This slick biography of President Barack Obama is more inspirational than informational, presenting a smoothed-out view of his rise to the Oval Office.
Obama: The Historic Election of America’s 44th President
By Agnieszka Biskup
Illustrated by Seitu Hayden
Let me start by saying that this is a biographical graphic novel that is clearly tailored for the library and school market, and that brings with it certain constraints. It is short. It sticks to the facts. And it leaves out a lot of the messy bits. It’s fine for a student who wants basic information about President Barack Obama, but it’s not very thought-provoking. In fact, by omitting some of the controversies—and lucky breaks—it presents an overly simplified Horatio Alger story, when the full story is much more interesting.
Admittedly, some of this is due to the limited scope of the book. The authors focus on Obama’s rise to political power, opening the book with his speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention, the speech that put him on the political map. Conveniently, Obama referred to his parents and his birth in that speech, allowing the authors to present them as a flashback. That is the only information about his early life in the graphic novel, although there is a two-page text section with a fuller biography at the end of the book.
At the time of his convention speech, Obama was running for the U.S. Senate seat in Illinois. The book blandly observes that “Obama won a landslide victory with 70 percent of the vote.” While that’s true, it omits a salient fact: His chief opponent, Jack Ryan, withdrew from the race after a nasty sex scandal and was replaced by Alan Keyes (who doesn’t seem to have ever lived in Illinois). Under those circumstances, it would have been more remarkable if he hadn’t won in a landslide. While it would have been difficult to describe what happened in an age-appropriate way, leaving it out is a significant distortion. And that’s the problem with a book like this: Every fact in it is carefully sourced (there are notes at the beginning and a bibliography in the back), but what the reader doesn’t see is the facts that aren’t in it.
The art is done in an inoffensive, realistic style, neither brilliant nor offensively bad. Artist Seitu Hayden does a good job of mixing up the panels and letting the story unfold visually in an interesting way. One thing that could have been made clearer—it’s buried in fine print on the copyright page—is the fact that word balloons in yellow contain direct quotes from Obama’s speeches.
By simplifying the story so much, the authors run the risk of all biographers, of making the trajectory of the subject’s life seem inevitable. It would have been nice to see more conflict, and more details of the conflicts that are covered, such as the primary contest with Hillary Clinton. Still, Obama is a nice primer on the 2008 election and a good starting point for future reading.