In January of this year, I caught wind of a Spider-man cover with Obama in front and the webslinger making a snarky comment in the background. “Huh,” I said. Then I forgot about it. But on a trip to the comic shop, I saw one on the shelf and picked it up for a look. What caught my eye next was not the cover image, but the top left corner, where, under the issue number (#583), I saw the words “third printing.”
THIRD printing. And it wasn’t the last, either.
I never found a first printing of the Spider-man comic, but I do own the 2nd-through-5th ones. It’s not just the collection urge – each also has Spider-man making a different joke (so you’re getting your money’s worth, you know?). But these also led me to a more interesting phenomenon/compulsion: There were all KINDS of Obama comics out there. He even has a separate Wikipedia page for “Barack Obama (comic character).” Take that, Taft!
As I’ve read, I’ve noticed a sort of typology of Obamacomics. Some incorporate the President into an existing title (Spider-man, Youngblood, Drafted) – Savage Dragon #137 was I think the first mainstream title to do this, and there have been some truly horrible cash-ins. Others were one-shot commemorative editions about the President. And some (my favorites) are new books written about some fictionalized version of Obama. Barack the Barbarian and President Evil pit the Chief Executive against, respectively, a world of swords and sorcery, and a zombie uprising.
Clearly, some of us had high hopes for the man.
The issues are still coming, too. After IDW kicked off the biography trend way back in 2008 with twin issues on Obama and John McCain, Bluewater Comics has kept the train rolling with its “Political Power” line that focuses on Obama and others (there’s also “Female Force,” which has featured Michelle Obama, Hilary Clinton, and Sarah Palin, and, I kid you not, “Puppy Power,” which is exactly what you think). The ultraviolent semi-parody Bomb Queen just put out the first of a four-issue series where the incoming Obama Administration cracks down on the titular (no pun intended, if you’ve read the book) villain’s city of crime. In a bit of self-awareness, the book is tagged “Commemorative Jump the Shark Edition.”
Why make the President into a cartoon? He’s a public figure, sure, so there’s no likeness rights to pay, and if fans are shelling out for it, that’s a sure incentive to use the idea. Typically, though, the Chief Executive has only dwelt in the realm of editorial cartoons. In the comic book world, the President might be used to lend some verisimilitude to a story – Richard Nixon and Teddy Roosevelt are always a fun guest appearance – but never as a main character. What is it about Obama?
You could blame the President himself. Obama was foolish enough to go on record as a comic collector, most famously of Spider-man and Conan the Barbarian. Lo and behold, he’s on the cover of the wall-crawler’s main book, and Barack the Barbarian followed soon after. If there’s one thing fanboys can do, it’s smell their own (not that other people can’t smell ’em too).
Or you could blame us. Both fans and detractors have done a lot to mythologize the guy, whether as a savior or a destroyer. Visually too, we’ve made him into an icon; the embattled Shepard Fairey “HOPE” poster has been one of the richest visual memes in a long time (although those posterized Facebook avatars have recently given way to Man Men pics – yep, you’re all originals). Both the image and idea of Obama have served, as with no other President, as a receptacle to hold our hopes and fears.
This is the question I’m trying to dig into, and I’d be keen to hear others’ thoughts. Was Obama just the right man at the right visual time? Did some iconic quality get him elected, or was it being a candidate that made him iconic? Remember, there were initially bio comics of both Obama and McCain – if McCain won, would we be seeing comic books about him?
My gut tells me no. Not because Obama alone is special, but because his image aligns with the visual culture we live in today. McCain is analog, Obama is digital. Physically his skin is smooth, the better to see Ourselves or Others in. He’s young, so there’s potential there – to become Hero or Villain. He even speaks in a grandiose manner that Stan Lee would approve of.
The argument has been made that Clark Kent is a mask that Superman wears; maybe Obama is thriving in the comics because he’s a kind of mask himself. I’ve got 19 different comics to prove it.
Strictly for research purposes, of course.