The Washington Post

THE NEW ‘BARACK OBAMA’ BOOK: Is he our geekiest president yet?

IN HIS BRAND-NEW biography “Barack Obama: The Story,” The Post’s David Maraniss deftly hops along the personal islands of the president’s formative years, from his days with laid-back Hawaiian classmates to his long insular hours in New York, and his soul-searching from Occidental to Illinois, and his looking backward to Kenya and Kansas. It is a sweeping multigenerational journey.

Yet “Barack Obama” also offers a handful of choice passages that raise the question: Is he our geekiest president yet?

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Not in this specialized forum.

Marvel’s inauguration special. (courtesy of MARVEL COMICS 2009)

Thing is, presidential doodles — as the same-titled 2006 book from the Cabinet editors amusingly illuminated — are as old as the office itself.

Doodling, in other words, is a through-line in American history.

At the other end of the historic spectrum, though, is that Obama seems to be the first president to be influenced, as a kid, by the legendary ascent of Marvel Comics in the ‘60s and early ‘70s.

Not that this is entirely new. In 2009, for example, Marvel mastermind Stan Lee told Comic Riffs that he sent Obama a signed Spider-Man poster after reading that the freshly inaugurated president was a Peter Parker fan.

What is new is, as seen through the Maraniss book, is how these connections are rendered in a new, personal light.

We read first how in Hawaii, one of Obama’s good “Choom Gang” pals, Mark Bendix, had “a penchant for Marvel Comics.”

That only echoes strongly later, when an Obama girlfriend, Genevieve Cook, recounts their time together in 1984. According to a Maraniss passage:

“Once, when they were in Prospect Park, they saw a young boy in costume playing out a superhero role. They started to talk about superheroes, the comics he enjoyed as an adolescent in Honolulu, and intimations of ‘playing out a superhero life.’ She considered it ‘a very strong archetype in his personality,’ but as soon as she tried to draw him out, he shut down ‘and didn’t want to talk about it further.’ “

So far, we have the separate threads of doodling and superhero comics. But later, it is a Chicago communities project board member, Loretta Augustine-Herron, who interweaves those strands.

Writes Maraniss:

“Obama the writer, the Moviegoer [invoking the Walker Percy novel], the participant observer. Three variations of the same characteristic. Wherever he went in Chicago, he had a pen and a notebook with him. He constantly jotted notes or doodled. Since his lower school days at Punahou, when he got into superhero comics, he had shown a penchant for sketching figures and faces. ‘He was always doodling, drawing, writing. He could draw,’ Loretta Augustine-Herron recalled.”

It’s a danger, naturally, to read too much into any of this — stray pages of legal-pad doodlings can make for weak tealeaves.

Reagan liked to draw folksy characters. Jefferson’s sketches were positively scientific. So perhaps it’s simply enough to say:

Barack Obama may be our first Marvel president — the first one who habitually doodled after gazing at the lines of Kirby and Ditko, Buscema and Colan.

And if he hasn’t yet motorcaded over to the Library of Congress to see those glorious Ditko originals for the first Spider-Man, well — like a true geek — he just may make that one of his “date nights.”

Writer/artist/visual storyteller Michael Cavna is creator of the "Comic Riffs" column and graphic-novel reviewer for The Post's Book World. He relishes sharp-eyed satire in most any form.


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