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Posted at 6:00 AM ET, 01/28/2009

Read Obama's Lips: Cartoonists Deal in Bizarre Caricature

By Michael Cavna

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:

(courtesy of Enlarge Comic

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?

(courtesy of Enlarge Comic

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?

(courtesy of Enlarge Comic

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":

(courtesy of Enlarge Comic

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?

By Michael Cavna  | January 28, 2009; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  The Rants  
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Next: Is Obama a Comic Flip-Flopper?


My problem with Jeff Stahler's depiction is that he made President Obama's ears too small. Really, those are the most caricaturable feature of the man - why make them practically nonexistent?

Posted by: staxowax | January 28, 2009 8:08 AM | Report abuse

Ugly, racist political cartooonists. Who needs them?

Posted by: MSchafer | January 28, 2009 9:58 AM | Report abuse

I got nothing...

Posted by: JkR- | January 28, 2009 2:55 PM | Report abuse

This column is a steaming pile of PC manure and an implicit warning to journalists: Dare not mock The One.

After cartoonists mocked W. in ways that didn't exactly match his features.

This column doesn't even prove Stahler did a thing wrong. (Except he got the ears too small.)

I am embarassed today to be a journalist, because of Cavna.

Posted by: Reagan1984 | January 29, 2009 12:29 PM | Report abuse

i am a firm believer in erasing traditional taboos associated with race, sex, sexual orientation, rape, age, etc. to do otherwise maintains groups of "others," and includes the implication that "others" are inferior or not like us. in my view, one of the best ways to deflate bigots is to render their bigotry meaningless. the truth is, president obama's lips do have a somewhat purple tint. why hide this fact. if mainstream cartoonists, with no axes to grind, caricature president obama's lips, then the malicious impact is soon lost from those who do so with evil or mean spirited intent.

Posted by: brigidquinn | January 30, 2009 12:56 PM | Report abuse

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