In 1999, a bunny named Oolong balanced a dorayaki on his head. His proud owner snapped a photo of Oolong's feat and posted it to the web. Since no one knew what a dorayaki was, everybody just assumed it was a pancake (a dorayaki is a pancake-like Japanese confection). And because pancakes are normally found drenched in syrup instead of on the head of a bunny, the odd photo spread from Hokkaido, Japan, across the world, even getting mentioned in The New York Times. It was quite a moment for the little bunny. He became a cultural phenomenon, an internet meme. Unfortunately, Oolong didn't live to enjoy his fame, dying at the age of eight.
Years after his death, Oolong and the pancake resurfaced in a different form. A humble painter named Dan Lacey from the tiny Minnesota town of Elko created a portrait of then-Republican presidential hopeful John McCain, adding one subtle homage to Oolong: a pancake perched atop the senator's head.
"I made sure his eyes looked just like Oolong's," Lacey recalls, impersonating the blank stare. "You know, just like that."
After McCain with Pancakes came Sarah Palin with Pancakes. Somehow this portrait captured the Alaska governor as accurately as any Tina Fey impersonation.
Sarah Palin with Pancakes torched through the blogosphere. In New York City, Hamilton Nolan was busy writing his dozen daily posts for Gawker.com, the hyper-popular gossip blog. He needed a photo to accompany a post about Sarah Palin's future. That's when he came across Lacey's pancake image on Google. It was random, bizarre, and hilarious: a perfect complement.
"After I posted it, I looked at his other stuff on his site and found out how much of a genius he is," Nolan says of Lacey. "I'm not an art critic, but the power of seeing a pancake on someone's head is just, well, there is something hypnotic about it. It never gets old."
Nolan soon posted another Lacey masterpiece depicting a nude President Obama hurling himself off a white unicorn to wrestle a bear. For a gag, Nolan encouraged Lacey to paint a picture of Gawker founder Nick Denton with pancakes on his head. The portrait sold for $560. Lacey had become a celebrated artist.
But among the thousands watching Lacey's sudden rise to fame was local liberal cartoonist Ken Avidor. Initially, Avidor didn't give his colleague's success much thought. It came out around election time, a period when Avidor's chief aim was preventing Michele Bachmann's re-election to Congress through his blog dumpbachman.com.
But then Lacey's luck continued. Soon, Lacey was being cheered for a picture depicting a bare-assed Michelle Obama in a banana skirt, entangled with a pink dolphin, an homage to Josephine Baker. Avidor thought it was disrespectful, bordering on racist, and it reminded him about a hunch: that this Dan Lacey was the same guy behind an antiabortion, right-wing comic strip called Faithmouse.
A Google search confirmed it. Lacey's Faithmouse strip was featured on conservative websites like Stop the ACLU, M.O.B., and Shot in the Dark. (City Pages even named it best conservative blog in 2007.)
"Everyone thinks Lacey is an 'outsider' artist, not some theocratic, suburban right-wing comic," says Avidor. "He isn't a liberal and I suspect his support of Obama is a lie. This leopard never lost his spots."
The leopard in question lives in a modest Tudor within earshot of the Elko motor speedway. Inside, the house resembles any other suburban home: bills stacked on the kitchen counter, framed photos of family and friends on the coffee table, the smell of popcorn in the air. Then Lacey opens the door to his upstairs bathroom. On the walls are framed paintings of Kim Jong-Il, Oprah, and Daniel Radcliff—all with pancakes on their heads.
As Lacey gives the tour, he talks about his work, pausing only to take quick gasps of air between thoughts. After showing the bathroom, he makes his way to his study to display his masterpiece of controversy and seduction: nearly nude Michelle Obama in a banana skirt.
"Look, I like big black butts and wanted to paint a booty," says Lacey, taking a quick puff of air. "I hadn't painted a female black butt before. I think black people, as a figure painter, are attractive. I'd rather work with raw sienna and black to get cool reflections. You can't get that with white. I like working with color."
He places the booty painting down gently and picks up an unfinished painting of Rush Limbaugh as Jabba the Hutt eating Sarah Palin in a Princess Leia outfit while Michael Steele as C3PO pisses himself in horror. The painting is the first in a series of 10 dreamed up by Gawker readers. One will feature Hoda Kotb maple-syrup-wresting Kathy Lee on top of a giant pancake.
"I'm finally having fun with art," says Lacey. "It's getting back to the very first art any artists draw. It's the stuff I did back in grade school when my friends would be like, 'Hey, Dan, can you draw me a giant joint with Indians dancing around it? Maybe with some supertrucks?' Just cool stuff."
This afternoon has him alternating between two works, a child Obama in a St. Patrick's Day outfit riding a baby unicorn and a riff on the famous Praying Hands by Albrecht Durer with two praying feet.
"I like to work on several different projects at once," he says, dipping his brush into a plastic pastry to-go box used as his palette.
As Lacey paints, he talks about his evolution. He conceived of Faithmouse in 1998, after pledging to live a Christ-centered life rather than commit suicide. But he found work dealing cards at Mystic Lake Casino, not exactly his Christian dream job. To cope, he'd doodle in the soft felt of blackjack tables. The doodles turned to sketches, and the sketches into a rough, three-panel comic strip. Lacey says it took years—and plenty of rough work—for the strip to mature. But soon enough, the walls in one room of his apartment were covered floor-to-ceiling with Faithmouse strips.
If he has one regret, it's that he could never make a living drawing Faithmouse. The cartoon put him in debt. He poured every waking hour and financial resource he had into keeping the pro-life cartoon alive. When Lacey was really desperate, he sent out a plea to fans on his blog: "I'm a believer in faithmouse; I hope that you, as a fellow believer, will consider helping to keep this cartoon alive. Free Republic regularly holds freeper drives for larger amounts of money a few times a year and is successful at raising those funds, so perhaps this will work for faithmouse as well."
The money didn't come. While online Christian sites hailed some of his work, and conservative blogs hosted his strips, not a single publication was willing to pay money for it. And when he drew a strip with one of his characters slamming a Bible over the top of W's head, many conservatives disowned him. "I also moved away from evangelical Christianity to Catholicism," he says. "I realized Jesus always encouraged us to be honest. I wasn't being honest with my evangelism. It also impacted my wife, so I kinda moved away from it for her as well."
At the end of 2007, Lacey suspended work on Faithmouse. He took up freelance work painting serious portraits of the Pope and other religious iconography. Six months later, he painted Obama riding a unicorn.
Avidor's attack on Lacey commenced in full on the DemocraticUnderground online forum. That's where Avidor began to post Lacey's past work, baiting him into a fight: "Does the Family Research Council approve of your nude paintings and your gay pancake porn?" wrote Avidor. "Nothing wrong with smut, Lacey.... It's the hypocrisy."
Lacey was easily drawn into the fray. "Really, if anyone cares, I became disillusioned and stopped drawing Faithmouse as a pro-conservative, evangelical cartoon years ago," he posted in reply. "Everything he's posted here for people to get ANGRY AT is a few years old. My fall from grace is well recorded in my fan forums, which are all linked on my blog. Conservatives pretty much hate me now."
Avidor swung back: "Please describe your 'fall from grace.' Answer these questions, Lacey: Are you still opposed to a woman's right to choose? Are you still a theocrat? Are you still a right-wing Republican? Are you still opposed to same-sex marriage? Do you still admire George Bush, Rush Limbaugh, Alan Keyes? Do you still support the M.O.B.'s right-wing crap? Do you still hate the ACLU that protects your right to create and sell your explicit sexual artwork (porn)? Do you think you should make money exploiting the political movements you stridently opposed? That's the tune, so.... Dance, you right-wing theocratic monkey...DANCE!!!"
Lacey refused to dance. He merely repeated his stance and offered a calm retort that he was disillusioned and no longer partisan. He also included a link to a nude self-portrait as cheeky proof.
But Avidor continued to fire back posts with evidence of Lacey's past work. He challenged Lacey to answer for paintings Avidor felt were anti-ACLU, and anti-gay porn.
"I'm not a monkey for any one side, like you continue to be," Lacey responded. "You imagine my cartoon matched right-wing ideology completely, but it never did. I guess you missed my cartoon of Faithmouse beating George Bush over the head with a Bible, or of Andrea Merkel going at George with a strap-on, or of Taint being John Hagee's whore. In my humble opinion, this misunderstanding on your part is a result of your being a militant, one-note dumbshit."
With that, Lacey bowed out of the fight. But Avidor kept the punches coming, continuing to call Lacey a right-wing, theocratic, Republican bigot. Others joined in and Avidor had Lacey banned from the website; it's a place for "progressives only."
Back inside his basement, Lacey takes a sip of coffee and continues work on his baby Obama painting. He says he might abandon the project, though he isn't certain about it. He paints to make money, saying he's long past having any artistic pretentions. But as he concentrates on the painting, a color shade doesn't look right, so he corrects it, painting over a half-hour's worth of work. "That's better," he says.
Several weeks later, Gawker features another pancake masterpiece: The Crucifixion of Octomom. It features buttery pancakes spilling from the subject's oversized womb as Madonna and Angelina look on with smiles, ready to gobble them up.