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October 30, 2008 | 12:00 a.m. CST
Move over Captain America. The patriots of the Presidential Material comic books far surpass the exploits of any previous Technicolor warrior. IDW Publishing’s Presidential Material comics tell the stories of Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama back-to-back or in separate volumes to inform the easily distracted reader. Try as they may, the comics aren’t quite set in the mold of DC or Marvel publications of decades past. The stories contain less sensationalism, mostly because McCain’s parents were not murdered before his eyes and, contrary to popular belief, Obama was not sent from planet Krypton to save mankind. Stories aside, the structural content of the books varies in its text-to-visuals ratio. Images maintain dominance throughout, but the pages are considerably more text-heavy than traditional comic books.
Although the same publisher released both stories, each has different writers and illustrators who chronicled the candidates’ lives. Andy Helfer wrote and Stephen Thompson illustrated McCain’s book. Jeff Mariotte wrote and Tom Morgan illustrated Obama’s book.
In describing the biographical comic subgenre, Rock Bottom Comics employee Michael Matthews uses phrases such as “very, very small,” “pretty small” and “not big.” MU History Professor Jeff Pasley attributes this lack of success to publishers’ desires to “find a new market for nonfiction” without a clear idea of the market and target audience. Pasley says that the use of comic books as an alternative medium goes back to the underground comics scene of the ’60s and ’70s where they were considered a more revolutionary type of expression. Oftentimes, though, biographical comics fail to shed new light on historical figures. All that being said, “very, very small” is more than nothing, and Vox dug up a few of the best of these fact-based comics.
Ronald Reagan: A Graphic Biography
Publisher: Hill and Wang (2007)
This presidential book is much more substantial than either Sens. John McCain’s or Barack Obama’s comic books, and perhaps rightfully so, as Reagan led a considerably more colorful life. The story is written by Andrew Helfer, who also penned Presidential Material: John McCain, and shows the former president’s life in the rectangular boxes in which he was so comfortable.
Malcolm X: A Graphic Biography
Publisher: Hill and Wang (2006)
Another novel penned by Helfer, this story highlights the Civil Rights figure’s short life and machinations therein. The back cover describes the content as a “heartrending history of the era” and details Malcolm X’s “passage from troubled boy to influential, outspoken man and finally to tragic hero.”
Publisher: Saddleback Educational Publishing (2008)
This bio is far more compact than the previous two, largely because of the younger target audience. Disney is simply one in a line of educational comics, ranging from Benjamin Franklin to Elvis Presley, that is published by Saddleback.
With the election less than a week away, readers might be tempted to check out Presidential Material to learn about each candidate. But procrastinators should be forewarned: Although the inside back cover of each comic says the creators “have made every attempt to assure that the sources upon which the information and portrayals are based are reliable,” the information is selectively used — a byproduct of the scant 56 pages used to cover the candidates’ combined 119 years of life. For example, nearly twice as much space is allotted to two of Obama’s major speeches as is to his first six years in the Illinois State Senate. Similarly, McCain’s story explains nearly nothing of what he did between the 2000 and 2008 presidential elections and uses far fewer direct quotes than Obama’s book.
In addition to any bias resulting from this information filter, comic junkies might notice subtle jabs at Obama that are not present in the depiction of McCain. One example is a frame in which Obama is portrayed as weak and at the mercies of a Lady-MacBeth-like version of his wife, Michelle. Partisanship is again present in each story’s end, as the final words of McCain’s story are, “And may the best man win,” and the last frame of Obama’s story includes text suggesting that his accomplishments to this point will be enough, simply finishing with “The End.”
There is obvious intent on behalf of the publishers to capitalize on the election craze, but the effect the comics will have on readers is questionable. Rock Bottom Comics employee Michael Matthews believes these comics are the same as all other campaign material. “The people who support McCain are going to buy McCain, the people who support Barack are going to buy Barack, and they’re going to use it to prove they’re right,” Matthews says. “I think it will be minimal as far as actually affecting the election.”
There has been limited interest in the Presidential Material comics at Rock Bottom because, as Matthews says, “People come in here to get their fun fix, they don’t really want to deal with political stuff. This is fantasy toyland.”
MU History Professor Jeff Pasley reads his comic books with a more critical eye. In his assessment of Presidential Material, he conjectures that, “they must think they’re going to reach nonreaders or people who don’t read text. [Presidential Material] is all so textual that it’s hard to see,” Pasley says. “The frames mostly look so static that it’s hard to see how that’s really going to break the barrier.”
Furthermore, Pasley says poor forethought is the cause of the comic’s low sales, at least at Rock Bottom Comics. In trying to decipher the rationale behind publishing these, Pasley says, “There’s a notion that Obama has legions of young fans who are presumably going to go out and buy this, but the problem is that I don’t know that the legions of young fans are comic book readers.”
Ultimately, Pasley sees Presidential Material as a souvenir of the campaign and says that would be the only reason he would purchase them. The only effect Presidential Material: John McCain and Presidential Material: Barack Obama, $3.99 each, will have is that they certainly serve as amusing artifacts.