A site of satirical musings, commentary and/or rhetorical criticism of the world at large.

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Saturday, August 08, 2009

The Barack Obama Brand in the Funny Papers

Recently, Garry Trudeau gave his Doonesbury fans a very brief peek at how he will portray President Barack Obama. In the early years of the strip (1970–1980), Trudeau used the image of the White House to portray not only the activities inside the executive branch, but also the man holding the office at the time. The White House icon – as I referred to it in my master’s thesis - was often accompanied by other details in the drawing which elaborated on the story line. For example, a stone wall piled high in front of the White House was a reference to the besieged Nixon administration during the Watergate Scandal. Trudeau has not relied on the White House icon in more recent years, as he has resorted to using other symbols to denote the particular President.

Trudeau broke with this tradition during the Reagan Administration. He didn’t actually draw Ronald Reagan as a person, but more in the persona of the early computer generated television character Max Headroom. (Boy, there’s a name we haven’t seen in awhile.) In more recent years, Trudeau used an asterisk, then later, added a battered Roman centurion helmet for George W. Bush. The asterisk itself was a comment on Bush winning the electoral vote, but not the popular vote in 2000. The helmet could be interpreted with several meanings from Bush’s war on terror to the wrecked international reputation he brought down on America in fighting his war.

By using a symbol Trudeau can seemingly preserve the dignity of the individual - who regardless of their performance in office is now considered a famous American just by virtue of being elected — while also enabling him to make a satirical comment with a decidedly liberal bent. Now it is time to choose the symbol which will stand in for President Obama in the Doonesbury strip. The symbols being considered - if we are to believe Trudeau’s teasing panel a few weeks ago - include a halo, a basketball, and a stove pipe hat.

The halo has a long tradition as a symbol in religious art. The traditional head gear of angels or any humans with an angelic disposition is an interesting choice for Obama. It could refer to his recognition in the liberal leaning media as a near perfect individual who can do no wrong. The halo is a good choice if we are talking about saints, but we’re not talking about saints here. Obama is a politician, and history has proven over and over that the most successful politicians are not necessarily the most virtuous human beings, try as they might to be good. This is not a reflection on the individual, but it says a lot about the nature of politics itself. It can be nasty and dirty. The halo could work, but Obama’s performance in the next four (or eight) years could heighten the irony on its use as a symbol.

The basketball has several positive merits. It is a direct reference to Obama’s personal sport of choice — before his administration began, it was reported that he started every day with a round of shooting hoops. The ball itself is also emblematic of material success, particularly within the African-American community. Indeed, basketball has long been dominated by African-Americans, many of whom have become the greatest athletes in the sport and positive role models to young African-Americans. The basketball is both an important personal and cultural symbol for Barack Obama’s portrayal in Doonesbury.

There is also a downside to using the basketball. Even though professional sports like basketball are highly competitive - and in this way an apt metaphor for working through conflicts in everyday life - many readers might find the use of a sports object as a too trivial reference for a President of the United States. The ball could also invite unwelcome comparisons to the traditional stereotypes that have dogged African-Americans in American pop culture. Example: Jimmy the Greek’s comments a few years ago explaining why blacks were more successful than whites in sports. Enough said! In this respect, the basketball symbol could be condemned along with other symbols like watermelon and fried chicken in the pre-civil rights era.

The stove pipe hat has long been associated with the 16th President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln. Several comparisons were made between Obama and Lincoln during the course of Obama’s campaign last year. Both men were first elected to Congress from Illinois, and both have built reputations on their oratorical skills. In many ways, Obama’s ascension to the presidency was first paved by actions of the Great Emancipator.

Personally, I don’t care for the stove pipe hat metaphor. My main objection is that Lincoln was denied the opportunity to collect a government pension. I don’t want to see Obama share Lincoln’s fate. I would very much like to see Obama complete one (or two) terms and become a wise political sage who will continue to guide American politics for years to come. We shall see and hope for the best, but history can be a nasty and dirty business.

In any case, Trudeau has an interesting dilemma in the months ahead as he decides how to define Barack Obama in the funny papers.


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