BARACK HUSSEIN OBAMA is a challenging and idiosyncratic book that describes its subject from a great, absurd, and comic distance. It’s closer to the kind of associative resonance of poetry than what you would expect of a book called BARACK HUSSEIN OBAMA, released just weeks before [the real] Obama’s attempt at a second term in office. It has very little to do with actual reality, and weirdly seems more real than it has any right to be.
I have to imagine that BARACK HUSSEIN OBAMA will be a challenging book for people who just pick it up off a shelf, browsing in some bookstore, thinking “oh hey–a book about politics!” After all, the title is simply BARACK HUSSEIN OBAMA, no subtitle, no explanation. Just the name of the president of the United States on the front of a book; possibly the most talked-about, transformative figure in American history in the last… 30 years? More? The first black American president, a political lightning rod, endlessly demonized by opponents as representing Everything Terrible that could possibly befall the poor dumb citizens of the United States.
I wouldn’t blame those poor browsers for being confused–I’m a longtime fan of Steve Weissman‘s work, and loved these strips when they were posted online originally, and I was surprised at how much more difficult than I’d expected the book–in its collected, print form–turned out to be. Although ultimately the kind of challenging you want from a piece of art; possibly challenging because while it initially pretends to be a series of gags, it ultimately becomes a layered cloud of meaning and menace and metaphor and absurdity, closer to Heart of Darkness than political comedy.
In their original online iteration, these strips seemed like funny, weird non sequiturs, beginning not long after Obama’s election in 2009. Presented here, all together in untouched, “at-size” scans from the sketchbook Weissman drew them in, they seem less humorous and more like the slow aggregation of a large portrait, maybe not of the man, but of the time the man is living in. Or maybe closer to the truth–because let’s face it, I don’t know–is that it’s a portrait of what a person like Obama “means,” the intensity of the history and anger and hope and cynicism surrounding one man and his band of plucky lieutenants. Many of the strips repeat his name, “BARACK HUSSEIN OBAMA,” either as a title or as punctuation. As the story gets weirder and weirder, that metronome clicks along: BARACK HUSSEIN OBAMA.
Instead of showing Obama as the most powerful politician in the world, and the center of an entire nation’s expectations and fears, Weissman shows him as precisely the opposite: a lanky, informal goofball who ribs Biden, discusses drink recipes, goes to movies, gets high on pills, etc. If anything he seems like the reluctant main character in his own story–almost as much George Bush as Barack Obama. He’s like a hip dummy who knows he’s a dummy; if anything, he seems like someone who thinks it’s hip to be just a little stupid. As the story moves, the hipness drains away into heaviness, a deep torpor that weighs on the second half of the book, sometimes oppressively.
Is BARACK HUSSEIN OBAMA meant to be a metaphor for the first–maybe only?–term of a president who, pinned with the hopes and enmities of an entire nation, is in fact a regular human who can crumble under pressure? Or a metaphor for the time that man lives in, a gross time, a time where nothing means anything that can’t be stripped away and spun over and over into any direction needed? Because the Obama of BARACK HUSSEIN OBAMA is a man who seems increasingly sad, confused; not only bowing under pressure but sinking. A man who talks to ghosts, who becomes a giant parakeet and flies with his two hip children to a desert island, where he regresses to egg state.
It could be all these things and more: the pages are an amalgam of Weissman’s gestural, affably abstracted cartooning style and layers and layers of Zip-A-Tone, the old adhesive tone used by mid-century illustrators and cartoonists to simulate tones and gradations. Weissman definitely doesn’t hide the lines either–you can see the artist’s hand all over the book, tucking bits of meaning everywhere, whether it’s tone, adhesive tape to block out the “panels”, colored lettering, or swashes of marker on top of everything. Everything is layered with potential multiple meanings. Even the cover blurbs are absurd and meta, consisting of out-of-context quotes from Hulk Hogan, George W. Bush, and this one from Fox News: “[Barack Hussein] Obama is okay…”
Nothing is real, nothing is straight ahead in this book. As I’m writing this I’m watching the live coverage of the Democratic National Convention, televised from Charlotte North Carolina, up into space to the satellites, then back down and right into my living room, here in.. Charlotte North Carolina, about 2 miles away. It’s weird. And everyone on the television is parsing every word every speaker says for meaning, not only actual meaning, but potential meaning. How will this be construed? Will his enemies twist these words, tailor them for their own audiences? What Obama’s presidency “meant” at the beginning of his term is much different than whatever it is now; much more complex, much more “real,” and also very very surreal. BARACK HUSSEIN OBAMA manages to double this weird descent from giddy hopefulness to present-day miasma. I loved reading it; I love Steve Weissman and his work, but more importantly I loved how challenging it was, both during the reading of it, and especially now, trying to describe it. I hope the reader leafing through it in that bookstore will find it as pleasantly challenging.
(A shortened version of this review appears on Drawn.)