The Obamas Return For Another Surreal Adventure In Steven Weissman’s ‘Looking For America’s Dog’
Is America lost, or has America merely lost its way? That’s a question that a little more than half of the Americans who voted in this year's presidential election --- those that cast their votes for the former Secretary of State and United States Senator over the scandal-plagued, race-baiting demagogue with no experience in government at all --- have likely been pondering in recent weeks. I suppose we’ll find out over the course of what promises to be a very tense, very anxious few years.
Here’s a much easier, less stomach-churning question; Has America lost its dog?
Yes, yes it has, at least within the pages of Steven Weissman’s Looking For America’s Dog, the sequel to his Barack Hussein Obama.
That book was a collection of Weissman’s four-panel, daily newspaper-style comic strips starring the First Family, Vice President Joe Biden, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, which gradually took the shape of a surreal quest story while constantly riffing on the public’s various perceptions of the president --- good or bad, sinister or sympathetic --- for gag material.
The Obama that emerged was maybe the ultimate comics character; after all, there are few figures that are at once as iconic and as protean as our presidents, upon whom we project, well, everything. The President of the United States, any president of the United States, is the Comics Character of a Thousand Faces. (And do note that most newspaper comics characters are confined to a single strip by a single artist or studio, whereas whoever the president is appears in scores of different editorial cartoons by scores of different artists every single day.)
Looking For America’s Dog is similar in format to Barack Hussein Obama, filled with discrete, four-panel gag strips that wind in and out of an overarching quest narrative. And it’s similar in construction; a black-and-white sketchbook comic constructed with judiciously chosen uses of bright color and dialogue balloons with their long, thin tails apparently glued atop the pages. The aesthetic is a peculiar mix of dashed-off and labored-over.
It is also, owing to the fact that it is of course a more recent work, a much more confident and accomplished book, with a much stronger through line: Bumbling Biden left the White House gate open, and America’s dog Bo ran away. (“God Damn You, Joe Biden,” a frustrated president says as he trudges through the snow, calling “Bo-oh!!”)
Bo begins an epic journey through the headlines of the day, while Sasha and Malia, who are now teenagers rather than pre-teens (and the real stars of this book) keep track of him using Sasha’s psychic super-power, seemingly gifted to her by a dark force that is seen possessing her in White House Christmas card photos.
Bo loses an eye fighting a wildcat, is adopted by Kim Jong Un, appears and disappears amidst the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attacks, and ends up in Africa, kidnapped by Boko Haram.
Obama sends Dennis Rodman, who he refers to only as “worm,” to save Bo from North Korea, and the girls journey to Africa themselves to save Bo, where they encounter a witch, a monster and unexpected suffering. ("Your suffering is inevitable," a distraught Malia tells the African witch, "Ours inexplicable.")
Meanwhile, John Kerry --- who Obama and Biden insist on calling “Kerr-Bear” --- replaces Clinton as Secretary of State, and she spends some quality time with her pregnant daughter Chelsea, whose fetus communicates via scary prophecy with her.
To call the book “deeply weird,” the phrase that kept coming to my mind while reading and rereading it, or “surreal,” the word I most often see applied to Weissman’s Obama comics, is to sell it short. It’s deeply weird and surreal in its most accessible installments, but there are so many other strips that are so strange as to be completely alien.
The Obamas of course have another dog, Sunny, but that is of little consolation to the Obama girls, as Sunny isn’t as awesome as Bo, nor is he America’s Dog in the way that Bo was. (For example, did you even know the Obamas had a second dog, or what its name was? Bo, and his original acquisition, was a national news story for a while.)
As the book reaches its climax, and the girls, wiser from their journey, mourn the loss of Bo, Sasha finally tells the family's other Portuguese Water Dog, “I guess you’re America’s dog now, Sunny.”
“Maybe America doesn’t need a dog anymore,” Malia says, leading to the punchline, “At least, not a bulls--- dog like Sunny.”
Maybe not. But we need the Obamas, who in Weissman’s two collections have proven to be excellent comics stars. Looking For America’s Dog, like Barack Hussein Obama, is an indispensable comic book of the Obama years.
As for our next president, his dark horse (or is that black swan?) status is apparent in his extreme lack of panel time in the book. He appears in just one strip, early in the book, in which he has sex with Martha Stewart, impregnates her, and they give birth to “the new Restoration Hardware catalog.” (See? It’s a weird book.)
As for the winner of the popular vote and the loser of the Electoral College? She seems inevitable even in these pages. The very first strip, entitled “Hillary Rodham Clinton,” features the Secretary of State burying something under blood-splattered snow, saying, “Who can stand now between me and the presidency? There’s nothing but time and I’ve learned to bide my time.”
The very last strip, features Clinton caring for her infant granddaughter and, in the last panel, leaning over the crib and whispering to her, “When are you going to tell me I’m something special?”
What does it mean? I don’t know. All I know is that Weissman’s Obama comics are funny, almost as funny as they are weird. And in these days, we can use all the funny we can get.