On July 29 of last year Vanity Fair’s website put up a portrait of President George W. Bush by that eminent visual satirist Drew Friedman.  In it, the President was made up to look like that latterday icon of villainy, the late Heath Ledger in his Oscar-winning role as the Joker in The Dark Knight.
At the time, the picture merited comment from less than a dozen bloggers, several dozen more comments at the magazine’s site, and that was it.  It was one of many visual lampoons of an unpopular President, and as such, was worth a chuckle or two from those who viewed it, and then forgotten.

But in recent weeks a similar image of another Chief Executive has provoked a different reaction.  As early as April, posters and stickers began showing up on the walls of buildings here and there in Los Angeles – and, more recently, in other American cities. The image portrayed on them is that of President Obama, his face made up in the especially ominous shade of clown white used by Ledger in The Dark Knight, with a ghoulish red smear around his mouth a la the Joker.  Beneath the picture, one word in lower-case letters: “socialism.”

This poster, of course, brings to mind the celebrated “HOPE” images produced by artist Shepard Fairey (in turn, based on an Associated Press photo) which helped Obama reach the Oval Office last year.  And Fairey himself, fresh from an assignment producing another semi-iconic Obama portrait for Rolling Stone’s cover, was quick to inform the Los Angeles Times that although he didn’t think that the President was a Socialist, he personally thought the creater of the “socialism” poster (who remains unknown, as of this writing) had a right to his or her opinion. (As it happens, the earliest online image depicting Obama and captioned by “Socialist,” in the spring of 2008, was a direct steal of the Fairey/AP image.)

But others are not quite as sanguine.  Rich Lieberman of the San Francisco Chronicle contends that the “socialism” image is “creepy, unfunny, and sinister” and “a piece of garbage” to boot.  At the Washington Post, Philip Kennicott devoted an article to pondering what boundary of taste the image had crossed.  Both Lieberman and Kennicott have duly noted that Obama’s predecessor had been portrayed in the same fashion.  But they both argue that to give the current officeholder such treatment has something wrong about it – perhaps, if not quite racist (Lieberman remarks that the anonymous artist is “probably white,” but is clearly unwilling to affirm that he or she isn’t), then using “urban” imagery in a discriminatory fashion (as Kennicott maintains in a somewhat tortured argument, both in his article and in a lengthy online discussion at the Post’s site).

The latter discussion is rather interesting, not least because one of the commenters remarks that the poster, especially since it originates from LA, may well be meant as a  parody of anti-Obama sentiment instead of the real thing.  This spurs Kennicott to mention Andy Warhol.  But, surprisingly, neither he nor anyone else in the discussion notes that the poster (as opposed to the image it features, of which more in a moment) may well have been inspired by one that Warhol made.

That would be Vote McGovern, a silkscreen created by the famed Pop artist in 1972 as a limited-edition production, proceeds to be donated to Sen. George McGovern’s campaign for the White House.  In it, the face of President Nixon was recolored (in a ghoulish green) and retouched to make him look like Dracula.  McGovern supporters (and Warhol collectors) bought up the entire run of the series.  The next year, Warhol was audited by the Internal Revenue Service.  He always expressed uncertainty about whether this event was related to his silkscreen (though he often was audited during the next three presidencies, nonetheless) but the audit did have one fortunate consequence for students of twentieth-century American history: it made Warhol decide to make an hour-long tape every day, in which, as well as itemizing his personal and business expenses, he gossiped in uninhibited fashion about his wealthy, famous, and just plain bizarre friends and acquaintances. And thus, in 1989, two years after the artist’s death, the American reading public was treated to The Andy Warhol Diaries.

But the use of an altered photograph of a politician did not start with Warhol. Back in early 1963, Richard Hamilton, the British pioneer of Pop Art, was a ban-the-bomb activist, unhappy because Hugh Gaitskell, the head of the UK Labor Party, did not support unilateral nuclear disarmament.  So Hamilton put a Phantom-of-the-Opera mask on a photo on the MP and titled it Portrait of Hugh Gaitskell as a Famous Monster of Filmland, though it’s not certain whether this was the inspiration for Warhol a decade later.  And, of course, caricaturists as far back as James Gillray in George III’s time have done brutal pictures of political leaders; this is the tradition to which Friedman’s Bush-as-Joker belongs.

But one thing that Lieberman and Kennicott evidently did not know when they wrote about the “socialism” poster was that its unidentified maker derived (or stole, if you want to put it that way) the Obama-as-Joker picture from a Flickr image posted last January, not by a tattooed neo-Nazi from the Rockies or some other likely candidate, but by Firas Khateeb, a twenty-year-old Palestinian-American engineering student (and Muslim) in Chicago who Photoshopped a 2008 Time cover of the then-candidate. 

Khateeb’s picture did not have the word “socialism” and, contrary to a couple of earlier blogposts which state that he created the image to express his disappointment that Obama was joking about pursuing a leftward agenda, he now states on Flickr that the altered Time cover (and presumably the “socialism” poster) does not express his political views in any way.  Apparently he just thought it would be a bit of a goof to make the President up to look like Heath Ledger.  But that jeux d’esprit has stirred up quite a fuss, not least because, in a rather direct way, it speaks for the disquiet so many Americans feel when their President announces schemes as vast, vague, and downright nebulous as rescuing Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac by creating a gigantic “bad bank.”

Therefore, the chances seem good that we’ll be seeing more “viral” images like the Joker-in-Chief one emerging, no matter what the pundits think.