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Posted at 2:15 PM ET, 02/19/2009

'Stimulus Chimp': Political Cartooning's Larger Powderkeg

By Michael Cavna

For political cartoonists, it was the powderkeg that was bound to blow.

Sooner or later, an editorial cartoon published during the Obama administration was going to be viewed by many as incontrovertibly racist. As both cartoonist and critic, I'm half-surprised it took this long.

Forget the chimp for a moment. The true social context for this cartoon is the 800-pound gorilla.

Yesterday, the New York Post lit the fuse by running Sean Delonas's "stimulus chimp" cartoon. When the dust finally clears, I hope one thing can come of it: A real conversation can be had about how President Obama -- as both public figure and African American public figure -- is depicted and drawn, criticized and caricatured, by artists the world over. Because if this woefully ill-conceived, seemingly hateful powderkeg of a cartoon can do one thing, perhaps it can inadvertently light the way.

Several weeks ago, I wrote about how bizarre some cartoon depictions on Obama had become. Most professional political cartoonists were delivering sincere efforts to deftly "capture" Obama's caricature. But an unnerving handful of cartoonists were drawing Obama with conspicuously large lips -- and oddly, some were coloring his lips an electric blue. This interpretation wasn't about oversensitivity; it was a matter of flat-out head-scratching artistic curiosity.

Were these cartoonists intentionally invoking ugly Jim Crow-era stereotypes? Ultimately, it didn't matter. This wasn't about intent anymore; it was one of effect. As cartoonist Darrin Bell, creator of the oft-political strip "Candorville," tells Comic Riffs about the Delonas cartoon: "Monkey metaphors aren't new to editorial cartoons, but context is everything and if you're a cartoonist, you're not doing your job if you don't recognize that. Leave the monkeys out of your arsenal when you're commenting on a black person's administration if you don't want the inevitable perception that you're a bigot to obscure what you were really trying to say." [Editor's update: The coding in this paragraph has been fixed.]

The central question for cartoonists was, and is: After centuries of caricaturing white presidents, are the rules of caricature and lampoon changing with Obama in office? My blogpost generated many e-mails and comments and links (such as this, from Gawker), but few wanted to take up the bigger issue: Will the larger rules of cartoon engagement change even a little with Obama? And equally important: Should they?

If the answers to those questions seem all-too simple to you, then perhaps you are naive as to the real-world undercurrents now in cartooning.

As Al Sharpton, New York Gov. David Paterson, UNITY: Journalists of Color and other public officials and groups denounce the cartoon -- and as Delonas and his editor insist that no Obama reference was intended -- can we finally, genuinely, have this deeper, more probing conversation? (Akin to what Obama asked of us during his "Jeremiah Wright speech" -- specifically, let's aim to elevate the national discourse.)

Some would say: Don't even bet on a genuine conversation about the political subject at hand. Ted Rall -- cartoonist, syndicate executive and president of
the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists -- says: "No one is going to look at this [Delonas] cartoon and have a conversation about the topic at hand -- the stimulus package -- or even to a lesser degree, the dangerous chimp. So in the regard, the cartoonist failed."

Great political cartoons are virile -- not just viral. Rall characterizes the New York Post cartoon as "toxic." (Rall also notes the Delonas/Sharpton backstory: The cartoonist has a history of depicting Sharpton in a particularly nasty light.)

"The Danish Muhammad cartoons and this cartoon ... they don't add anything to the conversation," he says. "Really great editorial cartoons are willing to stir up controversy and stimulate discussion."

Countless factors go into the national conversation about political cartoons that depict Obama. They include not only the ugly history of racist caricatures in this country, but also the primal power of simple cartoons and, tangentially, historic criticism over the lack of diversity among the ranks of staff editorial cartoonists. (And yes, Bush was commonly caricatured as looking like a baboon, which is yet another reason why this conversation needs to be had -- and not in simplistic, knee-jerk rhetoric.)

During last year's election season, both Garry Trudeau ("Doonesbury") and Aaron McGruder ("The Boondocks") told me in interviews that a cartoon itself cannot necessarily sway an opinion, but that enough cartoons can at least shine a light on an issue -- crystallize a truth that's already present. (And amid the split of nearly 8,000 poll-votes and comments to this blog -- as to whether the cartoon is "racist" -- certain truths emerge.)

In this case, perhaps such an ill-conceived political cartoon can -- through absolutely no design of its own -- illuminate the 800-pound truth in the room: Namely, that given the power and primacy and sometimes checkered history of cartoons, this is one art form that is not yet post-racial.

SIDENOTE: It will be interesting to see whether this controversy affects the sales of the book "Scuttle's Big Wish," a Midas-like children's story co-written and illustrated by -- yes -- one Sean Delonas.

The morale of his children's story? Be careful what you wish for.

By Michael Cavna  | February 19, 2009; 2:15 PM ET
Categories:  The Riffs  
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Next: Fave Five: The 'Best' Post-Chimp Political Cartoons


The darker question, of course, is does it advocate the assassination of our President over a policy dispute.

Posted by: SarahBB | February 19, 2009 2:59 PM | Report abuse

The cartoon was crafted to get the biggest PR bang it could get for the paper. In that regard, the cartoonist achieved the newspaper's goal. Why are we promoting them.

Posted by: MSchafer | February 19, 2009 3:04 PM | Report abuse

Scuttles Big Wish is good - very nice painted illustrations.

Posted by: Mrhode | February 19, 2009 3:26 PM | Report abuse

Here is what is needed to decide...

Are the prhases:

"Its so easy a monkey an do it"


" throwing a monkeywrench"

racist comments????

Posted by: djp98374 | February 19, 2009 3:50 PM | Report abuse

I don't think we can have any meaningful "conversation" about racism in this country until everyone agrees on whether racism is born of intent or whether it is born of perception.

I believe that an absolute intent to be racist has to be at the foundation of any language, art, etc. before a charge of racism should be taken seriously. The racism of the past was so ugly because the intent to be racist was there. If the intent isn't there, we're not dealing with racism. We're dealing with oversensitivity or the overt nursing of an old grudge. Does anyone really believe those are the kinds of feelings that should be validated?

We can't begin to consider cartoons, or indeed, any form of communication to be post-racial until people stop looking for insult and harm where none was meant. The idea of post-racialism is one in which race doesn't matter, not one in which every perceived sleight is elevated to the level of credible affront.

Posted by: nlynnc | February 19, 2009 3:55 PM | Report abuse

Regarding SarahBB's question: "does (the cartoon) advocate the assassination of our President over a policy dispute?" Everyone knows that explaining the punch line ruins the joke -- even a bad joke -- but under the circumstances, it's necessary.

So: The conceit here is that the chimpanzee that police shot and killed after it went bananas and attacked the two women in Connecticut on Monday was the author of the stimulus bill. In other words, the cartoonist is trying to say that the stimulus bill was so bad, only a crazed primate could have written it.

The other possible interpretation, since Congress, not the president writes laws, is that the chimp is Nancy Pelosi.

One doesn't have to get the joke. But it is a joke.

A question to Mr. Cavna: Did you happen to ask Ted Rall whether he thought his cartoons lampooning former Secretary of State Condolezza Rice as George W. Bush's "house nigga" (Rall's words) added "anything to the conversation"? Or does his dudgeon meter peak only when the other side's ox is being gored? Just curious. I don't expect you to ask, nor would I expect to hear a good answer from Rall even if you had.

Good piece otherwise. Very thought provoking. Thanks.

Posted by: bboychuk | February 19, 2009 4:06 PM | Report abuse

How many racists, or worse, would ever admit that was their intent (concious or unconcious) was racist unless perhaps they were being interviewed by a fellow clansman?

No, butter doesn't melt in their mouths.

There are certain phrases, like any monkey could do this, that I might use in some contexts and not use in others, like to describe the work a black co-worker is being asked to use. This argument that there is something wrong with you if you see this as racists is being waved around as an excuse to be inflammatory in racist terms. It falls right in with Sarah Palin's "real Americans" dig and accusations that Obama wasn't born in this country. Of course not, he's "different." Different from who?

I heard Bush called a chimp plenty of times. I may have uttered the words myself. In that context, it was not an attack on his race but rather his intellect. I never depicted him in a pool of blood and I know of no decent person who ever did either.

Posted by: SarahBB | February 19, 2009 4:21 PM | Report abuse

This is an interesting situation because so many artists have taken to portraying President Bush as a monkey over the last few years. The most obvious simian Bush drawer is Anne Telanes who is syndicated in this very paper.

In order to have a principled opinion on this subject it seems to me that in the post racial america we are clearly heading towards that either drawing Presidents as monkeys is allowed or not allowed, regardless of said Presidents race.

Since we did not hear people like Al Sharpton complaining about the way Bush was portrayed one can only conclude that he has changed his mind about whether or not portraying Presidents as monkeys is ok. He used to be for it, but now he thinks its degrading.

Well it is a time of change after all, lol............

Posted by: DCDave11 | February 19, 2009 5:10 PM | Report abuse

Remember how hysterically violent muslims got about cartoons of their Mohammed?

Same thing happens with the loony-left liberals and cartoons of their Messiah.

Lighten-up, loonies.

Posted by: LoonyLeft | February 19, 2009 5:12 PM | Report abuse

I would not concede for one second that Sean Delonas's dead chimp represents President Obama. So drawing an analogy to depictions of Bush as a chimp are interesting, but ultimately inapt.

With all due respect, DCDave, I think you are straying to far afield. The question isn't, or shouldn't be, whether it's right to depict a president as a monkey. (Abe Lincoln, anyone?) The answer is obvious: Bush was white and Obama is black and no further discussion will be required, thank you.

No, the question should be, where was the righteous indignation when cartoonists such as Ted Rall portrayed Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell as house slaves and other plainly and repugnantly racist stereotypes? As far as I know, the outrage was confined to the conservative blogosphere. But I am happy to be corrected if I'm wrong.

Posted by: bboychuk | February 19, 2009 6:05 PM | Report abuse

I don't see this to be racist. It is about politics! If it were about racism, then the same people who are claiming this comic to be racist would also be claiming the Halloween decoration of John McCain coming out of a chimney with devil horns racist. Racial slur there is "white man is the devil". If you want the country to stand up against racism, then you need to stand up against ALL racism. Evolution claims ALL humans are monkeys, and if you believe in evolution then you are just a big ape!

Posted by: whowhathuh | February 19, 2009 7:08 PM | Report abuse

I do not ever recall any responsible U.S. newspaper publishing a cartoon comedic or otherwise alluding to a POTUS or any other American politician being shot dead in response to legislation authored by that politician.

Then again, perhaps the New York Post is no longer to be considered as responsible let alone as a U.S. newspaper but rather as a joke of a newspaper instead.

Posted by: csfoster2000 | February 19, 2009 8:37 PM | Report abuse

I'm not sure the editors are actually racist. They certainly are stupid.

Posted by: PAreader | February 19, 2009 9:32 PM | Report abuse

Coming in late but tend to agree with those whose experience encompasses monkeys used to satirize the inane, such as in the CareerBuilder commercial or the business expression "Getting the monkey off my back." My understanding is that the stimulus package was not written by Obama but was, in fact, initiated during the Bush administration--Bush, one recalls, was often specifically depicted with monkey-like features by cartoonists. I saw no resemblance at all to Obama in the cartoon, nor even to cartoons of him, straight or satire. In fact, it looks much more like "Captain Huggyface" from "WordGirl". Given that the Bush administration initiated the stimulus package idea (?) and given the Bush-as-monkey cartoon caricatures, the logical conclusion seemingly would be Bush, if any one person. Who started the connection with Obama and racism? One almost wonders, perhaps, if by someone who is trying to stir up a commotion or perhaps needs a platform or visibility...late night wondering....

Posted by: zerodefect01 | February 19, 2009 10:58 PM | Report abuse

The cartoon explicitly refers to congress: "They'll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill."

Only congress, not the White House, writes bills. Even Al Sharpton and his fellow protestors should know that.

Additionally, the cartoonist made zero zip nada effort to caricature Obama in the chimp's features: no big ears, narrow face, spindly neck, etc.

Yesterday, Attorney General Holder called Americans "cowards" when it comes to discussing race.

Holder is wrong. The problem isn't moral cowardice, it is intellectual dishonesty, as exemplified by Holder himself and the clowns protesting this cartoon.

Posted by: WylieD | February 20, 2009 12:44 AM | Report abuse

I find it particularly hilarious for The WashPost to quote Ted Rall, who should know something about "toxic" cartoons. As bboychuk notes above, did calling Condi Rice a "house nigga" in one of his panels "add anything to the conversation"? (

I also beg to differ with Rall's contention that the Danish Muhammad cartoons also didn't add anything to the conversation. To the contrary, it was the whole conversation. And that was the point. If you think rioting, issuing death threats and carrying out some of them in response to the publishing of a cartoon is not an important event worthy of conversation — you shouldn't be drawing political cartoons for a living.

Posted by: jlakely | February 20, 2009 12:45 AM | Report abuse

And thanks so much for sharing the insights of deep thinking cartoonists:

Ted Rall: "No one is going to look at this [Delonas] cartoon and have a conversation about the topic at hand -- the stimulus package -- or even to a lesser degree, the dangerous chimp. So in the regard, the cartoonist failed."

If Ted Rall believes that his own cartoons inspire people to discuss issues, he needs stronger medication.

You also have to love Darrin Bell's: "Leave the monkeys out of your arsenal when you're commenting on a black administration...."

A "black administration"? How racist is that characterization?

Posted by: WylieD | February 20, 2009 1:00 AM | Report abuse

Apparently many people feel it is OK to depict the President as simian-like if he is white, because that is insulting to only him personally, but it is not OK to do so if he is black, since that is insulting to his entire race. Sorry, but I don't think the "President as monkey" metaphor should be abandoned from the cartoonists' "arsenal" (as Darrin Bell advocates) because we have a black President. All Presidents should be insulted equally.

Barack Obama, when deliberating over what dog to obtain for his daughters, alluded to his own bi-racial parentage by joking about whether to get a "mutt like me". Does his using that analogy himself give cartoonists implicit permission to portray the stimulus bill as having been written by a rabid dog, but not by a crazed chimpanzee?

Posted by: seismic-2 | February 20, 2009 8:36 AM | Report abuse

Michael, I watched the President's press conference after reading your "blue lips" commentary the first time. I was surprised to see that his lips did look a bit blue on my TV. Maybe those cartoonists weren't racist after all. (And I'm not either. I'm looking forward to voting for him again next time.)

Posted by: salemkern3 | February 20, 2009 9:23 AM | Report abuse

>> salemkern3:

I swapped e-mails with one of the "blue lippers," Canadian cartoonist Partick Corrigan, after my commentary. He had joked that everyone in the Great White North has blue lips; he told me he actually had the Shepard Fairey poster art on the brain.

I don't pretend or presume how the Neon-Blue-Lip Take began--curiously among some Canadian cartoonists (maybe they followed each other's work closely and it took hold -- especially after the Toronto Star killed Corrigan's *Huge* Blue Lip Toon). I do know as a cartoonist myself that one of the tools of the trade is extreme caricature--if anything, one could accuse some of these cartoonists of being colorBLIND: they'll ruthlessly mock ANYone's appearance, regardless of public "sensitivities.". All public figures are fair game, going back centuries--even the great Abe was depicted as a baboon by his detractors.

Personally, I just ask that my caricatures be rooted in some core truth. In person, Obama's lips didn't look Electric Blue to me. (As you can see from my caricatures on this blog, I favor purplish tones.) But I reserve the right to stand totally, completely corrected.

And I should note: Such things can sound utterly insignificant to some layman ears. Among illustrators, though, it reflects the art-wonky place we must live to do our jobs well and good, if not great.

To twist Lincoln's own words: I appeal openly to the better artists of our nature.


Posted by: cavnam | February 20, 2009 10:26 AM | Report abuse

WylieD wrote: "You also have to love Darrin Bell's: "Leave the monkeys out of your arsenal when you're commenting on a black administration...."

A "black administration"? How racist is that characterization?"


It's not "racist" at all -- it's a misquote. What I wrote to Mike was "Leave the monkeys out of your arsenal when you're commenting on a black PERSON's administration...." Not a "black administration."


seismic-2 wrote: "Sorry, but I don't think the "President as monkey" metaphor should be abandoned from the cartoonists' "arsenal" (as Darrin Bell advocates) because we have a black President. All Presidents should be insulted equally."


As a courtesy, I'd appreciate it if people wouldn't leave off half the quote when responding to it. The omitted half of that sentence renders seismic-2's response irrelevant to the point I was making. Here's the full quote I gave to Mike with the part you omitted in caps: "Leave the monkeys out of your arsenal when you're commenting on a black person's administration IF YOU DON'T WANT THE INEVITABLE PERCEPTION THAT YOU'RE A BIGOT TO OBSCURE WHAT YOU WERE TRYING TO SAY."

I drew editorial cartoons for a decade before launching Candorville. Editorial cartoonists don't have the luxury of 700-1000 words to explain our opinions, so we use visual metaphors as shorthand. It's our job to choose metaphors that will enhance, rather than obfuscate, what we're trying to say. It's our job to anticipate how the public will interpret what we draw. Sean Delonas failed to do that and the Post failed to realize it. It's as simple as that.

Posted by: candorville | February 20, 2009 10:43 AM | Report abuse

"NY Post," just to clarify.

Posted by: candorville | February 20, 2009 10:46 AM | Report abuse

Update: Darrin Bell's emailed text was coded for publication. The word "person's" is now visible. Thanks.


Posted by: cavnam | February 20, 2009 12:38 PM | Report abuse

"I never depicted him in a pool of blood and I know of no decent person who ever did either."

"I do not ever recall any responsible U.S. newspaper publishing a cartoon comedic or otherwise alluding to a POTUS or any other American politician being shot dead in response to legislation authored by that politician."

Slightly off-topic, but there was a faux-documentary that circulated in the UK and some made the film-festival circuit in 2006 called "The Assassination Of President Bush." It graphically depicted his being shot to death. The Post wrote it up here:

Posted by: tomtildrum | February 20, 2009 6:03 PM | Report abuse

I don't see what everyone is worked up about. To anyone who has perused the stimulus bill, speculation that it might have been written by a chimp, if not a whole gaggle of them, seems perfectly reasonable.

Please, someone get Al Sharpton a job! The man obviously has too much free time on his hands.

Posted by: icouce | February 20, 2009 9:12 PM | Report abuse

Since everyone knows President Obama didn't author this bill, the chimp in the cartoon is obviously not meant to depict him, but rather meant to depict the chimps in the House who did.

Maybe we should have a law that says that anyone criticizing political satire, has to dislodge their head from inside their behind first.

Posted by: icouce | February 20, 2009 9:19 PM | Report abuse

I"m reminded of the debate about the N-word. There was some show awhile ago, I don't recall exactly, where one white character pals around with some black characters who use the N-word cascually (as in What's up, N-?). At some point, the white character uses the same phrase and it just doesn't work.

Bush as a monkey? Clear slam at intellect. Not terribly fair, but it's a meme that took hold. Obama as a monkey? There are so many historical associations with monkeys used as a slur on black people that you can't avoid it. Whatever message you tried to send is overwhelmed by context.

Personally, I think the "stimulus monkey" was poor taste and not funny, more shock art. But not deliberately or covertly racist. Nice to see Darrin Bell commenting. I'm a fan of the strip, though occasionally


Posted by: FairlingtonBlade | February 21, 2009 10:55 AM | Report abuse

The cartoon FAILS.
The Post should apologize very loudly and fire those who allowed this to be published.

Posted by: rcruvy | February 21, 2009 2:50 PM | Report abuse

I am amazed and saddened to see more people were upset about Al Sharpton's protest than Sean Delonas's cartoon which at best were done in poor taste.

Posted by: hi-fi | February 22, 2009 12:51 AM | Report abuse

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