Cartooning Obama

corrigankilledobama.gifMost of the talk in newspaper circles these days is about how to stay employed at dying companies. But in the cubicles occupied by editorial cartoonists, there’s a different conversation going on: How to draw Barack Obama without appearing to be racist.

In his blog post, Read Obama’s Lips, Washington Post cartoonist and critic Michael Cavna, says “For every Steve Benson or Mike Luckovich who is zeroing in on a swell, spot-on Obama, there seems to be a cartoonist who invokes ‘caricature’ in the most grotesque sense of the word.

So, do we (and the Toronto Star) read too much into this? Are too many cartoonists not subtly skilled enough to draw a deft caricature of our first African American president? I seriously doubt that’s it. When you truly study art, you delve deeply into all shapes and sizes and learn to “see” — and learn to see skin not as one single hue, but often as more than a dozen hues (subtle reds, flecks of green, etc.). Of course, perhaps a few cartoonists aren’t looking deeply enough at Obama.

Yet even the most highly trained comic artists are quite fallible. As Comic Riffs contributor David Betancourt says of one comic giant: “Drawing large lips on an African American is a huge debate — I couldn’t read any of Will Eisner’s original ‘Spirit’ strips because I couldn’t stand the site of the way he drew [grotesquely caricatured] Ebony Ivory.”

Nate Kreuter, who writes the Viz blog, says many cartoonists are emphasizing Obama’s height and skinniness, and avoiding racial overtones, but not everybody.

Daryl Cagle, a cartoonist for, figures the issue to get stickier over time:

The cartoon version of Obama will continue to evolve quickly. If we ever actually see him smoking a cigarette, he will always be smoking in cartoons. Obama may turn different colors, and he’ll grow or shrink with his performance. Obama’s ears will keep growing no matter what he does. As Obama’s honeymoon passes and the caricatures become more severe, I expect the complaints about racism in the cartoons will also grow more severe.

He probably won’t have to wait long. In an Associated Press story on the subject today, Mike Lester of the Rome News in Georgia didn’t shrink from a poke in the eye.

Lester…said that when he was growing up, “if we didn’t make fun of you, we didn’t like you.”

Perhaps race relations would improve, Lester said, if black people lightened up a bit: “They’re not too good (at being) made fun of. We can all take a joke.

  • Elizabeth T

    caveat: no, I’m not black

    If you want offensive caricature of race, go read something from the 1930s.

    Tintin, a (white) cartoon journalist with his (equally white) cute cartoon dog, Snowy, have adventures around the globe. I’d enjoyed them when I was a kid. On a trip to Germany a few years ago, I bought a couple, including the first story, which I’d never read. (Tintin in the Congo)

    I was offended, not at the story, but at the pictures. The story is in (obviously) the Congo. The “africans” are almost an over-the-top racist: little monkey-looking creatures with huge lips, wearing either white jackets (the servants on the ship) or “primitive” “jungle” clothing.

    I gave it to Michigan State University’s special collections. One of which is specifically racial bigotry in the US. They might as well have it, since I didn’t want it, and don’t want my kids reading it.

    (that said, I would recommend the other, later ones … although I haven’t read the one set in the US with American Indians … I suppose it might be equally offensive)

    Lester in Georgia needs to grow up. “if we didn’t pick on you, we didn’t like you”?? Yeah, but they picked on kids they didn’t like, too. And it hurt like hell, since one never really knew why you were being ridiculed. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be laughing too hard if I was caricatured for some aspect of my appearance over which I have no control, perhaps especially my race.