10.27.08

The Man Without a Face

A Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist explains why no one's mastered the caricature of John McCain.

John McCain is the hardest presidential candidate I’ve tried to caricature in my forty years of doing this stuff. He shouldn’t be that difficult. He has a bulbous-shaped face brought on by a combination of old age and his struggle with melanoma. His eyes vary between squinty and with big black dots very much like Charlie Chaplin. The problem seems to be capturing the expression in his mouth.

My own feeling is that the expression in the mouth is the real essence of caricature. Once that part of a subject's face is caught, other features like a big nose or a jaw line can be exaggerated and the likeness is still unmistakable.

Richard Nixon was the most flexible. You could draw him from behind and there wasn’t any doubt who it was. Carter and Clinton were both terrific. They had a combination of features that made even the worst political cartoonist capable of capturing and exaggerating what made them unique. The two Bush Presidents were passable. W has those ears and that stupefied look on his face. Obama is quite easy, very much in the Clinton-Carter class.

As for the McCain challenge, it’s possible that, not unlike his campaign platform, McCain's facial expressions change too much for us to get a real handle on him. Cartoonists of the world, vote for Barack Obama or face four years of misery and whiteouts.

Let’s break it down.

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Here’s a really good caricature by Steve Brodner, who may be the best of anybody doing political illustrations and caricatures these days. He has caught that elusive McCain expression—the extreme stretching of his face may be the only way to achieve any semblance of its blandness.

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When we get into the political cartoons, I think my point on the difficulty of capturing the essence of John McCain is well taken. In the Mike Luckovich and Tom Toles cartoons here, each have a head that supposedly represents McCain. It’s almost a caricature of a caricature. To Luckovich’s credit, he does not label McCain, but the cartoon definitely doesn’t nail the Senator as a stand-alone caricature.

Toles has an extreme style that by its nature does not lend itself to great caricature. His caricature is simple and is only recognizable if we know that he is supposed to be John McCain. I don't mean to put all these cartoonists down. We’re all in this same leaky boat. Some are just worse off.

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Taylor Jones, another normally very competent caricaturist, clearly misses the mark. Why? It's so hard to say. He has all the necessary features lined up correctly, but somehow it just isn't the real McCain.

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Without the identifying label, Dan Wasserman's image of McCain could be anybody. One would think after all the coverage of this campaign, a cartoonist would not have to use labels to help a reader identify one of the most televised and photographed men from the past two years. The same goes for Daryl Cagle’s caricature—it could be any older guy. Outside of Palin's signature hairdo, and taken out of context, neither would be considered good caricatures.

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As for as my own work, I do think the angry McCain caricature works because, again, the problem with trying to draw someone who seems to be difficult to caricature is the lack of flexibility. In that sense I was able to convey that, and, I think, maintain what John McCain looks like. My cartoon of McCain with the god of war also works fairly effectively if only because McCain is in profile, which is so much easier to make work. I see McCain as the ultimate warrior from a warrior family, which doesn't necessarily equate to being a great president.