Politics and Comic Books: Should the Two Mix?

Best Shots Extra: Presidential Material

Americans go to the polls today (and have been going for a few days in many states) but what do George W. Bush, JFK, Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagon, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, Richard Nixon, Gordon Brown, Adolf Hitler, Nelson Mandela, Josef Stalin, Queen Elizabeth II, Pope John Paul II, Mother Theresa, Michael Jackson, Muhammad Ali, Pele, Ronaldinho and Warren Ellis have in common with U.S. presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain and vice-president nominee Sarah Palin?

Obama, McCain, Palin and even Hillary Clinton have all appeared in comic books.

Last week saw the release of Antarctic Press’ McCain: The Comic Book and Obama: The Comic Book, and Fantagraphics’ American Presidents. Along with the new ones that hit stores nationwide last week, there’ve been a number of other biographical comic books based on this year’s candidates such as IDW's Presidential Material: Barack Obama and Presidential Material: John McCain; and the upcoming Bluewater Productions' Female Force: Hillary Clinton.

And then there’s Image Comics’ Savage Dragon #137, which featured the Erik Larsen-created superhero endorsing Obama (and it has gone into third printing); Papercutz's Tales from the Crypt #8 with Palin on the cover; and Image’s War Heroes, Mark Millar and Tony Harris' superhero military comic book described as “Full Metal Jacket meets X-Men which is set in the near future with McCain as the President of the United States.

But the big question is: Should comics and politics mix? “There's no reason that comics and politics can't mix,” Jeff Mariotte, comic book industry veteran and writer of Presidential Material: Barack Obama, told Newsarama. “Art of any kind represents the artist's view of the world, and that view often includes a response to the immediate world in which the artist lives. The political sphere has an immediate impact on all our lives--anyone who didn't believe that has certainly been disabused by these last eight years--and comics should be able to address the topic, and the public figures involved, as required by the stories their creators want to tell.”

“Would anyone ask if film and politics should mix? Or literature and politics? Comics as an artform can be anything, and there's no reason to impose limits. One can also argue that politics exists in all fiction -- comics, prose, film, etc. -- and it's virtually impossible to exclude,” Jim Salicrup, who is editor-in-chief of Papercutz, said.

Darren G. Davis, president of Bluewater, thinks that the same could be said for television back in the day. “Now you can’t turn on the television without finding something with politics,” he said. “These mediums (television and comics) are used as a tool to reach the masses. I think it is important that we use these in a non-biased way to teach people. My main objective with this is for people to understand that there are two sides to each person. With the Hillary Clinton comic, we picked a writer who did not respect her, but after doing all the research – his vote would not change, but he had respect for her. I want people to do the research on the politicians and make an educated decision in whichever way they decide to vote. This is the 1st election that I really felt that my vote could make a difference.

“There are comic books out there that are for entertainment, and then there are some that are educational,” he continued. “Look at what Marvel is doing with their Classics line - I think it is brilliant. As a kid, I was a lazy reader but picking up comic books helped me get over that. You could never get me to pick up the novel Treasure Island, but if I were a kid now, I would love to read the comic book.

“As a publisher, I want to do something more than just entertainment. We have tackled social issues such as sexism, HIV and alcoholism. We also donate ads in our books for non-profit organizations. So doing comics that feature politicians is along those lines. In our comics the reader will never know whom Bluewater supports. This is a fun tool for learning about interesting people.

“In February of this year, we are doing our second title of Female Force which features Sarah Palin. There will be two different versions of this book, one with her as the Vice-President and the other back in Alaska.”

So, yeah, the general consensus is that comics and politics should mix. But does it also lead to complicated issues? “Yes. Bias. Propaganda. Estrangement of a particular group of readers who disagree,” Neal Bailey, writer of Female Force: Hillary Clinton, said. “But overall, as with most any endeavor, to avoid any potential use of any media for fear of what it should or should not be is the way of prescriptive failure. If words and pictures mixing, an absurd concept once, were not practically applied in a strange new way, we wouldn't have comics. That's not to compare a political comic to the creation of the wheel, but I would assert that yes, of course, comics should be mixed with politics. And literature. And underwear on the outside. And chick lit. And porn. And movies. And ________, where the blank space is filled by absolutely anything curious or uncurious the human mind can comprehend. Art by its very nature is expansive, while censorship by its very nature inhibits understanding and progress.”

That said, he is of the opinion that comics should be escapist literature, “[w]hen it's escapist literature. When it's a political examination, it should be a political examination. When it's a dude collecting small strange animals to fight pokebattles, it should be just that. I will concede that comics primarily succeed as escapist literature, but then, if they were purely escapist literature and nothing else, many of the monumental works of the medium would never have come to pass. Maus is hardly escapism, for example. It's a literary (and quite political in its own way) examination of history. Is the Hillary Clinton book that? No. It's more historical reference rather than a dramatic piece of examination, but it's definitely something I wouldn't undermine simply by saying "It isn't escapism." It's hard to undermine even by saying, "I hate Hillary Clinton," given that I was quite critical of her before writing the script, and even reference that breaking the fourth wall in said script. So then we also get into questions of whether comics should break the fourth wall, etc. My point being, why limit the medium in any way?”

Mariotte, who still fondly remembers former Vice President Dan Quayle being possessed by Daemonites in the first WildC.A.T.s story arc in the early '90s, said that comics are “a mature enough medium that they can--and should--run the gamut, encompassing everything from escapism to serious fiction and nonfiction. Any attempt to limit them to one thing is artificial and negates the contributions of too many talented creators, as well as having a potentially chilling effect on future creators. Instead, we should embrace the diversity that comics can offer.”

“Comics are a living, breathing medium that can handle serious subjects as well as the most flippant,” Ben Templesmith, who’s serving up a collection of portraiture featuring all of the United States’ Presidents in the January-shipping The Presidents of the United States from IDW, said. “So of course they should be used for politics in the right time place, context or what not. Politics is much more than merely one brief election campaign. All really good stories carry a message, a political, moral or environmental one. Sometimes different ones to different people anyway. It's impossible for politics and comics not to cross. It's just a question of how blatant it is. I used to be a political cartoonist before I was into comics proper so I feel no need to go back to inserting any of my obvious opinions about politics in the actual work but you can't help but find good stories in the world we live in that gives us the ideas. That world is created by the people we elect and put up with.

“Try as any creator might, to be impartial, unbiased, we all have biases we can't help,” he added. “We're not robots and we all come from different perspectives. It's what makes us unique and life interesting. The Presidents of the US book I'm doing though, try as I might to make it impartial will no doubt be slightly bias somehow, merely by the facts I select to put in for each President. It's inevitable. Of course, I'll try to be fair about it. I'm personally not one to wish to preach to people in my work. If I do that, it's as my literal self, telling people what I think.”

“Comics can be anything,” Erik Larsen, Image co-founder, former publisher and creator of Savage Dragon, concurred. “They "shouldn't be" any one thing in particular. That's like saying "shouldn't all movies be Westerns?" or "shouldn't all TV shows be variety shows?" it's a presumptuous supposition.”

Papercutz’s Jim Salicrup also believes that there should be all kinds of comics. “And for those who believe "comics" just means super-hero comics, just about every iconic super-hero is rooted in politics. It all started with a guy fighting for "truth, justice, and the American way." The cover of Captain America Comics #1, with Cap socking Hitler is as close to a political cartoon as you'll ever find. And who says escapist literature can't include politics?”

After all, we’ve had fictional presidential hopefuls such as Senator Davis Brewster, Senator Katherine McClellan, Senator Martin Suarez and Robert Ridgeway in DCU: Decisions. Oh, and then there’s Lex Luthor as the President of the United States in Superman: Lex 2000 - and not even Superman or any other DCU superheroes could prevent that from happening (of course Luthor went a little –literally - power-mad later on…).

At the same time, some of us still remember in Mark Millar’s controversial run on The Authority where the President of the United States was stripped down to his birthday suit. Back in the ‘60s, former Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson appeared in the Superman comics. As a reflection of how the country trusted him, Kennedy was the only real-life President depicted as knowing Superman’s secret identity. In the Superman vs. Muhammad Ali from 1978, former President Jimmy Carter watched the charity boxing match between the Man of Steel and the former three-time World Heavyweight Champion. In the 90s, former President Bill Clinton attended Superman’s funeral!

However, why and when should real-life politicians be used in comics to reflect reality? “It depends on what the creator’s intent is – if it’s thoughtfully done, it’s fine,” Rob Williams, who created the critically-acclaimed Com.X series, Cla$$war, where The American, the United States’ premier superhero rebelled against the government and publicly humiliated the President, explained. “Personally, I rather enjoy it when the likes of Gordon Brown and Dubya turn up in superhero books like Captain Britain and MI:13 and The Ultimates. It worked especially well in The Ultimates because the whole point of that book was the ‘real world’ approach. It’s usually the writer offering a subtle, fun little comment on the politics of the day, which, personally, I enjoy. This is a subjective exercise, after all (go Obama!), and every creator’s personal politics are on show in every book they write or draw, be it the way they portray men and women, they way they see good and bad in the world etc. Politics isn’t just Republican vs. Democrat.”

“Reflecting reality is something even the most escapist comics do to one degree or another,” Salicrup said. “Tossing politicians into the mix is just one tiny way to do that. In the case of Gov. Palin appearing on the alternate cover to Tales from the Crypt #8, the cover and the issue's special editorial by Cathy Gaines Mifsud, were both specifically responding to reports in the news media (about her looking into the process of banning books when she was mayor of Wasilla -- a charge that still has never been denied by Gov. Palin, although the email with the supposed list of books to be banned has been debunked) and relates directly to a title such as Tales from the Crypt, which along with most of the EC line was wiped out in the 50s due to the misguided efforts of do-gooders to ban all horror and crime comics.

“A few people have mistaken the Tales from the Crypt cover as a partisan all-out attack on Gov. Palin. That is not the case,” he added. “It's a sad commentary on the state of today's political dialogue that any objection to any specific point of any candidate's actions is only viewed in an "Us Vs. Them" prism. A few folks even asked why we haven't criticized either Sen. Obama or Sen. Biden on a Tales from the Crypt cover, and that question totally misses the point. Banning books is something that resonates with the infamous history of Tales from the Crypt and therefore was deemed an appropriate subject for an attention-getting cover. In other words, we would've considered running Senators Biden, Obama, or McCain if during this same time period a similar news story surfaced about anyone of them. One fan asked why we didn't feature Tipper Gore on the cover back when she was pushing for ratings on video games, and indeed, we would've happily featured Vice-President Al Gore's wife on the cover if we were publishing Tales from the Crypt at that time. Keep in mind, Tales from the Crypt #8 features two covers, one with Palin, and the other without. Fans can buy whichever cover they choose.

“Fortunately, we all still have the freedom to decide on our own what to feature in our comic books. And unlike in the 50s, the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund is standing ready to defend those freedoms.”

“It's easy to say, "Well, hell, it would be foolhardy to put Obama in a cape and face him off against McCain in a mano-a-mano fight where McCain gets clobbered, because it's biased and trite." But that's said without foreknowledge of the jokes brought to bear, the political commentary that might be anti-Obama hiding behind snark and parody, or just generally without acknowledging that while unconventional, some brilliance can come from what seems to be on its surface exploitation of a public figure,” Bailey said. “In writing the Hillary Clinton book, I was well aware of the ramifications of the fact that I was writing a book that might draw negative attention. But to live in fear because of a preconception of a negative reaction to caricature, particularly when it comes to politicians, who are the ultimate caricatures of ourselves, seemed to me a waste of mental energy. Instead, I focused my time on taking my caricature of Hillary Clinton and making it as honest as I possibly could.

“Long story short, yeah, I dig political comics, and even information comics. Pekar rocks them sideways. It's why I picked up the Barack Obama and John McCain books despite being clearly in one camp (not telling!), and it's why, were other companies to produce more biographical works, I'd give them a shot too. It's more exciting than a generic, all-praise biography you find in bookstores, it's more visual and accessible, and it gives a reader a chance to touch upon the snapshots that make up a person's life, which is really all sequential art generally is. And that's a form of escapism all to its own.”

Mark Waid, who wrote about the amazing adventures of Marvel’s presidential hopeful, Stephen Colbert, in an eight-page story that recently appeared in Amazing Spider-Man #573, once included the forty-second president of the United States in the “Man Without A Country” arc in issues #450 to #453 of Captain America. He’s okay with real-life politicians being used in comics to reflect reality “whenever they serve the story. No, seriously. I know that's a pat, simple answer, but that's it. I put Bill Clinton in Captain America; it didn't seem to create the collapse of the nation.”

So, no matter who is selected the United States presidential election of 2008 on November 4th, life in the fictional comic book universes goes on. Happy voting.

Related:

Presidents in Comics: Some of the Notables

Taking Sides: Comic Industry for Obama

Obama to Appear at San Diego Comic-Con? Probably Not

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