A prescient presidential pastiche

click to enlarge Chris Ward and two Abes hash it out in familiar environs.
Chris Ward and two Abes hash it out in familiar environs.

“I’ve caught a lot of flak for it,” says Springfield resident Chris Ward, author of the nonfiction comic book Barack Obama. “It’s just divisive by nature. I get people saying, ‘Wait a minute, are you making fun of the president?’ But other people are like, ‘I hope you’re making fun of him enough.’ I tried to keep it pretty evenhanded.”

Obama is issue #2 of a series called Political Power published by Bluewater Press. It was originally released in September 2009, when the national mood regarding the 44th president was somewhat cheerier than it is now.

“When the book first came out, it was all people wanted to talk about,” Ward remembers. It was featured in such disparate media outlets as the Wall Street Journal and Conan O’Brien’s since-scuttled version of the Tonight Show. “That was during Obama’s honeymoon with America. Things had been really awful for a long time but then there were a few months when – whichever side you were on – it was really exciting and everyone was feeling good for the most part. Now everything is awful again,” he chuckles. “These days, when I put up a flyer to announce that I’m signing this book, guys are like ‘grrrrr’ and they stick the push-pin through his face on the bulletin board.”

Ward will be signing his controversial comic, facial thumbtacks and all, at Barnes & Noble at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, May 18. Of course, Springfield has even more reason to be excited (or let down) by his book’s titular figure than the rest of the country. In fact, the comic is virtually dripping with local color.

“Springfield is as much a character in the book as Obama is,” Ward confirms. “George Ryan even shows up, all the easy targets are in there. The Lincoln Museum is there. And of course, my main goal was to promote the horseshoe.”

click to enlarge The Audacity of Oprah.
The Audacity of Oprah.

Regardless of regional content, Barack Obama is visually striking, with vivid, colorful illustrations by African artist Azim Akberal. “I was nervous when my publisher first showed me Azim’s stuff,” recalls Ward. “I’m like, shit, he’s doing hyper-realism and I’m writing all this goofy material. But it ended up being really funny. I would write something really stupid, like Bush playing with Barbie dolls, and he would send the art back to me and I’d be like “Ahhhh-hahaha!”

Ward himself even appears as a character in the book, portrayed in casual conversation with a semi-ghostly, monochrome Abe Lincoln at some highly recognizable Springfield locations. “If I’d known how accurate Azim was gonna be I would’ve gotten a haircut. I sent him some photo-references and it was just spot-on. He did a really great job.”

The creative process behind comic books remains a mystery to most. “A lot of comic book writers and artists never even meet, which is something people don’t realize,” he elaborates. “I got very lucky with Azim. I’d read some other Obama comic books and they were either just terrible – basically Wikipedia entries with pictures – or else Barack the Barbarian type parody comics. So this was a way to do something that was entertaining but could also possibly trick you into learning something.”

The comic ends on a sobering and prescient note. “I talk about how the backlash is coming and basically say we should enjoy this because it’s not going to last. Which is exactly what happened.” The only prediction Ward makes in the book that hasn’t come to pass is the one about werewolf attacks. “I’m sure it will,” he says impishly. “I mean it’s the only other awful thing that could happen at this point.”

Scott Faingold recently moved from Chicago back to Springfield to pursue a degree at University of Illinois Springfield. Contact him at scottfaingold@gmail.com.

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