President Obama As You’ve Never Seen Him In Steven Weissman’s Bizarre ‘Barack Hussein Obama’ [Interview]
Steven Weissman is best known for comics about weird little kids like his late-’90s Little Rascals-by-way-of-Universal-monsters comic Yikes, and collections of strips featuring the cute, chubby children composed of thin, sharp, harsh-looking lines. These include the Fantagraphics-published Mean and Don’t Call Me Stupid.
In 2009, Weissman started serializing a new weekly comic on Fantragraphics’ website. The first installment features President Obama looking like an elongated, stretched-out version of the typical Weissman kid character, walking onto a stage and announcing, “Charlie Brown is a Jew…I read it somewhere,” to a confused and angry crowd. The audience grows more perplexed when the President “meows” off-stage just before explaining that he’s trying to trick his dog.
Such was the inauspicious beginnings of Weissman’s Barack Hussein Obama, which Fantgraphics has collected and released as a handsome hardcover graphic novel just in time for the climax of the title character’s bid for re-election for president of the United States. We spoke with Weissman about the singularly weird work.
Barack Hussein Obama changes quickly and drastically as the stripes progress, but it never really gets any less weird or less surreal. After a long series of standalone four-panel gags, a modestly epic narrative begins to emerge, one in which the President has his identity stolen, is gifted with a parakeet (which he kills), becomes a parakeet himself, dies, and is reborn from within a parakeet egg and…
Look, I said it was weird, didn’t I?
Transformation is one constant of the book, and the characters gradually evolve as Weissman’s depictions of them become more solid. Some of the changes are dictated by events, like Vice President Joe Biden losing his hands or having his head crushed, or Obama seemingly becoming a tree (you’ll just have to read to find out why). Other changes seem to simply be creative choices the artist is making, like Secretary of State Hilary Clinton becoming a big, jagged-toothed, bug-eyed monster with red and blue veins visible beneath her black-and-white skin.
The types of jokes and the style of humor is as varied as the depictions of the characters, with some gags coming form the disconnect of Obama and Biden being the most powerful men in the world yet acting like ordinary people (they see bad movies in cinemas and go to normal restaurants). Some jokes have a sitcom-like quality, with Obama trading quips with family members — for example, he shoos daughters Sasha and Malia out of a meeting by saying, “If I wanna know what’s going on with the Jonas Bros, I’ll give you guys a call,” or when First Lady Michelle Obama believes her husband’s being condescending and asks him to explain himself and he replies, “I’m being the President.”
Osama bin Laden, Muammar Gaddafi, the ghost of President James A. Garfield and other characters make appearances of various degrees of length and importance, but Barack Hussein Obama is at its very best when Weissman’s focus is on Obama and his immediate circles. Or rather, when Weissman’s puts the focus on the popular perception of Obama, either pro or con. Earlier strips especially play with the President’s super-cool-guy image, like when he tries communicating with people solely with the gesture of peeping over his sunglasses. There are some pretty ballsy strips featuring a giant supernatural creature that Obama refers to as “Lord,” apparently riffing on some of his opponent’s particularly paranoid conspiracy theories that cast the President as some sort of Manchurian Candidate.
“The path has cleared, oh Lord, reconstruction of the temple will begin at Ground Zero,” the kneeling President says. The skull-faced creature scolds him, “Stop calling it ‘Ground Zero.’ I told you I hate that,” adding, “How are we supposed to fulfill prophecy if we lose all these senate seats?” Sasha and Malia face the beast later when the creature sighs, “This is why Al-Qaeda recruits boys.” They retort, “Al-Gayda” with a high-five.
The Barack Hussein Obama that ultimately emerges from the book is a pretty regular guy trapped in a comic strip, struggling to be all things to all people. Not just a good friend, a good husband and good president, but also the Messiah/Joe Cool/unicorn his most ardent supporters wanted him to be, and the ineffectual and exotic America-destroying outsider his most zealous enemies want you to fear he is.
It’s such a complex comic book that a DVD-style commentary track from the cartoonist wouldn’t be unwarranted, but in lieu of sitting on that or sitting on Weissman’s lap while he reads Barack Hussein Obama panel by panel, we’ll have to settle for the next best thing: asking him a couple of questions about it.
ComicsAlliance: Barack Hussein Obama seems like a pretty dramatic departure from your past work, or at least the work with which many readers are probably most familiar. Can you tell us a little bit about how you first started on the strip and why decided on the President as your subject matter?
Steven Weissman: I was pretty disappointed in myself when I started drawing these in late 2009. My technical approach to making comics wasn’t working well and I’d kind of beat my existing characters into the ground. My son — who was eight at the time — made the observation one night that “Charlie Brown is a Jew.” I thought it was really funny, and thought it would be even funnier if Barack Hussein Obama said it.
CA: I was also curious about the title, your choice to use Obama’s middle name in it. Generally he’s only referred to by his full name by opponents who want to emphasize his “foreign-ness” and think it’s emblematic of him as the enemy of America they perceive him to be. Yet your comic, despite being full of politicians, isn’t an overtly political one.
SW: I was interested by how Obama’s critics used his name in that way. His supporters’ sensitivity to “Hussein” is funny, too. I knew right away anyone hearing the title of the strip would get the wrong idea, which is just the kind of stupid logic that keeps me in my place.
CA: When a political figure first appears on the national stage, there’s a period wherein the nation’s cartoonists get to know him or her by drawing the person over and over until they arrive at “their” version. Could you tell us a little about how you arrived at your visual depiction of Obama? How long did it take before you arrived at what your Obama would look like?
SW: The first strip was drawn right away. There are a couple of practice drawings on the page preceding it (these are mostly drawn in sketchbooks), but he gets knocked into shape pretty quickly.
CA: How did you settle on a cast that you wanted to include?
SW: Biden worked immediately, though it took him a while to really suffer the way I wanted. I still don’t think I’ve got the hang of Michelle Obama, but Sasha and Malia strips are really fun to draw. Secretary Clinton took the longest. She started out as Lucy Van Pelt, but really takes off with her physical transformation later in the book.
CA: Read in its final book form, Barack Hussein Obama seems to have shifted from a gag-per-strip format into something longer and much, much more elaborate, becoming a sort of continuity comic. Was that something that just happened, or did you plan out the whole thing at the beginning, expecting to shift gears into a longer narrative as time went on?
SW: It just happens that way. I would love to tell 100 unrelated jokes, but I can’t help being interested in who they are and whatever happens next.
CA: What I found remarkable about the jokes in here are that very few are really political jokes of the sort that one might find in political cartoons or late night talk shows. That is, there aren’t really any “easy” or obvious jokes. Was it difficult for you to sort of screen out the popular assessments of the figures you wrote, and the jokes our pop culture tells about them, in order to do your own thing?
SW: No, I don’t like that stuff anyway.
CA: It’s also worth noting that you tend to avoid extremely topical references, something that only becomes apparent when you do actually include topical references — the “Ground Zero Mosque,” for example, or the situation in Libya — did you want to distance the strip from the news of the week while you were producing it, or did another of its production goose it in that direction?
SW: My earlier strip work was concerned with being kind of timeless and universal, but with Barack Hussein Obama I’ve consciously made an effort to be topical and specific. I wanted to use these people in this place at this time. You’re right that it often departs from reality, but I was always trying to figure out a way back.
CA: Did your assessment or understanding of the work of political cartoonists change at all during the course of working on the strip?
SW: No, I’m consistently disinterested.
CA: Did you find your understanding or perception of Obama changing at all while you worked on the strip?
SW: Maybe just a little.
CA: How important was color to your strip, and how did you make the coloring choices you did? Because it’s so sparse, when colors or new colors appear, it often seems significant.
SW: I think the more confident I became with the strip, the more I was OK with using whatever tools were around. Plenty of Stabilo point 88 pens, pencils, different screentones, the Pearlescent green and so on. Any kind of confidence is pretty significant to me.
CA: Can I ask to what degree the final story is inspired by Barack Obama as a real human being? That is, a lot of the events in the book could probably have technically existed with a different president in the Obama role. Were there unique elements about Obama as a human being or the Obama mystique or a popular perception of Obama that inspired the story? If things went differently in 2008, could you have seen yourself doing John Sidney McCain III?
SW: Barack Hussein Obama inspired such hope, fear, anger, disappointment, etc. that I really do think he’s a special case. So many people had — and still have — their own ideas about who he is. I know this book isn’t really “about” Obama, but I can’t imagine it being about anyone else.
Barack Hussein Obama is on sale now from Fantagraphics.