Rough sketch from Steven Weissman's 'Looking for America's Dog' (Steven Cuevas/KQED)
For days after the election, Steven Weissman’s final comic strip of the election cycle sat on the drafting board of his home studio in L.A.’s Little Armenia neighborhood. It's a sketch of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, both candidates feverishly tracking election night results on their devices.
“Trump in his little secret underground lair and Hillary Clinton on a frozen wasteland just updating their feeds and getting results from states,” says Weissman with a chuckle.
Weissman broke into the world of alternative comics about 20 years ago with a DIY comic book series called “Yikes!” It revolved around a cast of Charlie Brown-like characters modeled after famous Hollywood Monsters.
Weissman’s first foray into political cartooning began around the end of President Obama’s first term. He was recruited by publisher Fantagraphics to craft a weekly online strip revolving around Obama, his family and his closest advisers.
That eventually led to the 2012 book, "Barack Hussein Obama." His politically minded work also appears at the edgy, alternative comics and humor website Super Deluxe.
In his new collection, "Looking for America’s Dog," the action hinges on first daughters Sasha and Malia, first dog Bo and a vast supporting cast that includes a shape-shifting Hillary Clinton, a hapless Joe Biden and an unsettlingly severe John Kerry.
Obama and his staffers are depicted as well-meaning but petulant and sometimes clueless teens.
“At the beginning (of the book) Vice President Biden is having a meeting at the White House and actually leaves the gate open and Bo Obama, the president's first dog, runs out," he says.
And so begins an around-the-world odyssey that includes stops in North Africa and a harrowing and darkly humorous encounter with the murderous Islamic extremist group Boko Haram, and a stop in North Korea where Bo Obama encounters "Supreme Leader" Kim Jong-un hanging out with former cross-dressing NBA star and reality TV fixture Dennis Rodman.
“The dog engages in hot points all over the world where news is happening, whether it was in Africa, the Korean peninsula, wherever there was something happening that seemed really interesting,” says Weissman.
Meanwhile, first daughters Sasha and Malia desperately track Bo’s movements. Sasha has developed a mysterious clairvoyance. But it’s hit and miss, like trying to tune in a distant radio station in a sea of static.
“Malia is always asking her to check up on celebrities like, well what’s happening with Chris Brown? And she’s like: No, I don’t want to look at those guys!”
Weissman plumbs some dark areas throughout the story. Bo turns up in the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo the day it’s shot up by terrorists. Sasha and Malia forge a sweet but frightening connection with a group of African schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram terrorists.
“I don't like a lot of the mean things that are happening in this world. but for good comics I think you can really explore them. And yes, it gets really bloody and it gets ugly and I'm sorry about that,” Weissman laughs.
Now with the U.S. at a political crossroads, Weissman is at a creative crossroads. He often depicted Hillary Clinton as a thin-skinned bureaucrat capable of erupting with Hulk-like fury. But he voted for her, not for Donald Trump. And he’s struggled to develop a convincing comic portrayal of the president-elect. Trump remains an elusive character.
“He's more like a professional wrestler character,” explains Weissman.
“When I drew comics about President Obama or Hillary, they seem like real grown-ups with real grown-up problems,” he says. “You can relate to someone who seems to have some real (inner) conflict. I don’t see conflict in Donald Trump. You just sort of see this ego.”
And so, after chronicling a presidency and a brutal presidential election, Weissman’s online political strip may draw to a close.
“I don't know if I want to stay in this world right now. It seems a little mean-spirited and ugly,” says Weissman, reflecting on what’s to come under a Trump presidency.
“I don't think the world’s going to end,” laughs Weissman. “I just think it's gonna be kind of a meaner place for the next few years.”
Near the start of "Looking for America’s Dog," there’s a single-page black-and-white comic that breaks up the action. It’s inspired by "Little House on the Prairie" author Laura Ingalls Wilder. It’s a pastoral scene in a cabin by a warm hearth, an oasis of calm in the middle of a political world spinning off its axis.
Weissman says he’d like to devote more time to that kind of work, to stories that focus on simple but often elusive qualities like faith and kindness.