridicule.
To make the risk all the more interesting, his targets are heads of state, the rich, brutal dictators, the titans of the planet in politics, business, finance, religion, education, science. Some of these people have armies. Yet Kal sets their mistakes up equally for our edification and amusement for us to point to, criticize and laugh at with our morning lattes.
His proximity to power in Baltimore and London earns him the attention of Washington, D.C., all of Europe and the capitals of every country in the world.
His job, he says, is to “puncture the pomposity of the powerful.”
He’s thankful to work in democracies, although he does see the climate for free speech changing. He is careful.
“In these times, the fuses are shorter and the skins are thinner.” One illustration can have deadly consequences, as it has for some colleagues.
“You only have to look back to a few years ago when five cartoonists were murdered in Paris,” he says. “We are on the front lines of freedom from oppression.”
A graduate of Harvard, who has drawn satirical cartoons since he was a student, Kal eagerly embraces the wide, digital world.
“I want to go where the eyeballs are,” he says. “Whether it is still or animation, animated gifs. If you can supply things, people will come.”
His career goes far beyond his studio. He travels the globe as a public speaker, often acting as a cultural ambassador for America’s freedom of expression.
Residents of other countries often are awestruck at the freedom he has to criticize the powerful politicians in our country. It’s one of the best selling points that impresses people about America. His freedom gives a positive view of our country, a counterpoint to political infighting and violent crime news.
“When they see me criticizing Trump, Bush, Clinton or Obama, they want to know why my hands aren’t broken or why I am not in jail. They see that we have this privilege in America of speaking truth to power.”
Despite the risks of tweaking the titans, Kal encourages young artists, particularly women, to pursue their satirical passions, even if it does not become a career. However, as a living, he sees so much opportunity.
“This is a golden era of satire,” he says. “There are places where everyone can be a satirist. Take a photo and add a funny caption. There is music, publishing, animation, gifs. Have a go, because there is no school. All satirists learn from the ones who came before.
“No one is born at the top of their game. I have been doing it 40 years and I have bumps and bruises.”
Kal’s personal favorite cartoonist practicing now is Turkish, Musa Kart. “ He has all the ingredients for what makes a success. He can be serious or funny. He would fit in any American newspaper. But unfortunately, he lives in Turkey and he is facing 29 years in jail for his cartoons.
“He is now awaiting a verdict on trumped-up charges because there is a clampdown on journalists in Turkey for criticizing the head of state.
“He is my hero.”
What most surprises Kal about what he is seeing in America right now?
“I never thought I would see a couple hundred neo-Nazis marching emboldened on American streets,” he says, “and have our leadership turn the other way.”
Kevin Kallaugher in Fresno
What: San Joaquin Valley Town Hall lecture series
When: Wednesday, 10:30 a.m.
Where: William Saroyan Theatre in Fresno, 730 M. St.,
Tickets: $40 and can be purchased online at valleytownhall.com or at the Saroyan theatre box office. Season passes for all San Joaquin Valley Town Hall lectures are $140.