Read Obama's Lips: Cartoonists Deal in Bizarre Caricature
I've tried to keep my lips sealed for some weeks now, hoping the whole nasty matter would correct itself. Unfortunately, since the Inauguration, it only seems to be getting worse. So now, my own gums must flap to flag a disturbing trend:
An unnerving number of North America's political cartoonists are bizarrely obsessed with President Obama's lips.
You read that right. Barack has the mouth that soared to the top of many cartoonists' fixations. Just what in the name of Jimmy Carter caricatures is going on here?
If you don't believe me, scan dozens of current political cartoons. 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. Obama's lips have been rendered in such unnatural tints, and at such dimensions, that somewhere, even R. Crumb would blush.
And of course, this physical area of caricature -- unlike, say, Obama's ears -- comes freighted with a legacy of ugly racism and cruel, blackface-era mockery.
For political cartoonists, so much is open to caricature, especially when rendering public figures. As several Pulitzer-winning political cartoonists told Comic Riffs during the campaign, they work with the features they've been dealt -- be it Nixon's perpetual 5-o'clock shadow or LBJ's hangdog look. But here's the rub: Obama, at least artistically speaking, has fairly unremarkable lips. They're pleasant enough -- and I'm sure the first lady adores them -- but they're not exactly a feature one would hang a caricature on.
So why the disquieting examples that feature large lips, prominent lips, neon-blue (!) lips when drawing Obama? Let's examine the evidence:
At first glance, this Obama caricature didn't immediately stop me -- but then my eye wandered over to the "non-lipped" figure speaking to Obama. Looking at them side-by-side, suddenly Obama's mouth seems utterly out-of-whack in its conspicuous prominence. We're left to wonder: Why?
Again, at first the purple-lipped Obama doesn't trouble -- until I compare his face to Lincoln's thin-mouthed portrait on the wall. What?
This Jeff Stahler cartoon (above) even references the size of Obama's mouth, providing a "rationale."
Most of Stahler's presidents are drawn as relatively "lipless," but in his case, to be fair: He draws Jimmy Carter with far more prominent lips, so we could chalk this cartoon up to the matter of his personal style.
Yet there's another supremely baffling habit afoot: the tendency by some to draw Obama with electric-blue lips. Again, we ask: Why? (We've heard of comics working "blue," but this is quite different.) Independent of us, cartoonist/blogger Daryl Cagle has likewise noticed this trend; he blogs about some cartoons that feature curiously blue lips, including this caricature (above right) in a cartoon that was reportedly killed by the Toronto Star because of its "racial stereotype":
Then, for good measure, is this cartoon, in which again we get lips of an almost patriotic blue. (In this case, as opposed to History's patriotic red.) Both figures look as if they've just applied a fresh coat of Maybelline.
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."
So we open our lips today to shine a light, because: If we're seeing this not two weeks into Obama's presidency, what will the next four (eight?) years bring?
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