One thing I have noticed a lot lately is the flood of political comics that have been hitting the market. While I am a politics wonk like nobody’s business, and even write about politics regularly, I can’t say I’m behind this trend or, more accurately, this upswing in a fairly common cycle.
Before I get into what I mean, let’s discuss what I don’t mean.
First, I am not talking about political cartoons. These are usually one or two panel satirizations of political events using common and well understood images in order to make visually explicit the absurdity of a particular political situation. For example:
Notice the pop culture imagery, the use of labels to make that imagery abundantly clear (i.e. the “GOP” button in case you didn’t know their symbol was an elephant), and how they use visual shortcuts to say as much as possible in as little space (e.g. the fat, bloated stature of Super PAC with an expression of rage). These are important to our political dialogues and have been around consistently forever. Romans would graffiti their walls in political cartoons. The first known depiction of Jesus was one of these, mocking his followers. Dr. Seuss got his start there, and names like Thomas Nast continue to live on for good reason.
I am also not talking about comic strips that generally have political messages like Doonesbury.
What I’m talking about are comics that are created to lionize, boost, and otherwise create an impossible image of a current political figure. These are not new, per se, but we’re seeing a lot more of them lately and for people who normally wouldn’t get that much attention.
You expect that presidents are going to get comic books, often put out by the Big Two, but not always. For example, an offering from the awful Solson Publishing, you had Reagan’s Raiders. This 1987 offering lasted only three issues and was about how Dr. Cashchaser invented a machine that would make old men young. So he uses it on President Reagan and several members of his staff so they can travel around the world shooting people from other cultures. I bring this up not as an average example, but to show you how awful these sorts of things can be. Slightly better was The Great Society Comic Book, which was at least satire from the start, though also ridiculous.
During the 2008 elections, you had comics for both President Obama and Senator McCain published by IDW.
BlueWater Productions rushed to do something similar, but they’re willing to throw damn near anybody into a biography comic if they think it’ll sell. And it’s that very impulse that has lead BlueWater to start publishing a Herman Cain biography comic.Ted Cruz has one as well, but it’s really a coloring and activity book. That wasn’t snark, it actually is.
The problem with these types of books is not that they exist, and it’s not that they’re generally poorly written (though they are in most cases), it’s that they are trying to put into a historical context things that aren’t yet history. Let me explain.
The IDW book above for President Obama was actually the first of a series of them. If Senator McCain had won the election, they would have presumably been about him instead. But on top of that, President Obama started appearing all over the place, from Savage Dragon to The Amazing Spider-man to fucking Youngblood. Sometimes he’s the hero, sometimes he needs to be rescued, and sometimes he just shows up. But in all of these cases, they’re taking a real person and attributing to them a sense of character that they haven’t yet earned.
We don’t know what Herman Cain is going to do with his career. We don’t know how the presidency of Barack Obama is going to turn out. And ultimately, even with the biography comics, we don’t really know anything about them because biographies are usually written in the context of what this person was. Cruz to the Future for example is nothing more than a handjob to the junior Senator from Texas, a man who has no legislative accomplishment to his name but has proved an able fundraiser.
And that’s where these comics fail at the most basic level: comics like this are not designed to reflect a person, they are designed to define that person without any effort on the subject’s part.
They are also attempting to cash in on the name recognition of people to adults, but aren’t written in such a way that they can appeal to adults. I wouldn’t say they appeal to children either, but the usual tone, structure, and narrative makes it more suited to a younger audience. So what you end up with is a mess that is written for nobody except for those ideologically committed to current political strife on one side or the other, devoid of plot, characters, or context, and providing an alternative view to something that is not yet clear.
That is not to say that all comics about politics are bad. My copy of The United States Constitution: A Graphic Adaptation is still one of the best Christmas presents I ever got. It is clever, well designed, has great art and wonderful repeated visual metaphors. I can’t more highly recommend it. Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story was an amazing comic that was publish in 1957 in order to teach people how to effectively use nonviolence as a method of political change. Congressman John Lewis reports that it inspired him to take part in the Civil Rights struggle, and he became an icon of that movement.
Speaking of which, though it is technically a biography of a current political figure, Lewis’s collaboration with Nate Powell and Andrew Aydin, March, is brilliant because it is a retrospective on events that have long been settled and how they relate to our current, unsettled situation. It is not a 20 page summary of John Lewis, it uses his life as a vehicle to talk about the Civil Rights movement.
The thing is, March is a rather significant exception. For the most part, the political comic is nothing but an attempt to draw attention by taking a big name and trying to make them seem more important than they are. It’s cheap, it’s meaningless, and unless they’re going to do something worthwhile, publishers need to get out of the business of scatter-shot throwing political figures in comic books. The shallow takes on political figures and events we most often see don’t make comics look sophisticated, they make them look more childish, and for an industry that is again skirting the edge of respectability as an art form, we need to do better than embracing the newest passing trend political figures and instead try to actually say something.