by Kevin Czap
The most recent comic to flip my lid has been Steve Weissman’s serialized “Barack Hussein Obama.” At first, I had only seen the image above, which I took to be a one-off strip. On its own, the image was staggering — a beautifully poetic (and haunting) comment on our country’s current situation. Whereas most political cartoons are more or less explicit in their message, this was refreshing in how much it left unsaid. A particular bias of mine, sure, but I usually think the less said the better (as always, there are exceptions to this).
When a trip to my local comic shop to get the new Orc Stain went bust (ugh don’t get me started), things turned themselves around when I saw the new issue of MOME had more Obama strips. The strips in MOME #21 (the penultimate chapter!) recast our president as a plucky richy kid too cool for school, hanging out in the White House and causing mischief. The humor is silly and perfectly timed in the four panel set-up. As the loosely connected strips go on, things get darker, as Barry begins dealing directly with the Lord. It gets downright stark when Alfred E. Nueman shows up at the end.
From there, since I couldn’t stop thinking about it, I went to Steve’s website and found that this serial has been going for pretty much Obama’s entire presidency. All together, there is a much clearer story thread running through it, which places that initial bird strip in context. It actually reminds me of Wally Gropius in terms of the structure, which is not surprising given its appearance in MOME. One can only hope that the whole thing will get collected, at which point I predict it to be one of my favorite comics ever.
The online strips also introduce Malia and Sasha, who have a Babysitters Club kind of spunk to them. In a way, the concept ends up reminding me of That’s My Bush, taking the standing president and his family and just spinning a story off of some loose charicatures. These people are characters, sharing only the names and basic backgrounds with the actual individuals they play. Also, Weissman is arguably funnier and definitely more subtle in his humor. He makes something as simple as stating the title of the strip into a running gag, where characters will suddenly announce Obama’s full name (it’s best when coming from the parakeet).
There’s more than enough to sell this stuff based on just the idea, but I want to talk a bit more about the formal stuff. Stuff of Weissman’s that I’ve seen earlier has been impressive, but hasn’t really grabbed me the way this has. There’s a simple sketchy quality to the line, with a foot in old teen comics. What I really love is how raw and real it is. You can feel the pen marks, you can see that this is a real object that’s been photographed/scanned. This is most evident in the panel gutters and balloon tails, which are cut out paper laid on top of the drawings. You not only get to see the relief of these physical objects on the drawing, but also the semi-transparent quality allows you to see more of the construction (the posted images online reveal the comic is made on Moleskin pages).
Another aspect that really excites me is his use of ziptones. Big flat block cut into loose shapes and laid over top of each other to create impressionistic backgrounds. It’s really similar to how Eddie Campbell uses tones in the early Alec comics. It makes the whole thing very collagey and zine-like, which of course gets me really excited. But really, it’s this tactility of the comics page that gets me. It is clearly something that has been made by someone’s hands, while retaining the flatness of the drawing space.
I’ve been thinking a lot about relief in comics, wanting to see surfaces built up off of the page, if only in the photographic image. Like show me thick paint, whiteout, collaged bits of paper. So far, the culmination in my impulse for seeking this kind of thing out has been Jason Overby’s recent webcomic, which just completely breaks the mold and is a straight up assemblage comic. He’s taking the two most difficult tracks in making comics, sculpture and photography, and is making it work so far. It’s exciting for how bold it is, it’s not pussy-footing around the idea of what a comic should or shouldn’t be. Change we can believe in.