Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Amazing Obama Man

There’s been a lot of discussion of President Obama’s performance lately, what with the economy and war and all, and it’s brought out some thoughts I’ve had floating around for quite a while now.

It’s not saying anything new to say that even a year and a half ago one could tell there was something different about the then-senator from Illinois. Hell, lots of people have written about it, most probably better than I ever could. But what really struck me, especially around this time last year, was the way the comic people jumped all over Obama.

Even before he was elected, you had successful comic characters (and by extension, one would think their creators) making no bones about their chosen candidate:

When he did get elected, it was unprecedented. Sure,other presidents had appeared in comics before, but none like this. In terms of sheer volume and scope, Obama (or at least his image) was blazing all kinds of new trails.

What’s really interesting is seeing how the interpretations developed over time. While most comics were content to simply involve the president in a storyline or two, Devil’s Due took it a step further

…and then Antarctic Press took it even further than that:

Even his detractors, it seemed, couldn’t help but fall back on comic book imagery:

Taking all of this in, it’s easy to see that Obama isn’t just the president, he’s a full-blown Pop Culture Phenomenon. I know, a little late to the game with that one, huh? But seeing it laid out like this raises certain questions about not just the president, but his fans as well.

There are certain parallels one can draw between President Obama and Tiger Woods – and most are probably too obvious to even point out. But the main similarity (for the sake of this discussion) is the way with each that the Image overlaps with the Actual Human Being.

With his recent domestic troubles and subsequently dodgy behavior, it seems that Tiger Woods’ biggest problem of late is that his dramatically adult personal life is clashing with his image as the clean, driven, “aw shucks” kind of guy who was as charming as he was good at golf. (Think back to that Dave Chapelle sketch of Tiger Woods awkwardly declaring, “I’ve always wanted to say this – fer shizzle!”) With people learning that off the field Woods is just like lots of other celebrities – all too fallible – his popularity and position in the public’s good graces is in question.

We’re seeing some hints of this with Obama in the political field as well. With the troop escalation in Afghanistan, the total mess the health care debate has become, the continued corporate bonuses, etc., a lot of people on the political left are starting to feel disillusioned with Obama. Put simply, they’re finding the man in the office isn’t the same guy who was in that Spider-Man issue.

One thing America likes to do to its celebrities is, after having built them up, to tear them down. Tom Cruise certainly got a lot more press after jumping on Oprah’s couch than he did before that. So what happens when the celebrity happens to be the man in charge of running the country? What happens when his comic stops selling? What happens when the Symbol of Hope turns out to be just another guy in a suit doing a job?

What if Clark Kent really isn’t Superman?

Or conversely, will the Idea of Barack Obama overshadow the man to the point where all we have left is the image, devoid of any but the most basic associations? Will Sheperd Fairey’s famed “Hope” poster simply become the newest perennial t-shirt design?

(Please note, I’m not trying to make any overt political statements, but more examining the whole person/persona issue when played out in four colors.)

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