Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Comics Review: American Presidents, David Levine

This is a slightly revised version of a piece was originally published in 2009 in The Comics Journal #296, their annual best-of-the-year issue. It was written in response to the question, “What Is the Most Overrated Book of 2008?") It was first published online on Pol Culture.

I had to pass on submitting a “Best of the Year” list. (I don’t follow the field closely enough, and anyway, I’m behind on my reading.) However, I’m more than happy to submit my candidate for the year’s most overrated book: American Presidents, by David Levine. This collection of his political caricatures goes a long way towards establishing Levine as perhaps the most overrated U. S. cartoonist of the last century.

There’s no denying that Levine is an impeccable draftsman, or that his sculptural pen-and-ink rendering style is gorgeous. But he’s a terrible political cartoonist. The book shows he is neither a thoughtful nor knowledgeable commentator about politics, and he does not, to put it mildly, have a very sophisticated sense of satire. Most of the more pointed images are just cheap insults, like showing Bill Clinton with an elephant trunk instead of a nose, or depicting Jimmy Carter as Mad magazine mascot Alfred E. Neuman. Other pieces just make no sense whatsoever, like the depiction of LBJ as King Lear and RFK, Hubert Humphrey and Wilbur Mills as his daughters. Can someone please enlighten me as to who of the latter three is supposed to be Cordelia, and which two Goneril and Regan? In this context, Levine’s most famous images, such as LBJ with the Vietnam-shaped appendectomy scar (used for the book's cover), seem increasingly like examples of a broken clock being right twice a day.

American Presidents is a poorly edited book as well. Some images are accompanied by prose commentary while others are not, and some of the most bewildering--like Carter as Emperor Nero--are those that go without. The prose commentaries in other instances inadvertently make the case for the pieces’ exclusion: they reveal just how badly some images have dated. In retrospect, likening Nixon to Herbert Hoover for downplaying the 1969-1970 recession just seems obtuse, particularly in light of the more severe economic downturns since. And really, shouldn’t someone have prevailed upon Levine to not call Condoleezza Rice “Congaleeza”? The book implies this was one of George W. Bush’s notorious nicknames, but that isn’t the case. Everyone would have been better off if Levine had kept his racist epithets to himself.