October 2012

Martyn Pedler


Every Motherfucker Has A Story: Steven Weissman’s Barack Hussein Obama

Barack Hussein Obama is the President of the United States. He is the first African American to hold the office. He worked as a community organizer and civil rights attorney, taught constitutional law, and served three terms in the Senate.

Barack Hussein Obama was born in Kenya. He is a secret Muslim and a member of the Black Panthers. He wrote an apology to Britain for the Declaration of Independence. His wedding ring has an Arabic inscription that reads "There is no god but Allah."

Barack Hussein Obama was given a parakeet that spoke of approaching doom. He killed the bird and buried it but it returned from the grave, saying his name again and again. It soon possessed him, transformed him, and attacked members of the press corps for asking too many questions.

That last story is told in Steven Weissman’s new Barack Hussein Obama, a collection of the weekly comic strips he’s produced for the last few years. His Obama begins as a kind of smug, stoner everyman: telling "your momma" jokes, discussing old movies with visiting dignitaries, answering reporters’ questions with lines like “What part of peeping over my sunglasses don’t you understand?” Weissman’s pages -- drawn in ballpoint into a moleskin notebook -- use a four-panel gag structure that makes the book immediately addictive.

But there’s a frustration sitting under the non sequiturs. Obama can’t understand what the American people want from him. He wants to escape into fantasy and irresponsibility. When someone steals his identity and charges his credit card, Obama doesn’t want to know why. “Every motherfucker has a story,” he mumbles. The top of every page -- just like the bird above -- states his name. Barack Hussein Obama. Like a mantra or a curse. Barack Hussein Obama.

Politicians must let the right stories flow around them; flow through them. Campaigns obsessively search for the right narrative to push their candidates forward, or the right dirt to bury their opponents. Pundits improvise speculative fan fiction about them twenty-four hours a day. Some stories stick, some vanish, some mutate. To succeed, their subjects must flatten themselves, abstract and wide, to make space for whatever we need to project onto them.

They must wear Halloween masks of their own faces, too. For hundreds of years, editorial cartoons have boiled down social issues to a handful of symbols and politicians to big noses or red cheeks or swollen bellies. Shepard Fairey turned a photograph of Obama into a caricature of thick lines and block colors for the iconic "HOPE" image back in 2008. Weissman’s long-limbed, ballpoint-sketched Obama is just another transformation -- and the first of many metamorphoses in his book.

After settling into its rat-a-tat gag-a-page structure, Barack Hussein Obama shifts from "hey, famous people are goofy just like us!" towards more potent imagery. Like this exchange between Sasha and Malia Obama:

“Father is decorating Easter eggs.”
“You’re saying what he’s doing.”
“Oh! They’ve lain dead Jesus in the tomb...!”
“Behold! The Risen Christ is showing off his bloody hands!”
“Take that!”
“Then America gets born!”

An eagle hatches from the egg -- and the girls scream. Later, when Obama himself is turned into a bird, the four-panel layout is dropped for splash pages of his flight through “a spirit-cloud of ten thousand drowned souls.” He becomes a sort of supporting player in his daughters’ story, lost in translation as Joe Biden (a zombie who occasionally has a hole where his head should be) and Hilary Clinton (a monster who’d be at home on H.R. Pufnstuf) explore America’s foreign policy.

The simple, quickly-sketched quality of Weissman’s art -- along with how once-weekly strips are collected here in bulk -- make it feel like these fevered dreams tumbled out of his pen.

The comedy grows grimmer as you turn the pages. I won’t spoil the book’s last words, coming before a quick coda, spoken in the dark -- but they’re not exactly "God Bless America."

I write this from Australia. Our politicians have all the partisan cynicism but none of the ludicrous grandeur of those in the United States. (I can’t imagine any of our leaders killing vampires in unconvincing 3D any time soon, for example.) If you’re an American, you’re about to add your own creative input to Obama’s narrative. When enough people believe – and believe enough to vote -- collective belief Tinkerbell-claps itself into reality. Soon, though, you could be disappointed by your story, like a screenwriter who sees their vision distorted and unrecognizable by the time it hits the big screen.

I hope the man you vote for contains whatever you see in him. And if not? Take cold comfort in Weissman’s book, where the public can say “Don’t insult our intelligence” and Obama can reply “Why not? You’re fucking idiots.”

Martyn Pedler is a writer and critic in Melbourne, Australia.