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Yankee doodles: Obama in cartoons

Andy Davey/The Sun cartoon of the sun of Obama dispelling the dark clouds of Bush
Barack Obama dispels the dark clouds of the Bush years (AndyDavey/The Sun)

By Ali McConnell
BBC News

"He's superman at the moment - young, black, good-looking, progressive," says British cartoonist Andy Davey.

So perhaps it's not surprising you have to look hard to find an unflattering cartoon of the new US president.

With the end of his first 100 days in sight, the Political Cartoon Gallery in London is putting on an exhibition of original cartoons of Barack Obama. It charts his rise as an outside candidate for the Democratic Party nomination to his first few months in the White House.

Political cartooning is usually a negative art-form but with Obama there's a sense of hope.
Dr Tim Benson

The founder of the gallery, Dr Tim Benson, says he's assembled more than 60 cartoons from British publications and they're almost all positive. "It's as if Bush was the Antichrist and the world's in such a mess that Obama is seen as an angel," he says.

In a relatively short time in the public eye, Barack Obama has been depicted as Saint Barack the Divine, as the sun dispelling the dark clouds of his predecessor, and compared with a Greek god taking the world on his shoulders.

"Political cartooning is usually a negative art-form but with Obama there's a sense of hope," says Dr Benson.

So has that sense of hope and the new president's undoubted popularity put him beyond criticism? Or are people perhaps treading more carefully because he's black?

"There are more interesting things about him than his colour," says Martin Rowson of the Guardian newspaper.

Barack Obama through the eyes of British cartoonists (Images courtesy of the Political Cartoon Gallery)

"For example, he has sticky-out ears, a long chin and a pipe-cleaner body. He's also got good eyebrows and his eyes are rather close together - that gives you a good original template."

And there's no doubt the character will change with time, shaped by events. Mr Rowson makes the comparison with the early days of the former British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

"When I first started to draw Blair he was puppy-like, but he became more raddled with time. I used his teeth as a sort of political barometer."

Andy Davey, cartoonist with the Sun newspaper, says he's enjoyed drawing Barack Obama so far but doesn't feel anyone's come up with the defining caricature of the new president yet.

"None of us can draw Bush without seeing Steve Bell's monkey. Steve Bell or Gerald Scarfe tend to set the benchmark and others follow," he says.

"There's usually an event horizon after which the likeness has been nailed. It can be something as simple as shifting a line by a couple of millimetres."

Much to criticise

On the other side of the Atlantic, Ted Rall, President of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists, says President Obama is enjoying an unusually long, deep honeymoon with the majority of US cartoonists.

"Most of us are being taken in by his charm and charisma. It's difficult not to like him - he's competent, smart and it's such a relief after what went before."

He acknowledges that there are some cartoonists who are critical of the president and his policies, mainly those on the right and a handful of liberal democrats.

But among some, he says, it has almost become a "cult of personality."

Ted Rall's take on the US bailout plan

"I feel that when I agree with what the president's doing it's not a good time to do a cartoon," he says.

"But there is much to criticise. The bailout, for example. It's perceived that he's helping the multi-nationals, but not ordinary people."

Despite his popularity, it is in the US where people have come to grief over what have been perceived as racist depictions of the new president.

In February, the New York Post drew widespread criticism for a cartoon of a policeman shooting a chimpanzee dead.

The New Yorker also found itself in hot water during the election campaign when it tried to satirise some of the more outlandish right-wing attacks on the Obamas.

Despite these hiccups, Mr Rall says race hasn't generally been an issue in how people draw the president. He wonders, however, whether the fear of being accused of racism could lead to self-censorship.

This thought is echoed by Martin Rowson in London. "There's always a slight issue when you draw someone that you can be accused of dealing in stereotypes," he says.

"Sometimes a climate is deliberately fostered whereby if you attack someone, special interest groups will attack you. For example, I drew a cartoon of Ariel Sharon looking fat and arrogant, which he was. But portraying him like that you're accused of being anti-Semitic."

While some politicians will undoubtedly be irked by their caricatures, Tim Benson says for most it's a sign they've made it.

Winston Churchill, he says, memorably pointed out that as a politician you should be worried when your caricature disappears from the cartoons.

There's little sign of that happening just yet to President Obama - but in time they may become a little less sympathetic.

The exhibition "Yankee Doodles! President Obama in cartoons" will be on show at the Political Cartoon Gallery in London from 23 April - 13 June 2009.



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