Monday, January 21, 2013

Superhero Obama

Today Barack Obama was sworn in for his second term, a visibly older and, I would guess, politically wiser man than four years ago. He is still far from being an ordinary president but the world and more importantly the less tolerant parts of his own country have got just a little bit more used to having a black president.

Four years ago, he was so exceptional and not just for his colour, to reach superhero status. The Italian public broadcaster, the RAI celebrated the inauguration with a progamme about the comic book Obama and I was asked to help explain why.

Obama had already reached almost legendary status just by running in the primaries; his books, his oratory and his appearance made him someone very special and his conscious and unconscious emulation of that other American icon, Abraham Lincoln helped. This was a tall and lanky man from Illinois who didn’t emancipate slaves by decree but liberated black Americans just by doing what he did and being who he was. And to some extent he liberated all Americans by realising that American dream that anyone can become President and going a long way towards exorcising the ghosts of racism: that is a super power that no comic book character even dreamt of having.

He was also able to bridge the gap between high and popular culture, something that Bill Clinton did expertly but Clinton hardly had the physical appeal that Obama has. Obama moves easily between Clark Kent and Superman without having to duck into a phone box to change.

Certainly he will need all of those superpowers in order to achieve his political agenda in the next four years.

For a analysis of comic strips and presidents, I turned to an expert, Ian Rakoff, an old friend who I hadn’t seen for many years. This was his reply:


Most American Presidents get a look-in and appear in comics now and then. In 1938 Roosevelt and his Secretary of State were drawn into the Joe Palooka comic strip to help get Joe out of the French Foreign Legion. Letters were exchanged between the creator and the White House in all seriousness. That was a big deal, after all Palooka was arguably the most popular strip in the history of comics followed by Little Orphan Annie. Generally though real-politick hardly entered the comics except under their own titles, plenty Real and Truth comics especially in the forties.

However Obama stirs a distinctive note probably matched only by Abe Lincoln, historically. Both those presidents posses decidedly super heroic qualities. Obama even has the look. Clean-cut, sleek, charming and truthful, unflinchingly brave. Who else could have proceeded against Osama bin... with such flawless efficiency but the first black president. Conceptually he has appeal across the board - a great superhero quality. When tragedy strikes he doesn't dilly dally, he flies to spot to comfort the bereaved. He earns plenty of Brownie points in all directions.

In the eighties there was a superb superhero, Brotherman, which though brief, made some impact. The wit and ingenuity of that black superhero probably set the scene for Obama to fly in. I'm sure that in the coming election term some wit in the field of comics will step to the fore proclaiming the greatest living superhero. Possibly the New Yorker might venture into that kind of fiction.

As in previous election years, the American University of Rome will be hosting a two day conference covering election issues, parties, policies and personalities, with analyses from scholars, journalists and politicians. This year it will be on 8-9 March 2013 originally a month before the likely date of the elections, now two weeks after the 24-25 Feb elections. The keynote speeches will be given by Paul Ginsborg and Gianfranco Pasquino.

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