PRESIDENTIAL POLITICS AND THE COMICS THEY SPAWN
Due out next week are IDW's two comic book portraits of our current major party presidential candidates. "Presidential Material: John McCain" and "Presidential Material: Barack Obama" are 32-page full color comics that give you a biography of each man. They are not position papers, for the most part. They are the life stories of McCain and Obama, current through to their winning of their parties' nominations.
While I've tried very hard to stay away from politics in this column (and in life, in general) for much of the recent past, I'm afraid that no review of any substance of these two comics could be done without mentioning them, to some degree. That will all come out in the second half of the review, and I invite you to skip over it, if your blood pressure is easily raised.
The two comics are text-heavy narratives with competent likenesses. They're biographies trying to stuff two full lives into two 32 page comics. That's a heck of a challenge, particularly with two men who've written two autobiographical tomes each, already. Do not expect decompression here. The "Obama" comic flows a little more smoothly, told in vignettes and generalities. The "McCain" comic is leaden with details and side stories and caption boxes galore. No event in McCain's career could go unmentioned, losing any hope of a central theme in a sea of details.
Let's focus on the art, first.
The covers by J. Scott Campbell are really cool. Campbell is a gifted caricaturist, with a flair for capturing a likeness while cartooning it far enough to make it expressive. IDW is smart enough to include the cover art at the back of each issue, alongside a full-page splash of the original black and white line work.
The art inside the two books is competent. I wasn't blown away by either. Characters often stand around mugging for the camera, obviously drawn from photoreference. When not done that way, they just look awkward, right down to the occasional issues with hands being too small for the heads above them, or caricatures that turn into oddly cartoony images in the midst of finer line work. (This is no different from any licensed comic, e.g. "Star Trek.") It would be unfair of me to assume that the cause is rushed art from a tight deadline, but that's what it winds up looking like, fair or not.
There's also an odd quirk to the McCain comic. Either the artwork wasn't scanned in properly, it's shot directly from pencil, or the post-production department didn't layer the letters in correctly with the black line work from the art. The final outcome looks less bold than the Obama comic, which has heavy ink lines and more solid blacks.
The "McCain" comic artist -- Stephen Thompson -- also does something the "Obama" artist -- Tom Morgan -- does not do: he goes for the occasional panel that more looks like an editorial cartoonist's work. It veers away from the literal and goes into the figurative, such as the final page panel where Giuliani, McCain, and Romney are seen driving Shriner-like mini-cars. I don't think Rumsfeld stood like a comic book supervillain over a man being waterboarded, nor do I think McCain and Bruce Babbitt pushed the Capital Building back and forth. It's just a little jarring in the middle of the otherwise straight-on narrative. On the other hand, it did add a welcome bit of creativity to the art, which is otherwise talking heads of known politicians.
Thompson's best art is in the wartime scenes. I'd love to see him illustrate a war comic, just based on the planes he draws and the authentic-looking details on the military uniforms and vehicles. When he's given the chance to draw more energetic panels, his art explodes.
The stories in both comics are both told through heavy use of narration boxes, with occasional dialogue balloons recounting conversations previously documented in books or magazine articles. Each book lists its sources for factual information on the last page, including each candidate's own books.
Ultimately, it's the presentation of the biographies that really disappoints me.
Jeff Mariotte's script on the "Obama" comic is the standard "poor boy done good" story we've been fed for the last four years or so. You probably know all the broad strokes of it by now -- mixed race American growing up with a mix of family issues, overcoming the odds, becoming an advocate for the poor and the general community, and rising up the political ranks in his party to become a major party political candidate. Along the way, his oratory skills are once more lauded, including lengthy excerpts from his speeches stuffed into word balloons as best as they could be. On page 25, you see the controversies surrounding the Obama candidacy so far -- the American flag lapel pin, Bill Clinton's "fairy tale" comments, Michelle Obama's "American pride" slip, The Reverend White, and the condescending comments towards rural voters. It's all neatly tied up in six panels and then dropped. And it's one brief speed bump of a montage in an otherwise Disneyesque movie presentation.
Andy Helfer's "McCain" script is a different beast. I'm not sure what happened here. I'm guessing that Helfer wanted to stuff every bit of the story into one comic. And while Mariotte portrayed the messianic tale of Obama's ascencion, Helfer crafts a story of McCain as a spoiled brat who was inept in military and marriage skills, a poor student, possessed of a quick tempter (complete with a panel of McCain raising a fist at a reporter who, quite honestly, kinda deserved a punch), the ultimate partier, and an abuser of the system, using friends and connections to get him places where his skills would otherwise come up short. Why, if it weren't for the rich family he married into and the friendly newspaper in his district, he'd have been a washed-up has been decades ago. It's a sadly one-sided story that I'm sure will be the one his detractors will latch onto.
I know Helfer wrote a Reagan biography last year. I can only imagine how awful that must read.
And this is where the partisanship will come in. Half of Pipeline's readership -- hell, this is comics so you better make that 80% -- will think I'm a wounded Republican who can't face the truth. This comic is probably their dream version of McCain.
My problem is, I think Helfer angles in on the sensationalistic and ignores so much else. Outside of the account of McCain's time in the Hanoi Hilton, the piece is one-sided. When McCain's defense on a given issue is related, it's quickly undercut in the next caption box, making it seem laughable. Every caricature of McCain is raised here, and if it weren't for the five pages dedicated to his Vietnam imprisonment, the whole book would be a hit piece.
If there was a through line for the "McCain" comic, it's that John McCain is not a man to be trusted or admired.
Compare that to Mariotte's "Obama," which faithfully recreates the through line of the candidate's rise to power, made completely through his magnetic personality and ability to cross party lines. No politician in this modern day gets to become his party's presidential candidate without some help. But Mariotte would have us all believe this is the long-sought-after candidate that rises from nothing to become President through a nation's sheer willpower, without any insider help.
It makes for a great story. Like most of politics, though, the official story is rarely the full truth.
In the end, the "Obama" comic is a nice piece of campaign literature for the Democrat candidate. The "McCain" comic is an indictment, something to be cherished by the Obama fans.
But I don't necessarily think IDW set out to do this. I'm not screaming media bias here, by any means. I just think they had two different writers create two different comics. They didn't attempt to make sure the stories were "fair and balanced." They just wanted general biographies that could be fact-checked appropriately. McCain's is so much longer and so much more storied (both good and bad) that his biographer had more to pick and choose from. Obama's biographer could just follow the same short and sweet message that we've been hearing about through the candidate's two books. It makes for a simpler message to convey. None of it is factually inaccurate. It's all in the presentation of those facts, and which ones are used and which ones are omitted. Emphasis is everything.
There is a lot of interesting material in these two comics, and I imagine they could be useful for some. I learned details about both candidates' lives that I didn't know before, little things that often get lost in the broader strokes.
If you haven't heard the stories before, they're interesting life tales. Both Obama and McCain have fascinating life stories. They make for great biographical material, if minded properly. In the end, I just think one comic was too easy, and one was too hard. There has to be a middle ground in there somewhere.
There is educational value here, but I hope it spurs people on to learn more. Like most political writing, there's always another side to the story.
The thing that made me laugh in looking through these books again is the scene in the McCain debate with Richard Campbell, over the Arizona Senate seat. Much was made of McCain's lack of height, necessitating his need for a box to stand level to his opponent on TV. Did you see the first presidential debate last week? McCain didn't stand on a box behind his podium, but he probably should have. Every split screen showed the top of his podium and his head and shoulders. He could have used the boost -- or someone should have angled the camera up higher.
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