Cartoonists Treading Lightly When Drawing Obama

Jesse Washington, AP, February 20, 2009

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Editorial cartoonists are bending over backwards a lot these days, as they try to satirize the nation’s first black president. {snip}

The problem is, cartoonists make their living by making fun of people–especially presidents–and exaggerating their features and foibles.

The best political cartoons are “like an X-ray machine,” said Amelia Rauser, an art history professor at Franklin & Marshall College and author of “Caricature Unmasked,” which examines the art form’s historical role in political discourse.

“You have to deform someone facially in order to make a larger point about their character,” Rauser said. “But that deformity reveals their inner truth and makes them look more like themselves.”

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Drawings of President Barack Obama, however, must contend with America’s history of degrading racial imagery, from ape comparisons to enormous “Sambo” lips. (Caricatures of the president’s admittedly large ears have so far escaped scrutiny.)

Michael Cavna, who blogs about comics for The Washington Post, wrote that “an unnerving number of North America’s political cartoonists are bizarrely obsessed with President Obama’s lips.” He followed with a detailed analysis of several cartoons where Obama’s lips were large, some shade of blue, or both.

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Scott Statis, editorial cartoonist for The Birmingham (Ala.) News, said he received several complaints this week that his Obama drawings look “simian.” {snip}

“Being the typical American editorial cartoonist–doughy, white, middle-aged–I’m more than willing to accept that I don’t know what may or may not be offensive,” he said. “But editorial cartoons are supposed to be offensive, and provocative. We’re entering new waters here. What can you use or not use?”

“All my characters look simian,” he said. “I don’t make Obama look nearly as simian as our former governor Mike James, who I DID draw as a monkey, on more than one occasion. And he’s a white guy. . . . I’m sorry, but when it comes to African-Americans, you just don’t draw monkeys.”

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Perhaps race relations would improve, Lester [Mike Lester of the Rome News Tribune in Georgia] said, if black people lightened up a bit: “They’re not too good (at being) made fun of. We can all take a joke.”

Lester said Rall [Ted Rall, president of the American Association of Editorial Cartoonists] told him before the election that an Obama presidency would be good for conservative cartoonists, but “it’s been just the opposite. I find myself having to temper my comments. I’m tired of it. (Obama) wants my money, he wants me to pay for my neighbor’s foreclosed house that he can’t afford.

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“Being an editorial cartoonist is a high-wire act,” Rall said. “If you’re any good, you’re taking lots of chances all the time. When you take chances, you fall and you screw up.”

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