Sketchy Imagery

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

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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.

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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:

 

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