Sketchy Imagery

A survey of Obama in pencil, ink and paint shows artists are struggling to get the brother right.


Depending on whom you ask, the July 21 cover of The New Yorker has become cause for outrage, confusion and partisan glee. Given the flare-ups surrounding race and representation that have rocked the 2008 presidential race, it's easy to treat the satirical cover—of a be-turbaned Barack and a be-afroed Michelle Obama—and other "racialist" images of the couple as a serious problem. But when it comes to cartooning, the presumptive Democratic nominee has gotten a bum rap since day one.

During Obama's meteoric rise from state senate to the threshold of the oval office, political cartoonists have had to grapple not just with a fresh face to draw, but a new race to signify. Photographs of Obama's angular, open visage—half white, half black—have graced countless magazine covers in the last year alone, appearing at times Marvel-esque, at others proletarian. His cartoon self, however, has been wildly incoherent.

Drawing a black man—either seriously or satirically—it appears, is damned difficult.


Let's start back in December 2006, with a cartoon drawn in the months fraught with speculation just before Obama announced his candidacy.


In this image, the artist, Lisa Benson, gets the "black" nose right, and provides a fuller lip than many political cartoonists are accustomed to—but as a result, Obama and his elderly female companion might as well be Bill Cosby and Estelle Getty from The Golden Girls. Seriously. Riding behind Obama, Estelle demands: "Thrill me!"—and there is a hint that if not, her old-lady purse may come a-whacking. The good rocket "Obama 2008" is, slyly, shackled by the supermarket parking lot in which it resides, but the resemblance to Cosby is telling: like (a slimmer) Heathcliff Huxtable, Obama is meant to entertain—perhaps only for the span of a 25-cent amusement.

Here is another drawing from late 2006, in which Obama is depicted as the antidote to Hillary Clinton's nomination, then presumed to be inevitable: