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:
Apparently, another political meme from back then—that Obama was "not black enough"—made it through to the cartooning zeitgeist. Granted, the black-and-white format makes it difficult to portray a biracial subject—but here, Obama's features are distinctively white; aside from the chin (and the sharp edging on his 'do) he could be a young Nixon—or, frankly a dark-haired Dick Gephardt. The artist hasn't even bothered to daub Obama's face with the cross-hatching used on the bricks at Dem HQ.
Another period cartoon demonstrates the unformed image of Obama posed in the early days of his candidacy.
In this ad, also from 2006, the skin color is more appropriate. The ears are about right, too (they feature prominently), but the eyes are dead, and the jaw is all wrong. Here, a bit of a smile would have done more to evoke Obama than the dutiful "browning" of his skin. More interesting is the spectatorial nature of the cartoon's commentary. The badly-drawn Barack is once more a performer—a promising one, but, like an athlete or show horse, reduced to a set of statistics that somehow relate to the presidency—for better or worse.
The representations of Obama get a little better as the race heats up. In January 2007, we mark the debut of "the teeth":
Obama's signature smile, however, is accompanied by an image that looks more like a hybrid between him and Howard Dean (also mentioned). Just imagine—Dean's square jaw and bulldog neck; Obama's cheekbones and wide smile; both of their noses—it's a monster! Really. This Frankenstein Obama still boasts a bit too much forehead, and not enough expression around the eyes to qualify as even a passable likeness. But the smile is out—and boy, are those white people excited!
The smile would come to be a standout feature of any Obama caricature.
This cartoon, from the days in February 2007 when both Obama and Clinton announced their candidacies, attempts an iconic portrait of Obama the pol. And, just as Clinton's cheeks and pantsuit make her identity unambiguous, Obama's teeth once again carry the day. (The name buttons are there for the woefully uninformed.) Both contenders get their whacks in, and evidently, artist Jim Morin was still fumbling for the optimal skin tone for Obama—in this effort, the pinkish candidate approaches Bryant Gumbel levels of whiteness.
But, as in the primary, at times Obama has been tagged as "too black." Here's an instructive drawing, from October 2007, as Obama's message of change began to resonate:
Some observers have taken umbrage at this image, assuming some racial insult, and that it relegates Obama to the company of the "primitives" of Easter Island, Chile. But, more importantly, it's a pretty poor likeness. The ubiquitous "Hope" and "Progress" posters created by Obey Giant do a better job of approximating Obama's "serious face." By replacing the signature grin with a deep brow ridge and boxer's neck—neither of which reflect the "skinny guy with a funny name"—the "Messiah" jab seems to fall flat.
Of course, as the Democratic primary narrowed, the contours of the Obama caricature became clearer.
This image, printed during the run-up to the January 2008 contests in Nevada and South Carolina, makes great use of Obama's most exploitable feature—those damn ears. Clearly, Will Smith got there first, but using the infamous ears as proxy for a hit on Obama's rapt press coverage makes for a witty, if wordless joke. The glowering Cyclopes Edwards and Clinton are no match for the grinning Obama. And here, veteran conservative cartoonist Glenn McCoy gets the proportions right—between its pointed chin and close-cropped Caesar 'do, the real Obama's head does seems to bulge in the center, like a football with his teeth at the seams. The ears, of course, help him maintain his balance.
Some of the images of Obama have been completely unintelligible. This goes for the following:
Who knows what The New Yorker was thinking here, with a cartoon from June that makes Obama look like a mix between Snidely Whiplash and Aladdin—with a pinch of Fu-Manchu for good measure. Nothing more to say about that.
Foreign cartoons on Obama are perhaps more insightful:
The images, from Kenya and South Korea, respectively, depict local impressions: the half-Kenyan man made good, now the center of an extraordinary media maelstrom—beaming his signature smile despite the guns and knives breaching the press huddle. This edgy work, by the well-known satirist Gado, is emblematic of Kenya's vibrant cartooning scene. But really—who is that dude in the South Korean image? At this point, cartoonists across the globe have had at least a year to acclimate to the idea that Obama is running for President of the United States. Artist Wongsoo's Uncle Sam is a decent approximation (he's been around longer), but "Obama" looks like Uncle Fester. Which says what about race in Asia, exactly?
Ultimately, caricature—especially of a political sort—relies more than anything upon a certain familiarity. From jowly Nixon to sunny Reagan to moon-faced Bill Clinton, American presidents are skewered daily in op-ed cartoons across the country. After seven and a half years, George W. Bush has been reduced to merciless simplicity—a peanut head and two enormous ears parked behind an oversized desk is enough to signify "W" for those who care to look.
A president Obama will be no different, but—terrorist dress aside—it seems we are growing familiar with a certain look for Barack. And in fact, it has nothing to do with race or culture. This image nails it:
The cheeks, the ears, the teeth, the doe eyes—it's all there. This illustration, done by John Cox way back in 2006, should serve as a model synecdoche, should Obama actually move into the Oval Office. Of course, unlike writers, the cartoonist is paid to exaggerate—but with that chin, they already have plenty to work with.
Dayo Olopade is a reporter at The New Republic. She has spent the last year staring at Barack Obama.
Covers the White House and Washington for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.