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Comic: Politics (and cartoons)

'So where's all the comics disparaging Obama…?'

Thoughts on the art of editorial cartooning

The other day I got a complaint from a reader, who wrote, "So where's [sic] all the comics disparaging Obama …?"

That's a good question.

Editorial cartoonists, unlike serial and gag cartoonists such as the great Charles M. Schulz, Bill Watterson and Gary Larson (as you can see, I'm a classicist), rely on current events to inspire their material.
In Larson's case, cavemen and dinosaurs and cats and dogs and explorers and cannibals were an inexhaustible source of hilarity that did not depend on a sitting president's $1 trillion-plus "foreign policy stumble" or a presidential candidate's "indiscretion" aboard a yacht called Monkey Business.

Watterson's Calvin and Hobbes played "Calvinball" while first Republicans, then Democrats controlled the Senate and frittered away taxpayer funds on political pork. 

And Schulz… Schulz wrote Peanuts from October 2, 1950 to February 13, 2000. He – and the Peanuts gang – saw it all. 

One of the first American editorial cartoonists was Benjamin Franklin, by profession a printer, but also a publisher. Franklin's most famous cartoon, published in his newspaper The Pennsylvania Gazette, depicted a snake cut into eight pieces, each representing a British American colony or region. The caption, advocating colonial union, was simply, "Join, or Die."

Fast forward to the second half of the 19th century, and German-born Thomas Nast waged war in editorial pages (most notably Harper's Weekly) against Boss Tweed and the Tammany Hall political machine, which had gained control of the New York City government and was notoriously corrupt. Nast's campaign so successfully aroused public outrage against Tammany Hall excesses that Tweed was arrested and convicted of fraud.

Since Nast, Americans have seen and appreciated Bill Mauldin, who reported on the Second World War from the front lines throughout the invasion of Sicily and Italian campaign; Herb Block, who coined the term "McCarthyism" in a cartoon warning against it; and Pat Oliphant, Jeff MacNelly, Tom Toles, Garry Trudeau, Ted Rall, Walt Handelsman and many others.

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But I digress. Where are all the comics disparaging Obama? 

Editorial cartoonists need material. Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Jeff MacNelly said, "Cartoons are really a negative art form. You never say anything nice. You're always criticizing and dumping on people."

To do so, however, you need – as is true of news stories – a "hook". Something has to have happened in order for us to make fun of it. Monica Lewinsky springs to mind, wearing that unwashed blue dress.

And I'm still working that vein: after President Clinton's appearance at the Democratic Convention, I did a comic featuring a building custodian, cleaning up all the women's panties that had been (I imagined) thrown on stage by rapturous female delegates. 

After Clinton, most editorial cartoonists thought we were entering a professional Dark Age; after all, how could George W. Bush possibly provide more comic material than Bubba?

How wrong we were. Not only was Dubya a fantastic source of material (e.g. inventing weapons of mass destruction, invading foreign countries, choking on pretzels, My Pet Goat), but also he had a vice president who shot an acquaintance in the face.

As Charles Dickens might have said, "It was the best of times (if you were an editorial cartoonist, or a writer for Saturday Night Live), it was the worst of times (if you were an Iraqi civilian or an American now dealing with the economic legacy of Bush's military adventurism)".

And we worried again in 2004, but Bush got himself re-elected! Cue more hilarity (though at times those weren’t tears of laughter rolling down our cheeks).

Bringing us to today. 

Like many Americans, I voted for Barack Obama in 2008. (Sorry, Senator McCain, but Sarah Palin killed your candidacy dead for me—though it was good for dozens of cartoons. That was your Bain Capital/two-years-of-tax-returns/47 percent momento de la verdad.)

Since then, it's been tough going, cartoon-wise. Personally, I think President Obama has done a pretty good job after having been dealt a truly awful hand, but... I wouldn't want to have dinner with him. (Whereas by all accounts, George W. Bush is a great guy to have dinner or a few beers with.) The president seems to me to be – in the vernacular – wound tighter than the girdle of the Baptist minister's wife at an all-you-can-eat pancake breakfast. 

And that translates to fewer idiotic gaffes. Which are the low-hanging fruit of editorial cartooning.

I did one a couple of months ago, with the president ordering a couple dozen donuts for takeout at a campaign stop, and Vice-President Biden lurking in the background, wishing that just once he'd be allowed to choose the flavors.

And I did one on the Obama-Biden campaign slogan "Forward" (chosen because the campaign's pollsters thought "One Mo' Time" was "too ethnic"). And a handful of cartoons about basketball. And so on.  

But mostly, President Obama has been gaffe-free (sorry, haters, but when you take comments like “you didn’t build that” out of their context, and whip yourselves into an outraged frenzy, you’re a lot funnier than the thing you’d like to see made fun of), and so my "Obama" cartoons have been on the subject of foreign relations … with the president playing a role opposite e.g. North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un, British Prime Minister David Cameron, Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, or the Dalai Lama. (As an expatriate, I spend more time than most Americans do thinking about American foreign relations and policy.)

I've done plenty of Iraq and Afghanistan comics, mostly from the perspective of the soldiers serving there, and I enjoyed a week or so of Secret Service cartoons that involved unhappily under-compensated Colombian hookers.

And then the presidential election campaign began. And I had Santorum. And Cain. And Perry. And Bachmann. And Gingrich. Romney wasn't even on cartoonists' radar at that point. But then the Republican challengers killed one another off. Santorum was easy (see Google).

And Cain, though undoubtedly one of the good guys, and one of the guys you'd like to have dinner (pizza?) with, was not one of the guys you'd like to have as your president. Bachmann? A nice reminder that our system really does give almost anyone the opportunity to scare the living crap out of the entire free world.

Romney kept his head down while his opponents self-destructed, one-by-one, as the media (and public) spotlight shone on each of them in turn. And at this point, it’s clear (or it should be clear) that if you have any skeletons in your closet at all, running for high office, they will be exposed.

Now it is Romney’s turn. Painfully (for him, and for the GOP), it has been his turn for some months.
I admit, I have gone easier during this presidential election campaign on President Obama than on Mitt Romney. But then, so has Mitt Romney ... BA-DUM-TISH!

Roberto De Vido writes cartoons and comics about politics, sports (and life) from a small fishing and farming village an hour southwest of Tokyo.

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Latest comments on this storyRead all 8 »

Sep 29, 2012, 10:04 am
-0 +0

Damn italics went wrong…sorry about that. I would fix, but I can’t edit.

Sep 29, 2012, 10:03 am
-0 +1

@Roberto De Vido

Well, if you’re “done with me”, then it sounds like I’m going to get the last word. Besides, if yours is a “last word” post, then what are you doing asking me questions?

Your piece may have been polite, but it was also rambling and non-sensical with no linear direction whatsoever. I feel dumber for having attempted reading it. However, your responses to me in the comments section have been every bit as “rude” as you accuse me of being.

My online persona? I just tell it like it is. Online or in the flesh, whenever someone constantly demonstrates self-righteousness, or is in way over their head, I call them out on it.

The next three paragraphs of the above idiotic diatribe clearly demonstrate that you rarely, if ever, read any of my posts….

-I have repeatedly stated I am politically centrist and a registered independent.
-I have repeatedly stated that the two-party system has destroyed the intended system of government in this country, and that if we revere George Washington so much then we should have taken the advice he gave in his farewell address when he told us not to devolve to this.
-I have repeatedly stated that talking heads are a waste of resources, and have chastised those who get upset by them, stating that if they would have done the right thing by not watching the talking head then they wouldn’t have been bothered by it.
-I have repeatedly, and most heavily, criticized this electorate here for voting a straight party ticket, and barely even knowing the candidates names…let alone what they stand for. No, I do not engage in identical behavior. Just because someone who was shot in the head told me to vote a Colonel Sanders look-a-like to Congress is not enough of a reason for me to do so, and I stated that how many times on these boards?

For your information, I haven’t watched Fox News in years. When I did watch, it was only to view War Stories with Oliver North. Once FN stopped showing that, I stopped watching them.

If I appear biased, I apologize for that. But, I’m really not. The reason I bash Democrats most often is because most often they’re the ones occupying political offices in this town, and most often when a politician is incompetent or corrupt or embarrassing this community around here, it is a Democrat. Republicans in this town don’t have very many similar opportunities to draw by ire simply because they’re not elected very often around here. The few we do have around here either do a pretty good job, or stay under the radar…Steve Kozachik and Braindead Bob being two notable exceptions to that, of course.

Even though our ballots are secret in this country, I have no problem telling you who I voted for, or who I am going to vote for. In this Presidential election, I am going to vote for Romney. Is he far from perfect, and far from an ideal candidate. However, Obama has shown in so many ways that he is in way over his head, and clearly not cut out to be president. If anyone needs the whys explained to them, then they’re beyond hope and wouldn’t listen to me anyway. The point is that-boiled down-I am voting for Romney because I would rather vote for the guy who is probably[i/] bad over the guy I know is bad.

De Vido, my interest in maintaining a dialogue is very minimal. I legitimately don’t understand why “The Editor” gives you part of his bandwidth. You have demonstrated a complete absence of humor, a horrible lack of talent or creativity, you lack objectivity, and based on the above comment and several others, you clearly show that you are way too thin-skinned for this line of work.

De Vido, if you insist on wasting your time futily attempting to continue doing what you’re trying to do, you would do well to learn something from the editor. Dylan and rarely agree on anything. However, I respect the man. He accepts public criticisms of his pieces with grace and dignity, and he defends his positions firmly and intelligently. You would do well to do the same. I would recommend that you do your best to emulate him, but you are so far beyond hope that my recommendation to you is just to get out of this line of work.

Sep 29, 2012, 2:38 am
-1 +1

I’m going to get the last word, Bret Linden, because after clicking “Submit”, I’m done with you.

You’re a troll.

I wrote the above piece as a thoughtful, polite response to your (typically) rude trolling comment on an earlier comic. Your responses above have been even ruder. Is this your online persona only? Or do you behave this way when you interact with people in the flesh?

You continually show yourself to be the personification of all that’s wrong with American politics: blinkered, biased and incapable of reasoned, thoughtful dialogue. You (intentionally?) missed the entire point of the above opinion piece, which is that cartooning is (for many of us) about the material, not people or parties.

Have you voted for both Democrats and Republicans? Or do you vote a straight (presumably Republican) party ticket? Do you vote on the candidates’ merits, after considering their policy platforms? Or do you, sheeplike, wait for instructions from GOP headquarters, or Fox News?

Has it escaped your notice that the smartest and best Republican politicians are giving this election a miss? That Mitt Romney is their stalking horse? Or sacrificial lamb? The last guy in the room to know it? To get clued in, read Republican thought leaders such as Karl Rove, as I do.

I’m done with you. If you’d like to engage in proper dialogue, let the editor know, and he’ll let me know. But life is too short to spend time with trolls.


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“Cartoons are really a negative art form. You never say anything nice. You’re always criticizing and dumping on people.”

— Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Jeff MacNelly


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