Drawing Boehner: Cartoonists work on Washington's new power player

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) may now wield a gavel, but that won’t get him very far in stopping the nation’s political cartoonists from drawing him as a bright-orange chain-smoker who bursts into tears at a moment’s notice.

Along with his newfound status as the most powerful Republican in Washington, Boehner stands to become a prime target for those who make a living caricaturing and cartooning the nation’s politicians. The first challenge for those artists is to introduce the new House Speaker to a population that may not know him well. To do that, several political cartoonists say, they will rely on the few qualities that have already stood out: his Technicolor tan, perfect hair and free-flowing tears.

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“The guy is barely known anywhere outside the Beltway,” says Mike Lester, the staff cartoonist at the Rome News-Tribune in Rome, Ga. Lester recently drew a cartoon of Boehner lying in a tanning bed, gavel at his side, with the headline, “John Boehner sworn in as first Speaker of color.”

Boehner’s likeness has popped up in major media outlets since the November election — perhaps most notably with a full headshot on the cover of Time magazine and in a New Yorker cover cartoon fist-bumping President Obama — providing Americans their first chance tobecome familiar with the leader’s physicality. But by and large, Boehner has stayed out of the media since his party’s resounding November victory. 

The challenge, then, is for cartoonists to get their readers to recognize a Boehner caricature in the reflexive way they can identify a Sarah Palin or Obama caricature, many say.

Taylor Jones, a syndicated cartoonist for Cagle Cartoons who also contributes to Puerto Rico’s El Nuevo Dia newspaper and the Hoover Digest, has toned down the orange hues of Boehner’s skin in his caricatures because he says he’s not sure his readers are picking up on it (and also because he has noticed Boehner growing paler over the last few months).

“I’ve sort of made him less and less orange and have focused on the tears,” says Jones, who estimates he’s drawn Boehner six or seven times up until this year. (By contrast, he drew Obama between 70 and 100 times in 2010.)

“Even now, I’m not sure he’s sunk into the public [consciousness],” he says. 

The simplest solution is to give Boehner a label, other cartoonists say.

“I think the trick initially is for cartoonists to write, ‘Boehner’ on him,” says Steve Kelley, the president of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists and the staff cartoonist at the New Orleans Times-Picayune. He recognizes this initial problem, too; Kelly says, after racking his brain, he can’t remember ever having drawn Boehner in the past.

Aside from getting their readers to recognize Boehner, many cartoonists find him relatively easy to draw. In addition to his tan and tears, he has droopy eyes, a smoking habit and a bright collection of sweaters, likely thanks to his love of golf, they say.

“Physically, he has this cool, Bogart-like quality that contrasts wildly with his emotional vulnerability,” says Chris Weyant, The Hill’s cartoonist. “In trying to capture that, I’ll be focusing on the tears, the hang-dog eyes and the tight, pursed mouth.”

Others will focus on his hair.

“It’s so mannequin-like … I’ve never seen one strand come down,” says Mike Peters, the longtime Dayton Daily News cartoonist and creator of the “Mother Goose and Grimm” comic strip. Peters has been drawing Boehner since he came to Congress in 1991. 

Peters originally found drawing Boehner difficult because he has “a very pleasant face.” He compares the task to drawing President Reagan — another handsome politician — whom Peters says he eventually nailed by focusing on Reagan’s signature bouffant hair.

Steve Brodner, a freelance cartoonist whose work appears in The New Yorker, Mother Jones and The Atlantic magazines, says he has fun drawing Boehner because there’s much more to him once you “scratch the surface.”

“I think that Boehner really is a wonderful collection of contradictions,” he says, pointing out the Speaker’s deep voice — as compared to his crying habit and his “woman’s eyelashes.”

Several cartoonists say they will rely on the orange tan and crocodile tears until the Speaker takes more defining action in his new position.

“You can only go so far with the crying and the skin tone,” Jones says. “I don’t mind kind of milking that now, but afterwards I’ll be happy to try to come up with other stuff about him as the news unfolds in the coming months.”

Ann Telnaes, who draws animated cartoons for The Washington Post, says she’s focused on Boehner’s personality.

“The key to drawing any successful caricature is getting to know the person’s character and their actions, rather than their features,” she said.

Whatever Boehner looks like in cartoons now will likely be much different from how he’s caricatured in a year or two, the artists say. They say their depictions evolve over time.

“Cartoonists’ caricatures of political figures change and develop over time as the subject and their public image become more defined,” Weyant says.

That means that a crying orange Boehner might be around only until the House Speaker gives the country’s political cartoonists something else to zero in on.