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

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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.

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 is a communications consultant, writer, cartoonist and jack of many trades. The former chief of Tucson Sentinel’s East Asia Bureau, he now lives in California (make of that what you will).

“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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