My Two Hours With KAL

On Tuesday, April 16th, as I was lazily scrolling through my Twitter feed, this tweet caught my eye:

Screen Shot 2013-04-20 at 8.40.13 PM

My heart leapt, I couldn’t believe it. KAL, that witty, incisive, magical artist, was descending from his throne up above and interacting with us mortals! This was an opportunity I simply couldn’t pass up. I promptly clicked the link and filled out the Google Form that The Economist had provided. In the space that asked for a single question that I wished to ask, I typed out three:

  1. Over the course of your illustrious career, which of your caricatures has been your favorite?
  2. What’s the most controversial cartoon you’ve ever drawn?
  3. As the world has shifted through various paradigms, how have your caricatures evolved?

And I clicked Submit.

What Happened Next…

Some of you may not know who KAL is, and I feel obligated to introduce you to one of the world’s finest visual satirists. Kevin Kallaugher is a political and editorial cartoonist who has been with The Economist for almost 35 years. His work has also been featured in many other publications, including The Baltimore Sun, The New York Times, The New Yorker and Le Monde. I have always known him by his pseudonym KAL, and I first encountered his work around 8 or 9 years ago, when my dad showed me one of his cartoons in the edition of The Economist that he was reading. I didn’t understand it at the time, but it’s the first thing I turn to with every issue I read. It never occurred to me to find out who KAL was before the Hangout, because I always imagined KAL to be a team of cartoonists who pumped out illustrations every week and since The Economist doesn’t name its journalists and artists, it would be pointless.

A couple of hours after I submitted my questions, I received an email from the Social Media Team at The Economist:

Email

Now, in full disclosure, I didn’t expect this to happen. I thought that my question would be thrown into a long pile of questions that an interviewer would pick at random to ask KAL (yeah, I didn’t realize that these kinds of Hangouts were more than just interviews). But this was something else, I was going to speak to KAL himself, face to face. I was pretty excited. The Social Media Team wanted to chat to run me through what I had to do on the day (two days later, on April 18th). Thanks to the time difference, I would have to chat with them at 1 in the morning.

I start the Hangout with the Team, and I see a brunette on the other side of the chat with a headset in a bright office in New York, but she doesn’t see me, she doesn’t know that the call has started. So I sit there, waiting for her to acknowledge me, while she goes about her work, occasionally looking at the computer screen. I’m afraid to say something at this point, because then she would know that I’ve been spying on her for a bit, and that isn’t a great first impression.

It felt a bit like this…

I close the link and rejoin the Hangout. This time it works and she says, “Hi there, I thought you already joined the Hangout and were secretly watching me work.”

Ha, ha, thought I. Close call. I didn’t say anything in response to that fatuous idea. Her name was Michelle and she ran me through what I had to do on the big day and guided me through setting up what millions of people would see on my screen apart from my face. And that was it.

Preparing for the Hangout

I couldn’t twiddle my thumbs for a couple of days until Thursday, April 18th, 8:00 pm. I had to do some reading up on KAL, get some more varied and interesting questions. The ones that I had submitted were fairly generic and bland. The first thing I saw was KAL’s TEDx talk at Warwick in 2011:

KAL did another TED talk at Jacksonhole, but it’s a more concise version of the above talk (in fact, that talk is actually a rehash of a video he did for The Economist). I then read an interview KAL did with a Warwick student website called The Student Journals. The interview had an Indian kid asking KAL most of the questions I had prepared, so I ditched them. After more “research”, these are the questions I ended up with:

  • If you’ve seen the above video, you’ll know that KAL mentions that Johns Hopkins University scientists wanted to study his brain as he drew his caricatures. I wanted to ask him what they revealed.
  • What other artistic styles does he dabble in (painting, sculpture etc), and how does that influence his cartooning?
  • What does he feel about current online visual satire like memes?
  • Hypothetically, would he program a robot to continue drawing his sketches and congruent images after he passes on, or would he like people to look at his past body of work as moments in time?
  • In January, KAL started a Kickstarter campaign for his latest project Daggers Drawn. His initial funding goal was $20,000, and he received five times that amount. I wanted to ask him what his reaction was to that flood of support, and did he expect that to happen.

The Big Night

On the night of the Hangout, I double checked with Michelle whether I would be able to ask a different question instead of the one of the earlier ones I had submitted. She told me to send in my other questions so that she could give them to KAL, and told me that KAL would probably not be able to answer all of them, which I expected. I also made sure that no one disturbed me during my international broadcast: I switched off my phone, closed all my Internet windows, locked my door, and instructed my sister to make sure Aura, my dog, wouldn’t bark her head off.

Then I joined the Hangout Group Prep where there were five of us privileged fans: a creative consultant, two cartoonists, a management exec, and me. We adjusted our video, audio and even clothes (in my case, because I forgot that you can’t wear your night clothes in front of millions of people).

And then KAL himself joined the Hangout. I had a huge grin on my face. We introduced ourselves to him and informed him about the questions we were going to ask. I had selected the artistic styles question simply because I was interested to know how other art influenced his own, an esoteric question that pertained specifically to him. But really, did the question matter more than me asking it?

Five minutes before we were scheduled to go On Air, the community editor of The Economist, Mark Johnson, joined us and ran through our names. And before I knew it, we were Live, streaming to millions of people around the world (or so I hoped). Here it is:

Now you might notice that during the Hangout, I occasionally shift around and even move uncomfortably off screen at one point, changing the lighting in my room. At the start of the Hangout, I noticed the battery on my laptop read 25%, and Murphy’s Law had prevailed yet again. The lamp that I had connected to the socket had to be removed to charge my laptop, and everyone saw me in, literally, a different light.

Ben Franklin

Backstage Extras

My time with KAL didn’t end with the hour long Hangout; he spent another half an hour with us Off Air to answer some of our other questions, and we spoke about many things, including Daggers Drawn, how to deal with being a political cartoonist while looking at so much chaos, the dichotomy between a cartoonist’s work and his audience, and even an anecdote involving KAL’s time with Dik Browne (creator of Hagar The Horrible). I wish we had more time so that he could’ve answered the remaining questions I had, but I also held back on them because I didn’t think they were serious enough to ask.

The End

And then suddenly, it had to end. I had to say goodbye to a man who makes the world a better place by looking at the cruelties people inflict on others a bit differently. In his words, he’s like a person at a funeral who makes a joke and laughs, and so gets people to smile. Thank you KAL, those two hours were inspiring.

KAL’s website is here. You can check out some of his Economist art here.

Attributions: 

  1. untitled by Dave & Bry, CC-BY-NC-SA-2.0
  2. Benjamin Franklin by Joseph-Siffred Duplessis.jpg , PD-US

  3. Kevin Kallaugher.jpg by Nick50000, CC-BY-SA-3.0

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