ARTIST WITH A PEN: Chicagoan Ken Krimstein on his life as a cartoonist, and on his new book about Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt, the subject of an exhibit at Spertus

By George Castle, Special to Chicago Jewish News

Ken Krimstein

At a corner table in a coffee shop, with a drip…drip…drip of condensation providing some character to the act, Ken Krimstein set about doodling Donald Trump.

The hair is drawn in first. That’s a given for any cartoonist, same as Richard Nixon’s ski nose, receding hairline, shadowy eyes and above all his 5 o’clock shadow were staples for a generation of sketchers/satirists at mid-20th century.

“I’ll do a profile of Trump,” Krimstein said. The nose and chin are relatively small.  Head-on cartoonists’ images of Trump don’t capture the man as much as profiles with the blond hair flying in three directions off his noggin.

But the five-minute demonstration gave a good peek into the technique of Krimstein, a Chicago cartoonist, writer, educator, and creative director, whose cartoons have been published in the New Yorker, Barron’s, Harvard Business Review, The National Lampoon, The Wall Street Journal, The Chicago Tribune, and three of S. Gross’s cartoon anthologies.

Krimstein approaches near-renaissance man versatility with all his talents.  Cartooning, though, appears to be his signature, his first among equals.  A long-form version of his cartoons has just been published in “The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt.” The book is a graphic biography of the German Jewish philosopher, considered one of the greatest philosophers of the last century.

Visitors to the Ground Level Arts Lab at Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership will be able to step into ‘The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt.’ Krimstein’s original illustrations, sketches, and artwork for the book will be on view, showing the process involved in the book’s creation.

Through Krimstein’s work, visitors will be able to eavesdrop on the freewheeling conversations of intellectual life in pre-World War II Europe, populated with the artists, writers, and thinkers Arendt encountered — including Marc Chagall, Marlene Dietrich, Walter Benjamin, Albert Einstein, and Sigmund Freud. They will be able to explore Krimstein’s portrayal of the complicated and courageous choices Arendt made during some of history’s darkest days.

Arendt is known as a political theorist. Her powerful landmark 1951 publication, ‘The Origins of Totalitarianism,’ advocates for openness in political life. Newly relevant, it resonates with readers again today.

Krimstein spent two-and-a-half years reading Arendt’s work. As he dug deeper, everything about her drew him in. He said, “I don’t want to sound like some kind of crazy fan boy, but literally, the breadth of her thinking blew me away. I’ve been so influenced by what she has to say about art, poetry, and people, beyond totalitarianism. Her character really appealed to me because she was very strong, questioning, and bold, and I tried to show that. She was so engaged with the world and took it so seriously that she sometimes made mistakes, but she never did anything in half measures.”

Krimstein likewise puts all his creativity on the line in every drawing. He is doing what he loved as a grade schooler.

“I was always the kid who could draw in class,” he said. “Writing and drawing are different. They’re almost different sides of my head. My dad (Jordy Krimstein) went to the Art Institute and was a big ad guy here. We always had pens and paper at home. When people ask me how do you become a cartoonist, I say get pens and paper, and just draw.

“I saw my dad draw and paint, so I just drew. I liked to draw. When I used to draw, I’d make sound effects with it. If it was a cowboys-and-Indians thing, I’d have horses. If it was military, it’d be explosions.”

With the Arendt book, he says, “I made a huge effort to do the writing first. I roughed out in pencil how the pages would look. But when I got to the final – the inking – I found that the drawings came like I knew what they were supposed to look like. I was rehearsing them in my mind all the time I was writing.

“I’m always making the setting or scene, and also the feeling. Particularly this graphic novel, each scene had to have an emotional hook at the end. I had to feel what it was going to be like. I had the words, and then the pictures filled it in with the emotion. It’s a kind of back-and-forth.

“You have to work it. It’s the right brain, then you have to edit and have to push back and forth. The hardest thing is to not fall in love with your first idea. See what’s there, and twist it a bit to take it up to another level. And then know when to stop. It’s not like math. I was never that good at math anyway.”

Krimstein cited another performance master in another art – Fred Astaire – for the obligations of a cartoonist. The dancing king would craft his routine, then cut it by 10 percent. Less can be more.

“I often think about it for days and weeks,” he said. “I’ll put a sketch down to sort of remember it. I have dozens of them and they are almost there. I’ll go re-visit it. Sometimes I can go back to something that did not sell a year or so ago, I can see it fresh and see what’s wrong with it. The distance can help.

“On the other hand, when you’re working, you might hit something and it’s great. Unfortunately, there is an intermediary called an editor.”

The philosophy of Hannah Arendt from  “The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt.”

The stand-alone cartoon has been an art form since the 18th century as gifted drawers became political and social commentators. The picture is worth a thousand words, and the good cartoon with a clever caption can skewer the pompous and the powerful.

On the most momentous occasion a cartoon with all imagery and no caption can hit the reader between the eyes and last with him a lifetime. Such was the case when the Sun-Times’ Bill Mauldin returned from lunch on Friday, Nov. 22, 1963. He heard President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. The Pulitzer Prize-winning Mauldin quietly sat down at his drawing board. The end result was an image of a weeping Lincoln, his head in his hands, atop his statue at the Lincoln Memorial.  Run across the entire back page of the Nov. 23 Sun-Times, Mauldin’s masterpiece may have been the most impactful cartoon in history.

“There’s something in the immediacy of a cartoon that survives until eternity, “ Krimstein said.

Krimstein found himself dealing with a tragedy a few years ago.  “After the Charlie Hedbo massacre, the New Yorker put out a call to all its cartoonists,” he said. “I created one quickly.  And I thought it was pretty good.

“I had the end of a pen with an eye and a mouth and I had a tear dripping from there. I do think sometimes the most powerful cartoons are the ones with no words.  I process things in cartoons, and that’s how I think.”

Krimstein’s favorite cartoonists are Charles Addams, father of the Addams Family, and fellow Jew S. Gross, whom he rates the funniest. Gross, 85, has produced more than 30,000 cartoons. For comic strips, Krimstein was a Doonesbury fan.

A cartoon from Krimstein’s first book, ‘Kvetch as Kvetch Can.’

made his debut as a visually-centric author in 2010 with his first book,’ Kvetch as Kvetch Can,’ a compilation of Jewish cartoons.

“When I got the contract for ‘Kvetch,’ it was based on a cartoon I had done and sold to the National Lampoon. It was two pigs, a man and a woman, sitting in chairs in a real-estate office talking to a realtor. They said they prefer to live in a Jewish neighborhood if possible.

“(The publishers) liked that cartoon a lot and asked if I could do 100 more on that theme. So then I had to dig into everything I thought or I knew about my upbringing.  I used to joke with a guy when we worked at an ad agency in New York: everything is ‘gag-able.’ You could make a joke on anything.”

Long-embedded Jewish themes provide grist for his cartoons.

“It has something to do with suffering, worry and being a smart-aleck,” Krimstein said. “Jewish cartoons may live in the space between the biblical injunction, ‘Thou shalt not make any graven images’ and ‘Why not?’  There is a way of poking fun at yourself that’s not mean-spirited, that people can relate to.  It’s storytelling.

“I often say a cartoon is a one-frame play. It’s an entire movie that has to happen in one frame. And sometimes there’s no dialogue.”

Krimstein’s artistic and writing abilities were challenged by the Arendt book. He described the prospect of doing her story as daunting. Arendt already was a published German Jewish philosopher when she was briefly taken into custody by the Gestapo in 1933. She escaped to France, then had to flee again when the Nazis invaded in 1940.  Eventually she made it to New York, re-established herself with German Jewish immigrants and found her permanent voice under the First Amendment.

A cartoon from Krimstein’s first book, ‘Kvetch as Kvetch Can.’

“I’m also a teacher and was not a philosophy major,” Krimstein said. “I call myself the average NPR listener. And I’m a cartoonist, so I know a little bit about everything. Upon returning to Chicago from New York, I was looking for a subject. An editor said you could do anything you want. I was intrigued about philosophy at the University of Chicago.

“I knew a little about Hannah Arendt. I opened a biography on her. From the moment I started reading it, I felt like I fell into an Alice in Wonderland rabbit hole of everything that I was interested in. The culture of Weimar Germany and the culture of all those filmmakers like Billy Wilder who came out of there. The scientists, too.  Just that whole world was interesting and she was right in the middle of it. Then she went to France, so she was in with all those surrealists.

“It wasn’t without struggle. I was mostly taken with the personality first. How did the person’s life lead to the work? What an interesting life. Not a hero. She was a flawed person, which made it all the more interesting to me.”

Arendt won no friends among worldwide Jewry by criticizing everyone, including the Israeli prosecution, during the war crimes trial of Adolf Eichmann, which was videotaped for worldwide audiences.

“The way I sort of say it in the book is that it was the greatest case of ‘too soon’ in human history.  Her criticism was too soon after the war (16 years). It was incendiary, to say the least. She had a lot of anger about it, and it came out in an ironic tone (in her writings) that a lot of people had a really hard time getting past. Her feelings and analysis of how not thinking clearly can lead to big problems was accurate. She did the best she could do.

“She said (Eichmann) was guilty, he deserved to die. But the trial was about more than his guilt or innocence.  She took a philosophical view.  It’s a very important part of her biography.”

Krimstein is researching another Holocaust-tinged literary work. He traveled to Vilnius, capital of Lithuania, last summer researching recently-discovered inter-war diaries of Jewish children. The diaries had been hidden by a heroic non-Jewish librarian.

“They end in 1939,” Krimstein said. “I did a lot of work at the library there. I had a guide who was also a historian. He had read everything. I asked him ‘Why?’  He said there is no answer.”

Says Krimstein, “When I’m faced with really difficult things, I draw them out to calm myself down.”

‘The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt’ exhibit is free and open to the public Sundays 10 a.m. – 5 p.m., Mondays–Wednesdays 9 a.m.– 5 p.m., Thursdays 9 a.m.– 6 p.m., and Fridays 9 a.m.–3 p.m. Spertus Institute is located at 610 S. Michigan Avenue, Chicago. A free opening reception with author Ken Krimstein will be held from 5:30 to 8 p.m. on Thursday, March 14. At 6:30 p.m., Krimstein will be interviewed by Alexandra Salomon, editor of WBEZ’s Curious City, followed by a book signing. Copies of ‘The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt’ will be for sale. Reservations at

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