Making Faces

When the American caricaturist David Levine died in New York City, in December 2009, he was eulogized in a fashion befitting those whose legacies are unique and lasting. There was mention on the newscasts of the major television networks. There was a front-page obituary in the New York Times. Vanity Fair made note of Levine’s passing on its website, where people could link to the 6,000-word profile it had run a year earlier. It was generally agreed that the world had lost the greatest caricaturist of the late 20th century.

At his home in West Vancouver, Kerry Waghorn greeted the news with profound remorse, though he’d never met Levine. Never met him, yet knew him in a way few had. That night, Waghorn cracked open a bottle of wine in his studio-a converted garage on his parents’ property in North Vancouver-in memory of the man who more than anyone had shaped his life.

Waghorn was born in North Van on January 10, 1947, the son of a copper­smith father, Ray, and a homemaker mother, Morah. Kerry started scribbling pictures early on, showing undeniable talent. The first drawing he published-a cartoon, involving a sign painter-was for this magazine when he was 13.

If that was his first break, his second was meeting Roy Peterson, the legendary editorial cartoonist for the Vancouver Sun. Peterson, now 74 and retired, saw something in the precocious teenager’s modest portfolio worth encouraging. It was Peterson who introduced Waghorn to the work of Levine. “And that’s what set him off,” recalls Peterson. “Kerry became a little obsessed with Levine’s work. He had this bundle of Levine’s drawings and he’d make drawings that were almost replicas.”

David Levine’s style, best known from the New York Review of Books, was itself inspired by another. Sir John Tenniel had contributed to England’s famous Punch magazine and illustrated Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. As an artist, Tenniel was noted for his intricate crosshatches-the dense, net-like shadings that give an image tonality and depth. Waghorn spent months locked away with Levine’s work, studying every crosshatch as intently as a biologist peering through a microscope. “I finally took the Levine material away from him,” says Peterson, “and told him it was time he started to develop a style of his own.”

That style began in the ’60s at the Peak, the student newspaper at Simon Fraser University, where Waghorn was auditing political science courses. From there he went to the Georgia Straight, which ran his cartoon strip, “Apologies of Justice Martyr,” about the underground world of three hippies. But he became better known for his artful concert posters plastered all over the city. Many of his early ones-for the Beach Boys, Elton John, Deep Purple, and Fleetwood Mac-have become collectors’ items. A poster for a Led Zeppelin concert that was cancelled in Vancouver in August 1971 sold for $10,000 online.

A trip to California changed his life. In 1971 Waghorn popped into the San Francisco Chronicle to see if the paper’s cartoonist, Robert Graysmith, was in. He wasn’t, but the Sunday features editor, Stan Arnold, was, and he took Waghorn for lunch. Arnold was so impressed with Waghorn’s work that he began syndicating it through Chronicle Features. The relationship lasted 20 years.

Waghorn lived in San Francisco off and on for seven years before settling back in British Columbia in the early ’80s. He found regular work at the Vancouver Sun, drawing alongside his mentor, Peterson, and eventually inheriting the drawing table once used by the legendary Len Norris. (Norris gave Waghorn most of his original work, which now resides in boxes in a basement in North Vancouver.) Those were the salad days of editorial cartooning in North America. Bob Krieger remembers opening the Sun and seeing a Len Norris cartoon on the editorial page, a Roy Peterson on the op-ed page, and one or two Waghorn drawings illustrating opinion pieces. “It was heaven,” recalls Krieger, who went on to an illustrious 29-year career as an editorial cartoonist himself, mostly at the Province. Krieger got to know Waghorn and was struck by how willing he was to share ideas and advice on technique.

“He had a reputation for being a loner,” Krieger says. “He was phobic about airplanes, about people.” But he also recalls times when Waghorn showed friendship and compassion. And he remembers his work ethic. “His benders were legendary. With a deadline looming he’d lock himself in his studio and not come out.” He might not emerge for days, but when he did, it would be with drawings in hand. “He’s certainly a world-class talent, on a par with the likes of Levine, Bill Plympton and, of course, Roy Peterson.”

Since that trip to San Francisco three decades ago, Waghorn has appeared in more than 400 papers, from the Washington Post and London’s Sunday Times to the Chicago Tribune and Sydney Morning Herald. His portfolio-over 9,000 drawings-has grown into a scrapbook of history. (The collection is now digitized; he hopes it will end up in a national archive.) He’s drawn Ronald Reagan 36 times, George W. Bush 28, and Bill Clinton 19. His originals have been bought by everyone from Paul Newman and David Bowie to Brian Mulroney and George Lucas. His caricatures have sold for as much as $6,000, rivalling Levine himself.

Unlike Levine–who once drew President Lyndon B. Johnson pulling up his shirt to reveal a scar made to look like the outline of Vietnam–Waghorn was always more portraitist than assassin. “Caricature has its origins in high art,” he says on a recent evening in his studio. “Look at Picasso. Half of his portraiture is caricature. Honoré Daumier was an artist. Gustave Doré, an illustrator who was a brilliant artist. I was happy to leave the political statements to others and concentrate on the art of caricature, which is tough enough on its own.” Another difference lies in the eyes. A person’s essence can be found there, Waghorn believes, which is why he focuses on them in his drawings. Where Levine often made the famous look almost grotesque in order to bring them down a notch, Waghorn’s subjects, from Muhammad Ali to Jon Stewart, usually wear serious expressions, as if posing for a portrait.

“You can still see the Levine style in Kerry’s work,” says Peterson, “but it’s more muted than it once was. There are three or four other cartoonists in the U.S. working in the Levine pen-and-ink style, and they’re very good. But I really think Kerry has them beat.”

There was another reason Waghorn made his caricatures neutral. If he tied a drawing to a particular event it would probably have a short shelf life. He concentrated on producing high-quality likenesses in the middle ground between portraiture and grotesquerie that could be used over and over. Which makes sense when you consider that he gets a cut each time his work appears in print.

He still produces syndicated editorial work, but Waghorn spends more time on his paintings these days. (Levine’s first love was painting, too; his caricatures paid the bills.) Right now, he has some 40 sketches on canvas that will become oils. They’re mostly drawn from trips he and his wife, Amber, have taken around British Columbia and Washington state. “Painting is something new all over again,” Waghorn says, surveying the sketches. “I’m pretty confident about doing it, but I could flame right out, who knows? But I’m not doing it to make big sales. I don’t have any intention right now of selling them. Picasso said painting is just a diary and he was right; this stuff is a diary of some of my travels.”

Waghorn’s caricatures remain as polished as ever, but the slow demise of newspapers means that his market is collapsing around him. There are only 1,400 newspapers with an editorial page left in North America, a tiny fraction of the number 30 years ago. “It’s been hard,” he acknowledges, “because your first instinct is to blame yourself: is it something I’m doing? But then you realize it’s the business. It’s changing. In many ways, I’m lucky I got to live through the golden age of editorial cartooning.”

Live through it? He helped create it.